Saturday, 19 January 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 20 January, 2019 Epiphany 2

Readings:  Isaiah 62:1-5    John 2:1-11
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.
 With thanks to the Rev Dr Sarah Mitchell from a sermon in 2013

Speak the word marriage into our conversation in the 21st century and the complexities of understanding would surprise Isaiah, and Mary.  Today a surprising number of reactions pop up, depending on your experiences and view points – which range from a waste of space to 60+ years of trust and love to ‘just a piece of paper’ to gay marriage to the reasons for and numbers of divorces.
So we don’t always immediately connect with some of the intended symbology of the bible as intuitively as the writers of scripture might have expected - and here especially the metaphor of marriage heard today in the reading from Isaiah is particularly contentious for its demeaning implications for women. 
For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.[1]
While of course we can see behind the metaphor to the point being made, it does still grate.

And the imagery of the wedding at Cana has the potential also to offend our sensibilities – to have the success of a wedding depend on how much wine is flowing in a day when we battle alcoholism and binge drinking doesn’t exactly resonate these days.

Yet from these two readings, if we can move through and behind the chosen imagery, we come to a really crucial, core message of God’s extravagant abundance to us and through us in our times of greatest need.
It continues the theme of last Sunday’s readings on the baptism of Jesus: that from baptism comes affirmation that will carry us wherever we go, an affirmation we can lose sight of in our despair.

Isaiah offers us language and symbology celebrating the extravagant abundant love of God found in restored relationship with the people of Israel. 

In the same way the wedding at Cana, found only in John’s gospel, gifts us with an act of extravagant abundance as all the water is turned into the best wine that can be offered.

In terms of literal accuracy, the miracle of the wedding at Cana is nothing short of spectacular!  For, if the numbers are correct, this report of Jesus action describes how more than 300 litres of water are turned into wine – and not just any old wine but the very best, top quality, ‘sending your palate to heaven’ variety.  So say a 100 guests – that is 3 litres per person – or 300 guests – 1 litre each - and it wasn’t the first drink of the night.  We could accuse Jesus of not taking seriously the concerns of over indulgence, of not being responsible in his generosity.  Or do you think that John is wanting to point us to something more, something that we, with our logical reasoning and cautious approach to responsibility, might just not pick up on our own.  For it is certainly an extravagant outcome, especially after a somewhat reluctant response to his mother’s observation that the wine was running out.

The Gospels are full of stories of God’s extravagant, generous, overflowing gifts, love and mercy: the open-armed welcome for the prodigal child, a catch of fish so great that it overwhelms the boats, the feeding of a multitude of people, with so much leftover; signs of abundance and celebration.    We can almost hear Jesus saying “what part of abundant life don’t you understand?”

Because we do seem to struggle with stories like this – extravagance is often associated with waste, with envy; the delight of extravagance at odds with our world view of despair and doubt, of careful management and future proofing.  And of course we are used to living in a world of shortages, of thinking that there is only so much to go around and if others get more then we must get less.
Signs of overflowing generosity just aren’t the way of the world, we say.  They make us uncomfortable. 

And, actually, that is so right; the way of the gospel is not the way of the world.  The signs to which John calls our attention point to the way of the Gospel, which is about over-the-top, extravagant love. In God, there are always surpluses.  Ernest Hess[2] puts it this way: the text suggests that our three- dimensional understanding of life in this world, with its painful limitations, has been unpredictably invaded by grace and that when this happens, we are left sideswiped, unsure how to respond.
So it may be worth asking ourselves: are we thinking too small?  Are we doling out the wine by the teaspoon, while Jesus is pouring it out by the 50 litre flagon?

And I wonder if we see that discrepancy the most in our joy for living – in our ability (or lack thereof) to celebrate the delight of being loved by God, in the often tepid way we express our hope in the vision God puts before us because we are exercising our right to caution?  Does our laughter ring loud and clear, our voices be raised in song – and just saying wasn’t the singing the last two Sundays where we shared our worship with our brothers and sisters of the PIC church, wasn’t it amazing!  I think we can learn something there about exuberance in the Lord?
And yet we have, especially in our European, and dare it say Scottish based religious life tried our very best to be sober, upright, in fact almost completely separating out Sunday personae from the ‘real’ life of the rest of the week. 

Is that what Jesus wants us to be and to do?  Does he want our faith to be morose, our response to the joy of living in Christ to be muted and rationed?  I don’t think so!
Throughout his life and his ministry Jesus celebrated people – people getting married, people being healed, people enjoying meals together, people indulging in uncontainable laughter – he carried a spirit of celebration with him wherever he went as he proclaimed a God of mercy and peace and joy.

This joyous feast at Cana is still a sign to the church that we are to rejoice in the people of God and to toast the world with the amazing good news of grace and love gifted to us in Jesus. [3]
David Steele refers to this spirit of celebration as ‘Cana-Grace’.  Our joy flows from knowing our God and we need to do better at allowing that joy to flow into our lives, the lives of each other and all whom we know. Does anyone ever come up to you and say – you have look on your face that suggests you know something special and it makes you really happy?  Now you can say – ah it is Cana-Grace!

And just as we finish – did any of you notice that it was Jesus mother that swung into action to keep the party going? And then trusted Jesus to do as his God required. Food for thought!
[4]But what a way for Jesus to begin his public ministry in John’s Gospel!  What a way for us to continue that ministry – brothers and sisters in Christ celebrating the extravagant abundance of the love of God for us in our everyday lives -including our Sundays.

I want to finish with the words of a hymn by Douglas Gay (CH4 242) – some of you may have remembered him as a visiting theologian from Glasgow who was here earlier last year.  He was an exuberant speaker who celebrated the joy of ministry and knew the delight that God had in him and through him.  These are his words from his heart to God and I think we should learn to sing it one day soon.

Is this the way you made the world from burned out stars and fields of light?
Is this the way you lit the fuse when death exploded into life?

Is this the way you spoke the word, that called the darkness to be light:
is this the way you wrote the code which shaped the fragile chain of life?

Are these the notes that you composed, are these the colours you designed,
are these the stars that sang for joy, are these the patterns of your mind?

Are these the lives that you inspired, are these the faces that you love;
is this the earth you will redeem, is this the world you came to save?

Then I will love the world you made and I will love the gift you gave, and I will drink its beauty in,
and I will make my home in it, and praise with joy the Maker.

Margaret Garland

[1] Isaiah 62: 5  NRSV
[2] Feasting on the Word:  Year C, Volume 1 by Ernest Hess   p.265
[3] Feasting on the Word:  Year C, Volume 1 by Robert Brearly p. 262

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Sermon Dunedin North PICC Church 13 January, 2019 Epiphany 1

Readings:  Isaiah 43:1-7   Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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.

Our Gospel reading for today tells us of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist – after all the people were baptised, Jesus came forward to also be baptised and to pray.  And then came the words, the voice saying: ‘You are my son, and with you I am well pleased’.  How must those words have filled the heart of Jesus at this, the moment when he publicly emerged into ministry, when he knelt before his God and promised to follow the path set for him, wherever it would take him.  He was praying, completely immersed in this moment of oneness with God – and the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him….It was indeed a ‘wow’ moment!

Imagine those words surrounding us as we too are baptised: ‘You are my son, you are my daughter, and with you I am well pleased’. A moment of belonging, of completeness, of welcome into the body of Christ we call the church.  A moment when the words from Isaiah become real : Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
Our baptism, our committing our way and our life to Christ is a very special milestone in our faith journey, something that establishes a relationship that is never broken, much as we sometimes try.

Today, however, I would like to talk about what comes after.  About how our baptism invites us into a new way of living, offers us a pathway for living unlike anything we have walked before.  The difference is that this path is formed not by gravel and asphalt but by unconditional love, mercy and grace, and that it is a pathway on which Jesus walks beside us as do the saints that have gone before and the saints that surround us now.   It’s a truly wonderful journey we take when we become part of the church for we know that no matter what comes after, however many times our directions get muddled and our promises are set aside, for each time that we falter, stumble, rebel even, we are still God’s beloved children.  That delight we heard expressed by God at Jesus baptism is for us as well – and we would do well to remind ourselves of that.  Delight that we are covenanted with God, delight that we are part of the body of faith we call the church, delight that no matter the mistakes we make we are forgiven and restored by the grace of God.

We all know the story of the next three years of Jesus life – walking faithfully towards Jerusalem, showing us how to express God’s grace and mercy to others, inviting in the outsider, hearing the pain of the ostracised, being kind to one another and caring for the least. 

This is the story of the church family – us!  This is where our baptism leads us – into a life that expresses deep love for each other and the world that we are part of.  No-one said it would be easy, or comfortable, or without stumbles. 
We can all relate experiences where our church family, our experiences in this body of faith are unhappy ones, where we have been hurt or we have hurt others, where our hopes and enthusiasms feel sidelined, where we feel we are taking the wrong path or wonder if it is all worth it.  Yet that baptismal relationship endures, and more than endures – it holds us close so that we can be upset and uncertain yet still persevere – because we know the worth and the power of that relationship – that love which never allows us to be separated from our God no matter what.  Our church is fallible – because it is made up of fallible human beings – yet it is God’s community to which we belong and in which we believe and so we gather and worship and pray and praise so that we can go out from here strengthened in purpose and hope to walk that pathway Jesus invites us to.

We know too that there are times when we slip off the path Jesus asks us to walk – and sometimes it’s really hard to get back on.  I’m doing all right by myself, I can choose to do what I am comfortable with, none of that uncomfortable prodding into new ways where I can’t see round the next corner – I like my life planned out.  We pretend we are ok on our own, but first of all we are not on our own – when we walked away God remains with us, waiting, and when we do return we realise that, for all the vulnerabilities and challenges of being part of the church family, it is where we need to be and where God requires us to be. For it is our place of belonging.

We know too that there are times when we overlay that pathway with our own expectations, forgetting that the body of Christ is an expansive, diverse, creative gathering of God’s people.
Some of you will know that I get very grumpy with people who define Christianity as a pathway lined with prejudice, arrogance, prosperity, exclusion.  How can anyone call themselves Christian when they are inflicting so much hurt and pain on others – it’s like you are recreating Jesus in your own image.  And I sway between being grumpy and feeling very sad for those who blatantly reject Christ’s teachings yet say they are Christians – sad because they do not realise the promise of their baptism – have not comprehend the words of Isaiah when God promises:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the LORD your God

We don’t need to shore up our lives with walls of self- preservation and ‘me first’ – for God is with us and that is stronger and more deeply assuring than anything we can do for ourselves if we would only realise that.

For surely this is the core of our relationship with God, the core of our baptismal promise, the foundation of the path we walk on day by day as the people of God – God delights in us, calls us beloved, walks with us through all the turns and twists of our life – to the end and beyond. 

When we wonder at our worth, God loves us.  When we are not sure we will get through the tough times, God loves us.  When we are not sure who or whose we are, God loves us.  When we cause grief and hurt to others and ourselves, God loves us and forgives us.  God gives us our value and our identity and we delight in that.   

So we ask ourselves at this epiphany time, at this moment when we remember Jesus’ baptism and his public commitment to walking the way of servanthood all the way to the cross, when we hear again those words: ‘You are my son, you are my daughter and with you I am well pleased’.

Are we a people who are, often in the most ordinary of ways, living the love and grace and mercy that God has for us?   I believe we are and that God continues to delight in and through us and that, in Christ, as a body of faith, we make a difference when we walk in Christ’s way.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland