Tuesday, 24 July 2018

A service of reflection 22 July 2018 PM 'Blessed are the Peacemakers'

A service of reflection with times of music, words and silence.
On a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee stands the Church of the Beatitudes. The view is breath taking and the words Jesus spoke on that hill in his sermon on the mount were equally breathtaking – who were the people who were going to build the kingdom here on earth – Blessed be the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.
A spirituality course on peacemaking in Texas was led by a member of the Iona community. And out of their gathering came these words: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are born of God. At that course were Muslim, Jew and Christian.  Together they found those words: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are born of God. And the leader forever remembers these words uttered by a Muslim woman: “I so love Jesus, peace be upon him. He is so compassionate. He is so humble. He is so merciful. I so love Jesus, peace be upon him.” He remembers, he says, because he realised that she was teaching him how to speak about Jesus.  That being a peacemaker involves talking to other people, people of different views and faiths.
The world has never been at peace and we will probably never see the world at peace.  But if we would take note of what Jesus teaches the world would become a better place, the kingdom would take another step forwards it becoming a reality.
If people are humble and poor in spirit there would be no war. If there was a desire for Justice, there would be no war. If as Children of God, we imitated God's love, there would be no war. It is because we long for peace that we pray.
The Beatitudes provide peace in the midst of our trials on earth. Beatitude is a possession of all things held good – the opposite to beatitude is misery. And the Beatitudes build on one another and they produce a beautiful picture of what the world could be like, as beautiful and peaceful as that breath taking view from that hill - over the Sea of Galilee.
So as we gather we take time to be still – and to listen to the music of the Beatitudes.
Music Taize Blessed are the peacemakers.

Opening liturgy:
Bruised, black clouds shed heavy tears on the fields of Flanders, fields become graveyards in which were buried the flowers of a generation.
And God wept, for these were God’s children.
Bruised and black clouds shed heavy tears on the cities of Europe and of Japan, cities shrouded in the dust of desolation, camps wreathed in the smoke of human cremations, people in confusion whispering – ‘Please God, never again.’
And God wept, for these were God’s children.
Bruised and black clouds shroud cities, shopping streets, business centres, refugee camps, and people gaze on devastation wrought by evil on innocence.
And God weeps, for these are God’s children.
Bruised and black clouds shed tears over a whole world, bowed, bloodied by battle, cowed and weary of war, her roads clogged by refugees – with nowhere but earth to call home.
And God weeps, for these are God’s children.
God of life, drawing life and death together in yourself, uniting the lost and the loving, be among us we pray as we gather, guide our praying and loving, cherish our remembering, God, our God, who forgets no-one. 

We imagine that this table is a map of the world – and there are so many places of conflict, of waste and gratuitous violence and we are lost for words.  So I invite you, as an act of defiant faith, to come place a candle, a night light on countries deeply affected by violence, or a place where important decisions are being made like the United Nations or where poverty and injustice are rampant because all the money is being spent on armaments.  The night light is a prayer to God to be a light to the people in those places.  And as you place the candle, you might like to say the words: we light a light for the people of …..

Reading of four scriptures – a psalm, from the Qur’an, Atharva Veda, and James in the NT.  After each will be a time of silence and the words will be on the screen.

Psalm 122
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
And security within your towers.
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you’.
For the sake of the house of the Lord, our God,
I will seek your good.

Sura 41 of the Qur’an
And who could be better of speech than he who calls others unto God
and does what is just and right
and says: I am of those who have surrendered
themselves to God.
Good and evil are not equal:
repair the evil that is done to you with something better.
And lo! The enemy who did evil to you may turn into a close and true friend.
Yet to achieve this is not given to any but those who are
wont to be patient in adversity.
It is not given to any but those endowed with the greatest fortune.
If it should happen that a pointing from Satan stirs you to blind anger,
seek refuge with God.
Behold, He alone is all hearing, all knowing.

A reading from the Atharva Veda
Peace be to the earth and to airy spaces.
Peace be to heaven, peace to the waters.
Peace to the plants and peace to the trees.
May all the gods grant me peace.
By this invocation of peace may peace be diffused.
By this invocation of peace may peace bring peace.
With this peace the dreadful I appease.
With this peace the cruel I appease.
So that peace may prevail, happiness prevail.
May everything for us be peaceful.

A reading from the New Testament – from James 3
Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.


Lord of the nations, God of peace and love,
in your hands are all the people of this world:
one flesh, one blood, created by you.
You alone, O God, can curb the passions that take us from you and turn us upon each other.
You alone can save us from ourselves.
Be with us now, O Lord, and hear our prayers for peace.

Forgive us for participating in that which turns people against each other; for fuelling anger and harbouring vengeance, and not heeding your call to love one another.
Forgive us for not always sharing with the world the blessings of prosperity that we have received as a nation.  In our comfort we have not always seen the uncomfortable.  In the caring for our own, we have not always cared for the least of your kingdom.

Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
Open our eyes and help us see the world around us as you see it.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
Open our eyes and help us to see where your love is needed most.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
Open our eyes and hearts to your truth.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
As we seek justice, make us just.
As we seek forgiveness, make us forgive.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
Guard and protect those who stand in harm’s way.
Inspire the leaders of nations to pursue equity and peace.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
Grant wisdom to our leaders and to the agencies who have powers of decision making.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
Grant peace in our land, in our homes, and in our places of work.
Renew us in faith, Lord, and grant us peace.
God of our ancestors, God of all who are in need, heed our call and answer our prayer.
Send peace in our time, peace for our hearts, peace for our land, peace for all the world, peace that abides as we abide in you.

Music Taize Our Father in Heaven 

An Affirmation
It is not true that this world and its inhabitants are doomed to die and be lost;
This is true: for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him shall not die, but have everlasting life.
It is not true that we must accept  inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction;
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred shall have the last word, and that war and destruction have come to stay forever;
This is true: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, in whom authority will rest, and whose name will be Prince of Peace.
It is not true that our dreams of liberation of humankind, our dreams of justice, of human dignity, of peace, are not meant for this earth and its history
This is true: the hour comes, and it is now, that we shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

May God our maker bless us and wrap us around in love and tenderness.
May Jesus our brother bless us and ask us the questions that lead us to do justice.
May the Holy Spirit bless us and fill our lives with her courage and wisdom.
May we live bravely in the love of the Trinity all our nights and days

Taize Music to take us out when we are ready

Margaret Garland

Jonah: the world turned upside down Opoho Presbyterian Church, 15 July 2018

The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call against her, for their evil has come up before my face.’ Nineveh was the powerful city-state at the heart of the mighty Assyrian empire. Like all empires—the Babylonian, the Roman, the British—Assyria always threatened to destroy the peoples it conquered. Jews in both the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, were painfully aware of how powerless they were to stop Assyrian and Babylonian armies from ravaging their lands, and carrying off their leaders into exile. Like the sea monster in chapter 2, such empires had the power to swallow up conquered peoples and make them disappear.

For a modern analogy, think of the Syrian ‘rebels,’ pounded to pieces by Syrian and Russian bombs.  Or the Palestinians. Or 1500 British troops marching into Parihaka in 1881, arresting and imprisoning without trial Te Whiti, Tohu and the ploughmen, and sending them into exile in darkest Dunedin. Jonah hates the Ninevites. They are the enemies of God’s chosen people. Jewish readers over the centuries, all too familiar with Assyrian, Babylonian, Roman, or, in medieval Europe, Christian power, had little difficulty understanding why Jonah revolted at God’s command to preach to Nineveh.

Friday’s ODT ‘Faith and Reason’ column called Jonah ‘A Whale of a Tale for Today’s World.’ I agree with Ian Harris, a ‘Sea of Faith’ fan, that reading Jonah literally and ‘treating it as a news report misses the mark by a country mile.’ The Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah sparked ‘hatred’ for the Ninevites and Jewish leaders decided, writes Harris, that, since ‘their God was exclusive to them,’ they must ‘honour him’ by strict ‘racial purity’ and keeping ‘themselves free from contamination by other peoples.’ Reading modern concerns about racial purity back into Jonah’s world is anachronistic. More troubling, though, is Harris’s claim that ‘Jonah lived and breathed’ the ‘intolerance and bigotry’ of the Jewish people and their ‘exclusive’ God. This is all too reminiscent of a long and tragic Christian tradition of interpretation that contrasts legalistic, exclusive, self-righteous and intolerant Jews, with their angry OT God, over against liberated, law-free, gracious, and loving Christians, with their compassionate NT God. This tradition has fueled terrible anti-Semitism for centuries. I have more sympathy for Harris’s conclusion that the Jonah story challenges any country—including Israel and the United States—‘so consumed with its own special identity and status that it dismisses other nations and their people as unworthy of consideration or care.’ Jonah ‘challenges every age and nation to be more human, more humane.’ While that’s surely right, I’m going to suggest that Harris’s interpretation is a bit too easy. It avoids Jonah’s more difficult challenge.

How did Jonah respond to God’s call to preach against the violence of pagan Nineveh?  He ‘ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish’-- exactly the reverse of what God told him to, traveling in the opposite direction to Nineveh. We’re not sure exactly what or where Tarshish was, but some scholars think it may have been the city the Apostle Paul came from, Tarsus. It was a bustling trading port where people were busy getting and spending. Perhaps pursuing the goods life—acquiring stuff you don’t really need to keep up with people you don’t really like—is what you devote yourself to when you’re running away from God.

Jonah gets on a boat. Everyone else, the sailors and the captain, are pagans. When the storm rages, they call on their gods for help. But it’s the pagans, not Jonah, who behave superbly. When Jonah tells them that he’s a Hebrew who worships the Lord who made sea and land, the fear of the Lord which Proverbs tells us is the beginning of wisdom comes upon the sailors. They’re terrified. When Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea to calm the storm they’re too troubled to do so. They don’t want to kill an innocent man, and try desperately to row back to land. But the storm grows fiercer still. Please don’t hold us accountable for taking an innocent man’s life, the sailors cry to the Lord. They’re the kind of pagans Paul refers to in Romans 1 who have the law of God written on their hearts. But Jonah insists, and so they reluctantly throw him in. The sea calms down. The sailors offer sacrifice and make vows to the Lord. The pagans are behaving like the people of God should. At the end of chapter one we see the gentiles worshipping the Lord while the Lord’s prophet sinks alone into the fathomless deep.

Jonah is swallowed up by the waters and then by a great fish ‘prepared by the Lord’. Ancient Middle Eastern mythologies used sea monsters to symbolize chaos and destruction. But Jonah can live in its belly. The words of Isaiah 43: 1-2 come true: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.’ Jewish readers would have seen the point right away: Israel passed safely through the sea fleeing from Egypt; more recently, Judah was swallowed up by the great beast Babylon, an empire that under Nebuchadnezzar ‘swallowed me up like a sea monster’ (Jeremiah 51:34). Jonah was in the belly of the beast 3 days and 3 nights. He has hit bottom. Chapter 2 tells us that Jonah shouted ‘from the belly of Sheol,’ the OT place of the dead, beyond all help. Jonah’s as far down as you can get. Sin is its own punishment because the Lord made humans to live in his sight, so when they turn away from him they turn inevitably to death. Only God can help Jonah now.

In Matthew 12, Jesus says that, like Jonah in the belly of the sea monster, he will be ‘in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.’ Even after performing many signs and wonders for his fellow Jews, they demand more. Angry at their unbelief, Jesus replies that this evil and adulterous generation will get nothing but the sign of Jonah. He can give no sign greater or clearer than himself. But, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we look for something else, a greater and better sign, something dramatic to prove that he’s with us. We don’t want to be stuck with nothing but Jesus. We don’t want to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We try to avoid a broken and contrite heart. We don’t want to be poor and afflicted. We seek all kinds of glory and righteousness beside that of the upside-down kingdom where Christ reigns. Insofar as we want something more than the sign Jesus has already given us, we, too, are that evil and adulterous generation.

But the sign of Jonah is good news, because, as chapter three tells us, the Ninevites repent and believe when Jonah preached, without needing a miracle. Even their cattle do. That means that we can too.

The Ninevites, arrogant enemies of God’s chosen people, repent and turn from their violence, begging God to spare them. He does. Jonah is mad—like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. That’s why he fled to Tarshish, he tells God. He knew the Lord was gracious and compassionate, ‘slow to anger and abounding in love.’ Suicidally angry, he walks out of the city to sulk. God makes a plant spring up to shelter him from the heat of the sun. Jonah’s happy. Suddenly a worm eats the plant and it withers. The heat’s unbearable. Jonah wants to die. Do you have a right to be angry about the plant, God asks gently? Too right, barks Jonah. You’re upset about a plant that you didn’t plant or grow, God replies. Well then, shouldn’t I be concerned about the more than 120 000 Ninevites who can’t tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of the animals?

What’s the take-home message? The identity of Israel, God’s chosen people, is to be a blessing for all nations. The chosen people are never chosen for their own glory, greatness, goodness, or to feel superior to others. The Lord who is gracious and merciful elects a people to bless others, including enemies. That’s the calling the Christian church shares with the Jewish people. That’s the calling of this congregation.

Here, finally, is the disturbing part. The easy answer to the Jonah story, and to the parable of the prodigal son, is to say that we’re not meant to be like Jonah or the elder brother. We’re not meant to be angry, jealous, exclusive, intolerant, or self-righteous. The easy reading that Ian Harris offers is of Jonah as the bigoted, intolerant Jewish Other, unlike tolerant, inclusive, and humane Us. That’s a bit too easy. It’s the genius of the book of Jonah, and of the prodigal son, that as soon as we think we’ve got the message about the self-righteousness of Jonah—and of the elder brother—(applying it, of course, to others) we fall into the same trap ourselves. The brother to be celebrated in the parable is the one who says: ‘I am not worthy to be called your son.’

Should I not pity?, the Lord asks in the final verse. Only one of us has consistently given the right answer. The rest of us might be better to class ourselves with the ignorant pagan sailors and bloody Ninevites as those unworthy to be called children of our Father. The Lord is asking all of us who, like Jonah and the elder brother, think we are not disobedient and resent those who are to join in celebrating a God who loves sinners, the unworthy and enemies.

Who are our Ninevites?

John Stenhouse

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 8 July 2018 Pentecost 7

Readings:  Ezekiel 2: 1-5 Mark 6: 1-13
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.

God said to Ezekiel: “O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And when he spoke, a spirit entered into Ezekiel and set him on his feet; and Ezekiel heard him speaking these words:  “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; ….whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

Ezekeil was prostrate on the ground, overwhelmed with awe at the vision of God’s splendour and greatness that had been set before him.  It was too much for him to stand before. Yet God pulled him to his feet, entered into him and convinced him that his mission as was to connect with the people of Israel as God’s prophet

When Mike and I were up in Christchurch at the end of May, Matthew Jack preached on Isaiah[1] and the burning coal placed on his mouth so that, despite his reluctance, he could speak the word among the people.  Matthew linked it with the conversation of the week, the preaching of Rev Michael Curry at the wedding of Harry and Meghan – noting that the expression on the faces of the listeners there indicated that whatever else was happening, a connection of some sort was most certainly taking place – they knew that fresh words had been spoken into a most traditional place, they knew that it had disturbing implications, they knew there had been a prophet among them. Who might hear and who might refuse to hear would be matter of ongoing discussion but his words certainly connected.   

And then we have Jesus preaching to his whanau, in the place of his upbringing, his belonging – and he certainly impacted the people listening with his wisdom and knowledge, they had seen his deeds of power and were quite unexpectedly impressed by him.  But then, in a classic case of tall poppy syndrome, unable to accept this home town boy as a prophet of God they closed their ears, they took offense at him, wanting to bring him back to size, to fit who they thought he should be.  Now that is something New Zealanders would have some appreciation of?

You see, for Jesus, God had changed the terms of reference for living. What Jesus had been was no longer the defining pivot of his life, instead there are new visions, different priorities, a new lens for us to see life through. 
And those people in Jesus home town, well they were completely happy with their already established terms of reference for Jesus – child, sibling, carpenter, ordinary bloke – and so they rejected this new teaching. They did not hear, they did not believe!
Isaiah and Ezekiel weren’t too sure about the change of their terms of reference either and, though they heard the words of direction, they were most reluctant to comply with them, sure that they couldn’t possibly do what was asked of them. 

In fact, I am sure if we had a chance to talk with Most Rev. Michael Curry there would have been times in his life of faith where he wanted to cry off speaking to a potentially non-receptive or even hostile audience. The wedding may well have been one of them – who knows?

So it seems to me that there are two aspects to our readings today that we could follow through on – the need to listen to the Word in our lives and our commission as Christ followers to speak the Word so that others might have the opportunity to hear. 

Are there any alarm bells that pop up in our lives when we hear the story of Jesus reception by those he knew well, had a long history with yet who disbelieved or were perplexed by his teachings?  The disciples, Jesus’ hometown, us – all of us have times when we prefer our own perspectives to that of God’s.  Mark Edington suggests that ‘the human capacity for investing in social norms, for believing in one’s own preferences, is greater than the human capacity for faith.  And in our dark moments, it seems to be so.  And we hear in the scripture today what is a rather troubling consequence of that disbelief – that because of the people not understanding his teaching, Jesus could do no real deeds of power in his hometown.  Because of the unbelief of the people, Jesus is rendered powerless.  This point has been made several times in Mark’s gospel – last week Jairus and the bleeding women (who we called Judith) had faith enough to see in Jesus a power and truth that exceeded their understanding and gave them hope yet the disciples who had been with him for a long time were amazed at what he could do, as yet unwilling or unable to see, to be convinced of the great things that God can and will do. 
Perhaps we need to raise our expectations of God and understand that in Christ through faith (be that faith stumbling or strong) unexpected amazing things can happen. But we are needed.  We are required not just to listen but to live out our new vision, different priorities, changed understanding that Jesus brings to us.

For that is the consequence of being a person of faith – being called on to be a prophet – and that word has so many connotations for us most of which allow us to assure ourselves that it belongs to someone else.  Someone great, someone with strong oratory skills or huge passion or the command of God on them so great that they cannot turn aside.   We are talking next week after all about Jonah – classic case of the reluctant prophet.
But I want to say that it is you and me.  That we are the prophets of this time – believing in what could be and willing to be the voice, the example that leads others to that same hope.
Recognising that we will speak into situations where people will refuse to listen, preferring their own take on what is important, and all we can do is shake the dust from our feet.
Recognising that we have new terms of reference for our living and that the words we speak are a new language of hope, of care, of forgiveness and compassion and mercy.
Recognising that we don’t know where, how, on whom God’s great love will be impact through our words and actions as we live out our faith.
Recognising that it is for us, those who have known Christ for a long time and those for whom it is more recent, those whose faith is a fragile seed and those who struggle to understand yet hold stubbornly on to the thread of grace that is God – it is for us to be part of the transformation of the world in Jesus name.

I would like to finish with words from a prayer[2] that we heard at Wayne te Kaawa’s induction on Wednesday night – from the Iona community.  It begins:

May it not be long, Lord…
May it not be long before the world we pray for and the world we inhabit are one……
And continues:
May it not be long, Lord, before we feel ourselves directly addressed by your voice as those first disciples did, who heard you summon the strangest of people to the greatest of callings.
May it not be long, Lord and to enable that day to come soon, raise up for us prophets who will give us new sight for better seeing.
Raise up for us prophets who will increase our altruism and diminish our greed.
Raise up for us prophets who will spell out that God has no favourite race nor heaven a favoured language.
Raise up for us prophets who, in their own person, will bridge the gaps through which too many fall.
Raise up for us prophets who will make clear for our day the truths Jesus said in his, and who will speak with the urgency of those who have glimpsed the coming of the Lord…
And if you will not raise up for us prophets, then raise up in us that holy restlessness to get your work done and your people saved, for Jesus’ sake.

Margaret Garland

[1] Sermon May 27 2018 Coal to the Lips

[2]A Wee Worship Book: Fifth Incarnation”, Wild Goose Resource Group

Monday, 2 July 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 July 2018 Pentecost 6

Readings: Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 Mark 5: 21-43

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.

A couple of days ago Mike introduced me to a you-tube clip that has been doing the rounds on social media - a programme called Carpool Karaoke – where host James Corden invited Paul McCartney to hop in the car with him and tour around Paul’s old haunts in Liverpool singing as they went.  And there were at least two stops, one at the house where he lived as a teenager and another at one of the pubs where the band used to play.  And at both of those places, the word he was there spread like wildfire and he came out to crowds of people just wanting to say hi, shake his hand – there was a quick ‘named my son after you, Paul’ – and to generally get a look at this legend that is Paul McCartney of the Beatles whose crowd pulling ability was a phenomenon of its time and still is.
You might also, those of an age, also be remembering the furore caused by John Lennon’s comment in 1966 in America that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and rock music would outlive Christianity.  Provocative stuff indeed and still so.

Well I reckon Jesus was the rock musician of his day – the authorities didn’t know what to do with this disruptive  phenomenon and the crowds gathered to say hello, listen to, touch, be part of the experience that seemed to flow out of this carpenter turned preacher, healer, rule breaker.  The crowds seemed naturally drawn to him and followed him where they could. We remember Jesus hopping in a boat to find some respite – but the people were waiting on the other side of the lake. And the people were from all walks of life – Jews, Gentiles, priests and the unclean, doubters and believers, disciples and disclaimers - they were all there waiting, hoping to encounter this perplexing man who pulled the crowds like no-one they had ever seen - and some of them were there because they were in desperate straits seeing Jesus as their last hope when all else had failed them.  Remember the man dropped down through the roof, another up the tree, the blind beggar, the leper – all pinning their hopes for life on this man Jesus.

Tara Woodward-Lehman[1] put it like this when pondering who people thought Jesus to be:
There were the curious who considered Jesus a novelty
There were the sceptical, who considered Jesus likely a fraud
There were the starstruck, who considered Jesus a celebrity
There were the faithful, who considered Jesus a friend, teacher, leader
Then there were those who were just plain desperate.

And so we hear today about two more of those desperate people – one whose daughter was dying and the other who was to all accounts dead to the world – two people who reached out to Jesus in faith because they were at the end of their hope and they saw in him something others didn’t.
To both Tabitha’s father and the haemorrhaging woman (I am going to name her Judith for today – she deserves a name along with Jairus and Tabitha I think), Jesus was the last hope to their desperate need, for they knew somehow in their need that Jesus was the answer. 

Their desperation and their faith in the healing power of Jesus shows in their approaches – a high official from the temple, full of authority and influence and reputation, on his knees – as one commentary said ‘..he kicks propriety to the curb, falls on his knees at the feet of Jesus, and shamelessly begs…’ and a nameless women, a social outcast, perpetually unclean, who braved the anger and I suspect potential violence of the crowd to reach this man and, not feeling able to speak to him or stand up for fear of being hustled out of his reach, she instead reaches out her hand to touch his cloak.

Jairus and Judith – from very different lives both seeing the beyond the hype to the very centre of this man Jesus in their despair.
One of the most interesting part of this scripture reading is in the way the two stories entwine – Jairus, able and willing to advocate for his little girl, becomes the bystander to a women who has no advocate whatsoever -  and Jesus claims her as ‘daughter’ telling the world that he is the one that intercedes for the marginalised, that she too is a beloved child of God through her faith in Jesus, she too has someone to speak up for her. 
I wonder how Jairus felt – impatiently waiting while Jesus responded to this random woman in the crowd.  And his fears were realised – he hears that his daughter has died before Jesus could get there.  He could be excused for feeling angry at the delay, upset that Judith, by her intervention, has possibly lost him his child – yet Jesus pre-empted any outpouring of outrage or grief by the words: ‘Do not fear.  Only believe!’  Come with me….
We do not hear Jairus’ reply, only that he went with Jesus. And that Tabitha rose up from her bed healed.

So what are we to take from these stories of faith, of desperation, of hope and healing?

One very obvious but often overlooked truth is that the stories of healing in the Gospel reading would in no way overcome the inescapable fact that we all eventually die – its one of the absolute certainties in our changing world – and there is no suggestion that by invoking the touch of Jesus we will avoid this thing called death. 
It is interesting here to look at the passage from the Wisdom of Solomon – who acknowledges death, but refuses to see it as a construct of God, but rather of the devil. He speaks instead of faith as the belief that death itself does not have the last word, that in belief the relationship with God continues past death into recreated life.  Jesus likewise does not deny death – but speaks into the power of God to overcome it, to continue in relationship with us beyond death and into life.   Perhaps it might not be harps and clouds and the gates of St Peter but we need to understand that God does not let us go into death abandoned or separated from the love of the God of eternity.

And this leads us down another thought track – we know that sometimes the bleeding doesn’t stop, the child does die, the prayers do not halt the cancer.  Our response to death can be to blame God, or to say we have not been prayerful enough or faithful enough or good enough in our living to have been heard by God.  That thinking is problematic on so many fronts – but let us just say for now that the God of grace does not bow to the supposed wisdom of humankind –that healing is not always about physical symptoms, that healing is needed even when we don’t know we are sick, that healing is not so much about curing but, in the words of 20th century theologian Jurgen Moltman, is about developing “the ability to cope with pain, sickness and death”. Being healthy is about having the strength to be human, as bringing divine love into the place of fear and powerlessness.[2]
The hymn words of Graham Bell gather these thoughts for me, resonate:
We cannot measure how you heal or answer every sufferer’s prayer,
yet we believe your grace responds where faith and doubt unite to care.[3]

And this what we see, do we not, in the healing of Jairus.  No, he is not physically pulled back from the brink of death, yes he is delighted at the return of his beloved 12 year old daughter when he thought her gone, no he is not wanting fixed the scene of his complete abandonment before Jesus, none of those.  No, Jairus’ healing comes in his moment of surrender of all that he held worthy (his authority, his influence, his reputation) before one who he recognised in this moment of desperation as truth, love and life.

Let us be honest about our weaknesses, accept that healing is needed in our lives in ways we might not envisage, and remember that it is better to take our desperation before Jesus than to perish in the limitations of worthiness the world places on us.  Let us, above all, acknowledge the desire of Jesus Christ to welcome us in our desperation and to name us daughter and son through our faith.

We finish with more words from John Bell:
God, let your Spirit meet us here to mend the body, mind, and soul,
to disentangle peace from pain, and make your broken people whole.

Margaret Garland

[1] www.huffingtonpost.com/tara-woodardlehman/desperately-seeking-jesus_b_1640163.html
[2] http://knoxchurch-dunedin.blogspot.com/2012/06/
[3] © John. L. Bell & Graham Maule; Tune: Ye Banks and Braes

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24 June 2018 Pentecost 5

Readings:  Job 38:1-11    Mark 4:35-41

We pray: Gracious God, open our hearts and minds to your word for us today – challenge us, encourage us, guide us in your way we pray in Jesus name.  Amen.

Asra is twelve years old.  From Syria.  Now in New Zealand.  The other side of the world – in every sense.  Old enough to remember the idyllic life of happy childhood – that was until the war came to their village.  Old enough to have nightmares still over their escape in the middle of the night – they were separated from their father for days – but they met up again in the camp.  Old enough to recognise the tension and anxiety over food, confinement, future – seeing the parents having to be so careful of what they said, so protective of the children, so worried about what might happen.  Old enough to recognise that opportunity for resettlement was both exciting and scary – not sure which was going to win.  Young enough to adapt to this new place, to accept the different ways – and old enough to sometimes be a parent to the parents who were less sure.  Old enough to have lived several lifetimes – for that is being a refugee.
I do not know what it is like being a refugee, not me who is living a settled, choice filled life – and so, imagining,  I wrote that story – wondering if in doing so I could find just some of the reality of what is the lot of so many people in our world.  In 2016, in Syria alone, the UN estimated that of the 22 million population, 11 million were displaced from their homes, either within Syria or outside.  That is just mind boggling.

While the story of Job is different, it holds much of the pain and displacement and anguish of someone torn from their home, their family, their life as they knew it.  Job was down to the bare bones, frustrated out of his relatively calm acceptance by both the silence of God and the well-meaning but not so helpful advice of his friends. He had got to the point of demanding an answer of God – and goodness did he get one – not necessarily what he expected but got one.   And his question would be our questions would be the questions of anyone whose world is suddenly turned upside down and not in a nice way.
What have I done to deserve this, what can I do to make it better?  I  don’t know if the people of other faiths have the same propensity to blame God when things go wrong or if it is our strategy alone but I imagine that any experience of extreme pain would have many people questioning the loving presence of God in their lives.  I may have mentioned to you before the story of the young woman in North Canterbury who was killed on an icy bridge in the most horrible way – for her mother the Council’s lack of gritting the road was the focus of the most immediate anger but God copped the long term blame for allowing this to happen.

When we come to the Gospel reading, the disciples who were in the boat were men who had no doubt experienced some of the worst things the Sea of Galilee could throw at them, yet they were struck by blind panic at the immensity of the storm before them.  You have to wonder at their very human response of ‘do you not care that we are going to die?’ Was it the fact that Jesus was calmly sleeping through it that got them is such a tizz?  Would they have preferred a ‘we‘re in this together’ brotherhood moment where he joined in with their anxiety?  They woke him, and they got their answer – and it also unexpected.  ‘Be still, be at peace’ he said to the wind and the sea - and the storm abated, the calm returned.  But not for long – for his next words disturbed their peace again.  Jesus points to their lack of faith as the source of their fear.  It is not exactly a comfortable place for the disciples, this response.  The NRSV says ‘they were filled with great awe’ but the KJV translates if as ‘they feared exceedingly.’
The point Jesus was making: that his authority over chaos, the source of peace and calm found within the tumult of living, comes from his living in obedient faith in God.
And the disciples are told they don’t have that faith yet – for if they did they would not be afraid!

How do we relate to this?  If we were to see our life journey metaphorically as being a journey across the Sea of Galilee with Jesus, I wonder what unsettling images might come out of our imaginations?
The perils of our journeys – yes?  We set out on a really calm looking sea, having checked the forecast, supplied the boat and thought of all the contingencies required. We pray that the sea would be calm all the way across, don’t mind a bit of rowing or bailing out but nothing to worry about.  Then somewhere on the journey, usually over the deepest part, we are aware of the fragility of this boat we are in, the things that could go wrong.  And then there are the clouds gathering on the horizon, dark, threatening, coming closer and there is nothing we can do.  Nothing.  We are no longer in control!
Yet we are in company with someone who sleeps in peace – which makes us even more frustrated.  Torn between wanting Jesus to fix it and being aware of our own vulnerability in this moment of crisis, the sudden calming of the storm at his command is uncanny and unexpected.  Who is this man who can take away the terror and restore the calm, bring peace into our hearts in the midst of life’s crises?

It is important make a distinction here.  Jesus in not saying that there is nothing to be afraid of – there is plenty to face in our lives that can cause us pain and despair, just think on those who are refugees - a loss of all that they know and hold dear, every foundation they held dear gone.  Fearsome things are very real; isolation, illness, rejection, failure, death – but Jesus is telling us that they do not and will not have the last word. The message that Jesus it trying to get across here is that the God we know is bigger than the storms of life and we can in all faith completely rest in a God who is way beyond our greatest imaginings, who has authority over the chaos of creation itself – listen to those words again from Job: 
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’ 
It’s the dazzling picture of the majestic panorama of God’s creation that basically stops Job’s words of complaint in his throat, renders him speechless.  This is his God in whom he trusts to hold him in the midst of all that life throws at him – he see that suddenly and is at peace.

We have some Galilee Sea moments coming up here at Opoho – and might I say in the church at large.  But let us think about here for the moment.  Much as we would like our journey to be calm, predictable, safe there are definitely stormy clouds on the horizon.  Over the next few months there will be opportunities for discussions about resourcing, energy, our place in the community, our way of being the church in this place - all have the potential to disrupt our journeys quite dramatically.  None of us know what the outcomes might be – that is something we as a congregation will pray for and discern in the Spirit, but the message I hope we can all take from today is for all of us to approach our future remembering Jesus’ words, with a sense of peace and calm for our faith is strong and deep and we will not be afraid.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17 June 2018 Pentecost 4

Readings:  Ezekiel 17:22-24  2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17  Mark 4:26-34

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.

We hear in the letter from Paul to the church at Corinth: ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’

Today I would like to focus on those words, see if we can find a way to truly embrace the concept of us becoming a new creation in Christ– what it means for us, what it requires of us.

That is a truly ambitious ask and of course we won’t get anywhere near it but I hope we will find some points of entry for us to take away and pursue.

Laying some groundwork, we remember that Paul is continuing to talk into the situation at Corinth where he has been compared to other preachers, leaders in the church and has been found wanting.  He carries on his persuasion that our giftedness is from and for God, that is only when our home is in God alone that we can discern the path God wants us to walk, and to do that we have to put away that which was and become a new creation in Christ.

And this takes some absorbing really.  New in Christ, put away old things, begin anew – there are some challenging concepts for us here.

The gut reaction, for me anyway, is to think about what it is that we are going to lose.  Pretty natural I suppose.  We value who we are, what we have, how we live.  A vast majority of us like to have some control over our lives, some of us more than others, and we like to have some idea of where we might be going before we commit.
The sharp tongued response might be to quip that we are in the wrong faith if that is what we believe – something that perhaps Paul might have challenged us on if he were here.
Because as Christians we commit to giving our lives to God; we commit in our baptism, our professions of faith, our affirmations that Christ Jesus is the very centre of our lives – we commit to being born anew, to giving up self and following Jesus. We say the words, often.  We live the words, sometimes….

This time, maybe it is helpful to first of all say what becoming a new creation in Christ doesn’t mean.

We don’t become a helpless people subject to the whims of a capricious God.  We are in relationship with God, made in the image of God and know well the journey we embark on as followers of Jesus – he makes no bones about the path we travel – he came to this world to teach us and show us - and in the end to die that we might be assured of the full love of God for all humanity, for all creation, in all time.

Our lives are not directed/choreographed from on high nor are we subject to a random preordained series of events written in some book somewhere.  We do not fall from God’s grace through our behaviour and we do not forfeit God’s love after three strikes.
A really common misunderstanding is heard in this story of a woman who was astonishing the people around her by her resilience and attitude to her fifteen year debilitation journey with cancer.  She was asked time and time again – how could she still believe in a God that did this to her?  That God allowed this to happen to her?  How many times have we heard God directly blamed for all that goes wrong?
Her response: ‘God was not the source of my cancer, God was the source of my strength and determination’.  Battered by her struggle to defeat cancer, she discovered through the experience that she was never alone – when she was in remission or when the news was grim.  She sensed God’s presence in the exhausting chemotherapy sessions, the kindness of care, the times of both hope and despair. Always, Christ was in her and she was in Christ. We all know people like this – and possibly we farewelled one of them this week.

And thirdly we are not about to become an amorphous lump of sameness – although some would like to make us this way.  Our very humanity, our diversity continues to be celebrated, and the fact that we approach God from various perspectives, differing understandings reminds us that our God does not belong to any particular strand of orthodoxy,  is in fact more everything than we would ever allow if left to our own limited imaginations.  If Christ is in us and we are in Christ the diversity of gifts and approaches continues in the life made new. 

So how does acceptance of new life in Christ happen – how do we set aside our own controls, our sense of loss of self, our plans for the future and allow the presence of God in us to be a stronger voice for who we are than our own?  How do we empty ourselves of our ambitions and our interpretations and be open to the new way that is Christ within us?

To perhaps begin us on our way here, can I share another story – this time segments of a tale from Rachel Remen in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom.

Rachel begins with these words: “I was thirty five years old before I understood that there is no ending without a beginning.  That beginnings and endings are always up against each other. Nothing ever ends without something else beginning or begins without something else ending.”
She tells of the time she was learning to make jewellery and had made a silver ring, cast it actually.  The design was the head of a woman whose long hair, entangled with the stars, wound around your finger as the circle.  Quite difficult to make, she was very proud of it and it was greatly admired by others.  There was a jeweller who ran a gallery up the coast and she was encouraged to go show it to him which she did.  She left it with him as he was going to recast it for copies to sell.  There was a storm setting in when she left that got quite wild and violent and in the morning she heard that a section of the road had fallen into the sea taking some buildings with it.  And it turned out her ring was now somewhere in the ocean.  Her parents castigated her: one said how stupid she had been to trust her ring to a total stranger and the other for being careless with something so valuable.  Her decision, her fault.  She couldn’t help looking at her empty finger, unable to believe it had gone.
Yet as she stood on the cliff overlooking the ocean that had swallowed her ring, she came to realise that landslips had been happening for millennia – it wasn’t a direct attack on her ring, in fact there was nothing personal in it all – just the inevitable cycle of nature.  She looked at the space where the ring had been and suddenly, empty was not a bad space, it just was.  It was a big space and there was a sense of curiosity creeping slowly in – what would come to fill up this space?  Would it be another ring, different, from someone else?  For the first time, she says, she allowed empty space to just be – she had begun to trust that it was also a beginning of something else – and she waited for what ever that might be with sense of excitement and anticipation instead of loss.

Might this be what being made new in Christ is about? 
 Allowing the old to pass away, not forgotten but rather let go, making room for the indwelling of a God whose purpose is way bigger than we could have imagined ourselves and who, in Christ Jesus, invites in us a sense of anticipation and excitement at the possibilities of what might be when everything is made new.

We pray
Loving and living God – help us to lose our apprehension of a future without us completely in control and place our hope in Jesus, your son and a man who trusted you to point of death that we might know new life?
Help us to realised that empty and new is not so scary when we anticipate a new life build on your faithfulness and love?
Give us the courage to believe that with us in Christ and Christ in us we can move mountains, endure onslaughts and transform this world in the name of love? Amen, let it be so.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 June 2018 Pentecost 3

Readings:  2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1   Mark 3:31-35

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.

Mike and I have had a good last couple of weeks being family.  We headed up to Christchurch to see our eldest daughter Jessie off to Melbourne to begin her PhD, we stayed with younger daughter Isobel and with her expert help sorted out Jessie’s stuff for the move.  My sister and I farewelled a cousin who is heading off for a cycling holiday in the US and Canada – she has just turned 70 and we all pray she stays safe – but there is no stopping her.  I went up to Hawea for a night to stay with my sister and her husband and got totally engaged with digging in to our ancestry, and then we had the Mike and I time at home which was great.  And it struck me that this was all to do with family – for us a very restorative experience that speaks deeply of love and roots and commonalities and care for each other.  We are incredibly blessed. 

Not everyone is though.  Families do not always treat each other with respect, compassion, or love.  Families can be detrimental to health, when they hold someone back from realising their potential, when they impose views on others, when they refuse to compromise and particularly when they withhold sustenance – whether it be emotional, physical, spiritual.

And family means different things to different people.  Some of us will have a differing experience to my quite traditional and positive experience.  Some will have turned away (or be turned away) from biological families and consider that others fill that unconditionally supportive role. Some will find family in their clubs and at work, others with their neighbours and some not at all – for them the word may be surplus to requirements. For some, family is way more than unsupportive – it is destructive, violent, abusive – a living hell.
So just being called family doesn’t always define a good experience.  In fact it is said that families bust ups can be the cruellest because the security of belonging is so strong and expectations of love are so high - and I think that might be true.

As Christians, as church, we are a family –Jesus asks us to take care of each other, to share what we have, to love and nourish and build relationships that will withstand the darkest days that were coming.
However we do get a hint in the Gospel reading from today that families don’t by definition always have the right of it.  While Mark does not specifically name it – it seems that some of Jesus family might not have been that supportive of his ‘outlandishly provocative’ ministry, worried (no doubt from a good heart) that he was setting himself up for ridicule at the best – little did they know just how conspicuous that  ridicule would appear to be. 

Neither was Paul receiving much in the way of family support in his engagement with the Christians in Corinth – he was subject to criticism of all sorts – that he was not to be trusted with money, he was scatterbrained, was not physically a particularly impressive person, had no high connections or decent miracles to his name and lastly a particularly damning one - his preaching lacked the superb oratory of his rivals.  Ouch!  And from a family that he cared for deeply.

But Paul’s response is not to convince his detractors that he does not deserve these labels – rather he sets out to get them to re-examine the qualities that they consider important for belonging to this family of faith.  His biblical understanding is strong - he quotes the words from the psalm when he says ‘I believed, and so I spoke’ – faith in God made known in scripture and in Jesus gives him both authority and voice. And in Jesus Paul finds a new truth, different to what is being preached by others who measure success by worldly values.  As Willian Loader notes, ‘Paul identifies strongly with Jesus death and resurrection, with his vulnerability and suffering – and for Paul the evidence of God in him is not to be found in impressive achievements but in love and caring, especially when it exposes one to suffering and weakness.’

Paul offers himself to the community as the vessel of Christ – despite the fact that it might mean hardship and danger.  His love for them is such that he is willing to be judged wanting by the standards of the world so that he can live by the standards of his saviour.  Powerful oratory that resets the focus of the people of Corinth – at least for a time.

As Paul challenges the current day understanding of community, of family, so too does Jesus.  Family ties were very strong in the Jewish culture – yet we don’t see Jesus submitting to them if and when it curtails his ministry.  Instead, he creates a different definition of family –those who take God’s will seriously and live it are a new family and a priority for him, especially when his immediate family contradict the path that God wants him to walk.  Consequently for some that means walking away from family – for others he encourages the breaking out of the whole family to live radically for God.  Imagine that!
So there are dangers and dysfunctional aspects of families that might hold us back from living according to God will – and here we are concentrating on church families – but it may well be relevant to our natural families too.

There are times we need to be liberated from well-intentioned but suffocating love.  Any of us who have been parents will know the importance of letting go, of our children needing to find their own path to fulfil their potential.  As a church we can see that we might often seek to impose our understanding of truth on others, reluctant to accept that there are other equally valid ways of being a community of faith.  Letting go means trusting God being present in other ways than ours - and celebrating that.  It means that we don’t know it all and that is ok.  It means trust that the way we have nurtured each other in our family of faith is sufficient for new pathways to be explored.

Are there behaviours in our church that have their roots in fear and dysfunctionality or in a particular response to a moment in history?  We talk easily of dysfunctional families – are we as a church similarly labelled. Do we bind ourselves to bad habits in any way? We have to be constantly reflecting on how the grooves on our roads have been worn by past experiences and where we need to regrade the road to be the path we need of the future.  We still carry elements of historical racism, sexism, theological, cultural and social exclusivism that we need to deal with –as well as a list of other inappropriate behaviours that bring God no glory - that demonstrate that we take ourselves more seriously than we do God.

Good and happy families by definition develop a culture, a solid foundation that we absolutely require as we grow, a security that holds us and a love that allows us testing and forgiveness and healing.  That is what Christ offers us as the people of God gathered in community – but not so that we can become self indulgent people who live just for ourselves, or become tacit allies of the rich, the unjust, the powerful.  No, we are family so that we can, from a strong and focused foundation, carry out the will of God along whichever path we need to travel to care for the vulnerable, bring good news to the poor, love and respect each other.  The family helps us continually remind ourselves in whose name we gather and why we choose to live as a people that are downright inflammatory, madly provocative and sensationally courageous – because we are family of believers who take God seriously and live it.  Thanks be to God.  Amen

Margaret Garland