Monday, 10 December 2018

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession Sunday 9 December Opoho Church

Prayer by Abby Smith

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

Saturday, 8 December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 2 December 2018 Advent 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Garland

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

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 18 November 2018 Pentecost 26

Readings:  1 Samuel 2    Mark 13:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Garland