Saturday, 31 August 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 September 2019 Pentecost 12 Holy Communion

Readings: Psalm 8    Luke 14:1, 7-14

It’s a little like the beginning of an action novel isn’t it – ‘when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.’
Because he was suspect, apt to behave in unexpected, unconventional ways and the authorities thought that they had best keep him under observation.
And maybe it was best to continue to invite him to table so that those who distrusted him could keep an eye on him.  I mean he knew how to behave (mostly)  and they agreed on obeying the Torah and keeping the Sabbath day holy – but Jesus is definitely and continually challenging their interpretations and priorities within that.
And in the part of Luke 14 sandwiched between the verses that we did hear today was yet another radical act – another healing on the Sabbath, this time of the man with palsy.  Jesus did not disappoint.  And the Pharisees had no reply – yet again. 

What is quite fascinating is where reading goes from there – to a seemingly random story which Luke introduces as a parable, something we know is intended to have a meaning that is deeper, more significant than everyday advice. 

For that is, on the surface, what we seem to have:  a rather pragmatic piece of advice from Jesus about how to avoid social embarrassment at one of the most formal of occasions, the public meal.  In these days of the meal often being treated in rather a casual manner, it is hard to realise how very important these events were for the maintaining of stature in the community. You had your place, worked hard at maintaining or improving your status in the community and losing face was almost like losing ones’ life.

And so being asked to move down the table would be of supreme embarrassment. Jesus appears to offer advice on how to avoid that, and in fact how their mana would be enhanced by being asked to move up.  So, is Jesus just telling them to put on superficial humility for self-interest’s sake?  It doesn’t sound quite right.  And then he truly confuses them and speaks about not inviting those who can return the favour, but instead the poor and the cripple and the lame and the blind - the ones who could never respond in kind – but in order to build up credit in heaven?  Again it appears to be about self-interest – a kind of use and abuse of the poor for our own capital gain – spiritual capitalism at its worst as one commentator said, and again it doesn’t sit well with us.

So….Bill Loader calls this a potentially very dangerous text – but full of blessing.  Dangerous when we use humility as a strategy, placing ourselves low only in order to benefit ourselves later. Or equally when we deny our strengths and gifts by considering ourselves valueless – the humility that God requires of us is positive, action filled, not self abasing.  And finally it is dangerous to deny the will of God and ignore the needs of others but equally dangerous to exploit the needs of others for our own end, to be do-gooders in the hope of reward only.

The blessing, says Loader, comes when we learn that the lines of love – for God, for others, for oneself – converge to form an inclusive love, all embracing, ever hopeful, and to engage in it fully in all directions, including towards ourselves.  And the promise of future reconciliation with God takes its place, not as reward but as coming home.
The blessing of grace: when we learn that our standing with God is a given and, held in that loving grace, our behaviour is a given – to care for each other and the world, to pour out our lives for healing and wholeness just as Jesus did.  Forget the hierarchies, ignore the naysayers, challenge the self interest of the world and find a new way.

And some thoughts for life today I continually ponder, and am horrified by, the place of self interest in the world we live in – as I am sure you are.  Looking out for self and doing whatever is needed has always been around but it seems to pervade our very bones these days.  And it is incredibly applicable to the mess we have made of our planet.  Self interest burns the forests in the Amazon, commercial self interest keeps money back from sustainable living solutions,  self interest and laziness sweeps the plastic out into the ocean for the marine life to ingest and get entangled in, self interest fills the skies with pollution and the land with extinct species. 
We have to cut through this attitude of ‘what can we do?’ and remind ourselves that while we are sitting comfortably the world around us is going down the gurgler.  There is no point chastising ourselves for letting it get to this point – it’s too late for that – but instead it’s about what we are to do now.  Asking if we are to continue sitting at that table Jesus was talking about, secure in our own lifetime and our own house on the hill or if we are getting up and seeing where we are needed and getting on with it?
For there are things to be done and we can all have a part in it.

We can only applaud the rhetoric of the youth on this issue, but we need to do more than applaud – we need to listen to them, take our lead from them, work alongside them – that is where the passion and the energy is coming from it seems to me.  
We can look to our personal habits and our channels of influence and see what can be done – surprising how many changes can come through our choices and our words and actions.
We can support the work of Chris Lambourne in Hastings wanting to get climate change up front and taken seriously at General Assembly next year.  As a church here in Opoho we can continue to put our energy and our voice into being aware and making good choices.
There is much we can and must do. 

So shall we start here and now, at the one place where self interest does not reign supreme – that would be around this table, this table where all are welcome, this table where the lines of love converge, where we are equally valued and where none of us are the more or less than the other.  This table where Jesus Christ equips us, transforms us, sends us into the world sure of our place as the people of God and prepared to disrupt and challenge the perspectives and priorities of a broken world, deeply in need of healing and wholeness.  In Jesus name.  Amen

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 25 August 2019 Pentecost ll

Readings:  Isaiah 58:9b-14   Luke 13:10-17

We pray: Holy God, as we listen to your word for us today, may we know your presence, hear your voice and respond to your call on our lives we pray.  Amen.

As many of you know, I was brought up in the Methodist Church – my father’s family church in Balclutha.  It was a good place to be – good friends were made, social events were fun and safe, and the worship and teaching sunk in to the soul.  I know that, as children and then as teenagers, we can be relatively picky about what we remember but it was instrumental in who I am today. I do remember having Sundays as family days – Dad was off work, we were off school and, after church, we would pop into the local dairy, get a block of icecream, go home for a roast meal and pudding, then off down to visit more family at Hinahina more often than not.  We would play and climb vines and paddle and go home rested and exhausted for the next day.  I remember also being very surprised at finding out that according to one of the Methodist churches on the West Coast, we were sinners.  We had shopped, we had travelled other than to church, we had laughed and played and talked.
The western isles of Scotland are another place where the Sabbath is a very different day to the rest of the week.  No dairies open there, nor anything else.  Definitely a day of Sabbath rest.  And if any of you are familiar with the movie Whisky Galore you will know that in the tug of war between ending the whisky drought and observing the Sabbath, the Sabbath won out. 

How do we approach the Sabbath day?  In a 24/7 world of work, retail, sport, with no widely observed time of family or faith, how are we to interpret the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy?

To try and answer that question, it might be helpful if we unpack the conundrum that is the reading for today from the Gospel of Luke, which is, among other things, about how we observe the Sabbath and honour God.
For there is a difference of opinion!  Jesus has healed a woman crippled for eighteen years.  He is accused of breaking the law of the Sabbath.  He responds by saying that you take care of your animals by untying them and leading them to water, why would you not also take care of your people and set them free?  And the crowd was definitely on Jesus side!

If we look back to the scripture that Jesus would have been familiar with, we find two kind of directives as to what the Sabbath is to be for.  In Genesis, God crowns creation with a holy day of rest – a day blessed and consecrated as a turning away from work and facing the holiness of God. And this directive is no less for us – to put aside the things of the world and to spend time with God.

The other (and complementary) directive comes from after the delivery of the people from their slavery in Egypt and is found in Deuteronomy.  Equally the people are to observe the day and keep it holy but the emphasis is rather more on the active practice of holiness in some way.

And you can see that the leadership of the synagogues in Jesus time embraced the first approach of holiness, defining keeping God’s law as refraining from work and resting in the sanctity of the day. The trouble is that they ended up creating elaborate and complicated rules about what is and what is not work - for it was their responsibility to make sure souls were not put in jeopardy by their ignorance of what would please God.  In fact the cumbersome requirements ended up being a yoke of oppression and control that had moved far away from the heart of what it meant to keep the Sabbath holy.  The law was strong enough to deny a woman the chance to become whole again.
Jesus comes and, in their eyes and according to their rules, his healing of this long time crippled women is to be confined to the other six days of the week.

And Jesus pushes back, requires them to revisit their interpretation – which they seem most unwilling to do.  For, as many of us would find, it is easier by far to insist on adherence to the rule rather than accept that their interpretation is flawed, out of touch with its reason for being.

So Jesus pulls them, and us, back to the reason for being.

We are to honour the Sabbath and keep it holy, we are to turn our face toward God – have time with God where the expectations of the world are not our primary consideration.  Those words from the hymn by Helen Lemmel – in response to being weary and troubled, the answer is to ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.’
Evocative words of healing that come from time focussed on the holiness of God.  We need that in our lives – time to be still, time to praise God, time to reflect and be encouraged, to reclaim whose we are and recommit ourselves to the way.  Time to stop being hunched over, seeing only the dust and dirt below our feet, twisting ourselves every which way trying to catch a glimpse of the sun above.  Time to stand straight, cast off the burdens we carry and praise God.  Whether as individual or community, we are too often bowed down under the load of fear, anxiousness, dismay when in fact Sabbath living allows us to find time to stand tall and straight and whole.
And might we also explore what Sabbath living might mean when it is not confined to a day once a week but when it permeates our daily living – Sabbath moments as important to us as our breathing. 

The thing is, for Jesus, the Sabbath is also about rendering healing and justice – bringing freedom and rejoicing to those who have been enslaved – much as those who were led out of exile from Egypt.  Jesus healing touch brings freedom to the crippled woman – on the Sabbath.  He brings her out of the wilderness and back into community.  He touches her, you might notice – violating even more of the religious rules about the unclean and the marginal. 
He is being, (they say deliberately) disruptive to the act of worship as laid out by the religious authorities, undermining their authority, challenging their institutionalised ritual that gives them control of people’s lives and withholds care from those in need. 

He echoes the words of Isaiah who was also calling out the religious authorities of his day with the same message of misplacing and dishonouring God on the day of fasting:
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
…If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD…[1]

What might we then take away with us today?  One, perhaps, is that of understanding the importance in our lives of the weekly or daily Sabbath both as a community here on Sunday and in our personal lives.  And we need to not let the habit or the ritual become the satisfaction alone but also recognise the need to open ourselves to the presence of God, to respond to the teachings of Jesus for us and through us.  To face the holy and be still before the glory of God.
And secondly I don’t believe we can do that by blindly following a set of rules about what we should or shouldn’t do on a Sunday.  I don’t believe that passivity and inaction is what Christ asks of us.
For as we hear from Isaiah:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;[2]

I do believe that in honouring the Sabbath, being present with the holy, we will be stirred into active holy practice as Jesus was – lifting the burden not just from ourselves but from others we encounter who are in need of healing and hope.  And for this we say thanks be to God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Isaiah 58: 9b-10, 13-14
[2] Isaiah 58:6-8

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11 August 2019 Pentecost 9

Readings:  Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 Luke 12:32-40

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.
There is a Sufi story about a man who was so good that the angels ask God to give him the gift of miracles.  God wisely tells them to ask him if that is what he would wish.
So the angels visit this good man and offer him first the gift of healing by hands, then the gift of conversion of souls, and lastly the gift of virtue.  He refuses them all.  They insist that he choose a gift or they will choose one for him. ‘Very well,’ he replies. ‘I ask that I may do a great deal of good without every knowing it.’ 
The story ends this way:  The angels were perplexed.  They took counsel and resolved upon the following plan: every time the saint’s shadow fell behind him it would have the power to cure disease, soothe pain, and comfort sorrow.  As he walked, behind him his shadow made arid paths green, caused withered plants to bloom, gave clear water to dried-up brooks, fresh colour to pale children, and joy to unhappy men and women.  The Saint simply went about his daily life diffusing virtue as the stars diffuse light and the flowers scent, without ever being aware of it.  The people respected his humility, following him silently, never speaking to him about his miracles.  Soon they often forgot his name and called him  ‘the Holy Shadow.’[1]

This story of faith and works is pertinent to our readings today.  In her comment on the story Rachel Remem reminds us that it is comforting to think that we may be of help in ways that we don’t even realise.  She adds that we often do so in surprising and unexpected ways – that we are in fact messengers of healing for each other without knowing it.  Like the Holy Shadow.
There are those times when someone just says the right thing for the moment – for them an ordinary kindness, for us a light shining in the darkness of need.  I am sure each of us can think of a time like this.  Remen talks of a day when she was stewing over a friend who had incorporated some of her ideas in a book without acknowledging the source.  A client walked into her room and said ‘You know you can get a lot done in this world if you don’t care who gets the credit!’  She had read it on the bumper sticker of the car that pulled out of her parking spot.  ‘You know you can get a lot done in this world if you don’t care who gets the credit!’ 
So is it just coincidence, being in the right place, the stars aligning for us.  I think that explanation is simplistic, casual, cautious.
I believe that in faith, in the power of trust and love, this kind of reaching out happens all the time and we just don’t know it (and don’t need to know it).  The flicker of kindness becomes the bright light of hope, of healing, of love in those we touch in faith. 

Those words from Hebrews: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The things that are invisible become visible in faith!  If we believe that living in love, in faith has fruit way beyond our imagining we begin to understand how it was that Abraham and Sarah set out for a strange land, lived simply while they waited for the promised city whose architect and builder was God, placed their trust in a ridiculous promise of descendants as great as the stars of heaven, as numerous as the grains of sand by the seashore.  We begin to see a glimmer of the possibilities the world can be changed if we but live in the way of God.  Of the transformation that comes from us truly being the presence of Jesus in our every day lives.  So why the stress around being a person of faith?  Why are we so loathe to accept uncertain future, to believe that trust that in Christ it will bear fruit way beyond our imagining?

In a way it’s like we don’t quite trust God’s presence in the  unseen unless we can check it off as well – we like to see the trajectory of our faith in action – be sure that our efforts are worthwhile, our planning and execution best practice, that the projected outcome is at least loosely achieved.  And we get easily despondent when that doesn’t happen.  Because our efforts seem to have failed, we don’t believe God’s work through us could possibly succeed! The Holy Shadow is not quite trusted.

Yet Abraham and Sarah did just this, they did trust in God – in faith they lived their lives as God’s people not looking backwards to see how well their sowings were growing but forwards in expectation of what, in God’s grace, is made possible.  They believed that God had their future in hand, they looked forward to the city that God had both planned and was executing, even though they were living in tents in the meantime.  They had faith in God’s eternal love and promise.  Let us not make Abraham and Sarah perfect people though – they would have had doubts, debates and difficulties along the way but the thing is they kept their faces turned towards the journey that they had committed to in faith.

And Jesus brings us both the knowledge and reassurance of that faithfulness and love of God: in his living, his teaching, his death and resurrection Jesus time and time again shows us the power of trusting in God completely, placing our lives, our futures, the transforming of the world into Gods hands in faith. 
It is here in this reading from Luke, where Jesus, in these wonderfully tender words, says to his people:  "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
He goes on to encourage us: be dressed for action, have your lamps lit no matter how small you think they might be, for every moment you live in the expectation of the kingdom, then so it shall be.

So what shall we take with us as we go from here today.  Maybe it is to be the Holy Shadow as was the saint in the story.  Don’t panic because things are not moving at the speed you would like.  Don’t keep looking back in hope – trust that all you have done in faith is growing new things, offering hope and healing and new beginning because you believed, and then turn round and bring the same faith and hope for the future.

Carry these words with you today and ponder them in your hearts:  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

And trust that everything you do in love ripples out into bigger and bigger waves.  Trust in each other as a community of Christ – love into the unlovely, be gentle with the clumsy and the klutzy, forgive the times we don’t quite get it right, listen to the wisdom and the questions that come with community, speak with hope into the future, pray for the healing of the world, every day, and be ready, be the light of Jesus transforming the world, and let nothing, nothing put it out!   Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Remen.  P.245