Tuesday, December 29, 2015

God is here wth us... Christmas day 2015

Its 9:30am on Christmas Morning and maybe after a late night of wrapping presence and wrestling with those deceptive words ‘some assembly required’ you’ve been up early you’ve been awake  for hours. How can you sleep with the kid’s excitement: the joy of children wanting to open gifts and there has been lots of running round and exuberance. Then to get here you’ve had to gather that energy and joy up, brush hair and teeth   bundle them into the car.  But you’ve come to acknowledge Jesus birth the fact that God is here with us.

It’s 9:30am on Christmas morning. You’d worked hard and long to make sure everything was done for the holiday and for the end of the year. So you could get away for the sun and the sand and the surf, to catch up with the family and friends. You just want to stop and catch up with yourself. You could really have done with a sleep in till you had to go round to the family for Christmas lunch. But you’ve come to worship Christ the new born king… to celebrate the fact that God is here with us.

It’s 9:30am on Christmas morning and there’s still so much to do.  Hope he doesn’t talk to long. But there’s the turkey to be cooked and the cream to be whipped, salad to be made. You’re going away first thing in the morning and you’ve still got to pack and you hope the weather holds. But it’s good to stop for a moment and reflect on the Christmas narrative… God is here with us

Its 9:30am on Christmas morning and so many other things could be going on. Christmas is the time when you remember they have gone and it is the loneliest time. Your thoughts are on juggling families broken and blended. It’s just another work day as the person who served me lunch yesterday said. It really does not help with the finances. There are some big things looming in the New Year.  But even in the midst of that Christmas reminds us of the amazing truth that God is here with us.

Luke’s gospel had the ring of everyday life carrying on and into those steps the saviour that God’s people had been looking for, waiting for so long. Into that is born a child who we are told is Christ the Lord. The light has come in to the world.

The reading we had this morning starts by talking of who’s in power, Augustus Cesar, and who the local administrator is. That in order to gather taxes there is a census. This means that everyone is on the move going back to the town where they are from, to be registered. It politics as usual it’s the powers of this world going about their business. Last night we looked at Matthews’s nativity narrative, we saw how similar it was then as it is now… Matthew focuses on Herod the local dictator so desperate to hold on to power that he sends death squads to kill his own citizens. All baby boys under two. That Mary and Joseph and Jesus become refugees fleeing from that tyranny and violence. And amidst the swirl and whirl of human history we are told that God steps in to our world. The Kingdom of God is established in the realms of humanity. Not in a big bold flashy way, but in a way that there is no room for to be born because of the upheaval and disruption. The son of God s born in a stable and laid in a animal’s feeding trough. God is here with us and his coming identifies with the poor and the lowly.

The first to hear the good news of Jesus birth are shepherds…Shepherds on the night shift. Doing what they always do… washing their socks… I mean watching their flocks. They are told the good news of the saviour’s birth and see what must be the greatest production number of all time as the heavenly armies gather to sing God’s praise. Maybe for us shepherds in fields is an exotic and romantic picture… In our world maybe it would best to see it being like… when we came home late one night on the train and we saw lights on in tall offices buildings along the tracks. They were on because the cleaners, that often unseen group of people, were working, minimum wage jobs, trying to make ends meet. Maybe in our urban twenty first century world they would have been the ones to hear the news, be visited by angels. Luke tells us Jesus coming was indeed good news for the poor.  The shepherds go and see that what they had been told was true and then had to head back to their work, now filled with joy and giving praise to God.

Christmas says God is here with us, came in the person of Jesus Christ, born into everyday life. But this baby Jesus would change everything. Because of his life, teaching, death and yes his resurrection. God’s kingdom, God’s love, forgiveness and peace would break into this world. We can be forgiven reconciled to God and to one another. Broken can be made new and whole again.

God is here with us. This child’s birth means God can step into the everyday live that we have and make them something new and sacred by his presence. God is here with us and if we allow this Christ to be born in our lives that love, that forgiveness, that wholeness, God’s justice and righteousness can come into our lives, our brokenness can be made whole, our lives given purpose and meaning, we can be enabled and equipped to love extravagantly and sacrificially.

God is here with us and if we allow his Son Jesus to be born into our lives today, god’s presence and love can come into the everyday world around us through our kindness, our forgiveness our sacrificial love.

In Jesus God is here with us…
My friend Malcolm Gordon and his son Sam wrote a song and with cameraman Jason Williamson have put together the gift of a wonderful Christmas song and video that sums it up the Christmas story up beautifully and also the wonderful truth that God is wanting to be here in this world through us...

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Emmanuel: God wth us... hope and grace then and now

I wonder what are the images that have stuck in your mind this year?

On a positive note, Ritchie McCaw holding up the Webb Ellis trophy again at the Rugby World Cup that certainly sticks in the mind of our sport and rugby crazed nation. One of the highlights of the year for me was being at Eden Park for the Bledisloe cup test with my two sons and being part of the crowd that spontaneously gave a standing ovation for Ritchie as he was subbed off, in his last test match in New Zealand. We are not very good at honouring our greats and heroes but there was something about that moment.

But there are others that are starker darker images that we wish were not stuck in our minds that capture the reality of suffering in the world today.

The body of a young boy dead and floating face down in the Mediterranean Sea. The people smugglers’ boat he was on had sunk so close to shore, they almost made it. It encapsulated the human tragedy and suffering of refugees fleeing civil war, ISIS and violence in Syria and the constant flow of peoples seeking safety and prosperity in the face of conflict and poverty.

Fields of flowers and banks of candles come to mind. Not where you’d expect them to be. Not in idyllic country visas, and ancient cathedrals, but as expressions of shock and grief in city streets: Outpourings of sorrow in front of the scenes of terrorist attacks, massacres and mass shootings.

A flash of flame and a trail of smoke in the sky, as a Russian fighter jet is shot down by Turkish air defence. It’s an image that made the world hold its breath: An image that sums up world super powers trying to impose a military solution, their solution, on the Middle East.

I find myself suffering a disconnection between those Images and Christmas or at least the way we portray the nativity, the Christmas story, the coming of Christ into this world. On Christmas cards and billboards it’s presented as an idyllic peaceful event. Almost unworldly, almost as if its pure fairy tale and fiction that has no possible impact or anything of value to say to the world in which we live.

But this year more than any other I can’t help but see the links and parallels between the now and what the gospel tells us of the then. We’ve had the nativity narrative read tonight from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus birth happens it tells us in the reign of king Herod. A king so determined to hold on to power that when he can’t trick foreign visitors to do his bidding resorts to sending death squads to kill all the children in Bethlehem under two, he unleashes that on his own people. Matthew’s Christmas story has gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that we are familiar with but does not finish with angel’s songs and Christmas carols but the lament and grief of mothers crying for their dead children unable to be consoled. And haven’t we seen images of that this year…

Matthew’s gospel finishes with the story of a refugee family fleeing political tyranny to save their lives and the life of their child from violence. And are those not the images that will remain in our minds from 2015.

We didn’t have Luke’s account read to us tonight. I’m saving it for tomorrow, for Christmas day. It too does not simply present an unreal picture of the nativity. While Matthew has a feel for the local politics, Luke is a Greek and his account starts with the acknowledgment of Caesar Augustus as emperor. The romans the European superpower of the day had imposed their peace on the near east by military means, they’d used ‘boots on the ground’, and the flow and disruption of people that lead to Joseph and Mary  coming to an overcrowded Bethlehem is because he had decreed a census be taken up for tax purposes. There was no room at the inns because all those who had family ties to this town had had to come home.

It’s not just that there are parallels between our twenty first century home and the first century home of this narrative. But there are parallels of this first century narrative that give us twenty first century hope.

God chose to presence himself with us, to become one of us, not in the midst of some winter wonderland or joy filled holiday, but in the midst of the messiness and terror of life. God chose to respond to evil and suffering not through the courts of the kings or the corridors of power, but by being born to ordinary people. Not in the lap of luxury but at the vulnerable edge of society. Even amidst the possibility of social disgrace, Matthew tells us that Joseph had was a righteous and compassionate man and was going to quietly divorce Mary as she was with child, until he was told in  dream that  Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

It shows us God’s response to the sorrow and grief and suffering in the world. It is not the assertion of power, political power or military power, although sadly down through the ages since his coming wars have been fought armies have marched in his names, and empires have used his name as a way of holding on to power. But God chose to respond with a spiritual solution. That through this child, his life, his death, and his resurrection people who sought him like those astronomers from the east would know forgiveness, would experience the healing love of God, have their brokenness be made whole again, and be enabled to love extravagantly and sacrificially in a way that with the help of the Holy Spirit would bring transformation in the world.

Two thousand years later the hope is the same. The same God offers the same grace and love and forgiveness and wholeness through his son Jesus Christ and calls all those who would come and seek and find him to be willing to allow that to be born a new in their lives.

Be it the simple reaching out and loving a neighbour. At St Peter’s here in a small way we find that God is using us to shine his love into the lives of families around us often when they experience the pain and suffering of loss and relationship break up, in the hope that God’s grace and God’s love and God’s healing may bring new life. On a wider scale one of the images that has stuck in my mind this year was middle eastern Christians setting up tents and bringing food and aid to refugee camps to help their Muslim neighbours fleeing from the same horror that had persecuted their fellow Christians. At a time when they are wondering f this is the end of Christians in the middle east, they have their boots on the ground, boot of love. Of course they don’t corner the market on sacrificial love and there was a story circulating recently of Muslims refusing to give up their Christian neighbours on a bus attacked by jihadists.

 I love the candle light of a midnight Christmas Eve service, because for me it speaks of the coming of the light of God’s love into the world in Jesus Christ. Like the small flickering flame of a candle. We are so used to the bright flashing lights of our neon signs and the glare of quarts halogen that we mistake for the light of a new day. But God’s love starts with this one child Jesus, and his love and life and teaching his sacrificial death on the cross, and being raised again, it’s almost too fragile, it seems just a puff of wind could blow it out. But as people have encountered this Jesus and known this love that light has lit up their lives and the world is able to have more of God’s light and love. There are times when t seems to be extinguished and if you know the gospel there are times when people have tried to hide it, but it is the light that is hope for each of us and for the world around us and I hope this Christmas even amidst all that is going on n this world you might not disconnect but might meet and connect with this Jesus whom we celebrate tonight.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Greatest Present ever wasn't wrapped in paper... It was wrapped in people ( a reflection on Luke's narrative of Jesus birth)...

I love Luke's narrative of the events around the birth of Jesus.

When you read through it... if I'm not being to flippant here... It reads like a great musical... everybody seems to break into song... or at least wax forth poetically. When Mary has the Angels message to her confirmed by Elizabeth and her baby, she gives thanks to God. And her song has the feel of years of expectant faith, waiting for God to keep his promise and send a saviour, but also of the miles and hours she has travelled to see her aunt hoping that what she has heard is true. It resounds with joy, hope and the possibility for God's peace and Love to be born into the world.

Elizabeth's husband Zechariah, who had been struck dumb for nine months as he had himself questioned an angels message to him, breaks forth into praise and prophecy... Again helping us to tie what is happening here with the longing of God's people and telling us the part that his son John the baptist will play in God's salvation story.

On the night that Jesus is born, we are given a break down of possibly the greatest and strangest production number, as the armies of heaven gather together to sing God's praise at the birth of this special child. Unlike the grand productions we may think of today... this is the biggest number of performers, seen by the smallest crowd, usually such things are reserved for the great and the rich, who have leisure time to enjoy them but here it is for the poor and insignificant while they are doing the night shift.

As Mary and Joseph bring Jesus o the temple to be dedicated we have Simeon and Anna, who declare the significance of this child to all who would hear and finish Luke's account with a tinge of reality but also praise to God for his goodness and for the fact that he has kept his promise.

While Luke does not mention it Matthew also tells us that this story of Jesus birth also finishes with the wailing and lament of mothers crying for their children. The paranoid dictator Herod had sent his death squads to kill children under two and Mary and Joseph become like the many faces we have seen this year refugees looking for safety so they can raise their families.

This year however I was also aware that Luke' story of the coming of God in flesh, the birth of Immanuel 'God with us' is not wrapped in paper but in the stories of people.

Luke tells his story with a balance between men and women. An angel appears to Zechariah and then to Mary. Mary is greeted by both Elizabeth and the son in her womb, who both recognise the presence of their lord and saviour. Mary responds in worship and song and prophesy. Zechariah responds to the birth and naming of his son with a similar song/ poem/prayer.

The significance of the child is told by the two people the family meet at the temple. Two people who have devoted their lives to prayer and waiting for God to respond. Simeon and Anna give us deep insight in to who this child is and what will happen and what it will mean for us.

It also is a story told by the young and the old. John the Baptist is the one who first recognises the presence of Jesus. As a child in the womb, he leaps with joy, an unseen dance in this musical perhaps... while Simeon and Anna are close to the end of long lives. Simeon has been told he would not die before he would see God' salvation and Anna had been a widow for close to eighty years. The exuberance of a child and the wisdom and deep reflection of age.

While you'd expect that this is such an amazing event in the world history that the great of the day would be present. You just have to look at any event today and the great are either there invited to comment or give us their reactions via twitter, but they simply play bit parts in this story... We place this event in time by reference to Cesar Augustus and Herod. But this story is full of he people that this event will impact the most... this is good news to the poor... over time it will impact on the great as this is God's kingdom entering the realm of humanity, but it starts with the poor and the least. A couple who would have been treated with pity and maybe ostracised as they have been childless.  A young wmen whose story of an angel telling her she would concieve a child by the Holy Spirit did not go down in her society. As Matthew tells us it is only the compasion and righteousness of her husband Joseph inspired by a dream that means she is not shamed. Shepards are the ones who are told of this event. in the temple a women who has suffered the sorrow of being a widow for eighty years, finds her solice in the childs comming.

What does this have to tell us today?

Firstly, it tells us the wonderful scope of the good news of this child' birth. It is Good news for everybody, for men and women, young and old, poor and rich, small and great. of course add in Matthew's narrative and you find that it also goes beyond the confines of God's people Israel to be good news to all people. Wise men from the east come to acknowledge, be it without total understanding of the whole story show us that this is good news for Jew and Gentile...

Secondly it tells us that all people are needed to tell and show this story to the world arouns us who still wait to know the reality of this Good News. Men and women together to proclaim and demonstrate it. Young and old, to both tel it with exhuberance and with considered wisdom. Not just the great and the talented and those set aside for the task, but as the shepards show us even those in their everyday occupations, even if it the night shift. People full of Joy and those able to witness to God's grace and goodness even in the face of life long suffering and sorrow. With their abilities and talents, with theri integrity and faith, with huble service and devotion and prayer.

So this christmas I pray that you may get wrapped up in the greatest gift ver Given... Jesus Christ... and you may wrapp uop that good news story in your lives as a community to give this gift to the world around you.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

past, present and future, God has been our help so far, God is with us, God is faithful... (1Samuel 7:10-12, Luke 1:68-75, Acts 2:38-39).

The three Bible readings we had today talk of God’s faithfulness to his people down through the ages.
In first Samuel after a miraculous victory over the philistines, Samuel erects a stone pillar that he called ‘Ebenezer’ which means, “thus far God has helped us.” acknowledging that Israel’s continued survival was and is and will be because of God’s faithful love and grace. All who passed the stone and remembered it would remember ‘thus far God has helped us’. 

In the reading from Luke chapter 1 John the Baptist’s father Zechariah gives thanks and points to the fulfilment of God’s promise to save his people and  that John the Baptist would be the herald of that new age. In this advent season we focus on the coming of Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s help and faithful love throughout Israel’s history and we look and await for his second coming to bring that to completion.  We’ve been working our way through Luke chapter 7 this past month and in the way the crowd responded to Jesus rising of the widow’s son at Nain we hear an echo of Ebenezer… “God has come to help his people”… In Jesus God has come to save his people. 

Then the third reading was from the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church and the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit for all who repented and were baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. A promise that was not just for that time and that place but of God’s ongoing faithfulness and presence and help off into the future, not just for you, but for your children and your children’s children, not just for those gathered but for those far off. A promise of God’s on going presence and help… It means we as a church two thousand very odd years later can equally acknowledge our ‘Ebenezer’ thus far God has helped us’ and look to the future trusting God for the Spirit’s on-going presence, leading guidance and help. 

We have a couple of stones in the garden out the front of the church. The one that I call the Narnia garden, it’s like the lamp post wilderness in CS Lewis’ wonderful books. They are not massive majestic mounds of marble, or  proud prominent pillars they are just simple rocks, probably put there for decorative purposes… but when I drive past them I am reminded of ‘Ebenezer’ of God’s faithfulness and presence of the fact that  ‘Thus far God has helped us.’

We also want to acknowledge people who have been pillars in this congregation. Our three elders who are retiring today and those who hold that wonderful title of elder Emeritus Retired eleders) in our midst and say thank you for your faithful service and for faithfully being prepared to give, to care and to lead trusting in God’s faithfulness living out the hope we have that thus far God has helped us.

I don’t know Miles and Anne and Owen, if you know but you’ve been involved in church leadership in historically what has been one of the hardest times for the church in the western world. Leonrad sweet calls it being the church in the perfect storm... It’s been a time of unprecedented change. Technological change, population change, societal change, cultural change: We are living more and more in a post-Christendom world, a country where Ian Grant says most new Zealanders have forgotten which denomination their grandparents were staying away from. A post Christian world, where the Christian worldview and faith are no longer in the centre of western thought, rather we are being pushed to the fringe, some would even say the lunatic fringe. On a more practical scale the explosion of multiculturalism, with its wonderful benefits but great challenges as well. Auckland now is one of the top ten most culturally diverse cities in the world. The world is literally our neighbourhood.  We live in a post forty age, and no that’s not a dig at your advancing age, rather the reality that the forty hour week and the single income is not enough for people to survive, the church used to be held together by volunteer work mainly by women who didn’t work, but now we are faced with on-going work pressures and limited time, the need for longer hours and two income families, even seniors work long into their retirement.  We are dealing with a consumer age, those who want to go to church are prepared to travel to get what they want, you  just have to look at the mega churches that have sprung up at all the motorway onramps. We live in a post institutional time, did you know more people run than ever before but athletics clubs find it hard to keep going. More people are into spiritual things but institutional religion is not as popular. I could go on…

 It would be easy as Leonard sweet says to simply ‘hunker in the bunker and try and ride this storm of change out, but the challenge for the church is to unfurl the sails and see where the wind of the spirit will take us… and you’ve managed to keep the place here going open to the wind of the spirit and yes growing, there is new growth there is greening and growth tips, new mission buds pregnant with possibility new generations replacing the old, new people replacing those who leave, in our continually more and more mobile world. It is time for you to serve in God’s ongoing mission in different ways.

Over the past few months the parish council have been working on a five year plan for the Church, its part of the on-going process of looking to the future that we’ve been doing for quite a while now.  But as we’ve been working on it I’ve sort of being seeing it emerge in the shape of a Celtic-cross like you might see on a hill or a coastline, acting as an Ebenezer... to remind of of God's ongoing help. The one behind me (see right is in Oihi Bay in Northland, it is the Marsden cross and marks the spot where the gospel was first preached by a missionay in New Zealand (although Maori had heard responded and shared the gospel befoe then).  The plan looks to the future and says thus far (into the future) God has helped’. It’s been a bit of a hard process actually looking five years into the future… But I want to share with you where we are up to… as part of inviting to you to come and join us making steps and planning and working our way forward. 

At the centre of it all is our vision statement. What we believe God is calling us to be which is … “ a vibrant, authentic, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on that journey.”: That we are a Christ like community, growing in that Christ likeness and growing as people respond to Christ.

 How we put that into action is expressed in our mission statement that at St Peter’s we… worship God, support each other and reach out in love.  The could say that gives our vision some wheel. Then we’ve been looking at how that works in reality what are core and important areas that we need to work at to see that vision become a reality through that mission… and we identified eight significant areas and we’ve established an objective for each of these areas.  Which I’ve divided into four quadrants like the four arms of a cross… but they are all interconnected. Being in the sahpe of a cross also reminds of the cruciform shape of the Christian life... it calls us to be prepepared for sacrifical  living in response to Christs sacrifice for us.

Two have to do with readying us for mission… Christian education and leadership. (click for words)   Our objective in five years when it comes to Christian education is that an effective age appropriate small group is available for every person in the St Peter’s Community… We want to build on the short term and occasional small groups that are run at St peter’s we want to see our children ministry grow and we are aware of the priority that youth ministry is becoming. (click for words)  In leadership our objective is the development of leadership in all areas be a priority and we have in place processes for identifying, training and mentoring new leaders and providing training opportunities for, and reviews of existing leadership… 

We need to continually be renewed for mission so we see prayer and worship as important.(click for words)  The objective in prayer is that Prayer be a vibrant part of St Peter’s life reflected in a variety of practises. We can often forget that a vibrant prayer life is foundational for the church. (click for words) Our objective for worship is very similar that worship is a vibrant part of St Peter’s life reflected in a variety of different styles.  And as we’ve begun to set goals for each of these objectives one that has come up for worship is that in five years’ time we will have established a second worship service… Either here or somewhere else. 

The third arm is relationships, pastoral care and community outreach. For pastoral care our objective is that pastoral care is extended to all, by both lay people and the minister so that everyone receives appropriate pastoral care. And community outreach is that we build on strengthen and expand existing community contacts by listening , helping to meet needs and building bridges that can bring others to faith. Once again as we’ve looked at goals to meet these objectives we are hoping to have a men’s ministry established that will provide for the husbands and partners of our mainly music and playgroup families and our won men’s needs.  A first step is simply to arrange to go together to a super rugby game in the New Year. That actually helps address a perceived need as  In the Herald recently it reported on research into men in New Zealand that said men find it hard to have places to make new friendships and are likely to be isolated and cut off in the community. 

Finally we have resourcing for our mission… the two areas of finance and property. For property that ‘through a diversity of income streams that the finances are able to resource the ongoing mission of St Peter’s’ full credit to our finance team that they have been good at looking at different ways to fund our mission. With property that St Peter’s property continues to meet the needs of the mission of St Peter’s and that tenants at St Peter’s reflect St Peter’s mission.  So often congregations can simply continue to maintain a building rather than the finances and property be seen as being there for the mission of the congregation. 

The parish Council is planning to have a retreat day in the new year to invite people to come and be part of taking the steps to meets those objectives of continuing to look to the future trusting in our Ebenezer that so far God is our help… to faithful move forward trusting the God who has been with us in the past and is with us today…