Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 18 February 2018 Lent 1

Readings:  Genesis 9:8-17    Mark 1:9-15

I have recently taken up classes in weaving – it is a pleasure and something I have long wanted to learn to do properly.  Our teacher, Christine, is very patient and has much knowledge which she is keen to share.  And every now and then during a session we hear the words ‘teaching moment!’ when someone forgets to add a different colour to the warp winding, when the very fine fabric gets tangled, when someone is lost in the middle of a pattern – and we gather round and learn something new or remind ourselves of a way to be a better weaver.

A teaching moment arose at the Leadership Sub Committee meeting I was at on Friday too – we were presenting the completed report on Women in Ministry, we had a very positive response but I wasn’t  sure of the take-up when I said that it’s not enough to just agree with the principle of gender equity (that in itself a loaded term) but also to educate everyone as to how to live it out.  It was immediately after this discussion that one person, talking generally about ministers,  said something like ‘….but as a minister he needs to….’ And there were two people in the room who said immediately ‘he or she’ and I added the option of ‘they’ – a teaching moment if ever there was one – and the learning was impactful on a person who was still learning the living out required from a principle.
Maybe this is an approach that we can take to the reading for today from Mark - what are the teaching moments that help guide us on our faith journey in the midst of a world that desperately needs us to be knowledgeable in and committed to the way of Jesus.  That needs us to understand the teachings of Jesus and live them out in a way that transforms the world.

The poet Caitlin Curtice[1] puts it like this:
O God, this morning when we woke to your presence in and around us, we also woke to a heavy world,
and in this world, we can’t make sense of all the things
that are wrong and should be made right.
We cannot fathom that people are judged on the colour of their skin,
that lives are worth less because their pockets are empty,
that violence is an everyday occurrence, and it seems that no place is safe.
So when we wake to the sunrise and know that you are still good, teach us what it means to seek goodness when the world is dark.
O God, teach us what it means to live in grace — not just for ourselves, but for the collective whole.
Teach us.
Teach us because the future depends on it.
Remind us, we pray. 

The world that Noah lived in was dark, and it was out of a few people’s faithfulness to God that a re-creation of the relationship between the world and God emerged – a rainbow the symbol of God’s desire to for reconciliation with a broken world and a promise to never give up on us, ever. 

The world that Jesus came to was dark – the people had lost their way, the religious leaders were mostly blind and deaf to the teachings of God, the promised land was in thrall again, this time to the Romans.  Jesus came to teach us that we might again be reconciled to God.

He came as Messiah – to once and for all exemplify the meaning of grace and love and righteousness and truth.  He came to teach us with his very life that we are the beloved of God.  A principal the people might have grasped but not remembered how to live it out.

In a sense, the abruptness of Mark’s gospel encourages this sense of an explosion of Jesus into our world – in the baptism there is no small talk about who should baptise who for instance.  Nor is there a confession of sin or a call to repentance – rather we are straight in to the baptism as something that simply had to happen – a given.  Jesus is signalling that his former life has ended and that, in this new beginning, his living out of God’s rule, he is most definitely turning his face to the cross, to death.  For he knew that in the teaching us how to live in love and justice and grace, he would be violating just about every political, social, economic and faith principal that the world held dear.  And what happened at this moment - the heavens split asunder, the boundaries between heaven and earth dissolved at this moment.  Teaching moment – baptism places us in that same relationship with God through Jesus and on the same path of radical disruption in the name of Jesus.  Our old life is put aside and our new is begun. 
Mark likewise gives barely two sentences to the wilderness experience, leaving us to read other accounts of the temptations and hardships that 40 days of desert living could bring.  Instead we hear that the same Spirit that has come into him at his baptism now drives him immediately into the desert for forty days.  And the early Christians who read these words would have understood perhaps more than we do the symbolism of Jesus retracing Israel’s journey into the wilderness with Moses where, to be honest, they pretty much stumbled and staggered and rebelled and deviated from the path that God had set them on.  Jesus on the other hand – Jesus withstands whatever the wilderness throws, Satan and all – and rewrites the story of God’s people as that of victory over all that is evil.
He emerges to proclaim that the kingdom has come near – God’s rule in here, the old ways are gone and the good news is being lived out now and in this way. Another teaching moment for us here perhaps – everything that is good comes from God, and Jesus, as God’s son, is the teacher and exemplar of all that living in the good news means.

The world that we live in is a dark place.  Wherever we look we see senseless killing and violence and war, desperate need in the shadow of bloated excesses, ethnic and religious and cultural arrogance and deep grief at the way we are destroying this world we live in.

The words from Curtice again: ‘Teach us how to seek goodness when the world is dark, O God.  Teach us because the future depends on us.’

Perhaps the first teaching is to remind us that we cannot be bystanders – our baptism puts us on a path to revealing the good news of Jesus Christ not only in our declaration of faith and our attendance at church but in our daily everyday  lives.  Have we taken that on with the determination and understanding and focus that Jesus showed when he rose from those waters and began his ministry? Might we take some time in Lent to consider our participation in the life of faith and whether we might find some new beginnings that God is asking us to step out into.

And the second teaching might be that our wilderness experiences are our best learnings – for when it is on God alone we depend then that distance between heaven and earth is at its thinnest.  Could we spend some time over the next few weeks reminding ourselves of the times when we have encountered the living God in our silences and our difficulties and our temptations and how that continues to shape us as the people of God.

And finally the teaching of trust – Jesus fully and completely entrusted the direction of his life to his Father.  He knew that everything came from God and everything he did and said and lived was for God.  He came, he taught, he suffered and he died, trusting in God to make good that which was evil, to bring new life out of the darkness that is our world.  Might we take time this lent to learn to trust again that we live in the light of a faithful God, a rainbow God, so that in confident faith we can be the grace and the truth that is Jesus Christ in this dark world.

Margaret Garland


Monday, 12 February 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 4 February 2018 Epiphany 5

Readings:  1 Corinthians 9:16-23  Mark 1:29-39

We 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

Today I would like us to think about what it means to serve God.  To explore the ways in which firstly Paul, and then Mark understand Jesus’ commission to us to proclaim the Gospel, to share the good news.

In the reading from Corinthians it will be helpful if we first remind ourselves of the words that precede the ones we heard today.  In the previous chapter Paul refers to the knowledgeable converts who quite correctly argue their right to eat the meat given to idols because they are aware that the idols have no power or status. It is just food.  But the difficulty comes from those without that clarity of understanding who see and copy, still thinking that the idols have some ability to impact their souls.  At this point you are not serving God but leading others astray – best to give up meat, says Paul.  And then, in today’s reading, Paul tackles the same question of how we best serve God but from a different perspective.   He argues that to be effective in service to God you actually need to put yourselves into other people’s shoes; to share in the blessings of the gospel, you must share in the cost of the vulnerabilities of those you serve.  Can I put that a different way?  It may well be our natural bent to want to deliver the message of the Gospel in and through the strength of our conviction and our blessing.  Whether it is preaching from the pulpit, leading study groups, hanging out with young people we find it easier to pray that our certainty, standing where we are, inviting others into our well organised space, will draw people to the church and to God. That our understanding of truth is sufficient, in itself, for everyone else. Apart from being somewhat arrogant, Paul is telling us that this is not being a serving church nor is proclaiming the freedom that Christ brings us into.  
‘Freedom in Christ’ says Bruce Rigdon, ‘means the radical freedom to identify with others in their otherness – the way in which Christ did by giving his life for the poor and the weak on the cross.’[1]
In the story of the eating of the idols food, Paul expressed the responsibility that the strong have for the weak – in this passage he insists on the responsibility that the weak have for the strong and that in serving relationship, transformation is for server and served.  That bears some thinking about does it not.

Christ came to serve, his disciples also must serve.
And so we come to the mother-in law of Simon (another nameless woman) who, in the Mark reading, illustrates exactly the point Paul makes.
An initial reaction is to wonder why the men couldn’t feed themselves but I want you put aside your outrage that she leapt off her sickbed so that the men would be properly looked after – and think about this. 
She is not commanded to do what she does, she is not doing it from any sense of a woman’s place but rather she has understood intuitively that the gospel message is one of service.  This is the Sabbath remember.  Jesus has healed in the synagogue – on the Sabbath.  He has healed in the home – on the Sabbath.  And she – on the Sabbath – overcame all the selfishness and restrictive teaching– and chose service to the people who had gathered in her house over the sacredness of the Sabbath – no matter the consequences.  She is not a menial – she is Jesus first deacon and, as Ophelia Ortega suggests, she joins Jesus as his first servant in the radical announcement of what the kingdom of God will look like. The healed mother in law and Jesus share the same liturgy!

But the disciples do not do so well.  Nor do the vast majority of the people.  Despite the desperate need there would have been for healing, they do not turn up until the sun had gone down and the restrictions are lifted.  And then they flood in.
Simon, in his turn, - well he should have taken notice of his mother in law – then he and the disciples might have figured out the servant path a great deal earlier.  But instead they see responding to the crowd as Jesus role, not theirs and their astonishment at his leaving while there is still work to be done is barely held in check. 

Can I connect this idea of servanthood this Waitangi weekend with the fact that it was just over three years ago when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the initial contact of Maori and Missionary on the beach at Hohi (Oihi) in the Bay of Islands - where Samuel Marsden led worship and preached the Gospel to Maori and Pakeha alike. And I wondered how the bringers of the good news of Jesus Christ approached those important first encounters – with servanthood or with compulsion.  Almost certainly much of this relationship between church, settler and tangata whenua would have been characterised by not putting self in others shoes and seeking rather to command.    

But rather than dwell on the mistakes can I share some thoughts that give us hope here in Aotearoa.

For sure, we have not served God well in much that is associated with bi-cultural relationships in this country.  Even with the best of intentions all participants in the living document that is the Treaty of Waitangi can dominate, frighten, incense, and cause seemingly unrecoverable divisions.  And yet there is hope - and reconciliation – and where do we find it?  In the stories of the people!  I have a longtime friend called Dave who I have known since university days and Dave’s mother was Helen Jackman – a deaconess in the Presbyterian Church and a tireless and compassionate leader in education – she was principle of Turakina Maori Girls school among other things.  She is in the book out in the Morrison Lounge called “A Braided River of Faith” along with many other woman whose lives of service are a light to us all.
The story of Sister Annie Henry and her discerning and compassionate ministry of reconciliation to the people of Ruatahuna is nothing less than inspiring.  With her presence to guide, and in the light of her unselfish devotion to the welfare of the people, her care of them in sickness and in need, the most unlikely covenant was reached between the Presbyterian church and the Ringatu Church under their leader Te Kooti – where Christian mission schools would be set up for the children of the Tuhoe.  The co-existance of two faiths respecting and caring for each other still today could teach us a great deal about how to live in a reconciled and loving community.   I think of people like Rod Madill who succeeded Sister Annie in Ruatahuna, ministering within the tension of a pakeha dominated church in a Maori community and who, with vision and compassion, built a strong and remembered relationship with the people.  Many, many people have served God in this place of cultural reconciliation and restorative justice.
And finally I would speak of the work of Te Ako Puaho  When, as an intern I and others were invited, with some apprehension I might say, onto the marae in Ohope it was like no other experience of marae that I have had.  The sense of embrace and welcome was palatable, the conviction that God calls us all to serve each other was lived out in the teaching and the sharing of stories of faith and action, and, you know what, I got really excited about the ways in which we can grow in faith through the contributing lenses that each of our cultural journeys brings.  It was a moment of epiphany for many of us. 

There is much to hope for, I believe.
May we always seek to know how we might too serve God in bringing reconciliation, restoration and hope to the lives of all people in this wonderful country – working for a world that lives into the hope of all peoples, in all times. “He iwi tahi tatou” – we are one people .   Around this table of welcome as we share in the bread and wine “He iwi tahi tatou” – we are one people  And for this we say - thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

[1] Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 1, p.328

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11 February, 2018 Transfiguration

Opoho Presbyterian Church               Mark 9.2-9                              February 11th 2018

The year seems hardly to have begun, but we find ourselves already on the verge of Lent, and thus today in the last week of the segment of our calendar we call Epiphany.  And our Gospel reading today, relating what we call the Transfiguration of Jesus, is surely an ‘epiphany moment’ par excellence.  Epiphany means revelation, the visual appearing of something not normally seen, and during the season of epiphany we read a number of stories about the visual and social impact of Jesus: the journey of the magi, the baptism of Jesus, the call of the disciples, all of these announce Jesus and reveal his identity to the world.  But none of those do so in such a striking and mysterious way as our transfiguration story this morning.  Here Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain (a place of revelation, like Mt. Sinai), and here he is suddenly changed – metamorphosed – in front of their eyes, gleaming with dazzlingly white clothes.  He is then joined by Moses and Elijah – two figures from way-back in Israel’s past – before they are all overshadowed by a cloud (another echo of Sinai and Moses), and a voice from God declares: ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’
            There is something about this story that we find hard to get our heads around: it all seems a bit dream-like, unreal, otherworldly, and somehow out of kilter with the plainer, down-to-earth stories in the gospels that we find easier to handle, stories of normal human interactions, parables, and moral instructions.  We are used to a Jesus who teaches, eats, prays, and heals; but a Jesus suddenly transformed, suddenly shining with a blinding light, suddenly glorious and – frankly – supernatural, all that is a bit hard for us to wrap our rational minds around.  (When I told a friend I was preaching today on the lectionary reading, on the Transfiguration, he said ‘Oh no, poor you: that is almost as bad as having to preach about the Trinity!’).  So what is this story about?  What is it doing here in our gospels?  And why is it here, slap bang in the middle of Mark’s gospel, at a pivotal moment in the narrative?  In the transfiguration story, a voice from heaven says ‘listen to him’ (that is, to Jesus).  By placing this story here, Mark’s Gospel seems to be saying to us: ‘listen very carefully to this’. 
            What is happening here is not a meaningless blip in an otherwise straightforward story, but a glimpse through the veil, a sudden break in the clouds, a moment that reveals what is really going on, and what the narrative is truly about.  Living in Opoho, these last few months, when I read of a cloud coming down on the top of a mountain, it makes me think of Mount Cargill, with its frequent cloud-hat.  But this story as a whole and its place in Mark’s Gospel is more like one of those days when you wake up and the whole sky is covered with low, thick, grey cloud, from end to end, and you wonder for a moment how there is any light at all and where it is coming from; and then suddenly, about midday, a break appears to the north, over Flagstaff, and through a tiny slit in the clouds you see blue and then, through the slit, a shaft of brilliant sunlight falls direct onto Dunedin, and now you know what gives the day light.  The disciples have been with Jesus, day in and day out, in normal every-day activities, though he has an unusual authority and an extraordinary power to heal.  They could think – and we could think – that this is the life of a good and holy man, a prophet (like Elijah, perhaps), or a lawgiver like Moses, with a radical moral twist; but all of a sudden, to the eyes of his closest disciples, the clouds part and the truth is revealed.  All of a sudden, and with a light that both illumines and half-blinds, we see who Jesus really is.  The categories of our rational minds won’t fit, not because what we see here is untrue, but because it is more true than we can adequately grasp.
            This is a story rich in symbolism.  The mountain and the cloud remind us of Sinai, where Moses, also after a wait of 6 days, ascends into the cloud, and hears a voice from the cloud that reveals and imparts Israel’s constitution; he came down out of the cloud, you may remember, with his face glowing so brightly that the Israelites could not look at him directly.  No-one can be that near to the light of God and remain the same.  But here is Jesus not as the reflection of that light, but as the light source himself, the truth of his identity suddenly breaking out.  Elijah and Moses appear in this story, as figures of authority from the past who pointed forward to one greater than themselves.  Moses had spoken, famously, of a future prophet like himself, and he was recorded in Deuteronomy as saying of this prophet: ‘listen to him’ – words echoed here but now spoken by God from the cloud.  Elijah, whose mysterious removal to heaven in a fiery chariot we heard about in our reading just now, was also associated with a mountain and a voice from heaven (‘the still, small voice’).  More importantly, ever since the days of Malachi it had been thought that Elijah would return to usher in the last days, the time of the Messiah or the day of the Lord.  In Jesus’ day that expectation was certainly alive and well, and there was speculation about whether John the Baptist, or Jesus himself, was that reappearance of Elijah from heaven as the sign of the impending end.  But here is Jesus, not as Elijah, or as a Moses-like prophet, but as one they speak with, and, as it were, point towards:  Jesus, in other words, as the final, definitive embodiment of all the hopes of history.  And the voice from the cloud, which echoes the voice at Jesus’ baptism, puts us in no doubt about the special identity of Jesus: not, ‘this is my prophet’, nor ‘this is my lawgiver’, nor even ‘this is my friend’: but ‘this is my beloved Son’ (that is my unique, my only Son).  What we are dealing with here is no Galilean guru, but the Son of God.
            So right at the centre of this very early Christian text, and in the letters of Paul written even before this, stands the conviction that has been at the heart of the Christian faith all the way through history: that Jesus is the final, definitive, irreplaceable, and incomparable revelation of God.  The Son of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord of the cosmos, these and many other terms have been the properly exalted language in which the Christian faith has tried to express a reality that breaks open all our language about God.  You will notice how Peter fumbles about in this story, not quite knowing what to say or how to say it, and we feel much the same.  There is a sense in which the truth about Christ will always be beyond our ability to capture, because it is simply too great for us to get our minds, and thus our words, around it.  But one thing is clear.  We cannot speak about God without speaking about Jesus as God the Son; we cannot speak about creation without speaking of Christ as the one through whom and for whom everything that is came into existence; we cannot speak about ourselves as human beings without speaking of Christ as the Image of God, after whom we are modelled and for whom we are made; and we cannot speak about history without bearing testimony to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as the hinge point of all time.  Everything in our texts, our creeds, our liturgies, and our prayers is marked, inescapably, with this absolutely massive claim about Christ. The transfiguration reminds us not to whittle our language down: precisely in the very human life of Jesus is breaking through to us a unique light and truth that we can only name as the presence of God, in the unique person of God’s beloved Son.
            I was fascinated by the debate that has arisen recently about the prayer used at the start of each day in the NZ Parliament, which the Speaker altered, before much consultation, to remove reference to the Queen and to omit the clause, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’.  The Queen: well, we won’t go into that here! That’s another whole topic! ‘Through Jesus Christ our Lord’: that raises interesting questions about what you do when many members of Parliament do not believe that Jesus is any kind of Lord, and certainly not theirs, and when, according to at least some surveys, the majority of New Zealanders no longer self-identify as Christians.  Far be it from me (as an Englishman) to comment on what New Zealand MPs should do with their prayer, but the larger question concerns us all: what does it mean to be a Christian when an increasing percentage of our contemporaries do not share our beliefs?  That may feel like a new question, but of course it is hardly new in the history of Christianity.  For its first three centuries Christians were a very small percentage of their communities, and being a minority is the context in which very many Christians find themselves around the world today.  What do we do in that situation?  The answer is not to lapse into a postmodern, ‘well, what I believe is true is true for me, but of course if you believe something else, that can be true for you, too’.  The Christian stance is to affirm, with all due gentleness, that Jesus Christ is Lord, whether people recognise that or not: Lord of all the reality that they and we inhabit, whether they see him there or not; Lord of all history, ours and theirs, whether they acknowledge him there or not.  Some MPs might not be able to say with any honesty ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’, but he is their Lord – in the sense that he is Lord of all – whether they know it or not.  Our task is not of course to force people to believe this or say it – as if we had to capacity to do that anyway; our task is to bear humble, but consistent testimony, to those of other faiths and none, that the reality we are all trying to grasp, and the truth we are all attempting to understand, is definitively, uniquely, and unsurpassably revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The voice on the Mount of Transfiguration says, ‘listen to him’.   
            Jesus Christ is Lord: but how and where?  The story of the Transfiguration comes, as I have said, at a pivotal moment in the gospel of Mark.  We might expect that after this revelation of Jesus’ true identity to the innermost circle of disciples, the rest of the story would be the progressive revelation of Jesus’ glory and power to wider and wider circles of people until all Jerusalem, and all the world, bowled over by his glory, came to honour him as Son of God.  What we get, instead, is a story of increasing rejection and suffering, a road that leads from this mountain top to mockery, betrayal, arrest, false accusations, brutal flogging, and an infinitely cruel, lingering and shameful death by crucifixion. What an extraordinary story!  The Jesus revealed on the mount of Transfiguration in his true glory, with shining clothes, will be crucified on Golgotha, stripped naked and shrouded in darkness.  The Jesus revealed here as Son of God, creator of life, will die, giving his life as a ransom for all.  The Jesus to whom Moses and Elijah point as the climax of history will be tried, mocked and executed by the Roman authorities as a failed political insurgent.  So is what is said on the mountain only true for a while, or only partly true?  Not at all.  The voice from heaven says, ‘This is my beloved Son’.  The centurion who watches him die blurts out the very same truth: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God’ (15.39).  So is this the story of the Son of God who was finally crushed and defeated on the cross?  No – and this is where the story of the gospel blows our minds – the Son of God reveals himself to the world as the Son of God precisely on the cross, in giving himself for others, in the self-emptying love which is the very nature of God.  If Jesus were no more than a Galilean guru, his death would be a sad end to a good life.  But if he is who we discover he is on the Mount of Transfiguration, he is the Son of God, taking on our sin, our degradation, and our weakness, God in love drinking our cup to the very depths – and in the process changing the very condition of the cosmos. 
            Because what is seen on the Mount of Transfiguration is not a temporary or a limited truth.  When the one who is there acclaimed as God’s beloved Son then cries out from the cross in that piercing cry, ‘My God, my God, have you forsaken me?’, we might be tempted to think that the Transfiguration vision was a dream, a piece of wishful thinking in which everyone was deluded.  But, whisper it quietly, say it with a trembling voice: there is a rumour at the end of Mark’s story, a claim that seems unbelievable, but suddenly makes sense: that God is not defeated by death, that the darkness that envelops Jesus and us at Golgotha is not the end of the story, that the light and the love of God is finally, inexplicably, but truly stronger than death.  Mark’s Gospel, in its original form, does not show us much of the resurrection of Jesus, but what it says points back to our transfiguration story.  It is as if we are given here, at the transfiguration, a glimpse of a reality that is true right through the story and will finally win out both in and beyond the degradation of death.  The Jesus we see here as the glorious Son is both present everywhere to the very depths of our human suffering, and finally triumphant beyond death, shimmering with the very life of God.
 I turn 60 this year, and I take that as a happy but also a sobering moment, as I know that whether I live now for many years or for few, there will be increasing moments in the years ahead of sorrow, of pain, frustration, limitation, and perhaps the steady loss of all I prize most about myself (just to look at the bright side of things!).  What we learn from the gospel is that God accompanies us, in Jesus, to all those dark places, right down to their very depth; that there is nowhere so desperate that God cannot be there.  But what we also learn, from the transfiguration and the resurrection, is that the Jesus who accompanies us in and through our suffering is the Lord of light and life, who has grasped hold of us and will never let us go.  So let this strange and wonderful story be our anchor: the Jesus whom we glimpse here transformed, metamorphosed into his true identity as beloved Son, the expression of God’s unquenchable love, is the Jesus who, as Paul says, will one day transform our weak and failing bodies to be like his glorious body according to the power by which all things are subject to him (Philippians 3.21).  In other words, strange to say, what we see here of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration gives us just a glimpse of what God has in mind one day for us as well.    Thanks be to God.

John Barclay