Saturday, 15 September 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 16 September 2018 Pentecost 17

Readings:  James 3:1-12   Mark 8:27-34

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.

Fascinating readings today – offering opportunity for taking up a number of threads for a sermon – the difficulty and challenging role of teachers, the imagery for the power of the tongue found in bridles and rudders, and for goodness and cursing to come from it.  We have the great question – ‘who do you say I am?’ and the rebuke of Peter for failing to grasp the necessity of the cross.

I do want to concentrate on the question ‘Who do you say I am?’ and I have no doubt we will connect some of the threads in doing so.

Yet today we also pay attention to the 125 years of women’s suffrage in NZ and what we might learn from that momentous decision and the wisdom and courage and faith of those who led, those who signed, those who presented again and again against powerful opposition.

‘Who do you say I am?’  Place yourself in that small gathering around Jesus – it’s a big question, you are glad that he asks about the people first because that is easier – you don’t have to take responsibility – and so you say: John the Baptist.  Others say Elijah and yet others one of the prophets.  But then the crunch moment comes: ‘But who do you say I am?’  Feeling you should know the answer but you don’t want to get it wrong, you wait for someone else to speak first.  And Peter, bless him, answers ‘You are the Messiah!
Good answer, great answer!  The one promised to the Jews had come.
But there is a problem.  Interpretation.  Peter has a clear idea of how that pans out – and it doesn’t involve Jesus going to the cross; suffering and humiliation is not part of the plan – and he says so.  And the acclaim, the sense of going in the same direction suddenly dissipates.  Jesus challenges Peter’s understanding of the path the Messiah must take to bring redemption to the people and Peter does not like it.  It is counter intuitive to every hope he had and does not sit well at all. 
He made a mistake, the right words did not come out of his mouth, rather they were poisonous to Jesus ears, a temptation he would not succumb to.

Yet we too name Jesus as Messiah – I wonder what our Messiah looks like? Who do we say Jesus is and are we willing to follow an unexpected, a counter-intuitive way of action to bring about God’s kingdom in this place?

It’s always hard to place yourselves in someone else’s story but it is interesting to think about how the Christian women of those suffragette years would have answered that question.  Reading in the ODT the stories of six of Dunedin’s women who were leaders in the movement advocating for women gaining the vote, it is immediately obvious that their Christian roots were defining for a number of them and yet their path set them in direct confrontation with others in the Christian church – people who absolutely believed that the path of following Jesus Christ included treating women as second class citizens.  It’s hard for us today to know what it would have been like, to imagine the bravery of stepping out into new reality of equality – at least as far as voting went.  This was a huge step in offering the wisdom, leadership, voice of a largely silent half of the population into our church and our world. These women – you can see it in their lives – they were bold, courageous and determined to take this step toward justice against the expectations of a world and a church that had a different understanding of what it meant to follow in the path of Jesus.

We do this still today. Who do we say Jesus is today?  Do we still bring our own expectations and hopes of the Messiah without holding in the light of the cross, the vulnerable way, the counter-intuitive way for many of us? 
Are we captive to Peter’s understanding of what the coming of the Messiah means – the well-meaning, majority held but ultimately comfortable understanding of a Messiah who will conform to our specifications: or are we hearing the voice of Jesus say – no, not that way, that way is formed by human need.  The way of God takes us in a different direction – one where we must humble ourselves, be servants, trust that God is in the places we naturally shun, where we feel uncomfortable and uncertain, where we know and depend totally on the love of God as our rock and our salvation - as our purpose. 

So if we think back to those words from James about the voice, the tongue being responsible for great blessing and also great curses – how do we make our expression of the coming of the Messiah to be a blessing to the world in the way Jesus means.

I am thinking that every time we are judgmental of others, when we allow our sense of belonging to exclude others, whenever we keep our faith contained in boxes of our own making and look to futures of our own desiring then curses are the prevalent voice. 
The blessings flow when we live in the valuing of all people, where we understand our diversity and celebrate it, when we open our futures to the possibilities God alone can see and trust in God to see us there and further.

I don’t know about you but sometimes for me the hardest thing is to know how to be in situations where I have no experience, where my voice, though well meaning, is unhelpful and actually it is me that is being ministered to, not the other way round.  Distinctly uncomfortable and yet the place where I am closest to God, where the understanding of Messiah is made real and I no longer am calling the shots.

As a church, the hardest thing is to place ourselves in situations of ‘unknowedness’, where we cannot see a clear future, all the thinking we do to solve what we see as issues coming to nothing, and our purpose as God’s people seems to be aligning with words of disempowerment and loss of control.
A large part of our church, and the church throughout the world, is riding the wave of absolute control – what is right and wrong, who is acceptable, how we must act and speak and believe.  That is sounding remarkably like Peter’s response is it not?  Things human rather than divine.  A Messiah boxed in to fit human biases and desires.

So can we take heart from the uncertainty of direction that our church is going in?  Can we allow God to take us down the path of new things, different ways that might make us apprehensive and most certainly are not in our control – trusting that our voice will grow in blessing, be stronger for God.
Just as those suffragette women took on the prevailing wisdom of the time and blew it out of the water, can we too challenge that which prevents us from living fully in the way of the Messiah who will not bow to our wisdom but who offers a new way to redeem us and our world – the way of vulnerable love beyond our understanding and in which we are to walk in trust and hope.  Amen

Margaret Garland

Reflection Opoho Church Sunday 9 September 2018 Pentecost 16

Readings:  James 2:1-10, 14-17    Mark 7:24-30

Something that has fascinated me since I began studying scripture, reading the stories of the bible with some discernment, is looking for the voices that we don’t hear.  Understandably the multiplicity of writers, old and new testament, had a purpose – to make God and Christ and the Spirit known to God’s people through their eyes and understandings.  But by definition those writers were select and things had to be left out – things that we would perhaps liked to have known, things that today we would consider an essential part of the story.  This week at psalm writing we heard a poem for  Bathsheba that wondered what it might have been like for her – from her point of view – and it ended with the words: If only we had a Book of Bathsheba
telling her story in her words.
At the Presbytery gathering we immersed ourselves in the story of the haemorrhaging woman through story, art and reflection, giving time to her view of this moment in time.  And so I wonder what it might have been like if we had had a version of the story the Syrophoenician woman in first person from her point of view. And I also wondered if we dig a little into the inner thoughts of Jesus – what was going on in his mind in this encounter rather than just the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.

Tell me, do you ever feel sorry for Jesus?  His life was certainly pretty frantic. Often in the Gospel we hear about him trying to get away – looking for a bit of rest and relaxation, but the people kept finding him.  He must have been close to burn-out many times. If it wasn’t the disciples, then it was the crowds who just wouldn’t give him any time off from being needed. We tend to forget that he was an ordinary human being, totally exhausted at times, desperate for some quality R&R.  And it seems this is what he is doing here in this story - Jesus takes off - leaves the country, hoping that he might find some anonymity in a foreign place.  Well, he thought wrong.  Even there he could not escape his reputation, the sense of the presence of holiness– and this time it was a bolshie woman who would not be told – understandably so for it was her daughter’s life that was at stake.  And then we have the uncharacteristically terse response – if it was anyone else we might have suggested they read the excerpt from James about favouritism and judgement.  So why the unfamiliar response? Was he holding her in contempt because he was tired and irritated, because she was an outsider, to test her mettle or to prove a point to the disciples and to the children of Israel?  Most of these don’t sit well with our expectations of a flawless Jesus, particularly the thought that he might be behaving badly.  We can only speculate but what we do know I believe is that this turned out to be a teaching moment for Jesus - he learned something from that encounter.  This persistent, argumentative woman got through to him on some level and appeared to teach him a valuable lesson about the doggedness of faith.  And in doing so her voice has added a valuable insight into our understanding of the humanness of Jesus.

And so let us hear her voice, her perspective on the encounter from the imaginings of Mary Hanrahan:  (Adapted from Bare Feet and Buttercups  Wild Goose Publications 2008 p.100)

“Come in Rebecca.  Sit down.  Can I get you a drink?
Did you pass Sarah on the way in?
It’s amazing, isn’t it?  You wouldn’t believe it’s the same girl. Completely well. No more fits.  Full of life and laughter.
Yes, it was him.
Let me tell you the whole story.  Where to begin?
You know they were here last week?
Well, I was determined to have a word.  I was desperate.  Sarah was really bad on Tuesday night.  So on Wednesday morning I went looking for his group.  The hardest part was getting near enough.  You know what these Jews are like.  Think they’re God’s chosen and the rest of us are little better than camel dung.
I kept my distance till I figured out which one he was.  I don’t know what I was expecting but he was really rather small and quite ordinary looking.  And tired.  He looked worn out.  My heart fell.  I remember thinking it was useless.
Then I pictured Sara writhing in pain and before I knew it, I was there at his feet, begging: ‘Rabbi, my child is in torment. Please help her.’
His answer left me reeling.  ‘Must the food meant for the children be given to the dogs?’  His friends loved that.  I could see them exchanging satisfied glances – at last he speaks the language we understand.
He turned to go.  That was it?  I was dismissed.
Well, you know me, Rebecca.  Can’t keep my mouth shut.
I thought ‘In for a denarius, in for a shekel’ and I ran after him, shouting: ‘Rabbi, even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.’
He turned around, exasperated; couldn’t believe my cheek.
Then, suddenly, he smiled.
It transformed his whole face and I understood why people gave up everything  to follow him.
He gave me a long look, touched my hand and said:  ‘Your child is well.  Shalom, sister.’
At that moment, I knew my Sara was cured.
It’s hard to explain but there was truth in his voice.  Authority.
His friends looked stunned at the familiar greeting, and silently cleared a space for me to leave.
I walked slowly, silenced by the enormity of this moment, this deep connection – and my heart was full of praising God.
The funny thing is, Rebecca, when I looked into his eyes, there was compassion there, yes, and kindness.
But something else, too.  I could swear it was gratitude.  It was as if I had given him something.

We pray: Living and loving God, made known to us in Jesus Christ, we thank you for the story of this encounter in our scriptures – for the honesty, the challenge, the answer.  May we always be a people who recognise your healing touch, who persist even when we don’t understand, who know beyond doubt that you are the God to whom we turn in all our need.  We add our praise to all who have encountered you and will never be the same.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 2 September 2018 Pentecost 18

Readings:  James 1:17-20   Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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. 

On Thursday night Andrew and I were at the induction of Rev Jono Ryan into a new ministry in South Dunedin.  This is not a parish ministry, neither is it an established ministry.  It is new, it is different, it is uncertain, yet it is a ministry most assuredly needed.  In conjunction with Presbyterian support and Knox Centre and with funding from Synod, Jono and intern Gabe Hawker are part of this seedling ministry that seeks to build relationship with and support the community in which it lives – to make Jesus Christ known in word and deed - in a different way.

The service itself was different – held in the Armitage Centre King Edward St, there was no congregation to promise support for the ministry (the pastoral role presented as a symbol of ministry was a blank canvas), and people from Grant’s Braes and South Dunedin congregations were there as support partners.  The physical ‘church’ is the Family Works office – working from there during the week and worshipping there Sunday afternoon.

All very different.  Wayne te Kaawa preached and he used the text from today’s Gospel reading as the basis for his sermon.   That might stretch your imagination – until I tell you how he connected the dots – much as we might feel strongly about holding on to certain ways, to particular ritual, as did the Pharisees and the Scribes, there are times when we need to let them go.  There are new times, new ways of the heart that need to be listened to and taken up.  And Wayne held this seedlings initiative as a new way when the old ways were not working.

And that is true in that whole swathe of South Dunedin, Andy Bay, Peninsula – the churches are closing (or close to), the energy for traditional parish is waning, there is no stipended ministry in the area.  It is also true in the Dunedin area – of the seventeen churches, seven are not in a position to call anyone for more than 10% , three potentially have resourcing for half time, and seven for full time (for the meantime anyway) - and we are one of those.

Doom and gloom – and a sense of ‘what is the point?’ I wonder if that is what Jesus felt when he was accosted by the leaders of the faith that he belonged to and chewed out for not keeping the cleanliness law of washing hands before eating – which we have to note also had a health advantage.  Jesus frustration at way in which he and the disciples were chastised would have been matched by the frustration of the priests at such a revered and long standing tradition being flagrantly ignored.

Impasse!  Not when Jesus is around.  His angst comes from the knowledge that this ritual has lost its connection with God.  That it was being taught that by doing this particular thing, they were good with God, giving honour to God when their living was at complete odds with the way of God.

This their act of worship had morphed into a human construct alone, had become a doctrine without the heart of God in it. It was empty, foolish, frustrating to one who had the heart of God as his driving force.
This idea of living in the heart of God is something we have touched on in recent weeks – that sense of God within us and us in God is a powerful image, for me anyway, of the way in which we move from being a people who follow rules to ones who has the law written on their heart.  It was a lesson that the Pharisees and Scribes needed to re-member and so do we.

We are made, it is said, in the image of God, we are, according to James, ‘given birth by the word of truth so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.’ And the fruits are living in fulfilment of God’s purpose, moving within the heart of God as Jesus was.

Yet we note that Jesus did not go around telling people not to do this washing of hands – he instead zeroed straight in to the core understanding of the practice – defilement – and redefined it to that which we do and say that violates the commandment of God.  The practices that make the fruit of our living rotten, diseased, barren.  And there are no holds barred in the listing of these – fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

But less we hold those familiar words in a convenient ‘biblical phrase’ container we have popped on a shelf somewhere, I would think it worthwhile to redefine some of them into current living and perhaps into our practices as church.  And to think about where we fail to allow them to be informed by the heart of God.
For me one of the biggest is when we think about marriage.

Over time we as a church have understood it as a covenant that cannot be broken, holy before God – yet throughout time it has also been  a place of abuse, exploitation and deep unhappiness, When this happens the heart of God had gone from what is meant to be two people living in love and mutual respect and care for each other. You can see why we have a belief that marriage is for life – but not when it becomes evil.   Equally some people’s absolute obsession with who can marry who (based on sexual orientation, race, social class) neglects to challenge the marriage that is, for instance generated for audience participation on television, or used for citizenship or divorces at the first imagined hurdle, or the celebrity marriage that lasts 3 hours or the heartache of children caught in the maelstrom of who is to blame.  Surely two people living in love and respect and care for each is what marriage is about.
We could also tackle the way we handle money, how we value self over community, etc etc.

In our church what might some of the things be that have lost their way?  In the South Dunedin scenario, can we accept something other than the familiar ‘full time minister in a parish’ and trust God to work in other ministry scenarios as well.  Are we brave enough to get down and dirty in needy places or to share who we are with those who might not fit neatly into our space?  Are we as fruitful for God as we could be in the living of our faith?  These are all disturbing and pertinent questions in this time of change in our church – actually they have always been questions for the people who follow Jesus Christ – it’s just that we, like those people long ago, are good at asking for adherence to our ways but not so good at seeing when and if they no longer reflect the heart of God living in us and find the courage to do new things.

And that is why we come to the table – it is a place, a time where we meet God face to face, where we drop the importance of self, the illusion of control, the tyranny of injustice - and become one with each other in the presence of Jesus Christ.  It is where the heart rules, and it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are at, if the piece of bread is a bit big or the glass gets spilt – it’s not about the formality but it is about the reverence, it’s not about the reward of membership but it is about the imperfect and hurting and vulnerable welcomed in love, it’s not about a ritual being fulfilled but rather the sense of being surrounded by the generous gift, the perfect gift that is the person of Jesus Christ made flesh and come to dwell among us.  And for this we say – thanks be to God.  Amen

Margaret Garland