Saturday, 18 January 2020

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19 January 2020 Epiphany 2

Readings:  1 Corinthians 1:1-9   John 1:29-31, 35-42

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.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, …
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ….. I give thanks to my God always for you.[1]

I give thanks to my God always for you.  How tempting to stop there.  For what more does one say at this almost time of parting; when a ministry is completed, when there will be, by definition, some adjustments, some new ways into how we live our faith in this place? And what does it mean to follow Christ in times of change and how can we use this moment as opportunity to grow, to find the good and the encouraging in the midst of the farewells and, let’s face it, the odd tear? 

Imagine for a moment the fishermen that Jesus called to follow him.  Even though they were people of faith, attending the Synagogue, reading scripture, believing in God, there came this abrupt and momentous change in their lives when Jesus appeared among them calling for them to follow.  They left all that they knew to explore their faith in the company of man called Jesus. And we need to remember that they left important parts of their lives behind: family, work that supported that family, everything known, everything familiar to come and see where Jesus would lead them.   For them the change was really radical, for us this change is expected and accepted as the ebb and flow of parish life. 
But for all that, it is helpful to recognise and use this time of transition to pause and reflect on what has been in order to learn, to grow, to better equip ourselves for the future!

So here are some thoughts from the last few years, drawn out of the words Paul wrote to the Corinthians about strength and grace, of peace and gifts.

One thing that has stood out for me over this ministry has been the absolute importance of making this a safe place for all people.  Not safe in the sense of shutting out all that disturbs us but safe for us to be able to explore, be on the edges for a while until we are ready to move closer (or not), to re-engage with our faith, our God without being cornered.  You would have heard me say more than once of a person who came tentatively to a service, first time back in any church in a long time (no surprise that they sat close to the exit door), just waiting for a repeat experience of the judgement and bias that drove them away – and it didn’t happen.  This is a place of love in action, where thoughtful words, unconditional welcome, listening without presumption are touches of healing and peace.   May you continue to be a people and a church where God is allowed to be who God needs to be to each of you and to all of you. 

Another big thing is your engagement – with ideas, with people, with issues, with community, with determinedly walking in the way of Christ.  It blew me away when I arrived to discover that more than three people would turn up to anything outside Sunday morning service!  You are a family of thinkers, carers, workers, writers, players, laughter makers.  You have questioners, ponderers, peace makers and healers.  You have founts of wisdom, listeners, talkers, organisers, creators of new things.  You are blessed, we are blessed. 
Yet in the midst of all of this richness, we remind ourselves of the basics of being loving community in the way of Jesus.  We think anew what it means to truly be a welcoming place – that no-one would stand alone, un-greeted, un-welcomed; that no-one would be turned away or made to feel uncomfortable, that each one of us would know ourselves responsible for this thing we call ‘the hospitality of Jesus’; each one of us to lift our eyes and see where our ear, our smile, our touch is needed. Here at worship, in our church, in our homes, in our workplace, in our community – always looking to where the grace of God, having been given to us in Jesus Christ, is being made known in our word and action.  
It’s all too easy to leave it to someone else, tell ourselves we are not good at this, worry that we won’t know what to do or say – but I say; do it anyway, say it anyway, remembering that we are not doing this alone, but in the loving guidance of God with us.  Remember last week’s story: ‘Don’t ask me to …..’ says the reluctant disciple.  ‘Oh but I will’ replies Jesus.
Whether it be the greeting of and getting to know new people at church (just not all at once please) to the phone call or popping in to those who are alone, to being aware of others needs over yours, to accepting and asking when you need help, may the strength of Jesus Christ be among you all as you care for each other.

And then there is the place of relationship in our journey as a faith community and as a people of God.  We are different because we have known Jesus.  We are set apart to live out our faith in relationship with God and each other in a certain way.  We are more than an interesting club with Jesus as our logo.  We are bound, in all our wonderful diversity, as one people, walking a broad path of love, justice, mercy, grace.  We are covenanted to following a man whose wisdom made the way of the world seem foolish, who compassion for the least and the lost turned our hearts and our heads to a new and better way, who pursued relationship with the least and the lost, the challenging and the quarrelsome.
That is our path to follow but, much as some rather loud voices in our world would like to claim it so, we don’t know it all, nor do we get it right all the time.  
For it is a difficult journey asking much of us. We certainly don’t get it ‘right’ all the time in our relationships, we still find some people difficult to get on with, don’t understand their point of view or their approach, others get right up our noses at times, yet others are so easy to get on with we create a zone of exclusion. All very normal human traits but, as the people of God, we yearn for and choose to work a new and better way: for kindness, justice, respect, love to be woven in to each word and action even when it is hard to do.  We must learn to trust each other’s good intentions and seek ways of understanding each other, even when it might mean difficult truths – because this community is sacred, this community is, in Jesus name, the living embodiment of a love that transforms not just us and but also the world.   May you continue to be grace and peace to each other and may your relationships grow in strength, in trust, in hope and in love, in Jesus name.

And finally we have those words from the Gospel reading.  ‘Come and see’ says Jesus when the disciples ask where he is staying.  ‘Come and see….’
Come with me and you will see ….what?  Those first disciples hadn’t clue – yet they went with him.  They had no strategic plan for convincing the world that this was the Messiah, yet they believed in him.  They had sorrow at leaving and excitement at what was to come.  They had hope for the future, because they trusted in Jesus to guide them to the promised land and be with them in all that they encountered.  May you - and I - be excited by the invitation to ‘come and see’ where it is Christ is leading us in our futures.
To the church of God that is in Opoho, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…..
I give thanks to my God always for you.[2] 

Margaret Garland

[1] 1 Corinthians 1: 1-4a NRSV
[2] 1 Corinthians 1: 2-4a NRSV (adapted)

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 12 January 2020 Baptism of Jesus.

Readings:  Isaiah 42:1-9    Matthew 3:13-17

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.

It has been for me a week of deep conversations, me with God, me with me, me with some of you.  I hope that you too have had good conversations these few weeks.  I hope some have been beautifully nonsensical, some nostalgic, some challenging, some creative, some productive.  I value conversations – and I think that it is absolutely clear that I would have trouble not being able to speak for any long period of time.  Having said that I also value silence – shutting out the jabber of the world and of our own babbling and listening to God in the huge space left when we mute our own voice.

So it is not surprise that I find myself trying to imagine the conversations that actually go on in the sometimes limited, often cursory version of stories and encounters we hear.  For whatever reason, maybe through a desire for conciseness or perhaps an inability to notice the other conversations, or the desire to point us in a certain direction, I often feel that the lack of a complete story.  And I especially do this in the stories that we hear from Scripture – and I think it is no bad thing to be always seeking for the back story, the nuances of language, the eyebrows raised, the asides and the unspoken emotions. One technique well used is to hear another take on the story, place it in a different context, maybe a contemporary one that we can more easily place ourselves in, one that shakes us up in a different way, allows us to re-imagine. 
Today we have the story of Jesus being baptised – a few short sentences to tell of one of the pivotal moments in his life.  This reading invites us to think about what baptism means for us; that we all are drawn in to the waters of new life, again and again through the grace and love of Jesus. It tells us beyond doubt that we are loved, valued and encouraged in faith.  It tells us that, in the power of the Spirit, we are to be the light of the love to Christ to the each other and the world.
It is a moment of new beginning: of committed relationship, of deep conversation and connection with God and, most importantly for us today – the promise of walking in the way of truth and light in a world of great need.  And that promise can get lost or weakened to the point of nothingness  - not necessarily intentionally but through all those self-doubts, excessive expectations, fear of getting it wrong, sense of inadequacy for the task ahead.
When I came across this story that I am going to share with you in a moment, it reminded me of my once long held assumptions that I didn’t deserve to be part of a in depth conversation with God, that I was not good enough, skilled enough, deserving enough to warrant the relationship or be the light of Christ in the world.
Even now, at this stage of my ministry, I find it difficult to accept that God could say to me: Well done you good and faithful servant or This is my daughter, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
This story and poem by Tom Gordon challenges us to accept that we too are blessed as we commit our lives to God, reminds us that our baptism is a living daily reality, gives us courage to step up as the light of Christ despite our misgivings and feelings of inadequacy. 

Read Marty’s Baptism by Tom Gordon from Welcoming Each Wonder Wild Goose Publications 2010 p.50

Poem by Tom Gordon

Don’t ask me to stand in front of the crowd…..
I’ll have nothing to say;
and, even if I do, they won’t like it anyway.

Go on.  Give it a go. Put your toe in the water.
I believe in you

Don’t ask me to perform miracles….
That’s not my style;
and even if it was, it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.

Come on. You can do it. You’ve got more to offer than you’ll ever know.
I believe in you.

Don’t ask me to do clever things…..
That’s not me;
and, even if it was, it wouldn’t be as good as the others anyway.

Carry on. You can do it.  Just be yourself.
I believe in you.

Don’t ask me to carry huge expectations….
The load’s not light enough for me;
and, even if it was, I’m not sure I want this burden anyway.

Sign on. You can do it. You’ve got the strength you need.
I believe in you.

Don’t ask….
I will.

Don’t expect….
I will.

Don’t believe…
I will.

For you are my beloved; in you I am well pleased. 
This is your baptism……
Come on!
I believe in you.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 5 January 2020 Christmas 2

Readings:  Jeremiah 31:7-14  John 1:10-18

We pray: May the Word we hear today capture our hearts and minds and nurture our faith and bring us closer to you holy God.  Amen.

Today on the second Sunday after Christmas, we take our last look for a little while at the story of the nativity, the birth of Jesus into this world.
For those who might like to have things arranged decently and in good order, the narrative of the birth of Jesus from the Gospels is a bit of a messy affair.  From the gospel of Matthew, we have the birth in Bethlehem without the census, no shepherds, the story of the mages from the east, and the slaughter of the innocents.  The family only comes to Nazareth after returning from Egypt.  Mark begins with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus – no birth narrative.  Luke offers the story of Elizabeth and Zacharias, John the Baptist’s parents, angels, a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth, stable, shepherds with more angels and finally Simeon and Anna.  We negotiate our way through these discrepancies, pull in the date stamp of the visit of the magi and voila we have the Christmas story as we lovingly know it.
Today’s narrative of the birth of Jesus comes, however, from the Gospel of John –a somewhat different approach but a birth narrative none the less. 

Less concerned with timelines, geographical identities or human endeavour, John instead takes us into the very completeness of God the Word and encourages us to reflect on the nature, the presence and works of God made known in Jesus.
This powerful, poetic hymn to the person of Jesus captures us into a quite different way to the traditional story and challenges us in the way that the Matthew and Luke narratives might not.

And probably the greatest of these challenges for us and the one I would like to focus on today come in these verses:  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[1]
The light of the world came among us – and we did not recognise him.  Blindness is bad enough but John asks us to  also face the accusation that we choose to not accept him – which implies some recognition I think?

Yet when we do recognise the light, the exuberance of belonging simply erupts out of the mouth of John: inspiring words of the glory and grace, the very belonging and the vision, the gift of life in the coming of Jesus at the Word.  We are bound in new relationship with God as parent – not through kinship or human choice or physical birth - but through believing we have new birth.
And then we have some of the most poignant and beautiful words of the birth narrative in scripture – to me anyway: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.[2]

It all seems quite simple doesn’t it?  We have a choice.  Believe or don’t believe.  Light or darkness.  Rejection or acceptance.  Blind or visionary.

But when it involves humankind, it is never that simple.  We manage, with a guile that only we can produce, to find ways to live in the grey space – or a black space we think is full of light and vice versa. 
In fact I am just reading the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman book Good Omens where an angel and a devil reflect on the endless ability of the human race to take off down a wrong path without any pushing at all.  Similar to C.S.Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the propensity we have for sliding off the path of right living, of tweaking our faith for our own ends, has the agents of the devil rubbing their hands with glee. 

And much of that comes through our ability to justify our actions by quoting scripture.  One only has to look at history and current practice to realise how misused and misinterpreted the holy scriptures of the three Abrahamic faiths have been.  In the Bible, the Torah and the Quaran, there are many instances of interpretation being so removed from intention as to make all religion appear evil. We know that almost anything can be justified by verses of scripture: injustice, exclusion, hatred, killing…. We are surrounded by it. 

So how do we encounter and understand the Word of God without going down this path of abuse and darkness.

The birth narrative from John’s Gospel directs us to the light.  He makes the point that the Word is not paper and ink but flesh, come to live among us as the Christ Child.   The Word is in fact part of creation, there from the beginning, the light and life of all people, full of grace and truth.  It is when we encounter the Word made flesh alongside the words on the page that we will come to understand what living in the light means.  When we read the words of the bible without the presence of Jesus to help us discern true meaning we are on a slippery slope.

There is a painting by Rembrandt called the Holy Family – it depicts the nativity as if in the 17th century and has Mary seated with a well used book (presumably the Scriptures) in her lap, held open by her left hand.  Her right hand is on the top of a rocking cradle pulling aside a cover to reveal a sleeping baby Jesus.  Mary’s head is turned from the book to gaze upon the infant.  Joseph works in the background.  Mary ponders both the words on the page and the infant beside her.  And as she turns back to her reading, you can feel that her understanding will be held in the strength of the Word made flesh.  Back and forth: words on the page to the word incarnate, spelling out the light of the Word in truth and grace.

I wonder if we could think about how we ‘spell’ the Word to the world.

Using the words of Thomas Troeger[3]:

How do you spell the word?
Where do you search and look –
amid the coos and cries you’ve heard
or in a well-thumbed book?

Hold back with the swift reply,
the pious, worn cliché
that softens how the child will die
when violence has its way.

Instead, let all you do
embody truth and grace,
and you will spell the word anew
in every time and place.

I wonder if this year, we might look to develop a richer fuller faith by tending to both the Word through words and the Word made flesh – the Christ who is with us in sacraments, at the table, in prayer, in this sacred space of our church, with us in our friends, with us in the stranger, with us in creation – since all things came into being through him, and without him not one think came into being.

And so we say – thanks be to God the Word come among us this Christmas time.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] John 1:10-11 NRSV
[2] John 1: 14 NRSV
[3] Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1  p. 193