Saturday, 30 November 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 December 2019 Advent 1 and Communion

Readings:  Isaiah 2:1-5    Matthew 24:36-44

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.

Today we are going to talk about time!  Time – the mathematical representation of our days, our weeks, our years.  It is a concept well represented in our language and our social interactions.  We talk of generations or decades; the swinging sixties, the millennials; and we talk of times of social identification such as the renaissance, the dark ages, the enlightenment.  Time is also colloquial, active and imprecise; time flies when you’re having fun; I’ve been waiting ages; I won’t be long. 
Time can fly, especially when you are really enjoying something and time can drag when you are waiting for that thing to happen.

Advent is a time of waiting.  Waiting for the birth of a baby, the story that, I hope never loses it wonder and promise no matter how many times we hear it.  We especially see the wonder on the faces of our children at this time of year and, if any of us feel we have lost that sense of amazement, perhaps this Advent we might seek to recover it.  Actually, at the Community Advent service here on Wednesday I got to ask everyone how many of Jesus birthdays they had celebrated.  When I said 10 years most of the school children’s hands went up, but I would say their sense that 10 was quite old was shattered as we got to the hands going up for 90+ years.  It was fascinating to watch the children’s faces realise a new sense of time. 

And today our readings are about time – God’s time.  And especially us waiting for God’s fulfilment of time to come around.
In the Hebrew scriptures, we have the remarkable picture that Isaiah paints of God’s promise to the people of Israel and the vision of the new Jerusalem – not just the glory but also the peace – swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, no war, no conflict; wisdom and light shall flow out into the world as people walk the way of God.  It’s a vision of hope is it not, for a people who have had more than their share of struggle and despair?

And then comes the arrival of the Messiah, the time when all would be put right.  But no, it wasn’t quite the way some expected – we heard last week of the trials and tribulations that will await the followers of Jesus – and the whole apocalyptic hell that will come before the end of the age, that new heaven and new earth.  And we of course ask the obvious question which is: ‘When?’
And the sub-text is ‘how are we to prepare for it?’

Because we would really like to know thanks, God. We’d like to be ready. We like straightforward answers to these things, if you don’t mind.  Just in case you didn’t know it, its very difficult to live in this ‘in-between-times’ waiting but not knowing when.

At Advent we anticipate the coming of God’s son in human flesh, the Emmanuel come to this world.  But we are also asked to anticipate the return of the risen Christ to finally fulfil the vision of God’s peace, love and grace present in every part of the kingdom.  We live out our faith between these two times.
What are we to do?  How do we follow the path of Jesus in this
Left to ourselves, we find several options. 
Picture this: a waiting room – not busy, just one other person in it when she arrives.  ‘Been waiting long?’ she says to the man as she takes a seat. ‘Oh about 2000 years, give or take’ he responds and then seeing the look of disbelief ‘Well, he said he was coming soon, so I’ve just been hanging around, sort of.’  ‘For 2000 years!’  ‘Well it’s actually gone by quite fast.  I wanted to be ready. Actually made a cup of tea for him – see, right here, waiting, prepared.’
‘But haven’t you ever given up hope?’ she says.  ‘No, no, he said he’d be back and he will be.  All good.’
‘Look, my friend, I don’t quite know how to say this but there has been a bit of a change in thinking since the early church – everyone expected Jesus back as soon as to rescue them from all the terrible stuff that was going on.  But now we think of the kingdom of God as something here, now, among us.  Jesus’ ministry was the beginning of this idea that the rebirth of the world is happening now.  Its even got a name – its called realised eschatology!’
‘Realised e – esk,,,,what? Anyway, sounds like a bit of a cop out if you ask me’ replies the man.  ‘What about being prepared, being ready?’
‘Oh we certainly need to be that’ she said ‘but should we let this world, this beautiful creation of God simply go to rack and ruin while we wait, eyes on the door?  What about the people who are suffering, the earth that is struggling for survival, justice and peace – should we just not care?’
‘Actually,’ said the man a little bit shamefaced, ‘I have wondered about that while I’ve been sitting here.  I’ve often wanted to ask God why no action on all the poverty and hunger, all the bad stuff going on.’
‘So why haven’t you,’ she asked quietly.
‘Because I’m frightened God might ask me the same question.’

Sitting, waiting, prepared with cup of tea in hand is not what Jesus is asking of us.  He is asking instead that we get on with bringing the kingdom of God to fruition in our ordinary and everyday living, working in the field, grinding meal, travelling on the bus and chatting with our neighbour or the stranger.  Alert always to the working of Jesus in us and through us and to us, we spread the light of love and grace and help shape God’s kingdom in the here and now. 
Our God is one who holds all time – past, present and future – in creation. We wait, we wait without knowing and we instead focus on living today in a spirit of wakeful and watchful activity - in Jesus name.  The light of Christ is to shine in our world both now and to come.  In watchfulness and wakefulness we remain alert to the needs of the world around us now, as, in our ordinary lives, in our every day, we walk in the light of Christ.  And let our hope be strong that in this time of waiting, the vision of a world full of light and love is to be fulfilled by a baby - born in Bethlehem – 2000 years ago – for us.  Amen.  

Let us hear these words from Shirley Murray as they lead us to creed and communion:

God of all time, all seasons of our living,
Source of our spark, protector of our flame,
blazing before our birth, beyond our dying,
God of all time, we come to sing your name,

Here in this place, where others have been building,
we come to claim the legacy of faith,
take in our turn the telling of your story,
and, though we tremble, speak your hope, your truth.

Spirit who draws our fragile selves together,
Spirit who turns a stranger to a friend,
Be at this table where we greet each other,
Be in the peace we pass from hand to hand.

Let us not die from poverty of caring;
let us not starve, where love is to be shared.
Come, break us open to receive your healing:
your broken body be our wine and bread
words © Shirley Murray AA 49

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24 November 2019 Reign of Christ.

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6   Luke 23:33-43

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 hymn, an old one, an anonymous one that goes like this:
Thou shalt not know him when he comes,
Not by any din of drums,
Nor by his manners, nor his airs,
Nor by anything he wears.
Thou shalt know him when he comes,
Not by crown or by gown,
But his coming known shall be,
By the holy harmony
Which his coming shall make in thee.
Thou shalt know him when he comes.  Amen.

I think it could be said that Jesus is the most paradoxical wielder of power in the history of the world.[1] He came to this world not with crown or drum but in a dark dank stable. He promised the world but ended up on a dirty old cross alongside criminals, a disappointment to those who had high expectations of his power and might. 
He restored others to life but could not seem to save himself.
Yet on the cross, in his suffering and weakness, he wielded more power than any earthly ruler.  He was the highest above all yet was treated as the lowest of scum at his death.  King of the lowlands might have been another apt inscription for him.  He was mocked for aspiring to titles that he never claimed, yet in the cruel jibes of the leaders and the soldiers the truth of his greatness was made known.

But Jesus had begun this story of upside down power from the beginning.  Born humbly, he was visited by the venerable wise sages from the east.  An innocent babe, he was perceived as a threat to his crown and hunted down by the powerful Herod.  A simple family became refugees through the warnings of the heavenly hosts.  This was an ordinary child, yet the power of kings could not destroy him and the power of heaven watched over him.

And throughout his ministry, his power always seemed topsy-turvy to those around him.  For it healed the weak and not the important, it sought out the unclean and not the holy, it beckoned to table the tax collector and threw over the tables of the temple.  He saw kingship as best understood by the role of shepherd caring for the flock, even the least and the lost.

If he was the messiah he was behaving in a most unexpected way, confusing and counter cultural.

For there was no doubt that the long awaited messiah was reckoned in worldly terms as a dangerous threat to the establishment– Judas thought so, the temple authorities thought so, Herod thought so too.  All from their different perspectives, they expected someone who would overthrow the rulers of the world and replace them. While this man didn’t quite fit the bill, they were taking no chances.
So they killed him.  Put him on the cross, belittled him, humiliated him, certain that that was end of that. 

Yet their mocking inscription held true –in a truly revolutionary way. King of the Jews.

You know if you were to do that word association thing – I say a word and you come back with the first thing it makes you think of, what would be your response to king?  It would be different to each person and certainly different to those people Jesus was speaking to 2000 years ago.  ‘King’ for us today does not hold as much of the menace or outright authority that it used to.  For them it was an instant connection with full and unassailable power, privilege and right.  The only thing that could possibly challenge it would be an even greater show of power, privilege and right.  That still happens today of course – ‘my bomb is greater than your bomb’ is heard in its many variations still.  Yet this was not the way that Jesus taught or exemplified – not in life or death.

Jesus, the most paradoxical wielder of power the world has ever known.

He seemed to be submissive – and so he was – to his Father.
He seemed to be have lost his assertiveness – but he spearheaded a revolution of love and grace.
He seemed to abdicate kingship in this world – yet he created a new understanding of kingdom not just in the yet to come but also in the now.
Jesus was dangerous, make no mistake about that, he was a true revolutionary, a subversive – but just not in the way everyone expected. 

And that is our legacy is it not?  How might we live it today?

Well perhaps first is the understanding that in we do not live bowed down by the accusations of the world – neither do we throw the accusations back with a louder voice and a better aim.  We offer a different way of living out the kingdom – love and compassion, justice and kindness are the laws we live by. We are the kingdom that Jesus established, by our living and our witness.

Then there is the thought that we are not helpless or hopeless, powerless just because we choose to walk the path of peace rather than war.   Jesus was born to show the world the power of love – yet we shy away from being that power in the world.  The words of Marianne Williamson, slightly adapted, challenge us to be more forthright and confident in the strength of the light of Christ in us:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: ‘Who am I to be outspoken,
confident, brimming over with hope, trusting in God’s presence in my life?’ Actually who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure about you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some, it is in everyone.
And, as we let our light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same.

So let us not be cave dwellers, people of the dark – let us take on a bit more of the confidence that what we do in the name of Christ, in the name of love, has the power to make a big difference.

Another question: do we have a bit of the subversive in us, challenging the ways of the world that hurt and harm, especially the powerless. Challenging also the ways of the church when they honour not Christ but the kingdoms of exclusion, judgement, self righteousness, hypocrisy.
Coming at the woes of the world with new solutions, different answers, taking the revolutionary path of love and compassion.  Where is our subversive meter reading sitting at right now and does it need a wee nudge up the way?

It seems fitting to finish by coming back to those words of the old hymn we started with –  the assurance that in the coming of the baby Jesus to our world, and in this child’s unhesitating walk all the way to the cross, we are healed, we are made whole, we are made complete in his holy presence and power.
Thou shalt know him when he comes,
Not by crown or by gown,
But his coming known shall be,
By the holy harmony
Which his coming shall make in thee.
Thou shalt know him when he comes.  Amen                                    Margaret Garland

[1] Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 4  Martha Sterne p.315

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17 November 2019 Pentecost 23

Readings: Isaiah 65:17-25   Luke 21:5-19
We pray; Loving God, we have listened to your word through scripture, help us now to discern your word for us in this time and place to your purpose and glory.  Amen.

Do not be too prepared in your defence for what is to come; I will give you the words and the wisdom.  So says Jesus as he warns his followers that they are in for a very hard time ahead.  The destruction of the temple, wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues – and persecution and personal betrayal.  Not a lot to look forward to, you might say.

As the Hebrew people of the time, we can imagine that they would have been familiar with the stories of their ancestors, where they lived through despair, of persecution, and great trials. The reading from Isaiah today, giving glimpse into the new heaven and the new earth, offers words of thanksgiving after a particularly testing time for the people of God – this scripture they would have known well, and maybe they drew some comfort from it.

But all the same they were horrified, scared, potentially going into shut down mode at this landslide of disaster facing them. Especially I imagine when it gets to family betrayal and death for their faith.  And Jesus, seeing their very natural fearful reaction to his words, told them that this was not the time to raise the drawbridge and hunker down – in fact just the opposite. 

Instead he tells them to have not fear, to in fact enter the fray with confidence because it is in this time of extreme vulnerability that you will have the chance to tell your story – and it will be such a convincing story that none will withstand it.  I will be with you, I will give you the words of conviction that none can challenge.  Do not be afraid. Do not be panicked by fear into doing the wrong thing.
He had said those words to them other times they had panicked: remember the time the disciples were battling the most horrendous sea and Jesus was asleep in the bow, and they awoke him sure they were going to drown.  Then too he said– do not be afraid, I am with you, not a hair on your head will be harmed.

Time and time again the church has grappled with the sense of the end of time, of the world falling down around their ears – through wars and natural disasters and, let’s not forget, the church itself wandering off into institutional incompetence at best and inquisitions or crusades at our worst.

And our 21st century church – what are the things that feel apocalyptic in our time?
For we can say with certainty that we as church also feel  seriously threatened today – we could be forgiven for thinking we best hunker down and see if we can ride out the storm of indifference, irrelevance, extremism that appears to beset us.  And as for the catastrophe that the planet seems to be approaching at an increasing rate of knots, perhaps we should we simply lock the doors and walk away, too bowed down by fear and hopelessness to continue with any fortitude.  Jesus would understand, surely!

Actually – no.  Instead Jesus says to us also. ‘This will give you the opportunity to testify.’  And to testify from the heart – not with our prepared doctrines or our strategic plans, not with defensive rhetoric but instead leaving all that armour behind and stepping out in faithful vulnerability trusting that Jesus, the word, will be with us.  That goes against just about every best practice that I hold dear.  Be fully prepared, allow for plan b and c, try to anticipate what I will need to be, do and say.  Well actually I should say everything I held dear when I came into ministry.  That  has changed.  I know how it feels to step into a situation where distress and pain is rife, having no idea whatsoever of anything to say that won’t feel stupid or insensitive or shallow – and somehow, in the moment, God is there guiding and giving me the words that are needed.  It’s happened too many times for me to doubt that in our unprepared vulnerability, God speaks or maybe it is that we allow God to speak.

In our world, how do we who have been relatively privileged, how do we respond to the suffering and pain of the world, to the threats of changing climate, increasing exploitation, extremism in God’s name. What does it mean to testify in times of great suffering and great hatred?  Well it means courage.  Courage in the face of fear.  Hope when all seem hopeless.  It means boldness to speak in the midst of suffering.
We in Aotearoa have had a sharp lesson in that this year past and we in the church even more so as we grappled with the hatred of the mosque shooting and its aftermath.  But we also saw the love and compassion of people of faith, the challenge of the right words to speak into the horror, a new beginning of relationship and understanding.
The sometimes the sheer overwhelmedness of what is happening around us has the capacity to paralyse us, to cause us to give up, to retreat into our shells and yet Jesus is teaching us to make the most of this scary vulnerable time – our voice is needed and we must not be intimidated.  We must trust that in our very powerlessness we are well qualified to speak with authority and wisdom – not ours but God’s.  Our words bear witness to Christ’s unshakeable promise to walk with us in all that this world might throw at us to a new creation - remember the words of hope from Isaiah For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

We actually have someone in NZ at the moment who epitomises that boldness and courage in the face of crushing despair.  Behrouz Boochani has been incarcerated on Manu Island for the last 6 years. A Kurdish/Iranian refugee, he left Iran afraid for his life only to be sent to the prison that is Australia’s answer to immigration pressures. He could have kept silent, waited and prayed.  But he didn’t. He spoke out while he was there – sending texts and short video clips out to the world. When his phone was taken he somehow got an another and another, telling the story of the suffering and despair bit by tiny bit.  He did not lie down and he did not keep quiet – he testified to the injustice and cruelty and he would not be quiet. 

Hear the story of Behrouz, ‘Manus Island Psalm’ written by Candi Young and hear the pain and the perseverance of this remarkable man who would not be silenced.  As I pray we will not be.

God, this is not our home, this place of blistering heat
suffocating us slowly with its dank humidity
night odours of sweat and foul breath
of decay, degeneration, degradation
strangling our hearts, our spirits.
The cold-steel eyes of the prison guards
the callous, careless arrogance of the Malaria nurses
God, this is not our home.

We survive during the day thanks to an old tree
spreading its branches, creating a canopy…
our tent in this alien wilderness.
This is not our home, but it is a refuge
from the oppression of this place
from ever-present surveillance
from nights clutching tightly to our nightmares
from being broken down slowly from without and within
…decay, degeneration, degradation.

God, this is not our home, this place of brokenness
of noise for the sake of noise.  Our songs, our poetry
have no meaning here, our images are lost to us
they remain behind in the mountains buried in snow
in rivers and waterfalls drumming the ancient chants.
Our metaphors have no substance here in this barren place.
We would weep, God, if we were not sucked dry.

This is not our home…but that home, that place where we began
grew, soaked up our language and history, turned on us.
So God, teach us to negotiate this culture of oppression
help us to enter into this new landscape, find a language of exile
…help us to survive.

This is not our home, and yet it is our only home.

Jesus said: This too is required of you – in the midst of the world’s turmoil, to have the courage and the boldness to testify to a better way, to trust in the promise of the man who, from his birth, walked towards the cross in the vulnerability and changed the world forever.   Amen.

Margaret Garland

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