Sunday, 21 June 2009

Open wide your hearts

Pentecost 4 year B Sermon 2 Cor

I detect an epidemic in Wanaka…an outbreak of what the apostle Paul calls ‘worldly grief’a plague of depression.

I meet people in despair…because they can’t forgive they cant forgive those who’ve sinned against them… and even worse… even more disturbing… and destructive…

people who can’t forgive themselves.

Of course we all know the economic recession was caused by the orgy of greed which took place over the past decade.

But the epidemic of depression I’m observing… isn’t just caused by a hard economic times… some of it comes from the way our community defines sin.

You see here in paradise… failure and weakness seem to some to be an unforgiveable sin…it seems we’ve created a culture…

where to fail… is to be worthless. Where asking for help shows weakness… where people…particularly men… feel they have to hide their despair… behind their desperation to be accepted …often until it’s way too late.

I deal with the fallout every day… inside and outside the church… and so does every social service in town. It’s front page news in the Wanaka Sun… that unemployed men are seeking financial and emotional support… in numbers so large…

that Wanaka’s Community Network… is stretched beyond its resources… and calling for help from local business. Not all of this is caused by a shrinking economy.

Of course the sense of failure people experience…is exaggerated when it costs so much more to live here than in other places. Again the Sun reports… Wanaka people pay up to 11 cents more for petrol, and 8 cents more for diesel… than people in Dunedin or Christchurch. Last week petrol prices in Wanaka reached an all-time high… and the Sun muses ironically… ‘perhaps Wanaka residents should be thankful for small mercies… after all they’re living in a slice of paradise.’

Well just below the surface of paradise is hell.

One despairing Christian man says, ‘How many days I’ve feared death, and worried about my health…because I convinced myself I wasn’t worthy…of God’s or anyone else’s forgiveness … I was taken in by the lie that I’m not worth saving or loving.’

I strongly believe as followers of Jesus… we’ve been given a precious antidote to the scourge of despair that threatens this man… an remedy…a comforting balm…that he found himself in the words of Paul you just heard.

He says ‘in the blackness of my depression Paul’s words shone like a beacon.’ And what words were so healing for him? Simply these

Slide words‘God's fellow workers… we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain.’

You see when Paul writes those words… he’s feeling very dejected…and what hurts Paul the most is… he’s being rejected criticised and condemned… by the very people he expects to love and accept him… other Christians in his own community of faith. People who are supposed to be his co-workers…in bringing God’s Shalom to the world.

It seems the Corinthian’s are refusing to give Paul the same forgiveness… the same grace… they’ve received through Jesus… and it hurts Paul like hell.

But so that God’s grace isn’t wasted on them…and their ability to forgive others destroyed… Paul reminds them of their calling…

as a covenant people…sent to announce freedom to the prisoners and those living in darkness.

Paul hopes the Corinthians… will see their rejection of him…is the opposite of what they’re called to do… as God’s covenant people…sent to speaking words of forgiveness and grace…into a world captive to fear and despair.

You know it’s said… Paul’s second letter to this difficult bunch of Christians in Corinth… discloses more about his personality than any of his other letters. 2 Corinthians reveals Paul’s

human frailty…and his spiritual strength. It expresses the deep tenderness of his deep affection… and the scars of his wounded feelings. It reeks of irony and self-vindication.
And his passion for the welfare of the weak and suffering.

But most of all it expresses his concern… for the progress of the church… and the spiritual growth of her people.

All threatened by their inability to forgive.

And two thousand years later…by the innspiration of the Holy Spirit… Paul’s letter provides healing for a depressed man at the ends of the earth…a man who can’t forgive himself for his mistakes …when he reads Paul’s words this man is reminded that he is worth everything to God. And that in Christ all our sins are forgiven…

And Paul’s words are important for us as the church today… …calling on us…reminding us…convicting us…so we do not collude with an unforgiving culture… that puts so much stress on success and achievement and appearances… that people can be discarded or rejected when they fall short of our expectations. Expectations of perfection… no human can reach.

Instead of becoming a high flyer Paul… spends time in prison. Maybe he’s not the kind of role model the Corinthians are looking for. But Paul is keen as always… to point to the one…

on whom his life is modelled…the one who suffered and died…

to bring to the message of God’s grace and forgiveness… for all people.

Of course depression is organic and about brain and body chemistry…but the stress of failure…rejection… and the refusal to forgive others …makes it worse.

The depressed people I see are either like Paul… rejected because they’re not living up to the expectations of others…or like the Corinthian’s… carrying grudges and resentments… refusing to forgive those who don’t or can’t…live up to their expectations.

It’s hard to be unemployed… in a community that seems to have it all together…where most people are getting by just fine in hard times… because they’ve got plenty to fall back on.

For others it’s hard when a marriage falls apart… and all they seem to see… are happy families… shining in the sun.

And hard when you believe that you or someone you rely on… has committed the unforgivable sin of failure.

It’s hard when people seem at best indifferent… or at worst judgmental and condemning.

Paul tries hard to change the toxic culture of the Corinthian church by living Jesus’ values and modelling forgiveness for them…

in response to God’s grace and forgiveness of him.
In this way he calls for

slide words… understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God’ What Pauls calls the ‘weapons of righteousness’.

Paul pleads with them to open their hearts wide…in response to the grace they've received for there is no other time but now…and

Slide words ‘Now is the time of God's favour… now is the day of salvation.’

There isn’t one person here today who’s lived a perfect life. There isn’t one person here who hasn’t failed in some way to live up to their own or others expectations. There isn’t one person here …who hasn’t fallen short of what God requires…and everyone here… has had to rely on the grace and mercy of God.

And because of this… as a community of Christ’s followers we now have the gift of forgiveness to pass on to the culture that surrounds us.

Because of this gift grace… we’re called to follow Jesus’ way…not the way of the world. We called to work to change the culture of our community and even our church.

When people fall or fail…because we have been recipients of God’s grace and forgiveness…we’re called to create a touching place…relationships of healing…circles of forgiveness

Where people are defined as our neighbours… not by their achievements… their wealth… or their success in relationships… and where people are defined by their identity…

as God’s children… not by their mistakes.

Inside and outside the church…our community is hurting…and into that pain and darkness we must speak the light of God’s forgiveness and grace at every turn.

Because… as Paul reminds the Corinthian ‘God has already reconciled us to himself through Christ… and given us the ministry of reconciliation…

Slide words

‘We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God…were making his appeal through us.’

Let us reflect on this as we anticipate his invitation to Christ’s table of forgiveness.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Flesh and Spirit

John 3:1-17
Pentecost 1 year B Sermon Trinity Sunday
"For God so loved the world… that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him… shall not perish but have eternal life.

How many of you remember learning this verse off by heart as a child? Only when I was a kid… it was only begotten Son. I didn’t learn what a begotten Son was until I was almost 50… and studying the Trinity. And it’s no coincidence… that this story is set down for today… for Trinity Sunday.

Yeah…I remember the verse…but I don’t remember hearing the story of Nicodemus when I was child…Maybe because it's a weird story for kids. There’s the whole mystery of the Trinity in this story…and lots of tricky stuff about birth and wombs…

But today it’s important to go deep into old Nicodemus’ predicament…having to sneak out to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness. You see Nicodemus… is quite a powerful guy…
a wealthy and aristocratic Pharisee.

Back in the day… these Pharisees had the reputation…
of being the top people… an exclusive religious party… which never had any more… than six thousand members… at any one time. They were called the chaburah…the brotherhood… and they sought to bring about the kingdom of God…
through perfect obedience to the law.

To become a Pharisee you had to swear in front of at least three witnesses… to spend the rest of your life… keeping every detail of the Law… not just those in the bible…
but thousands of detailed rules and regulations they’d created over centuries…to show what it really meant… to take their religion seriously.

And Nicodemus wasn’t just any ordinary Pharisee...he was one of the ten elite members of the Sanhedrin…the ruling council…
with jurisdiction over every Jew in the world. Their power was far-reaching… and included the job of weeding out false prophets. Maybe that’s why Nicodemus is quick to tell Jesus…
he’s not spying him out.

Slide words
"Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you’re doing…apart from the presence of God." [pause]

Blank slide
But it’s amazing Nicodemus wants to talk to Jesus at all.
Here’s a distinguished respected Jewish aristocrat… who’s come to have a deep and meaningful talk in the dark…
with a homeless upstart rabbi…from a family of carpenters.

But Nicodemus does come… despite his status… his heritage, his prejudice, and his religious persuasion. [pause]
It makes you wonder if Nicodemus is really satisfied with his life. It makes you wonder…if something’s missing from his life…and Nicodemus is looking for it.

Yet Jesus responds mysteriously:
Slide words
"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God…
unless they’re born again.
It’s not sign and wonders that are important but the changes in your heart and the way you live…and these are like a new birth.

The original Greek word our storyteller John uses…actually has three meanings… tied up in one idea…
but there isn’t one English word… that can get all these meanings across… so our translators use two or three words…
‘born again’ or ‘born from above’

There’s a sense of a radical new beginning,
of doing something over again for a second time,
and a strong sense of this new thing coming from God…
from above…

Nicodemus question is heavy with a kind of bitter sarcasm.
Slide words
"How can a man be born when he’s old?
Surely he can’t enter a second time into his mother's womb!"

Blank slide
In Nicodemus experience… access to God’s power and favour … is about perfect obedience to the law. Nicodemus would love to make that happen…but he just doesn't think it’s possible…
because all his life…he’s been trying to do in his own strength.

Nicodemus suspects there’s more to it…if Jesus can do it…
he just doesn’t know what it is…and Jesus kids him about this… because Nicodemus is supposed to be a
guiding light to Israel…

Yes there’s more to it…Jesus tells him you’ve got to undergo a kind of rebirth …

You know this powerful image… this metaphor of rebirth…
runs right through the New Testament… and always…
related to Jesus main message…the coming kingdom of God …
where all people will learn they’re loved by God…all people will look around themselves and see only the children of God…
only their brothers and sister… the family of God…
where reigns justice compassion mercy and peace.

A new family… not just made up of an elite chosen people but pagans and gentiles. Where people share in the life of the eternal God….

The need for rebirth was as true for Israel as a nation…
as it was for Nicodemus as an individual. And for us…

But Nicodemus wants to know how …

So Jesus speaks again of divine mystery:
Slide words
"That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit… is spirit." we’re talking about God’s work here…Jesus tells him…only God can bring about this kind of rebirth…by ourselves we’re just humans…God’s creatures – limited…easily frustrated easily tempted off the path.

Blank slide
We lack the ability to love the way God loves…the kind of love that's necessary in God’s family. To be born again, to experience rebirth into God’s family, means we accept our frailty and weakness…

we accept we can’t get there by our own efforts. And beside Jesus says…no one can put limits on what God can do.
Slide words
‘The spirit is like the wind and the wind blows wherever it pleases…So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."
We can't see it, we can't understand it, and we certainly can't control it. But we can see its results. We can see where people are empowered to live lives of love…[pause]

Blank slide
At the heart of Christian faith is a mystery…
which must be experienced to be understood.
Instead of making a doctrinal statement about the Trinity
…John tells a story.

Nicodemus is invited…we are invited… to experience the mystery of the Trinity…revealed by Jesus. With Nicodemus we are invited to open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit…to transform our lives…so we can be reborn into a new family…
so he can follow our brother Jesus…
so we can do the will of God on earth… as it is in heaven.

That is salvation and it’s God’s initiative in Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Slide words new image
For God so loved the world.

Let us pray…
Beloved God, for some of us the oughts and the shoulds, the obligations and demands, the commitments and structures, the systems and expectations and assumptions, have crowded out our relationship with you. Blinded us to the freedom and joy …excitement and comfort of knowing you…of sensing your presence. Somewhere along the way our religion has started to feel more and more like law and not like good news.
Our understanding of grace has slipped into works. Our joy in you has become weariness. Our burdens seem heavier and heavier.

Yet you approach us in Jesus… and invite us to rebirth in the Spirit.

Holy Spirit we ask you to move among us now…enliven us…birth something new in us.

Speak to each of us of our need for you…
help us receive your grace in a fresh new way today.
Holy Spirit we invite you to come to us now in Jesus name
as we wait in silence.