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