Monday, 10 December 2018

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession Sunday 9 December Opoho Church

Prayer by Abby Smith

Dear God, our God, our Lord.
We pause now to pray in thankfulness.  We are so grateful for your many gifts.
Thank you for ourselves – our own bodies, our own gifts, our own lives.  Thank you for health, for memories, for thoughts and ideas, for faith.  We know you gave them to us, and we are grateful.
Thank you for our communities – for Opoho Presbyterian Church and all that means to us.  Thank you for those who help us, look after us, inspire us, love us.  We know you gave them to us, and we are grateful.
Thank you for our city – for Dunedin Otepoti, this city nestled in the arms of an old volcano.  For its harbour, its beaches, its hills, its wildlife, its institutions and especially its people.  We know you gave them to us, and we are grateful.
Thank you for our country --for Aotearoa New Zealand, these islands, mountains, beaches and forests surrounded by the restless waves, the life and landscape, the people organized into government bodies, councils, laws, plans, reports.  We know you gave them to us, and we are grateful.
Thank you for this world – for the seas and the land, for the countries and their languages, art, music, medicine, heritage, for the air above and the land below, for the warmth that comes from deep in the planet, and from the faraway sun.  Thank you for all the lights – sun, moon, stars, lightning, fireflies, glowworms, candles, bonfires, lamps.  We know you gave them to us, and we are grateful.
We all have things for which we give you thanks.
We pray now for ourselves and others.
We pray for peace for this world – the peace of an environment in equilibrium, a place where things can grow and thrive, where the light of peace reaches the shadows of fear.  Lord, help us to work towards peace in the world.
We pray for peace in our country - -the peace of a place where people have food, water, shelter, care.  Where children can grow and learn, where people are respected no matter what they look like.  Where it is safe to drink the water in rivers, to walk the streets, to be a person who is different.  Lord, help us to reach towards peace in Aotearoa New Zealand.
We pray for peace in our city – the peace of a town where people of all kinds can work and play, learn and teach, take care of each other, and be taken care of.  Lord, help us to aim for peace in Dunedin Otepoti.
We pray for peace in our community – for a church on the hill where people look after each other, where laughter, music, caring, baking, sermons, cups of tea, prayers and psalms all come together to help us understand more about you and your world.  Lord, help us to practice peace at Opoho.
This is the hardest one of all, Lord.  We pray for peace for ourselves.  Help us to forgive ourselves for our mistakes, teach us to let ourselves relax.  Remind us that Advent is about joy, not about rushing around.  Show us how to find the peace that comes when we remember to spend time with you.  Lord, help us to allow ourselves the peace we wish for others.
Dear God, Our God, Our Lord, we place these and all our prayers into your hands.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 9 December, 2018 Advent 2 – Peace

Readings:  Luke 1:26-33   Luke 1:39-45   Luke 1:68-79

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.

Ursula Franklin was a well known pacifist, Quaker and feminist, a holocaust survivor - she was also a scientist, an engineer, an academic and had a PhD in experimental physics. She was born in Germany, she came to Canada in 1949 where she died a couple of years ago in her mid nineties.  One, just one, of the things she is remembered for is the quote “Peace is not the absence of war, but the absence of fear”.
There have been other attempts at defining peace in the world – Einstein said that ‘Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, of law and order’ but I believe that fear can make justice unjust, law untenable and turn order into oppression.  So I see fear as the more dangerous, an emotion that has tendrils far more invasive than we can know.

Zechariah, in his canticle of praise to God on the birth of his son John, both urges us to serve God without fear, and to allow the light that will break upon us (Jesus) to guide our feet on the way of peace.  In God’s mercy and through the one whom John the Baptist will prepare the way for, we will know the peace of God.

So it is interesting that the readings today offer us a narrative full of potential fear situations.  Let’s just put on our fear identifying glasses for a moment and see what we can find.

There is Mary – young, virginal, inexperienced confronted by the angel Gabriel (that would have got the heart rate pumping for a start), Mary, told she will take on a task beyond her comprehension on so many fronts. As an ordinary human being, she will have known fear; for her ability to do this, for her reputation, her relationship with Joseph, for her child – Mary,  did you know… did you know what faced your child/man as he grew – did you anticipate sharing him with the world in quite that way, the pain of the cross – yes I suspect you did.

There is Elizabeth – she and Zechariah’s high status had not made them immune to the heartache of infertility.  And then she promised a child and then found herself with child – and all the anxious moments that that brought, especially at her age.  Fear too for the life of her child and the difficult path he would take.

And Zechariah – his was a real up and down journey – delighted at the news that they are going to have a child who, he is told, will be the forerunner of the coming Saviour of Israel, terrified to believe that it will be so (and made mute for his disbelief), absolute delight when he becomes a father, then frustrated when he cannot speak his child’s name – and underlying all this, fear for the future of their son. 

Fear is very much a part of all their journey’s, a reality of their lives, which makes it all the more interesting that  Zechariah would, with his first words, preach that we are to serve God without fear!

Jesus himself tells us to not fear, I am with you – then points us onto a road that for many of us, is terrifying.  ‘If you follow me then you must take up your cross daily’ and ‘your ministry will be as sheep among wolves’.  We are asked to confront the principalities and powers that rule the world and the prospect of doing so would have most of us doing a Jonah – running the other way. 

So I have no doubt that Mary and Elizabeth and Zechariah and Joseph were confronted with fear – as was Ursula Franklin and so many of us.  But the thing is – how do we respond? Do we allow it to paralyse us or do we do as they did, as Jesus did, do we turn our steps towards Jerusalem and the cross anyway.  In the midst of our fear do we trust God to know the way and to be with us on the way?

I don’t think we can live our lives without fear - as it is very much part of the journey of life for all of us.  Fear of failure, fear of what might be asked of us, fear of the powers that can harm us, fear of the unknown – all these play a part in our lives.  But do we allow it to rule us, make our decisions, guide our steps?

Fear plays a large part in our culture too. We can so clearly see where it has taken control – even without going to the usual suspects, even if we just look at life in New Zealand – we can see where fear rules in our culture. 

Financial fear has our society encouraging the lining of our pockets way beyond our needs, has rendered us ungenerous, has us forever seeking, with little regard for impact, new ways of making money.  It has held us in paralysis for decades unable to speak against the powers and principalities that perpetuate the culture of greed and exploitation.

People fear – the recoil from those who are different, those outside our experience.  The need to put up barriers to keep our patch our patch.  The narrowness that believes our way is the only way and all others are a threat to that.  White supremacy, immigrant bashing, gated communities, racism, sexism  all point to our inability to embrace the diversity of our world.

 Fear that nurtures a blame society – we do that well, leaping in to assign fault at the slightest hint of something going wrong – before anyone can point the finger at us. Fear that we might too be culpable has us looking for scapegoats rather quickly.

Yet as we look to ourselves as the church, as followers of Jesus Christ, we have this conundrum - the encouragement for us to serve Christ without fear against the very real presence of fear in our lives, in our ministry.  I would presume to say that, for most of us, we could not imagine the existence of effective ministry without a healthy dollop of fear being present. In fact I would go so far to say, if it is not present, then there may be a degree of paralysis set in.  I might be taken to task on that one but it is worth thinking about.  For I have experienced fear in ministry (that is small m ministry, by the way, the one that we are all involved in as the people of God) as being just that – a place of doing nothing, where barriers go up, especially between God and myself, and where each direction I am pushed in becomes self-limited to my comfort zone, a peace of my own making.  Out of that come mediocre faith at best and a failure to grow in grace and mercy.

Jesus requires of us a different response – he requires us to trust that in the presence of fear, our love for and by the one whom we call God is stronger, wiser, transforming the world in ways we cannot begin to imagine.  

Mary was taken so far out of her comfort zone that she could have been completely paralysed – but she chose to trust in her God, to believe that she, unknown, weak and vulnerable had been chosen to bear a child, become a refugee, help that child grow to become a man who would turn our world upside down – show us a new way – the way of love.  All the while acknowledging the lurking fear of what was to be.

Elizabeth and Zechariah experienced the delight of a child born to them and yet were terribly afraid of such a happening in their old age – still they chose to be delighted that  they should be so blessed, to understand that even in the uncertainty and pain that was to come, God’s purpose was stronger than their disbelief.

To serve God without fear is about our ability to trust God in the midst of our fear.  To know peace us to understand that in Jesus Christ, all the whirlwinds of life are subject to the immeasurable power of love and grace – far stronger than the uncertainties and worries that plague our imaginations when asked to be uncomfortable for God.

So, let us not become preoccupied with the ‘what if’s’ and the ‘not me’ when new directions are thrown in our path, but instead might we do a Mary and say ‘yes I do know’ - and I am still walking this way because that is what God is asking of me and I trust, against all human logic and wisdom that this child born in a dusty manger, will be the saving of the world.  Love did indeed come down at Christmas.  And for that we say, thanks be to God. Amen.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 2 December 2018 Advent 1

Readings:  Jeremiah 33:14-16  Luke 21:25-36

We pray:  God of all wisdom and understanding – grant us ears to hear, minds to apprehend and hearts to respond to your word for us today and every day – in Jesus name. Amen.

Advent season – the beginning of the church year guiding us toward the birth of the Christ child, the joy of family, a sweet time of wide eyed wonder and lovely stories of (mostly) cute animals and trees decorated with family favourites.  It seems somewhat incongruous therefore, to have as part of the lectionary readings that of the prophet Jeremiah, speaking from the days of despairing exile for the people of Judah.  Yet Jeremiah, says Gary Charles, is an Advent Singer. 
These are Charles’ words:[1]
“The season of Advent is puzzling to many Christians.  The stories read during this season are, by and large, not childhood favourites.  They have no star in the east guiding devout magi, no soliloquy of angels stirring the shepherd to  to go and see the babe, no harried innkeeper, no touching moment when Mary ponders these things in her heart.
The stories of Advent are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams.  They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation.  Many prefer the major notes of joy and gladness in the Christmas stories to the minor keys of Advent.”

What do we mean when we label Jeremiah an Advent singer?  Just this:
In the midst of the destruction and despair of exile, despite every sign to the contrary, Jeremiah tells his people that a day is coming when God’s promised will be fulfilled.  He faces a future with trust in his God to bring this about.  And he is fighting against the tide of popular opinion. 
For it must have seemed laughable to the people then; an impossible dream in the midst of their current reality  – in much the same way as we might see the birth of Jesus as a moment of loveliness in an otherwise hopeless world. 

As I said a couple of weeks ago when we looked at Jesus predicting the destruction of the temple, things that seem absolutely foundational, cherished ‘forevers’ are imploding around us – truth turned into falsehood at the highest levels, violence escalating under the no-rules tactics of terrorism, the very ground we stand on no longer safe, it feels like creation itself is faltering, going down the gurgler fast.  Do we feel a little bit like the people of the exile? Has despair set in and have we lost the ability to imagine God’s promised future – locking ourselves away in our theological bunkers waiting for the end?

Or are we, like Jeremiah, Advent singers, speaking loudly and clearly of our trust in God, our understanding deep in our hearts that the birth of this child is and always will be the sign beyond all doubt of a future beyond our imagining?

Because that is kind of what Luke is doing as well in his apocalyptic text (no opportunity here either to rest in the nativity narrative).  But it too is a text full of hope, full of Advent tones, we might say.  Assuring us of a future promised by God, Luke too is challenging us to go beyond our sense of present time, of what is happening now and place the advent story within the greater story of God’s love to the end times.  Some more words from Gary Charles on time:

“Advent also leaves us dizzy over time. Advent is not a steady, constant, ‘time marches on’ kind of time, a persistent drumbeat of day after day, year after year.  Advent is unpredictable time, unsteady time.  In this time-tumbling season, we look for a baby to be born while we know that the baby has already been born, and still is being born in us – this Emmanuel who came and is coming and is among us right now.  Not only is Advent not well behaved, neat and orderly; it contorts time.  Given the nature of Advent, it is no surprise that Jeremiah is its herald.”

So what do we take with us today from these two unlikely readings.
Well I would ask if we see ourselves as Advent singers, if we have God’s promise written deep on our hearts that we will not be left alone, we are not abandoned – much as it might seem to us to be so. That we can turn our faces into a future beyond our imagining and accept that it as our path even when we don’t know where that might take us.

I would ask if, as a people who walk the way of Jesus, our yearning for the world to be a place where justice and peace and reconciliation between all peoples is founded in our trust that it will be so.  And does our living, our choosing, our daily demeanour tell the world and our neighbour that we are passionate believers in an unbelievable world of God’s promise?

I would also want to ask if we can hold the nativity, the presence of God among us, as the sign of a God who is deeply attuned to our humanness, who knows need and yearning, who understands the pain of suffering, of rejection, of ridicule. Not a hands off God, not a God of exclusion or prejudice or bigotry or apathy but one who will bring more mercy and justice than even we can imagine.

As we come to the table today, as we share in the bread and wine, I would ask we remember that this is not a place of sweet narrative either – it is a table paid for by a price far too dear and which began with a baby born in a stable….

And I would ask if, in this time of Advent, our yearning for the birth of the one who is already here yet is born into our lives again this Christmas is so strong that we can barely contain ourselves in our waiting – our cries of O come, o come Emmanuel burst forth from our lips as we anticipate this miracle of God among us.

I would end with words from Joy Cowley from her latest book ‘Veil over the light[2]’ and her psalm ‘Advent’

Jesus, you remind us
that Advent fills all time
and the journey is everywhere.
Like the magi, we travel
from the head to the heart;
from the city of learning
to the fields wide open to the sun;
from the meaning of words
to the knowledge beyond them;
from the music notes on paper
to the sound of the concerto;
from the smallness of the manger
to the Love that holds the universe in being.

Margaret Garland

[1] From Feasting on the Word p.3-7  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009
[2] Joy Cowley  Veil over the Light: selected spiritual writings  Wellington, NZ: Fitzbeck Publishing, 2018  p.164

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 18 November 2018 Pentecost 26

Readings:  1 Samuel 2    Mark 13:1-8

We pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hears be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.

The end of the world as they knew it.  To the people of Jesus’ time the prediction of the destruction of the temple was devastating.  It was the symbol of all that was unchanging, impregnable and foundational in their lives, in their faith – they could not imagine that it could or would become a pile of rubble.  And yet a pile of rubble it became. 
We, on the other hand, know that buildings come and go – although we felt reasonably safe and secure that it would be at our convenience and not too impactful.  And then came the earthquakes in Christchurch – too close to home, devastation, death, destruction beyond our imagining.  Foundations of life gone for those who lived there – and all those church buildings as well – gone in a blink.  That certainly wasn’t supposed to happen: no-one saw that coming!
Let me talk about 2016 and the people of Waiau for a moment. That the small town in the middle of the Hurunui which also happened to be the centre of the earthquake that rocked North Canterbury and Kaikoura Districts 2 years ago.  74 properties were red stickered, 262 yellow stickered - spread across 4,500 sq kms.  One family took 2 hours to safely get their family members out of a badly damaged house – a husband and wife, their 3 grandchildren and their 3 foster children and a friend.  They commented that there was a dent in the ceiling from the toilet bowl.  Beyond imagination.  Few would have envisaged the chaos and devastation to that degree.

What has also been beyond imagination is the response to the destruction of the earthquake in the Hurunui.  Alongside real frustration and multiple examples at being treated as less of a priority than Kaikoura, the level of positive response from a devastated community has been amazing.  Mayor Winton Dalley has been at the centre of that, encouraging those who very foundations of living have been wrenched out of their hands. And if you were to ask them today what are the foundations they now stand on, you might find answers like neighbourliness, kindness and compassion, generosity – the people, the people, the people.

And things that are not supposed to happen in our well-ordered lives will continue to happen.  The rapidly changing climate will uproot long held expectations of what is normal and expected – safety on our shorelines, relative consistency in our weather patterns, moderate temperature swings – destroying yet again our understanding of what is safe and indestructible in our lives.  It keeps on happening.

And each time these foundational parts of our peaceful lives are taken out from under us, they create, along with many other emotions, an enormous feeling of loss; in a sense a loss of innocence because that which we believed indestructible is no longer. 

As Christians, what is our response?  We hold the hope that Jesus will come again, that the kingdom will be realised.  We get the warning that it is only in God that we should place our trust and that temples can come and go but God’s love for us will always be.
But in this reading is one further caution for the disciples – it is very easy to become fixated, like them, on the end event.  When will it happen Lord?  How will we know, what exactly will it look like……?

While these questions are not trivial, the answer is not for us to know and Jesus is trying to point this out to those around him.  While recognising the coming of the kingdom, he is warning us about that being our core focus.  What about the life of the world as it is now?  Are we doing all we can to grow a world that has love and grace and mercy as its temples - now? 

And there is a further warning here from Jesus – he recognises the zeal that the disciples have for the glory of the temple itself, especially in the context of the time. This text was first heard at the time Jewish-Roman war around the late 60’s AD – and that was where the temple was the focus for groups wanting to restore the Davidic kingdom, to reclaim the purity and independence of the nation of Israel – even if it means war.   So Jesus, by proclaiming the demise of the temple, is trying to turn the disciples away from the temptation of claiming the kingdom for God now and back to the goal that God has for the world – a time when the world will be rebirthed in the person of Jesus and peace and love will prevail throughout the whole world. 

And I think that we also lose sight of God’s vision for our world and do our best to hurry it along to the beat of our own drum.  And I may step on some toes here but wouldn’t the way in which some people are trying to purify the church, judging who is in and who is out be a way we are taking a temple detour?  That agenda belongs to some within the church, but not I suspect to God. Or equally the idea that there is no need to engage in the issues of the world because the end time is all that matters and, after all, we’re ok! 

Is that really the way Jesus taught us to live as God’s beloved people?  Wouldn’t energy expended on proving we are better than others be better used in caring for each other no matter who we are?  Much as we would like to think we are the advance strategy team for Jesus coming again, that is not what is being asked of us.  Rather we live in God’s way while we wait and hope for the end time.

Instead, within these incredibly unsettled times, when the very foundation of our lives is being shaken in a way we could never have imagined, Christ is calling us to neighbourliness, kindness and compassion, generosity, to, as a church, love one another, to engage in relationship with those who are ‘other’, while we keep awake, watch, resist the pressures of our own agendas.  For the one who came as a child in a manger is with us still and will come again as the fulfilment of God’s glory.  And for this we say thanks be to God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Prayer Litany for Remembrance Sunday by Tui Bevin

Confession, Thanksgiving and Intercession Psalm written by Tui Bevin

Merciful God:
We confess we live in a world with abuse, bullying and consumerism;
despair, ecological degradation & fake facts;
Lord, have mercy upon us

We confess we live in a world with global warming, hunger and inequality;
jealousy, killing fields and labelling;
Lord, have mercy upon us

We confess we live in a world with military proliferation, nihilism and oppression;
pollution, quackery and religious intolerance;
Lord, have mercy upon us

We confess we live in a world with slavery, terrorism & unprecedented threats to creation;
too many vulnerable, war and xenophobia;
Lord, have mercy upon us

We confess we live in a world with youth underemployment
and zillions of pieces of plastic and rubbish polluting our seas, land, air and space;
Lord, have mercy upon us

Merciful Lord,
We confess we can be part of the problem,
living with insufficient thought
of You, others, our world or the future;

Lord, have mercy upon us


Let us pray.
Generous God:
We give thanks for artists, books and all creation;
dreams and diversity, education and friendship;
Lord, our cup overflows

We give thanks for generosity, health and inspiration;
Jesus, kindness and love and laughter;
Lord, our cup overflows

We give thanks for mentors, nature’s bounty, and the oceans;
pets and prayer, quirkiness and rainbows;
Lord, our cup overflows

We give thanks for sunshine, thinking, and unconditional love;
voting, water and xylophones;
Lord, our cup overflows

We give thanks for youthfulness, zinnias
and all the things that sustain us;
Lord, our cup overflows

Generous Lord, You are the source of all and give us all we need and more.
Help us be grateful and give You thanks and praise.

Compassionate God:
We also pray for aroha, bravery to speak out, and compassion;
     discernment, the earth, and forgiveness;
Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for   generosity, hope and integrity;
justice, Kiwi ingenuity and love;
Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for   music making, neighbourliness and openness;
peacemaking, questing and resourcefulness;
Lord, hear our prayer.
We pray for   shalom, thankfulness and unity;
vision, wisdom and expansiveness;
Lord, hear our prayer.

We pray for   understanding of Your will for us, Your kingdom here on earth,
and zeal for the road ahead;
Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord God, You are the alpha and omega,  before any beginning and beyond any ending.  You have given us all we need ~ and more.   Help us use what we have
to live each moment with the end in mind, Your end.
Lord, hear our prayers both spoken and unspoken


Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11 November, 2018 Pentecost 25 Remembrance Sunday

Readings:  Hebrews 9:24-28   Mark 12:38-44

We pray:  Loving God, in this time of reflection, may our hearts and minds be open to your word for us today.  May we be strengthened and encouraged in your way we pray. Amen. 

It was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when the war they called the Great War was formally ended.  It was a war unlike any other – pulling in nations from around the globe, using increasingly destructive technology in a society that gave orders with scant regard for human worth, where conditions were beyond belief.  It was called the war to end all wars, horror to end all horrors. Not so - we can say 100 years later.  Not only do we understand that the violence, the horror and the pain did not end with the signing of the armistice, we can also list however many wars came after and still continue.  
As the ODT editorial said on Friday – it was an ugly, unnecessary, futile war – as so many are.
There is an awful lot of rhetoric both attacking and defending the process of war. Some seem unable to separate the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought believing they had no choice from the fact that war is an abhorrent and futile act.  Others deride those who went, seeking to lay blame from a distance of 100 years without understanding decisions made in the context of time and culture – and heart.  Let’s stop playing that useless game – let us instead examine what it is that we do as God’s people to stop the avalanche of violence and war.

In preparing for today, I was sent a reading and prayer of confession penned by Malcolm Gordon intended for Remembrance Sunday. In the dialogue he has two people – one giving thanks for the end of the war and the other suggesting that we learnt nothing from it.  The second reader begins to list the conflicts that followed -  21 years later we were at it again –60 million  soldiers and civilians killed this time – and then the Cold War, the Korean War, the French Algerian War, the Sundanese Civil War, the Suez Crisis, the Vietnam war, the Six day war… and they continue.
As a society we don’t seem to know how to stop – as Christians we confess that we don’t seem to know how to find a different way.
We run the risk of sanctifying this war and the sacrifices made –rather than honouring those who gave their lives in so many ways – soldiers, medics, civilians…  We find it easier to identify our enemies rather than look for the value in those who we disagree with.  We prefer pre-emptive strikes because they can give us some control over our fear.
Hear this prayer from Malcolm
Dear God. 
We are sorry that there are so many wars, both in our past and in our present. Help the future to be different.
We are sorry there are so many people who think that war is a good idea. Please change their minds.
We are sorry that we don’t seem to learn from our mistakes, but keep finding ways to make them bigger and more painful. Can you show us a different way?
We are sorry that in our eagerness to remember the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought, we often sanctify the whole awful thing. Help us to tell the truth.
In your forgiveness, grant us new eyes to see our enemies as people made in Your image. In your forgiveness, grant us renewed imaginations to find constructive ways to resolve our conflicts.
In your forgiveness, grant us healed hearts that are not so vulnerable to fear, but which hold out hope for Your renewing of all things, of all people, the wiping of every tear from every face.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the prince of peace.  Amen.
On Thursday night we watched the movie Joyeux Noel about the coming together of the ‘enemy factions’ at the front on Christmas Eve 1914.  Two things struck me after watching this story again – one was that this coming together happened not just in one place but spread along the front – in fact, left to the people, peace could well have been declared in that moment.  But we all know it wasn’t – every effort was made to disband and destroy such ridiculous thinking.
The second – the encounter between the village priest who was compassionate, hands on, deeply moved to lead a simple mass that brought together the people of God and, on the other hand, his Bishop, eager to preach the destruction of the infidel and God on our side, to say that the priest had sinned by daring to speak of peace.  One believed he had the authority of the church, the other the authority of Jesus – and they were not the same.

And so, much as Adam was asking us last week ‘what is our response as Christians to the environmental catastrophe before us?’ today we need to ask ‘what is our response as Christians to the continuing use of violence and war in our world?’

In our Gospel reading today Jesus is calling out the priests and the scribes who fail to understand what the kingdom of God is about – who use their power to corrupt and their influence to gain respect for their own sake.  There is very little wriggle room for us in this reading – if you do not walk the path of humility, justice for the poor, generosity of spirit to all people  then be sure of the condemnation of God.

Some of the scribes were, says Jesus, drifting away from the Gospel –and it seems to me that this is the core of our teaching for today.  There are many who claim the name of Christian yet preach and practice aggression and selfishness and superiority – all of which give permission to treat others, especially the vulnerable as the enemy or as the expendable.   And some of the Scribes were doing just that.  Embedded in the gospel reading is the line ‘they [the Scribes] devour widow’s houses…’  And the question has to be asked - is the widow poor because her house was one that devoured by the Scribes?
So as the body of Christ – are there ways we are behaving as the scribes of this reading, where we have developed a Gospel of self importance, of serving ourselves?  And when we see it happening around us, are we doing something about it?

Where and when are we causing harm by our actions?  Are we failing to think of the consequences of the way we live our faith.  Do we prance around rather than humble ourselves to serve others? 
And especially for today - are we aware of the ways in which we condone or encourage division rather than reconciliation –where we prefer to dominate rather than walk alongside, where we oppress and ignore, where we see some as less valued or others as being not worthy of God’s love?  Does ‘God on our side’ creep into our faith understanding at all?
Do we practice economic violence in any way, are we tacitly encouraging a culture of poverty for some and extravagant wealth for others? 
For when we do any of these we are drifting away from the Gospel as revealed in Jesus Christ – and we need to haul ourselves back.

This remembering, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, those who went to war, those who never came back– we honour them by creating a way of living that does not allow war to be a solution, that does not present people of today with that dilemma of should we fight or not. 
This remembering is not about asking for the continuing sacrifice of lives to fight for peace but instead honouring those who have died by doing everything we can to live in the peace of Christ and, where there is conflict, to wage love not war! 
Just like those people at Christmas 1914 – like the priest and the soldiers for whom the presence of the infant Jesus reconciled them to each other and brought hope and peace to place of horror.

A prayer with its roots in words by Stanley Hauerwas
Dear Lord – at our feet lie the dead of our wars – the men and women, the children, the animals, the land.  We ask your mercy on these war dead.  We ask for the same mercy for ourselves, for our failure to be your peace, to be the end of war…We know we cannot will our way to peace, for when we try we end up fighting wars for peace.  So compel us with your love that we might be your peace, thus bringing life to this deadly world.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 4 November All Saints from Adam Currie

The role of Christian Discipleship in the context of the ecological crisis.

Adam Currie - Opoho Church All-Saints Sunday - 4 Nov 2018

Scripture Readings: Revelation 21:1-6a, Mark 12:28-34

Humanity has a serious problem. We have failed to love, cherish and protect God’s creation. We have not been wise stewards of the Earth’s resources. We have failed to exercise proper prudence, anticipate and mitigate risks, and take adequate precautionary measures. We now face a grave ecological crisis.  Animal populations across the planet have fallen by an average of 60 percent since 1970. Humans have killed off over half of the worlds wildlife populations. To put this number into perspective, if there was a 60 percent decline in the human population, we would be emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. We are running at full speed towards total environmental collapse. I’m sure you know all of this. So I instead post a different question to you today: What is the role of Christian discipleship in the midst of the global ecological crisis? Today is All-Saints Sunday. One of the most celebrated saints among those with a passion for the natural world and ecology is, of course, St Frances - the remarkable, prophetic, transformative 12th century monk who is the patron saint for animals and the environment. St Francis is celebrated by all those with a passion for the natural world and ecology. It is fitting to reflect on what it means to care for God’s good creation – this fantastically rich and varied planet with its breathtaking beauty and grandeur that we are privileged to inhabit.

Such reflection is all the more fitting given the recent IPCC report outlining the perils of even 1.5 degrees of global warming, (let alone the 3 or 4 degrees we are headed for) as well as the upcoming United Nations conference on climate change, where I, along with thousands of academics, diplomats, faith leaders, and activists from all around the globe will come together in Poland at the end of this month to attempt to get as many of the 195 countries of the world as possible to codiy, implement, and ramp up their carbon reduction obligations under the Paris climate agreement.
Today, globally, we face a series of grave ecological crises. According to leading scientists, humanity is exceeding several critical planetary boundaries and time is rapidly running out to rectify the problem.[1] As Pope Francis highlighted earlier this year in his deeply moving Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si, we are failing to ‘care for our common home’. We have not been good stewards. We have not loved and cherished the natural world. Our ecological footprints are too large. Our carbon footprints are now massive. We are borrowing from the future and leaving our grandchildren a dreadful legacy – a huge, unsustainable ecological debt and colossal, irreversible damage. 

How then, as Christians, should we respond? What is God calling each of us to do at this critical time? St Francis of Assisi provides a marvellous role model. His life was marked by integrity, generosity, simplicity and authenticity. He shows us how to demonstrate our creaturely love and care, not only for the poor, needy and marginalized amongst humanity, but also for everything that God has created, everything that is fragile and vulnerable, everything that needs our loving protection. As Pope Francis observes, St Francis of Assisi demonstrated through his life and teaching the inseparable bonds that link ‘concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’ (Laudato Si, p.10). He reveals how to we are to live – in particular, how we should live in harmony with God, with ourselves, with others and with nature.

For St Francis of Assisi, nature is a mirror of God; it reflects God’s heart, mind, imagination, creativity and passion. As we explore the human genome, for instance, do we not capture a glimpse of the very ‘language of God’ – as one of the leaders of the human genome project, Dr Francis Collins, called it? From this perspective, the ‘book of nature’, as it is sometimes called, serves as a valuable source of God’s revelation. In complementing the scriptures, it helps us see what God is truly like and how we ought to live.

For St Francis, humanity is an integral part of nature. We are not above, outside or beyond the natural realm. We are made from the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). Our physical bodies consist of the creation’s elements, ‘we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters’ (Laudato Si, p.4). We are creatures. We are a fundamental part of the community of creation.

In his poetic Canticle of the Creatures St Francis saw our planet – our common home – as being – to quote Laudato Si (p.3) – ‘like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us’. St Francis wrote: ‘All praise be yours, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us, and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs’. In the words of Psalm 145: “All your creation shall praise you …”.

Yet, tragically, as Pope Francis highlights:

 This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Laudato Si, pp.3-4), as St Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (8:22).

Of course, we must be thankful for the abundant economic growth of the past century. This growth has yielded a dramatic improvement in the living standards of billions of people and substantially reduced poverty and material deprivation. But these benefits have come at a great and unneeded environmental cost. Here in New Zealand our problems include deteriorating water quality, the over-allocation of fresh water supplies, a significant per capita carbon footprint, poor land-use management, weak marine governance and threats to many native species. Since human settlement, we have lost 85% of our indigenous forests, nearly a hundred bird species, masses of valuable soil and much of our wetlands, and we have polluted at least 60% of our rivers.

Globally, the situation is even bleaker. The damage includes: widespread habitat destruction and degradation; air, land and water pollution; ozone depletion; soil erosion and desertification; the over-exploitation of scarce natural resources; climate change; ocean acidification; and massive deforestation. In terms of biodiversity loss, the species extinction rate is now estimated at about 1,000 times above the normal background evolutionary rate. Indeed, we are currently in the sixth great mass extinction event of the past 540 million years. Such events are where more than 50% of the planet's species are destroyed. The most recent mass extinction was about 65 million years ago. But unlike previous mass extinctions, which were the result of massive volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts, the current event is the product of human activity – much of it driven by greed. As the former Pope Benedict XVI observed at his Inaugural Mass in 2005: “The external deserts in the world are growing because our internal deserts have become so vast”.[2]

To compound matters, further environmental harm is now inevitable. This is because of the inertia or long lags in many natural and human systems – the climate system, our energy systems, our transport systems and our political systems. Our carbon emissions today, for example, will have damaging consequences for numerous generations, if not thousands of years. At current rates of emissions, we are likely to exceed within 25 years the carbon budget consistent with the internationally agreed warming cap of two degrees.  Time is running out. Accordingly, quick and effective action is imperative, both globally and locally.

Yet our responses have been muted and reluctant. Why is this? Perhaps it is partially because of what Margaret pointed out in her introduction to the readings: “We tend not to be so confident about the destination stories” - its far easier to look back on the past than it is to consider the future. Unfortunately, the magnitude of what is being lost and the huge risks humanity is running are largely invisible. Many people simply do not see the gravity of the problem. Another reason lies in deliberate moral disengagement: many people choose not see our destruction of the natural world. As Christians we must seek to unmask what is invisible and challenge any moral disengagement.

Bernie Krause, a musician and naturalist, spent four decades making sound recordings of many of the world's most pristine habitats, including some 15,000 species. Unfortunately, the loss of species over recent decades has been so extensive that around half these recordings are now archives – they cannot be repeated either because the relevant habitats have ceased to exist or because they have been totally compromised by human noise. As Krause has put it:

A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening … Little by little the vast orchestra of life, the chorus of the natural world, is in the process of being quietened. [This is the chorus that offers constant praise and worship to God ...]

There has been a massive decrease in the density and diversity of key vocal
creatures, both large and small. The sense of desolation extends beyond mere silence. If you listen to a damaged sound-scape … the community [of life] has been altered, and organisms have been destroyed, lost their habitat or been left to re-establish their places in the spectrum. As a result, some voices are gone entirely, while others aggressively compete to establish a new place in the increasingly disjointed chorus.[3]

These are the kinds of stories that need telling and retelling.

How should we respond?

But how, as Christians, should we respond? Surely, our first reaction must be one of lament, deep sorrow and repentance for the harm we have inflicted upon God’s good creation. Our trashing of the planet is sinful. Rather than preserving life, we have ‘become death, the destroyer of worlds’ (to quote the ancient Hindu holy book, known as the Bhagavad Gita – which translates to ‘the song of the Lord’). 

Second, we must be alert to the power of evil, including the sway of materialism and neoliberalism as well as the urge to leave environmental problems for others to fix. We are all responsible before God for our stewardship of the planet. We are also responsible to one another. Free-riding has no place amongst Christians. Nor is there room for complacency, denial or evasion of the truth. We must heed the best available scientific evidence and respond appropriately. But in so doing we must avoid the temptation to play the role of God – such as the desire to free ourselves from the proper limits of our creatureliness. For instance, we should avoid expensive and highly risky technological fixes. We should avoid masking or merely treating the symptoms of the problems we have generated; we must tackle the root causes.

Third, we need a broader and deeper conception of what loving our neighbour means, as we reflected on in today's Gospel Reading from Mark. Surely, our neighbours include not only those alive here and now, but also all those in the future who will suffer harm because of our actions and inactions today. Similarly, we need to apply the golden rule to all spheres of life – for instance, emitting unto others only as we would have them emit unto us!

And in taking a broader view of what neighbourly love means, we should follow St Francis of Assisi in seeing humanity as an integral part of an amazing community of creation. Hence, our compassion, like God's compassion, must extend to all forms of life, not only human life. We are called to love the world that God has made, treasure its resources and protect everything that is endangered. We should be slowing the pace of evolutionary loss, not dramatically increasing it.

Sadly, not all Christians share such views. As part of Generation Zero, Aotearoa New Zealand's youth climate advocacy group, I’ve engaged with a wide variety of church groups in the hope of building consensus and solidarity regarding climate change. But a depressingly large amount refused to talk to us, arguing that saving the planet was not part of the Gospel. Protecting the environment, they said, was not relevant for Christians. Such attitudes persist. Sometimes they reflect a denial of scientific evidence. Alternatively, they result from a certain kind of eschatology, namely the idea that Jesus will soon return and rescue believers from the coming doom, transporting them safely to Heaven. From this standpoint, the primary aim must be to save souls; being good stewards of the Earth is irrelevant. After all, the Earth will soon pass away.

But such an eschatology fits very uncomfortably with our Lord’s prayer: this highlights God’s desire for His will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Equally, various scriptures suggest that God will ultimately redeem and renew the whole created order, not destroy or replace it. There will be both continuity and discontinuity. St Paul’s letter to the Colossians 1: 15-20 is instructive in this respect. St Paul speaks of God in Christ ‘reconciling all things’ to Himself in Christ, not only human beings.

But surely, it might be argued, God will not let humanity destroy the Earth. Surely God will intervene miraculously to change the biochemistry of the planet, thereby tempering the destructive forces which we have unleashed. The passage from Luke’s Gospel about Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee might be used to support this proposition. Hence, as the Earth’s ecological storms intensify – when the planet is about to be overwhelmed and ‘capsize’ – God will suddenly awake and calm the storm, saving humanity from its folly.

There are many reasons for doubting this interpretation of the passage from Luke’s Gospel. First, notice that it is Jesus who prompts the disciples to get into the boat and cross the lake. They do so at His beckoning. By contrast, there is no divine calling for humanity to cause ecological havoc.

Second, the storm on the Sea of Galilee was not the result of the disciples’ own actions or ineptitude. It came upon them from outside, unexpectedly. By contrast, the current ecological storms are of our own making. Moreover, the likely consequences of our actions have been known for decades. We are not destroying our common home in complete ignorance. We are doing so with open eyes and in the face or repeated warnings from the world’s leading scientific authorities. Greed, selfishness and powerful vested interests have prevailed over prudence and responsibility.

Third, in the current ecological storm it is not Jesus who lies asleep, but ourselves. We are sleep-walking to destruction.

Finally, it is true that Jesus’ calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee revealed his divine power – the power to control all the elements of nature, instantly. Understandably, the disciples were full of awe, wonder and fear. They marveled: “who is this who commands the winds and the water and they obey him?’

But this incident does not mean that God will miraculously save humanity from a self-inflicted ecologically disaster. To quote Rowan Williams:

… to suggest that God might intervene to protect us from the corporate folly of our practices is as unchristian and unbiblical as to suggest that he protects us from the results of individual folly or sin. This is not a creation in which there are no real risks; our [Christian] faith has always held that the inexhaustible love of God cannot compel justice or virtue; we are capable of doing immeasurable damage to ourselves as individuals, and it seems clear that we have the same terrible freedom as a human race.[4]

Does that mean that all is lost? No. There is no reason to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task or paralyzed by fear or foreboding. For in Christ, there are no grounds for defeatism or fatalism. “Behold”, Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). To quote Rowan Williams again: ‘God’s faithfulness stands, assuring us that even in the most appalling disaster, love will not let go”.[5]

Moreover, we must never conclude that our efforts to conserve, heal and restore God's creation are worthless. Doing what is right, responding to the Spirit of God, is important and valuable, regardless of the apparent outcomes. When St Paul remarks that ‘our labour in the Lord will not be in vain’ (1 Cor 15:58), he does not imply that our strivings will inevitably improve our current circumstances. Rather, he means that they ‘will have effects that will be preserved in the new creation’.[6] The nature of these effects we may never know. But we must be faithful all the same.

In the face of unprecedented environmental challenges, Christians are called to act, both individually and collectively, and at all levels – as citizens, congregations, in our local communities, within our businesses and places of work, and in our wider contributions to public life. We should be setting an example and providing leadership, not dragging the chain.

Individually, we must prayerfully consider what God requires of us in the urgent and demanding task of creation care. Everyone can contribute, drawing on their experience, expertise, resources, talents and connections. This may be costly, but that is the nature of Christian discipleship. All of us should be reducing our carbon footprints: taking fewer overseas trips and domestic flights, buying more fuel-efficient cars or electric cars, and divesting of shares in companies whose activities are irresponsible environmentally.  But perhaps more fundamentally, we must reject secular environmental individualism, and instead stand and rally together as a community.

As citizens we have a duty to engage in debates about the policy changes that are essential for a more secure, sustainable and resilient future. Currently, many governments around the world are failing to take the measures necessary to protect properly the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, to reduce pollution levels, protect biodiversity and ensure prudent stewardship of scarce natural resources. They are bowing to the power of vested interests and often ignoring their scientific advisers. Such governments need to be challenged, not by the person sitting next to us over there, but by me and by you, in whatever form that may take.

Finally, in the midst of the demanding tasks that await us, let us rejoice in the awesome God we worship here today. God has not abandoned us. He has not forsaken His loving plan or repented of having created humanity. Moreover, our incredible God calls us and gives us the ability to work together, to build bridges across divided communities in the common task of healing and restoring this afflicted planet, our common home. Let us all pursue this important calling with perseverance and with joy. Thanks be to God!

Canticle of the Creatures (St Francis of Assisi)

Most High, all-powerful, good Lord, all praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through all you have made, and first my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and through whom you give us light.
How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor; Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
All Praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, bright, and precious, and fair.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers wind and air, and fair and stormy,
all the weather's moods, by which you cherish all that you have made.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful is he, how cheerful! Full of power and strength.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us, and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon for love of you; through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy are those who endure in peace, By You, Most High, they will be crowned. All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death, From whose embrace no mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your will! The second death can do them no harm.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, And serve him with great humility.


[1] See, for instance, Johan Rockström, et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Nature, 461, 24 September 2009, 472-475; John Rockström, et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity”, Ecology and Society, 14, 2.
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Inaugural Mass, 24 April 2005.
[3] Quoted by John Vidal, The Guardian, 3 September 2012.
[4] Rowan Williams Faith in the Public Square London, Bloomsbury, 2012, p.190. See also Rowan Williams, “The Climate Crisis: Fashioning a Christian Response”, 13 October 2009.
[5] Rowan Williams Faith in the Public Square London, Bloomsbury, 2012, p.190.
[6] Richard Bauckham, “Ecological Hope in Crisis?”, p.3.