Sermon: Flesh and Spirit

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Sermon 6 April 2014 St Mary’s Whitby

Ezek 37:1-14,Ps 130, Rom 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Today’s readings all deal in some aspect with life and death, with flesh and the spirit.

I like watching medical programmes on TV, and one of my current favourites is ’24 hours in A and E’. I was watching this last week, where someone had been wheeled into Resus, when I noticed the sign for the Resus department on the wall. R.E.S.U.S. It’s only one letter away from Jesus. This got me thinking – is Jesus our Resus?

In our culture we are so frightened of death, and our medical protocol often involves lots of technology to prolong life – the image of the paddles charging up, the doctor calling clear! as the patient’s heart is shocked into life is very familiar from our TV dramas. (I’m thinking maybe I watch too much TV?)

There is a finality about physical death that we all rail against, wanting life to be resuscitated no matter what the intervention.

No one wants to think that physical death is the end of the story, and every society and religion over many thousands of years has had some sort of understanding that life goes on after physical death. Continue reading

Sermon:Temptation

Matthew 4:1-11

Temptation. This is traditionally the theme of today’s reading. There are many things that are tempting in life, but let’s pause and consider why they are a problem. If we are tempted to follow the fleshly path, such as desiring food, safety, power, as Jesus was tempted, these things can become idols. Yes, it’s important to look after our bodies, but putting needs like food, safety and power at the top of our list can become a bit compulsive if we let it. If you have ever been on a diet you will know what I mean – when I was trying to lose weight many years ago, on a strict regime, all I could think abut was food, and how I would spend the extra calories I was allowed each week. I would plan all week, which cake to buy at the bakery. It had become an obsession, an idol for me.

No, Jesus tells the devil. God’s word is more important than those other needs. If we are tempted to worry too much about the world of ourselves, we can follow Jesus’ example and go back to God’s word in scripture.

As we get older, our physical needs change. We may no longer be tempted in ways that we were earlier, but the desire to have functional, painfree bodies becomes important to us. This scripture challenges us – and it is a hard challenge – to trust God for those things, and not to think of looking to the flesh and the devil for solutions. Maybe this means not being tempted to unhealthy ways in order to distract us from pain. One of the temptations as we age is to try everything in order to regain mobility and function, and there are many ads on tv for various supplements and vitamins that promise all sorts of benefits. What’s the harm in that? you may ask. Good question, and it’s fine if you can afford it. But that’s the problem. Many of these things are unproven and are very expensive – a single trip to the chemist for a small bag of potions can cost upwards of a hundred dollars! People who spend this money risk losing their financial security as they spend money they need for other things, like food and heating.

Jesus’ message for us here today is to trust God, no matter how tough things get. No matter how hungry, lonely, or hurting we are. Jesus had to trust his heavenly father to care for him in the wilderness, and we can trust him too, to be there for us, no matter what is going on in our bodies and our lives.

Noah’s Flood

My daughter has recently been performing in Benjamin Britten’s Opera Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood) which is a community opera based on a mystery play. This was a charming and moving performance – not least for seeing her cast as a rooster!

What struck me was the juxtaposition of the Old Testament story with hymns interspersed, to be sung by the audience with the cast. The first Hymn was “Lord Jesus, think on me”. At first I found it quite anachronistic to have Jesus mentioned in the same story as the Genesis tale of Noah – I was wanting to keep it all chronologically pure! But then the audience had another hymn to sing – “Eternal father, strong to save”, which was incredibly moving as the Noah family and the animals prayed for safety in the ark. I started thinking about the response of the original audience to the mystery play. Rather than seeing Noah’s Ark as a stand-alone story, having these hymns as a sort of response to it puts the whole story in context for Christians. Praying to Jesus to think on us is completely appropriate then. I wonder how many other times we put old testament stories in a separate compartment, and neglect to integrate them into our story?

The final hymn sung by everyone was to the tune of Tallis’ Canon – and the last line of words we all sang was ‘the hand that made us is Divine”. What a wonderful line to have running around in your head as you leave the performance! I’m sure works like this have an impact on all involved, whether cast, families or audience, as these timeless words resonate.

I wonder what other Old Testament favourite stories could be used like this? The Miracle plays were a way that uneducated people could engage with these stories and fit them into their faith, and I think they could be useful again.

Sermon: False and True Worship

 

sermon St Mary’s Whitby 9 Feb 2014

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matt 5:13-20

The title, or quick guide, to today’s Isaiah reading is False and True Worship.This is a very challenging idea – both for the Israelites and for us.Isaiah tells his people that they are very quick to follow the outward forms of worship, almost competing with one another to see who can be the best, most religious, worshipper. Their motives are good – they delight to draw near to God. But what happens? They fast, but end up fighting.

Now, any of you who have children will know what I have been slowly learning the hard way – you just can’t expect decent behaviour if they’re hungry. For our family, that means that I need to have something substantial, that they will eat, ready at afternoon tea time, and with school going back this week, we’re all readjusting to the timing of eating! If the kids have no food in their tummies, they are grumpy and make bad choices about what names they call each other, and what they do with their hands. Or fists.

It would have been the same for the Israelites. They had a good motive to fast, or so they thought. They were doing it to draw nearer to God! But if God didn’t want them to do that, they would not have had the Holy Spirit’s help to fast in a God-honouring way. There’s no point feeling virtuous for fasting, thinking you’re super-religious, if the Holy Spirit isn’t part of the deal. It will only lead to grumpiness and fighting. 

The Israelites have another idea – we should be humble and lowly and bow down our heads, covering ourselves with ashes. Well, there isn’t much point to this either, as Isaiah tells them. What they’re really doing is making a public show of being humble, of doing nothing but looking so dejected that they really must be religious… Maybe?

No, God has a better idea. Service to God, service that really counts, is service to God’s people.It’s interesting that feeding the hungry comes a little way down the list- it isn’t at the top. First we have the context for this serving -“loosing the bonds of injustice,undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free,and breaking every yoke.

Now, lets pause at this point. If we take this small passage as a guide for how God wants us to live our lives in community with each other, we need to do some thinking, and work out the meaning for ourselves and our world.

Loosing the bonds of injustice. That’s a really broad idea isnt it, but it contains hope. It tells us that we can do something about injustice.Often our society encourages us to have a sort of fatalistic attitude to the world – things are unjust, there’s not a lot we can do about it. In fact, when Iwas a kid, my dad, who was a GP, had a quick rejoinder for any kid who whined that things werent fair. “Life’s not fair, get used to it”. I find myself saying it too.But surely here Isaiah is giving us from God an encouragement that we can indeed do something about injustice.It binds people up, but we can help. We can loosen those bonds. Maybe we can’t break them entirely, maybe we cant completely resolve the situation, but we can loosen the bonds. And when the bonds are loosened just a little bit, it will be easier for them to be finally cast aside by the one bound up. In fact, the next part of our reading guides us – after we have loosened the bonds of injustice, only then can we untie the thongs of the yoke, removing the heavy burden from the oppressed. We can let them, and us, go free, and not only that, but break every yoke, so no one else can be oppressed by it.

How can we do this in our world? We’ve seen an example recently on the news, where the police have broken a child pornography ring. The bonds of injustice have been loosened by the investigators putting their information together, the thongs have been untied as they have been able to find who is responsible, the oppressed are set free when the children are no longer abused in this way, and the yoke is broken when it is harder for these sorts of horrible behaviours to happen again.

When we look at bondage to sin though, we must be careful not to be too black-and-white. We must avoid a them-and-us mentality. In a situation like child pornography, it is not only the people in the photos whoare in bondage. It is also those whoare addicted to looking at, and thinking about, those images. Loosing the bonds of injustice will break many yokes, both of those who are victims of other people, and those who are victims of themselves.

The next portion of our reading is a bit more straightforward really – we are encouraged to share our food with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our house, cover the naked, and not hide ourselves from our own kin.This sounds like straightforward charity doesnt it? But again, it isnt easy. We have to put ourselves out if we are to care for the poor. We have to share, to put our own needs second. Well, NZ is a great nation for charity, we areoften told. Street appeals do well, we arevery generous. But putting your loose change into a collector’s box, rattled under your nose outside the supermarket, is all very well, but it’s very impersonal. I believe we are challenged as Christians to get much more deeply involved. To get to know people. That means giving of ourselves. Bringing the homeless poor into our houses – oh dear, what if they’re smelly? What if they pinch stuff? What if they swear? Does God tell us to look after respectable‘ people only? No. And as for not hiding ourselves from our own kin – there’s a whole sermon just in that sentence!

Now, our country is organized very differently from ancient Israel. We have a social security safety net, so if we pay our taxes there should be support available for people who are hungry, poor, homeless. But there are times when people struggle to access these services, and we can help. Again though, often we need to really get to know the people we are helping, not just send them to the WINZ office with their form filled out. And do you know what? The blessing is a two-way street. We have an elderly neighbour who is struggling with life, and he’s often over for a coffee, or to borrow something. Yes, he always smells as if he’s smoked a packet every hour, and my hay fever flares up after he’s been. But he blesses us. He cares for us. When there was an earthquake recently he popped over to see of we were all right. That was really touching.

Isaiah tells us that when we treat God’s people kindly, our light will break forth like the dawn! Two weeks ago I preached here about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. Here we have the same image – the light of the presence of God in our lives and in our communities.Isaiah underscores the point with a similar passage of what we can do, which will again be rewarded by our light rising in the darkness.In this second group he has some more guidance for us – verse 9 jumped out when I was reading this passage earlier in the week –If you remove the yoke from among you,the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,(and there’s another bit about feeding the poor )– then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

This is an important point to consider. The yoke among us of pointing the finger and speaking evil. Yes, it is a yoke, one that can be loosed and broken. We have a choice how we regard other people. Pointing the finger, singling people out because they’re different. In our culture people who stand out are quickly noticed, and not usually in a good way. It’s called the Great NZ Clobbering Machine. Kids at school are ridiculed for tiny differences, be it in the type of lunch box they have, or what is in it, or when I was at school, it was for wearing old-style shoes. Kids are quick to point the finger. Adults are too, often point it in blame. ‘Speaking evil’ – that’s another word for gossip. Very tempting I know, but is it helpful? Does it build the kingdom? If we want our light to shine out like noonday, we can turn away, make better choices.

Some of you may be saying, yes, that’s all very well, but Isaiah wrote these words a long time ago. What relevance do they have? Well, Matthew’s audience certainly knew them. There are several times in the New Testament when Jesus is quoting from Isaiah, and Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish audience, reminds them, and us, that what Jesus had to say was in no way a replacement for the prophets of old. Jesus talks of salt and light. These are familiar images – light crops up a lot in this year’s set of readings. How about salt? It’s a bit out of favour if you have to watch your blood pressure, but try eating home-made bread without salt. It’s revolting. Just a teaspoon in the dough makes a huge difference.

And I think that’s a helpful image for us. If we are wondering how our small contribution to life around us could possibly make a difference, think about that tiny bit of salt. That little pinch that you put on your fried eggs. That sprinkle on your tomatoes. Just as it only takes a small bit of salt to bring out the true flavour of many foods, so it can take only a little bit of love to make a difference in someone’s life. Be encouraged by this – don’t think you can do nothing. Even a smile at someone, a kind word, an offer of help, a prayer, can start the ball rolling to loose the chains that bind.

As a deacon, when I give the dismissal, I say, “Go now to love and serve the Lord”. Be encouraged that when you leave the church today, you can indeed go to love the Lord, by serving other people, by being that salty flavour that brings life. The last bit of the dismissal is “Go in peace”. Don’t go feeling like you’ve been given an impossible task. Go with the peace in your heart of knowing that you can love God, you can serve God, and it’s not too huge. Just one sprinkle, one pinch of salt at a time.

Sermon: Jesus presented in the temple

 

Sermon: Whitby rest home 7 Feb 2014

Luke 2:22-40

The presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

Do you remember when you were a little child? If you were part of a Christian family, you may have had books of Bible stories for children, with all the stories about the kids in the Bible – Samuel, David, the child Jesus. Maybe you felt special as a child, reading about other children, who had an important role in the kingdom of heaven. So important hat now, three thousand years later, people remember their name, their story, their contribution.

Today’s’ Gospel reading is the version for the elderly of the same thing – here Simeon and Anna are both very old.. Even by the fact of their inclusion in the Gospel, you are encouraged that older people still have an important role in the kingdom of heaven. And just as Simeon and Anna will never be forgotten by anyone who reads the bible, so God will never forget you, even though you are no longer young.

Our society forgets the old – if we look at TV we see young, pretty, slim people. Never older, wrinkly, saggy, or anything other than a narrow slice of society. But God’s society isn’t like that. In God’s kingdom there is a place for everyone, no matter how many years they have been around, whether very young or very old. What God is interested in is the heart. Does your heart love God? Do you rejoice that Jesus has come into the world? That’s what matters.

There is another feature in today’s reading that I want to point out. Not only the very old, but the very young are involved. Jesus is a new baby, very little and weak. Just starting his life. Simeon and Anna are at the end of their long lives, getting ready to meet God. There is a circle here, a connection between the generations. Maybe in your family there are no more babies coming to visit, maybe the grandchildren have grown up and left town. But there are still people you may be connected to. Never lose that connection – if you don’t see them, if they don’t visit – and let’s face it, many young people don’t these days – may they still be present to you in your prayers. Just as Simeon and Anna prayed for the baby Jesus, you can pray for the little ones in your family, in your communities. Whitby is full of families, and there is a role for us all in praying for our children, those we see around us, those who live over the road, those who go to the school round the corner.

In God’s kingdom the elderly people are not forgotten. That goes for ancient Israel, and it goes for us, here and now.

 

Sermon: The people that walked in darkness.

Isa 9:1-4, 1 Cor 1:10-18, Matt 4: 12-23

I come from a family of church musicians. We would all sing in the church choir, and my Dad and brother played the organ. One of our favourite things to do before Christmas was to put the score for Handel’s wonderful piece “Messiah’ on the piano, with mum accompanying, and sing through it, as much as we could fit in between other facets of our day.

There is a wonderful bass solo, that my Dad and brother would sing – actually we’d all join in. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light!’ This is so ingrained in me that I have struggled so far today to resist breaking into song!

This text forms the bulk of our Isaiah reading, and in the Gospel Matthew tells us that in the coming of Jesus, Isaiah’s words are being fulfilled. Jesus himself doesn’t mention Isaiah here, but Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience who were familiar with the scripture, and who were looking expectantly for the Messiah.

Then Matthew sums up the shape of Jesus’ early ministry – ‘From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

These are not very specific words are they? I often find that when I am looking to the Bible for guidance, it can be frustratingly vague – sound familiar? The Message translation puts this verse another way: Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.

I think that is a good way of describing the effect of ‘seeing the light’.

But what does it mean for us, here, in New Zealand? What does it mean for this parish? Now, in some ways I am at a loss here, because I don’t know you yet, and you don’t know me. So I have to trust that what I am bringing you today is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Have you walked in darkness in your life? Have there been times when it just all seemed too hard, too depressing, as if nothing good ever happened?

I’ve certainly had those times in my life. I’ve walked in darkness, both through my own behaviour, and through some of the people I knew.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Not just any light.

The phrase, “I have seen the light’ is a common way of describing having received a revelation, not just something with a certain number of photons, but a new understanding, that would stay permanently.

Well, if we’ve seen God at work, we have indeed seen a great light. The greatest light, the creator of the universe – Imagine what a great light the initial moment of creation must have been – astronomers can still see it, in the very depths of space, through the strongest telescopes. If we’ve seen God at work healing and delivering people, we too have seen this great light.

It’s all very well to remind ourselves that we may have seen this light, that we have had a revelation of Jesus, who he is, and what that means for us. But, just as a genius like Einstein cannot ‘undiscover’ his insights, so we too cannot walk away from having seen that light.

I think that’s what the Corinthian people must have been doing – remember our Epistle reading?

They had seen the light, they had had Christ revealed to them. And yet, they were reverting to walking in darkness, the darkness of dissension and grumbling, envy and worse. They were arguing about who was greater – those who had been baptised by this one or that. In our modern context we could liken this to … having received the Holy Spirit through the hands of this prophet or that – was it at New Wine or at a Bill Subritzky campaign?

You can see how relevant this scripture can be for us. We are reminded that when we have seen the light, it never truly departs from us, but we still have a choice. The people of Corinth were choosing to behave in an all-too-human way, trying to find a position of superiority over each other by their spiritual credentials. Pride was sneaking into the group, and insecurity was rearing its ugly head. I wonder who sent them there?

Paul reminds them, lovingly but rather sharply, that Christ’s is the only Gospel – it doesn’t matter who told them about it. Whenever dissent creeps into a group of believers, the enemy rejoices and rubs its hands, making a bigger wedge between the members of the body. For the sake of the united body of Christ – that sounds like a new church doesn’t it? Christians must not indulge in one-upmanship over each other in their journeys to faith. These journeys are our testimonies, and it’s wonderful to hear each other tell their story of how they got from A to B, but it can be a source of trying to top one story with another. Better to treasure these things in your heart, as it were, than use them for pride.

We can take this idea – a sense of non-discrimination perhaps – broader too. There are many diverse ways of worshipping, and all sorts of not-quite -lining up theology – and that’s just in the Anglican church! If the Corinthians were being urged to put aside their differences and celebrate the cross where Jesus triumphed over death once and for all, surely any gathering of Christians, for whatever purpose, should be a place where all can feel as if they belong, where there are no second-class citizens.

Let’s take another look at Isaiah. “You have multiplied the nation and increased its joy! I don’t know about you, but my joy is increased when I am with a group of Christians. I love being part of the family, the body, where you don’t have to explain what you believe. It’s better than being with biological family in many ways – we were at a family wedding last weekend, where the culture of our granddaughter’s friends, with their myriad tattoos, was very different to ours. Most of the people there had no time for church or Christ, and faith seemed completely irrelevant to them. I knew many of those people because we are related. But today I am here with you, and while I have met some of you briefly, I don’ know you as well as I know my husband’s relatives, but because you and I chose to be here today, we can assume a certain similar mindset when it comes to faith. Christians aren’t clones of course, and there may be many ways in which we have different angles for seeing things -probably as many ideas as there are people here! but the sense of the Body of Christ is strong.

Isaiah says that the people rejoice before God, as with joy at the harvest. Let’s always do that when we meet together, rejoicing before God that we are indeed loved, and that in Jesus we have seen this great light.

The final part of the reading tells us the reason for this rejoicing – the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of the oppressor has been broken.This yoke, this bar, this oppression is sin.And when the Corinthians allowed pride and comparing themselves to creep in, they were making a way for sin. They were forgetting that they, who had once walked in darkness, had indeed seen a great light.

May we too always keep in mind where we have come from, what Christ has delivered us from, and rejoice together in Jesus.

 

 

 

Message: Baptism

In Matthew’s Gospel, at the end of chapter 3, we have  read the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan. This is traditionally a time for new Christians to be baptised too, and last Sunday at St C’s we welcomed a little one into the family of the church.

I want to think a bit about baptisms. When Jesus was baptised there was a voice speaking from heaven over him – this is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased. In the first century, when a tradesman wanted to introduce his adult son, apprentice-ship finished, to his community, these are the words he would say. This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased. Jesus’ earthly Dad, Joseph, who had trained Jesus as a carpenter wasn’t around – perhaps he had died. Imagine then hearing God speak these words from heaven!

We may never have heard God speaking over us in that way – if it sounded out in our church everyone would be looking to see who was being silly with the microphone!

But I truly believe that it does please God that we come for baptism, and that we bring our children too.

Christian baptism isn’t limited in time – once we have been baptised and joined the church, we are members for life. Our commitment, or that made on our behalf if we were christened as babies, is for all our present life, and extends into eternity.

Baptism is about intention. Intention to follow God no matter what, to renounce all evil, and to let Jesus be our guide. This doesn’t stop when we retire. It doesn’t stop when we can no longer care for ourselves. It doesn’t stop when we no longer remember who we are. Just as we acknowledge God in our baptism, God acknowledges us. and no matter how frail and forgetful we are, we are still God’s beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,300 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Love

Love seems a sweet and gentle idea. When we think of love, romantic visions of fluffy angels and love-hearts float in our heads, young couples running towards each other in slow motion through a field…but love comes at a cost. It involves pain and sacrifice. Have you ever loved someone so deeply that you would do anything for them? I imagine that anyone with children would be in that category. Well, that’s how much God loves us. So much that he would do anything for us, to save us from an eternity without him. That’s why he made the huge and amazing sacrifice of his own Son, sent to earth to teach, preach, heal and die, conquering death for our sakes.

What does it mean that God loves us so much? God always wants the very best for us. And that means God wants it for all people too. I know how much it pains me as a parent when two children I love are being awful to each other – how much more must it pain God when his children treat each other badly? If we accept God’s great love for us, we have a responsibility to love everyone else with that same love – as it flows out from us, the supply is always replenished from the depths of God’s love. As we model this love, we can encourage others also to love. We can get involved with our communities and our world, transforming unjust and unloving structures. We cannot refuse to love anyone, no matter how much we may not like them, how much we may not approve of them or their lifestyle, how much they have hurt us or someone we love. Love isn’t so easy is it?

The only way we can truly love as God wants us to love, is to see others as God sees them – worthy of the sacrifice of Jesus.

Nowhere to stay

I was listening to Luke 2 today, describing the journey Joseph and Mary made to Bethlehem. Several things struck me – and one may be the result of the other. They were going to his own town, his ancestral town. Surely there would have been relatives in Bethlehem who could have given Joseph and his pregnant fiancée a bed? What had gone wrong in his family so that the important codes of hospitality were not being observed? Maybe all Joseph’s relatives were no longer alive, or had moved elsewhere, and like Mary and Joseph were looking for accommodation too. Or maybe there had been some terrible disrupt in the family – many families today have problems where one person is seen as the ‘black sheep’, where no one will give them the time of day, let alone open their house. I urge you, if there is a problem like that in your family – and many families have issues – please try to forgive, and to let yourself be forgiven, and open your heart to your own family, no matter how awful they have been.

It’s entirely possible that Joseph and Mary were rejected by their own relatives. Why? Another part of Luke 2 gives a hint – Joseph was engaged to Mary, who was heavily pregnant. They were not yet married. There had been rumours about the coming baby which would float around for years, and maybe the relatives just couldn’t bear the thought of an unmarried couple with a baby nearly there contaminating their house.

As Christians we must guard against this attitude. Many Christians are very judgemental about people who live together, have their families, buy a house, a dog, a trampoline – in short, set up a family, without the legal status of marriage. Is it any of our business? A resounding NO! If it’s good enough for God to be born to an irregular couple, it’s good enough for us to accept those as a couple who regard themselves as one. The Bible continues to surprise us with the sort of people God uses to further the Truth, and human judgementalism and rule-making, which is unfortunately very noticeable in the church, can get in the way of God’s work.

This Christmas, let us welcome those we have rejected, and those who have rejected us. And let’s give thanks for families of all shapes and sizes – if they love each other, that’s a God-thing!