Sunday, 31 January 2010

Parks paddocks fences and wells

Epiphany 4 year C Sermon Jeremiah 1:4-10

Once upon a time… there was a very wealthy English landowner… who travelled to Australia…to study their methods of farming cattle.

When he arrived… he was met by a crusty rancher named Bazza… who drove our Englishman thousand miles into the interior of the continent in his ute.

As they travelled together… they laughed and joked about the commonalities of raising cattle…They spoke of the latest breeding technology…world beef prices… they even debated the political storm in New Zealand.. over factory farming cattle in the McKenzie Country.

As they drove through the outback… the Englishman’s eyes got wider and wider…you see he lived on a large country estate…divided into lush green paddocks… surrounded by ancient stone walls.

And where the estate had recently expanded…

the paddocks were enclosed in the most
up to
date fencing materials… including gates…
which were
impossible to open…
unless you knew the security code.

So this journey across the Australian dessert our Englishman boggled. For hundreds of kilometers… he’d seen no buildings or fences. ‘When do we expect to arrive on your ranch’, he asked Bazza.

‘Crikey mate… Bazza replied…we’ve been driving on it for the last hundred K…But see those two stone pillars just off the road ahead…well they’re me front gate…

And leaving a cloud of dust behind…Bazza turned the truck through the stone pillars… and into his twenty K long driveway.

It’s not far now’ he reassured the Englishman…
the missus will have a
lovely spread waiting for us…and plenty of amber liquid. And mate I sure could use one.

So as they drove the long dusty road to the homestead… the Englishman continued to be astounded… at what looked like endless dessert… disappearing into the distance… without a fence in sight.

Every once in a while they’d pass one or two cattle beasts …occasionally a mob of ten or so…but the absence of fences had our Englishman baffled. 'Pardon me uh Basil…'

Call me Bazza mate….the Oka corrected…

Uh, pardon me… Bazza…said our Englishman, 'I can’t for the life of me…see any fences. How on earth do you keep your animals on the property?’

‘Ah well that’s an easy one mate…Bazza replied, ‘out eeya, it's a whole different reality than you’re used to. Our farming objectives are the same…but out eeya… we don’t need fences… we’ve got wells. And I guarantee ya, these animals are thirsty.’ [pause]

You see… before our English gentleman saw it for himself… he couldn’t have imagined the conditions that faced Australian ranchers. He’d entered… what for him was an un-imaginable world.

And this story strikes me…as an object lesson for our church… as we journey toward a future…we can’t fully imagine in our wildest dreams.

But one thing we do know… is that like the cattle in the outback…the people we seek to reach…with the living water we’ve found…well these people are very…very…thirsty indeed.

When the Kane McRae and Pringle families first farmed in this area… they certainly couldn’t have imagined… the cosmopolitan community… in which we now live… beside these lakes and beneath these mountains

where people are dedicated to alternative life styles and religions…where people are busy Sunday morning with their mountain sports and where people are communicating with one another by text and email and Facebook.

And they wouldn’t have dreamed of factory farming cattle… or automatic milking sheds…But in the past hundred years their descendants…have had to take on many new methods… [pause] and leave many familiar ways behind…

If our churches are like the English gentleman’s Estate. There’d be a lot of sleek well-fed cattle… grazing away in beautifully manicured country paddocks… surrounded by stone walls and high tech fences. If our churches are like the English gentleman’s Estate…it’d be virtually impossible for the animals to escape

But there’s a problem with fences… they make it well nigh impossible to get in as well. So the herd can be protected from wild animals...and lesser breeds.

But clearlywe’re not in the business…of fencing people in…or keeping people out …so it seems in facing an unimaginable future…where we want to show the love of God to as many people as possible we’re going to have to have… more wells than fences.

Look around the park here. Imagine if Reg and I’d come down this morning and erected a big wooden fence… right around the perimeter of our worship area …with a gate… where an Elder of the church would stand guard…watching warily for intruders. Only allowing people in… who they knew already belonged.

There’d be no way for strangers to knowthat behind those walls was food and drink for the spirit a multigenerational congregation with loving supportive relationships…and a new kind of family that restores and rebuilds lives. They wouldn’t see the wells of reconciliation, healing and forgiveness. [pause]

For the past eight years we’ve worked hard to create wells particularly for generations who’d been missing from the church. And we’re pleased to say… that today we have a firm foundation of young families, we have the wells of mainly music, and an excellent children’s programme on Sunday morning…but the future is unimaginable…in many ways

So God’s people in this place …we need to keep dreaming and imagining…we need to keep asking the hard questions

How are we to be the church in an unthinkable future? What should we take with us on this journey… and what must we leave behind? Where should we drill our wells. And what refreshment will people there?

How deep should we go?

Today we heard the familiar words of God’s call to the boy Jeremiah"Before I formed you in the womb… I knew you, and before you were born…

I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations...don’t say, 'I am only a child…for you shall go to everyone I send you, and you shall speak…
I command you…don’t be afraid…’

Then Jeremiah tells us…’the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you to pluck up and to pull down… to build and to plant." [pause]

Today we’re appointing someone…to take up a new prophetic ministry in our faith community.
I’m thrilled to announce Kathy’s willingness to be our full-time Family Communications Manager.

Kathy has the faith and the skills… to drill productive wells. And I know she’s committed to making it easier for people to find them as they seek to quench their thirst for the water of life…which is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Kathy has the full support of her family and of myself and Session… and I pray she will have yours.

I ask her now to come forward so we can pray for her.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

When disaster strikes

Epiphany 2 year C Sermon Isaiah 62:1-5 John 14:1-3

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land… Married.

And they lived happily ever after! Both our readings for today use the metaphor of marriage to enrich our faith… and our understanding of our relationship with God.

Punishment and execution… aren’t generally considered to be acceptable behaviour in marriage…are they? At least not among couples in our church…I hope we’re more likely to talk about forgiveness and mercy and conflict resolution…

And I have to admit… I’ve never advised a woman… the way out of her frustration… is to murder her husband. Nor have I suggested… when a man comes to me for pastoral care…that he might like to take a whip… to his disobedient wife.

No we tend to think of marriage… as a committed faithful mutually dependent relationship…don’t we?

So Isaiah and Jesus are happy to employ the metaphor of marriage… to describe God’s relationship with us.

Isaiah’s reference is explicit, and Jesus uses a declaration made by every Jewish bridegroom to his comfort his friends the night before his execution.

So after these images of marriage in scripture… I’m fascinated… that when disaster strikes…there always seems to be a so-called follower of Jesus…who publicly proclaims that God is punishing the victims of the tragedy

…for their wickedness.

As though God’s sitting up in heaven and one day in disgust… pushes the smite button on his laptop and shouts: ‘Never mind the wheat in amongst the tares! The innocent children… the powerless… the poor…

the faithful the good and the kind among the evildoers…
flatten the lot of them!’

After a magnitude-7 earthquake struck Haiti’s capital this week…the founder of the US Christian Coalition and former presidential candidate, the Rev Pat Robertsonannounced in a television interview

that Haiti’s earthquake…was God’s punishment

…because the nation had allegedly made a ‘pact with the devil’… two hundred years before.

Yet what we see in the news…is frantic doctors in a hotel car park… wrapping heads and stitching up sliced limbs. We see the tiny bodies of children…piled beside the ruins of their collapsed school. We see people with faces covered in dust and bloody open wounds… roaming the streets.

What we hear is how mothers rushed home from work… to listen in desperation…

for the cries of their children buried under the rubble. We hear how fathers gave their lives to save their youngest and most vulnerable child.

Today Haiti’s capitol, Port au Prince, is a picture of heartbreaking devastation… already rundown homes are now collapsed… along with hospitals, schools, churches…and even the national palace.

Christian World Service has launched an immediate appeal for donations… their staff say the earthquake was like ‘kicking a dog that’s already down following four catastrophic hurricanes in 2008’.

Before the earthquake…Haiti was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. And CWS aid worker Nick Clarke says of all the places he’s visited… Haiti’s the one that “least needs or deserves anything like this…because the reality is… many Haitians were already trapped in a very harsh form of poverty.’

Two days ago… as I searched the internet for signs of hope. I came across this message:

‘I haven’t heard from Jose in 24 hours.’
The writer is Jody Castillo. She and her husband Jose… run the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission.

For thirty years their mission has been dedicated to showing God’s love for all people. By establishing and partnering with
indigenous churches… they aim to help Haitian people lift themselves out of spiritual, physical and social poverty. They serve thousands of people regardless of their age or religion.

So two days ago Jody posted her first internet blog since the earthquake. I’ll read directly from it.

‘Haven’t heard from Jose in 24 hours. Hundreds of thousands expected in casualties. How do you process that? How in the world do you explain that to new Christians and small children? I don’t understand it myself. My home was flowing today with countless Haitians wanting to catch a glimpse of the news, weeping while I hold their hand or hug them tight
…and it never stopped.

I feel so numb and yet I cry nearly every 10 minutes. Always another story – always another problem. They come looking for me to “save” them… to make it go away and I am left helpless – crying… because there isn’t anything we can do.

Our church is open tonight for those who are grieving. Doing all I can but still feel like it’s not enough.

Pray for our Haitian medical team…as they travel to Port au Prince tomorrow. I asked them to please try…to find Jose – just so I know for sure nothing’s happened …It’s funny….all day long I watched my front door. I’m not joking –
I knew Jose would walk through it today…covered in dirt after riding 12 hours trying to
get to us…

If he could only reach me by phone he wouldn’t even consider leaving Port au Prince. I know how he is…

I imagine he’s right in the thick of it….sorting through the rubble. And honestly – how selfish to think otherwise. I’m sure he is right where he should be.’

Yesterday Jody updated her blog after her husband finally found a way to ring her. Here’s what he told her.

‘Honey you wouldn’t believe what it’s like here. It’s worse than the hurricane damage we saw...

There are bodies everywhere – EVERYWHERE. I see the back of children’s skulls crushed, limbs on the street, people covered in blood, people missing their heads – and it’s everywhere. Think of the movie Rwanda where they drove over all those bumps and it was dark. When they opened the car door – they saw there were all these bodies. There were places that were just like that…

The saddest part is… in between the bodies are children and adults crying. Some older Haitians are trying to help the children but its chaos. There’s no organization.

Gangs have set up road blocks and are robbing people. Everywhere you go there are people just walking with no where to go. Where are they gonna go? There are no schools, universities, churches, homes? Where are they going to go? They sleep on the street or wherever they can...’ [pause]

After reading Jody’s blog… I went looking for more information.

Did you know almost half Haiti’s population are younger than 14. More than two-thirds of Haiti’s inhabitants are unemployed living on less than $2 a day. One in two, live in absolute poverty, earning less than $1 dollar a day. [pause]

Of course lament and compassion are the dominant response from around the world… along with our cry for God’s healing presence to penetrate the pain. So why do some high profile Christians… see disaster as an opportunity to preach hellfire and damnation. Thankfully, Christians around the world… have been angered by Pat Robertson’s ‘pact with the devil’ remarks.

One shocked Christian blogger. Sojourner’s Jim Wallis called Robertson’s comments ‘an altar call for atheism’.

Jim says:
I couldn’t get over how bizarre this was, coming from someone… who claims Jesus of Nazareth is at the centre of their faith!![i]

Wallis asks as I do…’What does it mean when self-proclaimed “Christian leaders” are against the message of Christ?’ And Wallis also offers a word about God and evil.

He says, ‘My God does not cause evil. God is not a vengeful and retributive being, waiting to strike us down; instead, God is in the very midst of this tragedy, suffering with those who are suffering…’

I hope you and I have a prophetic understanding of Scripture that proclaims God’s loving heart for the oppressed… the outcast and the needy… and God’s concern for justice.

In Jesus’ Nazareth Manifesto he quotes the suffering messianic servant of second Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor. Sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,

comfort all who mourn

The children of Haiti are the descendants of slaves. In 1804 after Spanish and French colonial rule, Haiti won its independence: it’s the only known example in history

where slaves have successfully overthrown their oppressor.

After independence when France pulled out its colonists and their wealth… generations were left to enjoy their freedom… without resources. All that remains is a desperate legacy
of poverty and deprivation.

The gospel offers three causes and three remedies for poverty. One: like the prodigal son…we bring it on ourselves – in our God given freedom to make choices – the remedy is humility and repentance.

Two: our poverty can occur simply through life circumstances…and like the widow who gave everything…we need insight and wisdom to understand this.

Three: our poverty may be caused by the oppression of others and the solution is liberation… for the captives and release for the prisoners.

Haiti’s poverty is of the third order. But its earthquake was caused by shifting tectonic plates. Pressure builds as they grind along a mutual boundary… and is released through small shudders and major earthquakes. Knowing this will be small comfort given the horror unfolding on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

But far crueler… is to blame the victims.[ii]

The God of my master Jesus, doesn’t have victims.

[ii] Jesus warns us…when disaster strikes it’s blasphemy to pronounce the punishment of God on the guilty. Those who perished when the Tower of Shiloam fell…were probably victims of shoddy construction.Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? Luke 13:4

Sunday, 10 January 2010

God calls a people

Epiphany 1 year C Sermon 10

Now if you just opened your Bible…and stuck your finger on Isaiah could gain great consolation from God speaking to you… through those words

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I’ve called
you by name, you are mine

But when the beautiful poetry of Isaiah was first recorded…it wasn’t intended for you
or anyone
else… as an individual.

God isn’t speaking through the prophet
to a
person named Jacobbut to a people named Jacob…descended from Abraham…an ethnic community…

whose name had become Israel…whose members had been scattered… in Egypt and Syria and beyond…

to the north and the south and the east and the west… first as nomadic tribes… trading exploring and marrying in foreign lands…and later… taken into exile… as hostages and prisoners of war

settlers and slaves… their families with them…their language with them…their culture with them.
Believing their God was never
tied to a place
Emmanuel…God with us…
with them… wherever they went…

For hundreds of years…Jacob Israel…didn’t indicate a sovereign territory to be defended…but a chosen peoplecalled and formed for God’s purposes…to be a light to the world….to embody God’s word to the world … to demonstrate and model what it means to be human…in relationship with others and with God.

Not one of the people were an island unto themselves
… for they could neither
survive nor bring about God’s justice and peace on their own… they needed God and they needed each other… no disaster could wipe this people out as long as they lived faithfully and hospitably.

When you pass through the waters I will be with you; God had promised…and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Do not fear, for I am with you;

God isn’t promising individual invulnerability…
God is promising the survival of a
people…charged with bringing peace with justice on earth.
A people whose descendants would live on…
continue God’s purposes…

Wherever they went… God would call them

Slide words

I’ll bring your offspring from the east,
and from the
west I’ll gather you.

Slide words

I’ll say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Don’t withhold;

bring my sons from far away and my daughters…
from the
end of the earth.

God would always ensure there were a people… a remnant who’d embody his word… who’d shine the light …especially for the weak and the powerless

…living in the darkness of oppression and injustice and exclusion.

God’s light would not be extinguished.

The story Isaiah tells… is that the people are willed by God to practice justice and righteousness—
to extend the good
news of God’s Shalom to everyone.

But this story has two parts…because even with God’s guidance and protection…the people manage to lose their way…ignore their calling and flirt with other gods. Instead of justice and righteousness…God finds injustice and exploitation.

The first part of Isaiah’s story details how the people abuse God’s purposes of love… their actions are greedy self-serving and unfair—great wealth is accumulated by a few… and God’s people aren’t welcoming and generous to the poor and the stranger.

The people wantonly distort God’s commandment… to love their neighbour.

And so before the words of comfort and reassurance we heard in today’s reading… Isaiah’s story delivers a massive judgment on the very people… God has called and formed for his purposes. The message is clear…being chosen does not exempt them from judgment.

But mercifully the people are invited to repent…and to exchange their corrupt selfish ways… for God’s way.

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes;
learn to do
good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow, and welcome the stranger…

The accent falls on the last lines, "widows and orphans and strangers." Those with no clout are easy to leave out.

And happily… the people are given a chance to change… to reorder their community life…around caring and sharing and hospitality.

It’s an chance they don’t take. [pause]

And it’s the strong opinion… of the first half of Isaiah

… that the people of Israel have grossly disobeyed God…and surely will be punished. Justice has not been done…and Chapter 39 ends…with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of her wealthy and educated elite.

[pause] And then there is silence…seventy years pass…

and finally the next chapter begins…with the most moving testimony in all of Hebrew Scripture…to God's steadfast love and determination… to rescue and redeem the people called and formed for his purposes. [pause]

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim her hard service completed, her sin paid for… A voice of one calling in the desert…prepare the way of the LORD…

He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart;

To God’s wayward people… getting a little too comfortable in exile…the message is clear…forget the glitz and the glamour of Babylon and her so called gods

…the only cause that counts is God’s…and there’s more work to do…

God is bringing his people home…liberated and

restored…given another chance to be God’s servant people in the world… God's human agency. A chance to accomplish what they refused and failed to do before…

Israel’s new mandate is to reach beyond themselves…

to all people. Especially the powerless and rejected…not out of pity…but so all those made in the image of God… may be restored to full dignity.

God will not rest…until justice is established in all the earth;

But there’s a warning...faithfulness to God’s cause is not to be marked with a lot of showy religious discipline… like prayer and fasting… if injustice and exploitation are still going on.
They must not
turn a blind eye…

Through the prophet God’s counsel is clear
a "
true fast"… consists of caring for the outcast …
and the homeless and the hungry.

Isn’t this the kind of fasting I prefer:
to loose the chains of
injustice to set the oppressed free

to share your food with the hungry and provide
the poor
wanderer with shelter… to clothe the naked,
and not to turn away…


God’s purposes won’t be frustrated.
There will
always be a remnant God can count on… and if their numbers should grow small…why he’ll just gather up more… from the east and the west…and the north and the south…

God’s always calling a people… forming and reforming them in covenant relationship … to shine the light of his love for all to see. [pause]

and today is no exception…

Two weeks ago as we baptised little Tessa Jones… welcoming her into the covenant people of God…and as we did…we recalled the story of how the mantle of God’s people Israel passed to Jesus’ shoulders…at his baptism in the Jordan.

If Israel would not embody what it means to be God’s son God’s child…then God would call a new people out of the faithful remnant. And those Jesus gathers from the east and the west and the north and the south will continue God’s saving purposes… of peace. [pause]

Israel refused to shine the light for the world. And so the hopeful ‘but now’ we hear in Isaiah 43… echoes again in letters to the early church in Ephesus and Rome…

But now… in Christ Jesus… you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.

Look around…you are not alone. You’re not called to shine the light alone for those who sit… in the darkness of rejection and abuse and exploitation in Wanaka…
in Aotearoa New Zealand…in the Sudan… or China…

An ongoing stream is formed and reformed…its points of light can be seen around the world…a stream of people called by God… recognisable by anyone with ears to hear or eyes to see…not by their religious labels…but by the qualities of justice and peace that shine out in their relationships and in their communities

… as they work to shed the light of God’s love beyond themselves to those who sit in darkness… without hope…

The story isn’t finished. Look around you… together… you are connected by a calling…you…and you and you…togetherare the ‘you’ God addresses.

It is you God calls and gathers and forms and saves and judges and restores…it’s you…God loves and cherishes

a people called…to realise God’s purposes in the world.

My thanks to Walter Brueggemann for his insights on Isaiah. A Story of Loss and Hope. Sojourners Magazine, November-December 1998.