Saturday, 9 November 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 November 2019 Pentecost 22

Readings:  Job 19:23-27a   Luke 20:27-38

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 this the penultimate Sunday of the church year, the lectionary today offers us up the gnarly question of the afterlife – how is it going to work for us in heaven. And it is through another tricky question posed by yet another group who are trying to take Jesus on with theological one-up-man-ship. The Sadducees v. Jesus

It has been said that those who ask the question have the power, especially those who ask in expectation of debate rather than conversation.  The Sadducees thought they had found the unanswerable question – one that would prove their thinking right – that there was no such thing as life after death -  and make a bit of an ass of this upstart rabbi Jesus at the same time.  But Jesus doesn’t play their game and we hear that at least some of them were left speechless.

Instead, for Jesus, the question provides an opportunity for a teaching moment on the nature of heaven, a chance to teach about the glory and love of God – and remind us that the way of God is different to ours.
Jesus makes several points:
In responding, not to their artificial question, but to their lack of belief in God’s eternal presence, Jesus is rubbing salt in their wounds by answering from their Torah – the five books of Moses.  Jesus interprets the words of God to Moses from the burning bush as current not past tense – the voice does not say; I was the God of Abraham (until he died) – rather it is ‘I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and Jacob’.  To God all of them are alive, part of a new age, children of the resurrecting love of God for them and us.  And the ‘all of them’ Jesus refers to is not just the big guys from the distant past but is in fact each and everyone who is a child of God  – as we spoke last week and remembered our small ‘s’ saints, we remember that they too are part of this inheritance of hope.

The next point Jesus makes is in fact to say ‘this is what we do know: that eternal life is not a continuation of our mortal life here on earth, the way of God is not the way of humanity, the rules and judgements of this world are not transposed into God’s eternity.  We who try to pin down a definition of the resurrected time with our own comfortable sofas and favourite foods might just be wasting our time.  As children of God, as children of the resurrection, all things will be made new – that is God’s promise though Christ.

And then Jesus speaks the words of hope.  Whatever the reality is on the other side of earthly life, God’s love for us is eternal, God mercy is forever sure. To God, all are alive. And this gives us hope, a hint of something beyond our ken, a direction to stop worrying about how life beyond death works and to trust that, in God, all our questions come to rest.

So out of the Sadducees’ rather inappropriate question comes a great deal of teaching and encouraging – not at all sure that is what they meant to do.

Actually it is really interesting to explore the question and the questioners a little bit more.  For it was what we might today identify as a ‘first world’ question – asked from the mouths of those who have time to explore intellectual ‘what ifs’ and to debate death as a concept rather than a reality. The mockery behind the question came from those who have power over their own lives and the lives of others.  In their well heeled, well educated world this lightweight question is useful only as a tool to trip Jesus up.

Mocking a law that was intended to partially at least protect the vulnerable and keep families together didn’t show much empathy or heart it has to be said.  For the Sadducees, described by writers of their time as people from the elite upper crust, there would have been little experience of poverty and compassionate justice, of desperation and despair.

Yet these are exactly the people for whom the eternal, life giving love of God is the only hope left in their broken hearts. The widow of their example was passed from pillar to post, no right to choose, and it wouldn’t have been much better for the brothers, all of them caught in cycle of death and subsistence and duty.

It was for just these people, the widows, the poor, the unclean, the powerless that Jesus preached the eternal and faithful love of God for them, not just in this life but in the life to come.  For in most of their lives on this earth, there wasn’t a lot to celebrate.  

And we see it no more clearly than in the horror of the slavery of the African people in North America - and we hear it so powerfully in the music that has poured out of their despair.  The only place they could see where they might be free was in heaven – certainly not this world, not in their time and sad to say not even in our time. 
And their music resounds with the hope of what is yet to come and how it sustains them in faith and life, sure in the knowledge that, in heaven, they will somehow know the joy and peace that was kept from them on earth.  They understood deep in their hearts the good news of Jesus resurrection and the implications of the gospel promise that resurrected life was for all people, especially the downtrodden and marginalised.

The song ‘I got a robe..’ is a wonderful example of their sustaining belief that God cares for the disenfranchised, the widows, the people considered disposable, discardable, exploitable in their life on earth. 
I got a robe, you got a robe, all God’s children got a robe.
When I get to heaven goin’ to put on my robe, goin’ to should all over God’s heaven.  And then the next verse takes a swipe at the so called piety of their oppressors with some robust theology - if you listen carefully:
Everybody talking ‘bout heaven ain’t going there, Heaven, Heaven, Goin’ to shout all over God’s heav’n

There are other spirituals that speak into their hope in God and a place of peace to come, this one:

I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger. I'm a-travelling through this world of woe,
But there's no sickness, toil, or danger in that sweet home to which I go.
I'm going there to see my mother. She said she'd meet me when I come.
I'm only going over Jordan; I'm only going over home.

I know dark clouds are going to gather around me,
And I know my way will be rough and steep,
But beautiful fields lie just before me, where God's redeemed their vigils keep.

And then this one –

Talk about suffering here below and let's keep a-followin' Jesus
Talk about suffering here below and let's keep a-lovin' Jesus
The gospel train is comin' now don't you want to go
And leave this world of sorrow and troubles here below
Oh, can't you hear it father? And don't you want to go
And leave this world of sorrow and troubles here below

I wonder who is going to tell the English Rugby fans that in singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot so gustily the words ‘coming for to carry me home’ actually mean death and resurrection life for the oppressed, not victory over the opposing rugby team.  And the suffering goes on….

There is one more name that we think of when we talk enormous suffering – and that is Job – and we heard his words of hope in the midst of his deep despair, wanting his faith in the living God to be inscribed in a book, engraved with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever. His heart yearns to be with his God.  When all else had gone, God is.

So have we made any sense of this difficult subject of our lives made eternal in the love of God? 
Are we able to go from here knowing Jesus does not answer all our questions, especially in this matter of death and resurrection, to our satisfaction - and still be at peace? 
Are we assured, deep down in our hearts, that the love of God is immeasurable and inexhaustible, sufficient for all in life and death that we face?
Are we able to believe that in the mystery of the loving and living God, beyond our knowledge, God’s children will together be goin’ over Jordon, goin’ over home?
We are going to finish the sermon together today with words of faith from the 8th century – please remain seated as we sing ‘Eternal Light’

Words Christopher Martin Idle 1938- from a prayer by Alcuin 735-804  Tune Truro WOV 33

            Eternal light, shine in my heart; eternal hope, lift up my eyes;
eternal power, be my support; eternal wisdom, make me wise

eternal life, raise me from death; eternal brightness, help me see;
eternal Spirit, give me breath; eternal Saviour, come to me

until by your most costly grace, invited by your holy word,
at last I come before your face to know you, my eternal God.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 3 November 2019 Pentecost 21 All Saints Day Holy Communion

Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23 Luke 6:20-31

We pray: Loving and gracious God, may your word for us today be strong in hope, abundant in wisdom and firm in the assurance of your love.  In Jesus name.  Amen.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love* towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. So writes Paul to the church in Ephesus as he begins a prayer of intercession for them. And he goes on to talk about how God gathers us in unity as church both in our time and also across time.  He assures us that the blessings that come in the name of Jesus gather us into one huge family we call church,  making us way more than NZ Presbyterians or Reformed Churches or 21st century churches. And that is a really good thing!

For one thing, it helps us keep our perspective, doesn’t it, helps remind us that we are not big fish in a small pond but part of a much greater fellowship transcending time and space.  And it reminds us too that we are not alone – our Opoho faith community is connected across time, lands, denominations in the blessing of Christ.  Diversity yes, unity even more yes.

And today we especially remember the presence of those who are no longer with us, the saints of our lives and faiths. A few weeks ago Gregor talked about the Saints that we all know – St Andrew, St Francis, St Joan, St Teresa. Today we are talking about what I call the small s saints and I love that it is so.  For we are talking about the ordinary people who impacted our lives of faith, we are talking about the ones we didn’t know but who are part of the fabric of this worshipping community, those who are but a whispered memory and those fresh in our hearts and minds.

We draw strength from our saints do we not?  They are the ones that provide the reassuring hand on the shoulder when we are weighed down, who speak to us of hope when we need it, whose memory of grace nudges our disgraceful thoughts and actions.  We are grateful for their continuing guidance and comfort in our lives, we are encouraged by them and we see the light of God’s love and goodness shining in them still.

And do you know what makes this such an encouragement for us today. The people we remember were not angels, not perfect, not larger than life in the way the world sometimes selects its saints.  They were ordinary people like you and me, at times struggling with faith, sometimes calling God out, sometimes deeply ministering to us without their even knowing.  

In their everydayedness the small s saints of the church have taught us much but perhaps the one thing that stands out for me today is that each and everyone of them knew what it was like to survive the ups and downs of life – to experience blessings and trials in their lives, good and bad times, yet to endure in faith as we must do. In other words, our saints keep us real so that we can continue the story!

Christians throughout time have found sustenance in the reading we heard today of the beatitudes.  For they certainly lay it out that our life as Christians is not plain sailing.  We will know hunger and pain, sorrow and being on the margins.  Our blessings in Christ come as part of that pain – being able to forgive those who have hurt you, being gentle in the face of aggression, peaceful in the midst of violence, Christ centred in the darkest moments, hope-filled in the blackness of despair.

John Bell in his book States of Bliss and Yearning[1] has a chapter titled ‘Dubious Beatitudes’ in which he challenges the view that, as Christians’ we deserve blessings and have to just ‘get through’ the tough times. He points out that while stories of blessings and trials are to be found throughout the psalms, for example Blessed are those whose refuge is in the Lord (Ps 2) as well as I am wearied with moaning, all night long my pillow is wet with tears (Ps 6), Jesus intentionally pulls what Bell calls the bane and blessing of living onto the same page. In other words, Jesus is wanting to point out that misfortune is not separate from blessing but that the deep joy of faith sits right alongside the suffering and pain. Christian faith embraces the totality of life in all its robustness and fragility.  As Bell says, ‘those who wish to know the bliss of shouting Hallelujah need also to know the yearning of those who cry ‘how long?’

You know, that is what I have learned from the saints in my life; how in faith they embraced life, good and bad.  In fact it may be the formula for defining my saints.
The retired minister who was mortified by his arrogance as a parish minister and in his vulnerability, taught me how to forgive self. 
The woman who emerged from a cult (and all the junk that goes with that) with a core of faith that allowed her to be angry but not bitter, forgiving not hating, exploring not giving up.

You will have your own - the small s saints of the church who have blazed their faith and hope in Christ into your hearts, faithful bearers of the inheritance we have received and that we will pass on.  We are grateful for the cloud of saints that surround us, that speak into our lives of faith with encouragement and love.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Glasgow, Wild Goose Publications, 1998

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 6 October, 2019 Pentecost 17 World Communion Sunday.

Readings: 2 Timothy 1:1-14  Luke 17:5-10

We pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in our sight O God, our rock and our sustainer.
A few days ago I was sitting on the bench at the entrance to the Gardens, waiting to meet a parishioner.  And this guy came up to me and said how much he liked the cross I was wearing and what faith was I?
And the conversation progressed – he and his mate asked if they might sit, and as they shared a wine out of the brown paper bag with each other, we discussed God, the church, religious hypocrisy, spiritual clarity and responsibility. They were seekers, explorers of spirituality, askers of the hard questions in the midst of, and shaped by their brokenness.  I have to say it left me feeling humbled, a little confused and very aware of a special moment of encounter with God through these two men of faith.

Some might say their faith was not strong else they would live a better life.
Some might say their faith was not facilitated by doctrine and community – and therefore suspect.
Some might simply say – yuk – they smell bad and choose to walk away.
I say they were people of faith.

So how do we understand faith?  Especially in the light of the Gospel passage today where we are told we only need faith as small as a mustard seed to tell a tree to uproot itself and plant its roots in the sea.  Hints of miracles fed not by our efforts at building our faith but by God working with what we have.
As Paul says to Timothy …’not according to our works but according to [God’s] own purpose and grace.  Paul also talks about the faith of Timothy’s family and that all faith is the gift of God.

When the disciples ask for more faith to counter the troubled times ahead they are acknowledging, understanding two things:
One; that faith is a gift that only God can give, certainly not a result of any work on our part to complete the ten-steps-to-greater-faith programme. Faith is not something that belong to us.  Too often we talk about our faith in God, in Christ with the emphasis on the ‘our’. Faith is not a possession but is God at work in us. 
Two; that, in faith, nothing is impossible for God. 
Their conclusion therefore: more faith has to be the answer to their impossible future.
Well done, disciples.  A B+ pass at least.

Jesus, however, sees a good teaching moment – and grabs it with both hands.  Jesus sees they are still measuring their effectiveness as people of faith by how strong they think their faith is as a Christian.  Jesus wants them to understand that their faith in fact needs to be ‘in’ Christ to do what is needed with whatever faith they have.  Reformed theologian Margit Ernst-Habib puts it like this: When the disciples ask for greater faith, knowing that difficult times lie ahead of them, Jesus responds by asking for something small: a trusting faith the size of a mustard seed, so that the faithful follower might not look to [themselves], judging [their] own faith, relying on its strength or being scared by its weakness, but look instead at the one [they] follow.  [They] know that [their] faith is in that sense not [theirs], but the work of the Holy Spirit binding [them] to Christ.’  
Jesus is asking us to refrain from thinking that the volume, efficiency, and efficacy of our faith has a direct and measurable impact on the work of God in this world. It does not.  Trusting faith as big as a mustard seed, when it is held in the hope of Christ, will equally move mountains and part the waters.

This understanding helps us unpack the somewhat disconcerting statements that follow – that of humbly accepting your lot in life, expecting no thanks or reward for doing the work that is, after all, expected of you.  Rather we can begin to see that even the slave, the lowest and least, receive God’s grace in Christ as a gift and an extraordinary recognition of their worth.  Human merits make no difference to God’s work in and through us, thanks be to God. 

In a sense this frees us up from holding our precious faith in a bank vault, adding to it and building it up as we can.  Instead we are encouraged to throw our tiny seeds around with gay abandon – never sure of the details of the harvest but knowing that in the love of Jesus, it will be abundant.

We do have to be careful reading this passage, don’t we?  It is too easy to read it as Jesus is mocking the disciples, ‘If you only had some faith you would understand this…’ shaking his head at their lack of faith. Rather, it seems to me that Jesus is encouraging both his disciple of then and of now to realise that even ‘this much’ faith is enough – that we already have enough faith to do whatever is required of us.

Faith is a way of life, where we look out for each other, safe in the knowledge that, in the unfailing generosity of God’s grace, what we do and who we are will be enough. 

As Paul encourages Timothy so may we encourage each other to trust in God through the love and faith that are in Jesus Christ.

As I remember those two men I met on a park bench and heard of their faith in Christ, as they earnestly sought to share their beliefs, we trust that God’s work is being done.

As we continue as community here in Opoho remembering to be content with what sometimes seems like a mustard seed of faith, we trust that Jesus Christ will flourish his word and work here abundantly.

As we remember all the different expressions of faith across cultures and countries and over time and the ways in which these communities express their faith (large or small) in Christ Jesus, we trust in the wonderful diversity of God’s people.

And as we gather round this table today, we trust that we who have faith in the living Christ, know the presence of God transcending all boundaries, one people together. Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 20 October 2019 Pentecost 19

Readings:  Psalm 119:97-104  Luke 18:1-8

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. 

At the political meetings Philip ran here a few weeks ago, one the questions asked of the candidates was ‘who is your favourite superhero?’  I was intrigued partly because it was not one I could have answered easily myself and partly because there appears to be a wealth of superhero’s out there that I haven’t a clue about and was vaguely fascinated by.  It was notable that most people were in the Superman, Spider Man, Batman fold, with Superwoman making an odd appearance.  But we know that where you have a hero there seems to be a villain, an anti hero.  So who would have been the favourite anti-heros do you think?  Here again I am out of my depth – the Joker, Lex Luther?
Did you know that lists 6,438 superheroes and villains? Brittanica keeps it to 46.

The parables of Jesus had their heroes and anti-heros – and we meet one of the anti-heros in our reading from the Gospel of Luke today.  Like the unjust steward, the unjust judge is used by Jesus to illustrate both the goodness, and the grace of God.  And in this particular story to illustrate the power of tenacity of belief.

The judge is a fascinating character – one who had no regard for what other people thought of him, and scant regard for the law when it came to measuring it against personal nuisance value. The judge, a practitioner of the law, breaking the rules of his profession, putting himself outside of the boundaries of this judging business and exercising, in the end, what we know as grace.

So too the woman.  She owned not one iota of power, she was a widow therefore without social standing, a loser in life according to the times.  Yet she was like a dog with a bone – refusing to give up advocating for her cause.

The parallels to our relationship with God are declaring themselves.
A God who refuses to be bound by rules of engagement, not judging the case by its merits but rather for what we might call personal convenience – it calls to mind the words from Paul: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.[1] God didn’t wait around for us to realise our inadequacies, our lostness but simply steps up and showers us with grace.  Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, falls on us with delight, not caring where we have come from, simply that we have come.

The one we first think of as the anti-hero is in fact the one who is breaking through all the rules, impatient to gather those who are lost, determined to offer grace and mercy to us despite ourselves. 
So can we be like that widow – tenacious in our belief that God cares for us enough to explode through our self imposed rules, our idea of who is in and out, our guilts and our shame, our arrogance and our stumbling, our doubts and fears to reclaim us with impatient and overflowing love.

It’s a powerful picture of the love of God and the grace that covers our lives when we turn to God.

I think that the psalmists of old truly knew this truth – that living in faith meant seeking always the judgement of God, not in that way of expecting punishment but rather generous grace and guidance  – and that they had to be tenacious about it.  No withdrawing when they were angry with God, no hiding themselves when they were ashamed, no holding back on their need to share their innermost thoughts and doubts, and definitely no holding back on their adoration for a God who was faithful, full of grace and mercy.

Our psalm for today speaks specifically about the wisdom of a mature faith, one where the writer has learned that leaning on the precepts of God has been a delight and a light to their lives.  It’s like they are immersed in the presence of God, so much so that they can hold nothing back.
Hear some of those words:
Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my meditation.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.

How can we be like that – how do we transfer that closeness to God out of the scriptures and into our lives?  Joy Cowley has asked the same question and came up with these helpful words.
Stop!  You are looking in the wrong direction!
I am not two thousand years distant but right here beside you, my shoulder against your shoulder, my hand resting on the back of your neck, my breath mixed with yours in the same moment.  How could you miss me?
Forget the history and the politics that make truth small.  They are not important enough to be pursued or rejected.  Turn with the eyes of your heart and see who has not left your side since your soul took human journey.  Say my name in our own secret language and remember what we have always be to each other.
Lean on me beloved.  Trust to die into my love.[2]

What a difference this would make to faith, to church, to being the people of God in this world, in this day if we could all grasp this understanding that God’s grace is enough, the belief that God will prevail, as strongly did that widow woman.

We could stop deciding who we think is acceptable to God and use the default premise that it is everyone.  The blinkers of racism, sexism, and all the other isms would fall to the ground. 
We could stop thinking we had the only wisdom, the best faith, the only denomination and realise that God speaks into lives and cultures and faiths beyond our experience.

We could stop building up treasures here on earth – think what that would do to the economic inequalities, the starving, the dispossessed.  We could stop too building up treasures in our churches just for the sake of it, or from the fear of letting it go.  Imagine the feeding of the poor, the housing of the homeless, the valuing of the voiceless that could come from releasing our rainy day funds.

We could stop holding ourselves back from leaning on God, stop trying to do everything ourselves, be in control according to our understand – be a people who trust in the grace and love of a God who pushed through all our barriers of distrust and selfishness and sheer arrogance to send Jesus to live among us, to teach us the meaning of love, of grace of mercy. Stop your worrying and lean on me, says Jesus, just like that widow woman.

Using some words from Tom Schuman[3]:
When eternity comes, maybe God will sort it all out:
the unanswered questions that keep us awake at night,
the injustice of it all,
the brokenness which we cannot mend
Someday, when eternity comes, maybe God will sort it all out but until then know this:
love showered earth when Jesus came, and flows from us to others,
hope was planted in our hearts and in God we trust,
joy became our souls companion and yearns to walk with us,
and grace was the gift we cannot exchange;
and these are all the answers we have until eternity comes.

And for this we say: thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

[1] Romans 5:8
[2] The Eternal Lover from Psalms for the Road  by Joy Cowley p. 59
[3] Answers from Acorns and Archangels by Thom M Shuman  p. 220

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Climate Litany Opoho Church Sunday 29 September 2019

A Litany of Gratitude

We live in all things and all things live in us
We rejoice in all life.
We live by the sun, we move with the stars
We rejoice in rhythms of living and being.
We eat from the earth, we drink from the rain,
we breathe from the air
We rejoice in the life giving nourishment of this planet
We share with the creatures, we have strength through their gifts
We rejoice in all things created of sea, air and land
We depend on the trees, the bush, the ancient and the new.
We have knowledge through their secrets
We rejoice in all life rooted in the good soil.
We have the privilege of seeing and understanding
We have the responsibility of caring
We have the joy of celebrating
We rejoice in our care for the land and all that the land provides
We are full of the grace of creation, we are grateful
We rejoice in all life

A Litany of Sorrow
We have forgotten who we are.  We have become estranged from the movements of the earth and turned our backs on the cycles of life.
We have forgotten who we are.
We have sought only our own security and exploited simply for our own ends.
We have distorted our knowledge and abused our power.
Response: We have forgotten God’s call to care for creation.
Now the land is barren and the waters are poisoned and the air is polluted.
We have not been good stewards of the land, sea and air.
Now the forests are dying and the creatures are disappearing
and the humans are despairing.
We have not care for the creatures of the land, sea and air.
We ask forgiveness. We ask for the gift of remembering
We ask for the strength to change.
We seek mercy in Jesus holy name.  Amen

A Litany of Committment
As we seek to relax our grip so that the earth, our fragile sister, might rest from our labours, help us to see our world more vividly than we have done in the past. 
Grant us vision for the challenges of this age and give us hearts full of courage for the future.  
As we seek to be wise stewards of the gifts of the earth in timber and oil, coal, and gas, help us to know your world more humanely than we have in the past. 
Grant us the wisdom
to walk with care and reverence in this world.  
Deepen our faith and enliven our thinking, nourish our bodies and strengthen our souls, that we may be your message in the world, your servants for the common wellness of the earth.
Make us weavers of a new order, crafters of a new earth. 
Grant us the grace to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, in the love with earth, and with our brothers, and sisters.
May these commitments we make bring new life through God’s holy word, in our communities of faith and in deep solidarity with all creation.   

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 29 September 2019 Pentecost 16

Readings:  1 Timothy 6:6-11, 17-19  Luke 16:19-31

It is the beginning of the week of prayer for world peace.  And so as we begin, hear these words from our brothers and sister of faith across the world, words about prayer in action gathered by the words ‘may our heart-felt desires inspire us to work together for the good of all

Today’s sermon will reflect on the words of a hymn by John Bell and Graham Maule[1] as we open up the scripture for today.  They begin like this:
Heaven shall not wait for the poor to lose their patience,
the scorned to smile, the despised to find a friend:
Jesus is Lord: he has championed the unwanted;
in him injustice confronts its timely end.

Lazarus was waiting – waiting for a friend, for a scrap of human kindness, a hint of love and care.  And he waited his entire life for the injustice to end.

Heaven shall not wait for the rich to share their fortunes,
the proud to fall, the elite to tend the least:
Jesus is Lord; he has shown the master's privilege -
to kneel and wash servants' feet before they feast.

The rich man was waited upon.  He was proud, chose to dress in his best not just on high days but everyday.  Food to waste when a wasted man had nothing.  No doubt walked past the poor man most day – but his eyes did not look down, he did not engage, Lazarus did not exist.

Until death.  When the tables were turned and a new reality existed.  And the rich man was not happy!  At this point in the story we hope, don’t we, for a change of heart, a recognition that he had got it wrong.  But no!  Lazarus is still beneath his regard, never addressed directly but of some use as a servant perhaps.  There is not a lot to like about this man really.  Even his concern for his brothers is lacking depth, focussing as he does on their physical physical comfort.

No deal, says the heavenly Abraham, they have sufficient guidance, not even a dead man coming to life again will open their eyes to their need for repentance and a new way.  They will not see the need for or want to be the person who kneels and washes the feet of the poor and the unloved and the despised

Heaven shall not wait for the dawn of great ideas,
thoughts of compassion divorced from cries of pain:
Jesus is Lord; he has married word and action;
his cross and company make his purpose plain.

Jesus tells us again and again that we are to marry word and action – and that where there is need we are to meet it with love and compassion - for ‘his cross and company make his purpose plain’. We are not to wait around for someone else to do it, nor are we to get so caught up in the talking of it that we forget the doing of it.

What is plain is that wealth is the lord of this rich man, not God.  Being wealthy and respected is his purpose. Compassion doesn’t figure in his life because he can’t hear the cries of pain – they don’t penetrate.

And as we heard last week, no one can serve both God and mammon. 
If we serve wealth, if we consider it the face that we wear and the god we worship, then we simply will not see the beggar at our front door, nor be worried that we missed him. 

If we serve God then the beggar at the door is our purpose, our compassion serves the pain, lives the journey with them, embraces them with tender loving care.  If we serve God then all that we have, much or little, belongs to God and to God’s purpose.  We are stewards only. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’.[2] 
There were those who cared for Lazarus – he was not alone.  Those who carried him to the gate each day and then took him home – hoping against hope that the only one who had the wherewithal to transform his life, this fabulously rich man, would show just a little compassion.  Their hearts were in the right place but it couldn’t have been easy for any of them.  Because we remember that each day Lazarous had to endure being within reach of plenty every yet never attaining it – much like the rich man seeing heaven from Hades yet not able to step across the chasm that divided them.

Heaven shall not wait for our legalised obedience,
defined by statute, to strict conventions bound:
Jesus is Lord: he has hallmarked true allegiance -
goodness appears where his grace is sought and found.

For those who have been part of the compelling and strident voices for climate justice this week and beyond, the parallel will not be lost.  The sharp words from the pain of desperation and despair of the youth falling on the deaf ears of those have the ability to make a huge difference and yet are simply not interested in thinking beyond self until it will be too late.  Until they find themselves in the proverbial hell contemplating what they have done – and possibly still finding no fault.

As Christians, people who profess care for each other and the world, surely we are not part of this stalemate we ask? Yet we are in the story somewhere – but where we place ourselves is only something we can know – are we Lazarus yearning for our voice to be heard yet being ignored?  Are we the rich man, oblivious to the peril that has not impacted us – yet anyway.  Are we the fence around the rich man’s property, enabling the division of rich and poor?  Are we the friends doing what we can but knowing it is not enough?

Or are we the followers of a disreputable Jesus obedient only to God, willing to walk through walls of convention and scramble over piles of flawed understandings to make his grace and goodness heard.   Are we a voice that, in faith, is raised loudly into this injustice and others?

Whoever we are, Yet even then it is not enough, we are not enough by ourselves.  If we try to do this ourselves, we run the risk that some have done at the political meetings and at the climate justice rally – of using a voice that has no conception of goodness and mercy and grace, one that simply replaces the god of exploitation of the earth with another equally exploitive deity.

We have need of God.  We come back to the difference between Lazarus and the rich man – Lazarus: faith in God, rich man: faith in money.  Both died, one to heaven, one to hades.  Not because of one having money and the other not but because one’s life was ruled by money and one by God.  And it showed in Lazarus’s response in heaven. After his miserable existence on earth he would have been justified in gloating just a little bit – but instead he shows compassion in his silence. The rich man, unable to repent his arrogance and self interest, continues to act as if Lazarus is invisible and his wealth will negotiate him a way out. 

We cannot do this alone, yet we cannot do nothing.
Heaven shall not wait for triumphant Hallelujahs,
when earth has passed and we reach another shore:
Jesus is Lord in our present imperfection;
his power and love are for now and then for evermore.

We cannot breach the walls of selfishness or shortsightedness or hatred or greed by our voices alone.  We cannot save this world by our hands alone, but we have a great deal of evidence that in the power and love of Jesus Christ, and in all our imperfections, the love of God is transforming the world not just when the world has passed, but also in the now as we live the life of faith, one that is full of mercy and compassion and kindness, one that sees the beggar at the door, the lonely in their isolation, the bereaved in all their pain.  With our hands and hearts, our faith strongly anchored in God’s power and love, we will shout the triumphant alleluias both for now and then for everymore.
And we say, Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Heaven shall not wait  CH4 362
[2] Psalm 24:1

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 22 September 2019 Pentecost 15

Readings: Amos 8:4-7    Luke 16:1-13

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

I put it to you with much interest and a slightly raised eyebrow that our gospel story today is a tale of abundant goodness?  Hard to see it really – an thieving steward compounding his stealing and us being asked to be complicit in the act?  This parable possibly one of the most troubling to our picture of Jesus, one that exercises our interpretive skills to the limit.  Praising dishonesty and subterfuge seems an unlikely scenario for a Christ led life and we wonder what on earth to do with it.

Known as the parable of the unjust steward, the story seems simple enough.  Caught in the act of skimming the books, the steward is immediately dismissed.  Sent off to get the books of accounts, his keys of office really, so that he can hand them over, he wonders what he can possibly do.  He is going to be out of work and he is not best suited to manual labour, certainly doesn’t have what it takes to be a beggar so he comes up with, as Blackadder’s Baldric would say, ‘a cunning plan.’  He will skim a bit more off his master’s income and in the process provide some goodwill for his own uncertain future.  He will forgive some of their debt, a debt that is not his to forgive, and earn some points with the debtors when he himself is in need. And he is audacious enough to think that his master might just be impressed despite himself.  Very clever, yes we will give him that, and he is praised by his master – but then we are told to do as the unjust servant – and that is kind of hard to fathom.

And to add to the ‘I think I will preach on something else today’ temptation, there is the issue of trying to link in the wisdom phrases that follow the parable – all about wealth and dishonesty and serving two masters.  There is almost a sense that the author of this gospel has needed to put these somewhere and popped them in here.  While we can find links with the story, they are not obviously a direct explanation of the parable; I liked the phrase that ‘they have their own integrity’[1] – so we are not going to get sidetracked trying to fit them neatly in.  The words of Jesus do not do neatly! We should know that by now.

So instead, back to the parable and the big question for today: is the steward a villain – or a hero?  Robert Farrar Capon in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgement[2] suggests hero!
First of all he looks at context – following on immediately from the story of the prodigal son, this parable is surrounded by stories of grace on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus has again and again made it clear that merciful grace has ousted the thinking that God is keeping a ledger of credit and debit - so this story stands out like a sore thumb if we choose to view the steward purely as a villain who has behaved badly.

However, if we say hero, we are continuing the focus of the surrounding scripture, that of grace, and providing another story such as that of the prodigal son, that of forgiveness-by-resurrection-from-the-dead.  Capon suggests the death in this parable is the firing of the steward – all that he has known, his status, homing, relationships, life itself has been cut off at the roots at this moment of reckoning with his master.  Yet the steward does not argue, plead, call for character witnesses – he is silent – a most unusual response for this scenario in the day, says Kenneth Bailey. He accepts the justice of the ruling from a master who he knows is both right and generous – generous to not have him and his family sold off into slavery.
Hence the cunning plan. The steward presents the master with a conundrum when the books are laid in front of him.  If he calls out the steward he will lose the goodwill and celebrations of those whose debt is forgiven.  If he doesn’t he will be seen as a soft touch by those of his kind. His generous nature enjoys the creativity of the dishonest steward and he recognises that the actions of the steward have led to not just new life for the steward but also for the debtors.  Grace has again been seen to win out over the ledger of credit and debt, through one whose life had effectively ended yet chooses to live again, who chooses to employ disrespectful tactics to do so.  We ponder the parallels with Jesus journey to the cross and beyond and wonder what this might mean for us. Of his acts disrespectful to the established order, of extravagant unexpected generosity in the face of death so that new life might be ours. Something to think about?

But today, I want to focus on a particular thread.  In my struggle with this reading, as I sought to make sense of all the associated readings and commentaries and not slide off into over analysis and orderly explanation, a thought kept popping into the mix connected to discussion at parish council and presbytery.  We are currently as a church exploring the nature of the theology of money and property – there is a consultation paper available from the General Assembly to which we will respond.

And I found myself asking if we are viewing our property and finance as a church through the book keeping ledger lens or that of grace.  Here in the south we have a situation where our financial assets are tied up in property, courtesy of the early settlers who sought to provide for future generations – for which we are grateful.  At the Presbytery meeting yesterday we were challenged to understand that the founding church members of this province who provided such a substantial purse for us were in fact leaving the assets first and foremost for God, not to us.  And that they did it so that generations after might know and love God here in this place as they did. And their answer was to invest in property and especially church buildings. However, our answer to how we might know and love God has changed, and we know our resources need to be more flexible, more about people and less about building.  Yet we seem to be unable to extricate ourselves from the ledger of property ownership, one that honours our forebearers vision of being God’s enduring presence here in the south but actually makes us weep for what is needed today. Our church and our world is crying out for a different kind of sustenance –maybe for a ‘cunning plan’ that will bring celebration and new life to those in need.  And we have to ask - does the church need to die to release grace?

Equally as a church community, where do parishes and churches need to get creative and ‘ingratiate’ themselves with the needy and the debtors trusting in the generous mercy of a God who values the celebration of new life over the respectability of having money in the bank?  What is the death that we are called to so that grace can be released?

I am on a continuing journey with this parable of the ‘Unjust Steward’ – rich as it is it may take some time. And as we continue as a church to make decisions about how to be the mercy driven and grace filled people of God in Opoho I hope it will be part of that journey too.
But this I will say as I finish - I say this is a parable of abundant goodness!  A story that challenges us to creative, sometimes seemingly disrespectful use of our wealth in pursuit of abundant goodness.
Hear these words from Tom Gordon titled ‘Goodness[3]’.

It’s not your social standing that’s the meaning you still seek.
It’s what you choose to stand up for that makes your life unique.
It’s not what you’ll be known for now that makes more eyebrows rise –
but what you show of goodness all your days.

It’s not how you’re rewarded by the trappings of success,
but what rewards you offer those whose lives you’re called to bless.
It’s not enough that people sing your name in hymns of praise –
it’s what you show of goodness all your days.

It’s not the riches of the world that make your treasure store,
but what enriches those who know your love, and need still more.
It’s not how you present yourself that will your friends amaze –
it’s what you show of goodness all your days.

So stand up for the righteous that peace and justice brings,
and value the rewards that give you greater wealth than kings;
and measure out true worth that sets the fires of love ablaze – and
and seek to show your goodness;  make the most of goodness; go and share your goodness all your days.

Margaret Garland

[1] Kenneth E. Bailey Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels Downers Grove, Il. InterVarsity Press, 2008   p. 334
[2] Robert Farrar Capon Kingdom, Grace, Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wm B. Erdmans, 2002
[3] Tome Gordon A Blessing to Follow: Contemporary Parables for Living Glasgow: Wild Goose, 2009  p.224