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