Saturday, September 13, 2014

elemental narraphors- Earth... the parable of the field (Luke 8:4-15)

You may be good gardeners… you may have a passion for it… I’m not a good gardener and I don’t like gardening.  My dad was a great gardener. When I was growing up He spent most of his weekends out the back in his vege patch. We lived off the veges he grew… summer lunch was the freshest sweet corn dripping with butter, breakfasts came from our grapefruit tree … Desserts were often topped by bottled peaches, apples  and fejoa from our backyard… salads at dinner were made from the lettuce, cabbage and tomatoes from the garden and there always seemed to be beans

Years after my father had died Kris and I moved back to Auckland from Tauranga and lived just down the road from where my family home had been. We tried to start a garden and it was back breaking work in good old Waitakere clay. I came to appreciate what my father had achieved. He had spent a lot of time and energy in caring for the soil… he would leave a quarter of the garden fallow each year, planting lupines there to fix the nitrogen in the soil.  When spring came the compost bin would be dug out, sieved and spread out and dug in. Crops were rotated so you only had the same thing grown in the same place every four years.  

Jesus used the image of soil and trying to grow food to talk about how people would respond to his teaching, to teach us how to listen to the word of God… so it could do its work in us of producing good things.

It’s a very helpful parable because the gospels also record Jesus explaining it for his disciples. The sower is Jesus preaching, he was preaching to large crowds but the number who responded and followed seemed small. The seed is the word of God and those who listened are the various soil types.

He talked of seed falling on the road. The seeds would be unable to penetrate and be trampled or picked off by birds. He likened that to Satan being able to come along and take it away. We are not that comfortable about talking of Satan these days as the enemy of our soul, and there are others who simply talk too much about that and give him too much power. Jesus only mentions him once in this parable amongst so many other adverse conditions to good crop production.

The seeds take root in the other soil types. But one is rocky. In Judah much of the land is simply top soil over a hard limestone base and even though the seed germinates and starts to grow it cannot put its roots down far enough to get the nutrients it needs so when the hot weather of persecution or opposition comes it withers away.  Other areas are full of weeds, which grow up and compete with the plant for sunlight and water and stop it maturing. Jesus talks of life’s worries and the pursuit of wealth and pleasure as things that will do that in the lives of the listener. Finally he talks of the good soil, the soil that has been prepared to receive the seed and is able to sustain it till it produces a bountiful crop. Jesus says these are the people who hear the word retain it and patiently persevere with it.

What crop is produced I hear you say? Well this is one of a series of parables in Luke of the kingdom of God. The crop of the seeds of the word will look a lot like Jesus. Paul paints a picture of what that might look like in our lives when in Galatians 5:22 he talks about the fruit that walking in step with the spirit of God produces in our lives… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control: Character traits that reflect Jesus.

One of the great thing about parables is they are open ended invitations to continue reflecting and journeying.  We are using Leonard Sweets word narraphors to express this...They are metaphors to think with and narratives; stories that can shape our own life story. Here are a few of my reflections on how this parable connects with our lives today….

Firstly, This parable shows that Jesus was aware that different people would react to his message in different ways. That just because Jesus is God’s chosen agent did not mean people would respond to him automatically. It’s helpful when you work and minister with people to be reminded of this. During the week I had a conversation with a minister who had settled here from South Africa who said sharing the gospel with Kiwi’s was hard… it was like seed on hard ground. He had found many of the recent migrant groups to New Zealand more open to the Christian message. One of the reasons I don’t like gardening is that we’ve moved so much it invariably involves lots of breaking up hard ground, that’s hard work. We as a church are actually working in a field that is hard ground. It’s not easy work… we tend to have to do the hard years to see fruit.

Secondly, I don’t know about you but I’ve always thought that the different soil types actually referred to different people, and they do and I don’t really relate to any particular one of them . I’m sort of a mix, they all relate to me in some way. When I was at Bible College a visiting lecture invited us to reflect on this parable in a different way. He called it the parable of the field. We focus on the sower or the soil and maybe we can’t see the big picture that a sower would be working in a field that was a mix of these soil types. There would be the paths round the outside, some areas which had heaps of weeds and weed seeds, others that were rocky and thankfully others that were good, and in one way we could look at our lives like that field. To be productive we needed to work on the soil types in our field, our life just like my father worked on the good old Waitakere clay to make it productive.

How is our life like a road… The word road isn’t that helpful in our four lane asphalt world. In Jesus day it would have been well-worn walking tracks so the various farmers who lived in the villages and towns could get to their allotted fields. In my mind I couldn’t help but think about well used paths in our own life. The places we are very set in our ways… and it is difficult for the word of God to take root and bring fruit there. Some of those most resistant to Jesus message were the religious leaders of Jesus time. They were very set in their ways, they kept to certain paths and were very certain that was the right way. So when Jesus came along even though he was the fulfilment of all they were hoping for and believed they missed it. Maybe to allow the word of God to take root in those areas of our life, we need to do some spade work. This year as a parish council we’ve wanted to give people some encouragement to grow their devotional life, to try something different… not because we don’t think people develop their devotional life, but hopefully in doing a things differently like the E100 Jesus challenge and coming to church for an hour during the week to pray and even being part of a small group will help in that process. They are small invitations to take even a small step off the beaten track .

I wonder what rocks sit right under the surface of our lives as well. How deep have we let the word of God take root.  Rwanda was known as the most Christianised country in Africa, yet in  1994 it was the scene of one of the worst genocides. The gospel was very widly spread but very thin, it was a veneer over seething racial hatred. I have a friend who has been involved with church leaders in Rwanda since then  helping them working through reconciliation and seeing the gospel go deep to help people understanding a Christian way of seeing others; that we are all made in God’s image and we are called to love our enemies. That may seem a bit extreme but we like them are blind to our own cultural conditioning. At the moment I am reading a book which is wrestling with the fact that much of what is taught as Church leadership today has more to do with our western understanding of success and achievement rather than emulating the life of Christ. It kicks up some rocky ground for all of us…How much of the way we see what we want out of life is shaped in the same way. Is it a Jesus shaped vision or a culturally shaped one? Often breaking up that ground takes time.  The nurture of the soul and the pursuit of Long range spiritual development and ministry gets second place.

When I mention weeds If you are like me then you’ve probably got a list as long as mine of things that are keeping you up at night, that compete with our faith for space and light and energy. I have to admit I’ve found myself focusing on the weeds in my life recently. Not to pull them out but the way they are getting on top of me, many have to do with the future of the church here. On Friday in the e100 essential Jesus we had the reading from John about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life… It was like a seed germinated… I was focusing on the doom and gloom of the tomb, not on the resurrection power of Jesus Christ… I had to pray the words of Martha “Jesus, I believe that you are the messiah, sent from God” and reaffirm my faith in Jesus. It has actually loosened up those weeds hold. It’s a step in the process of weeding them out.

What does good soil look like? Thursday started out a good day this week, U2 released a new studio album after five years… and what made it even better was that it was free. If you are a U2 fan you’ve got two weeks to download it from iTunes for free. AS usual its full of good tunes and profound lyrics… One of the songs spoke to me as I was thinking about what good soil looked like… It said ‘the only heart that is open is a heart that is broken’. Now I don’t think that means we should walk around with all the wounds and hurts we’ve suffered in the past not healed, I actually believe Jesus wants us to find wholeness and health in relationship with him… But in those words I couldn’t help but hear the invitation in the beatitudes that those who will be blessed are those who are aware they are poor, who are aware of their need for God, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who seek peace with a single mindedness. 

I’m not a good gardener but my heavenly father is a great gardener… the encouragement to us as we work through all this is that we have a God who has dirt under his finger nails. Who is willing to get his hands dirty in our lives to see the seed of his word take root and grow and produce fruit. In genesis we see God forming humans out of earth and breathing life into that form. In Isaiah we see Israel as God’s vineyard, which he goes about tending, lavishing his care on… that is picked up by Jesus in the New Testament as he encourages us to abide in him, I am the vine he says in John 15 and my father is the gardener. In Jeremiah 18 there is the vision of God as the potter shaping his people into a beautiful earthen vessel.  We have god who has dirt under his finger nails… Our heavenly Father is a great gardener. We need to let him tend the field that is our life… to make it more fruitful.

I want to invite you to take a moment or two just to focus on the soil we’ve given you and maybe as you do use it as a way of looking at various soil types in your life. Then as I close that off in prayer I want to invite you to plant a seed… it’s a seed of a plant we can plant out later in our garden out the back. It’s a sunflower seed and as we started the service by sayng sunflowers area great parable as they follow the sun through life.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Prayer of Thanksgiving and Confession For Land Sunday

There not many places you can see both sides of your country from... even in a place as small as New Zealand. But the Auckland Isthmus is one of them. I went for a picnic lunch with my wife on top of Mt Eden and with my new phone took a panorama shot which captures the dark bush clad Waitakere rangers off in the distance across the suburban sprawl of west Auckland and also both the mouth of the Manukau harbour, on New Zealand's west coast, and the upper reaches of the Waitamata harbour, on our east. 
On some church calendars September is the season of creation, a time for giving thanks for creation and acknowledging creation care as part of the outworking of our  Christian faith. A lot of the liturgy comes from the US or even Australia and, no offense, it does not sit well on these shores... So I am trying to write my own...  Sunday is Land Sunday and I have written a prayer as someone who lives amidst the volcanic cones of Tamaki Makaurau (the Maori name for Auckland) and between the two harbours of Manukau and Waitamata. A prayer giving thanks to God for this land and earth. I humbly offer it up and invite you to join me... Please also feel free to use it or parts of it and to make any suggestions for improvement.
Loving God, full of grace and mercy

We join the whole of creation to praise your name

We have come from so many different places

 Yet In Christ we come together as one people

We acknowledge you have planted us here in this land

Amongst the volcanic cones of Tamaki Makaurau

Between the harbours of Manukau  and Waitamata

It is here that you call us to grow and to bear fruit


Eternal God, creator of all,

We give you praise for this land

We thank you for snow tipped mountain grandeur

We praise you for rugged bush clad hills

We thank you for the rolling farm paddocks of green

We give you thanks for rich productive alluvial river valley

We thank you for the many splendours of our coast

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it


Great God, source of all life

We give you thanks for the flora and fauna of our Island home

Native forest giants and trees that have journeyed with us

Kiwi in forest night, kea on mountain top, the song of Tui and Kereru

And birds who share our city home, pigeon, thrush and sparrow

The shoreline full of the cry of gull the graceful gate of wading bird

For all animals: bird, fish, reptiles and insects, farm animal and pet

The world and all that live in it are yours, O God


 Gracious God, Lord and saviour of all

In Christ you have stepped down and met us on our journey

Earthquake has taught us that even solid ground can liquefy

You have pulled us from the mire and given us a sure place to stand

On rocky unsure path you lead and guide and will not let us fall

In darkest valley trail you are with us and comfort us

Even in dry scorching desert you provide a way

Christ has saved us Christ will lead us safe home


Just God, righteous in all you do,

Land is a blessing from you for the good of all

Forgive us for the way we have misused and abused your gift

When we have used it without giving back and left it desolate

Forgive us for hording what it provides while others go without

Help us to make amends for past injustice with Tanagta Whenua

Help us to be good stewards of this good earth

Forgive us and help us heal our land


O Holy Spirit, Fill us a fresh with your presence

Help us to keep our lives fertile soil for the seed of your word

May it take root in our lives and produce a good crop

Empower us to proclaim the good news of Christ in all we say and do

Enable us to serve, care for and love all who share this land, this earth

Cause us to seek justice and stand against injustice

Help us to care for the precious gift of creation

All glory to you O God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Sunday, September 7, 2014

elemental narraphors... water

Mash ups are songs made by taking take one part of a song, like the vocal track, and adding it to parts of another song to make something new.  The word Narraphor is a mash up. It’s a mash up of words, of metaphor and narrative: word image and story. Narraphors are not new,  Jesus was the master of narraphor, he blended story and metaphor to speak to us. His Parables take everyday images and weave them into a story which we interact with, that opens us to an ongoing reflection, conversation transformation and relationship.

 I’m not a master of narraphor, I’m just learning, in fact this is sort of an experiment...But over the next few weeks I want to invite us to look at the four elements that the mediaeval world though everything was made of… water, earth, air (or wind) and fire and use them as narraphors for our spiritual life. They are actually motifs that run through scripture, they keep popping up, and they carry meaning and significance, and deal with things that are elemental to our life in Christ. They are elemental narraphors… so let’s dive into the first one… which fortunately is water.

We passed out glasses of water this morning and I’m going to invite you to hold it in your hand and look at it.

It’s water…and Water, or H20 is essential for all life. It’s essential for human life, apparently by weight the average human is made up of between 60-65% of water. To remain healthy we need to drink about 2.4 L of water a day that is to simply to replace the water we lose… through respiration, perspiration and in other ways. Water is so abundant in our country that we forget how valuable it is. Futurists predict that by the end of this century major wars will be fought over access to clean water like we have in our hand this morning. Even in our nation the quality of the water in our rivers and our taps and how we are to aid draught prone areas are election issues.

At a very basic level our faith is water based…A good way to explain that is to look at the difference between farming in New Zealand and in the outback of Australia. In New Zealand we tend to use fences to keep our stock where we want them. We manage them by moving them from one paddock to another. In the dryer areas of Australia where farms are bigger fences are not practical. They keep their stock together by using a well, the animals soon learn to stay by the well where there is water, and food and therefore life… if they wander off then… they dehydrate and die.

People sometimes think that Christianity is about fences. Rules and regulations, does and don’t that somehow keep us part of the flock. But our faith comes from a place more like Australia, a desert land; much of the action in scripture takes place round wells and water sources. Both passages we had read out to us today tell us that at the centre of our faith is a reliable source of life giving water, the presence of God with us.

The passage in Ezekiel comes at the end of a series of visions that relate to the restoration of Jerusalem after the exile.  It is a vision of a river. It starts as a trickle from the sanctuary in the temple, where Ezekiel had seen God come back to dwell with his people.  It flows out past the altar into the courtyard, out into the city and the land of Judah. Miraculously that trickle very quickly, in the space of about 2km, becomes a mighty river, that what all the measuring and talk of cubits is about it is supposed to show us the miraculous nature of this river, a river that turns desert into productive land that makes forests grow, that can even flush out the dense salt of the dead sea and make it teem with life. That makes fruit grow and healing possible.

In John on the last day of the festival in Jerusalem Jesus stands up, maybe even at the very place Ezekiel saw that river flowing out of the temple.  And Jesus says “if you are thirsty, come to me and drink, and out of your heart streams of life giving water will flow.” John interprets that as the sending of the Holy Spirit, the means by which we can know God’s presence in our lives. That God no longer dwells in the temple but within us.

I just want to share very quickly this morning some ways that I believe God wants us to connect with these passages with the life giving water of the presence of God.

Each has an action and a reflection.

I want to invite you to have a drink of the water you have with you. To quench your thirst and I want to invite you to drink deeply of the river of the presence of God. When I was growing up and going to youth group about once a month it seemed we'd have a spiel about 'have you had your quite time today?" and it felt like farming with fences... I want rather to encourage you by sharing a little of the life giving water I have found this week.

The image of Ezekiel’s vision of a forest growing along the banks of the river is reminiscent of the metaphor Psalm 1 uses for someone who finds delight and joy in the word of God, they are a tree planted by the waterside. They have put their roots down deep into the word of God to know God. And I just want to encourage you by sharing a way I have found it life giving for me this week.. One of the e100 Essential Jesus readings this week was Mark 4:35-41 Jesus calming the storm… And it spoke to me… I sat down and I wrote all the forces arrayed against me at the moment, things pushing in like they were about to swamp the boat I wrote them in a storm pattern, then in the middle like the calm eye of the storm I wrote psalm 46:10,’ Be still and Know that I am God’ someone had shared with me last Sunday for encouragement. I felt the presence of Jesus with me and as I wrote them down and was able to leave that paper in the prayer room here it felt like their weight had been lifted off my shoulders. They are still raging but I found life in God’s presence with me. I made up a sheet that is in the service sheet today for you to give it a whirl sometime this week.

Drink deeply and you will find that life giving water of the presence of God flow into your life.

 The second thing I want you to do is pour a little water into your hand… Don’t worry if you spill some on the carpet. Then I want you to wash your hands. I’m sorry I don’t have any towels, but can you feel the fresh water on your hands. Can you feel that they are clean.

In Ezekiel’s vision the water flowed on the south side of the altar. It connects this living water with the altar where sacrifices we made by which the people of Israel could acknowledge and ask forgiveness for the things they had done wrong things which were a barrier to them knowing the life giving presence of the holy and righteous God.

In the New Testament it is Jesus who invites us to come and drink of him, Jesus who gave up his own life who by his blood paid the price for what we have done wrong and enables us to come into that life giving relationship with God.  It’s symbolised for us by the waters of baptism that speak of the old being washed away forgiveness, new birth and new life,.  This morning I want you to hear afresh the life giving story of the cross in your life… you are  forgiven…the slate is wiped clean…  you are accepted… you are beloved.

A few months ago a van got stuck in the grass down the driveway by the church. I went round to help get it out. We stuck some boards in front of the back wheels and went round to push and you guessed it I ended up splattered with mud. This morning I felt it was important to acknowledge that the life giving water of Jesus also cleans off the much and dirt that other fling at us. The Dead Sea is the lowest point below sea level on the earth’s surface. Water and salt and minerals flow into the Dead Sea and they have nowhere to go. Because it is hot the water evaporates and leaves the salt and minerals behind and they build up. Over the millennia the Dead Sea has become about 35 % salt and nothing can live there. Ezekiel’s vision sees the life giving water of God’s presence able to transform even that, to be teeming with life so much so that it provides food for other people. God’s living water can bring his cleansing, healing and transformation even to the lowest point, and the most toxic.  

Finally his morning I want you look at the water you have left in your cup.

 In Ezekiel’s vision the end result of the presence of God was not simply a transformed land, but rather one that could provide sustenance and food for other people. It finishes by talking about fruit trees that produced fruit all year round, more than that whose leaves had healing property and this is picked up in the book of Revelation as being leaves that could bring healing to the nations. In the passage we had in John it talked of streams of living water flowing out from us.

AS you contemplate the water you have can I invite you to have as a prayer for the rest of the week how am I going to be bring this life giving water to the people around me at work, at home, at school. Maybe it’s as simple as mark 9:41 giving a glass of water in Christ’s name, a random act of kindness.

One of the critiques I read on how people use the vision in Ezekiel is it can be over spiritualised. And yes we’ve done that… WE can just focus on the inner journey and we can miss the fact that the source of living water in the vision actually has an impact on the environment. It actually brings transformation in the desert. The living water that flows from a restored relationship with Jesus flows out into the whole of creation. I’ve said it often but the Hebrew understanding of peace and wholeness is a matrix of right relationships with God, God’s word, with each other, both Christians and non-Christians, with our possessions with the spiritual realm and with creation. The PCANZ has as its mission statement ‘working with others to make Christ known’ and we talk of expressing that in terms of the five faces of mission and one of those is care of creation. AS you look at that water today can I invite you to think of a way you can in act that this week in a small way in your life to care for creation.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A Prayer for Forest Sunday from New Zealand

I am not one who follows the church calendar that much but September has been designated by some the season of creation and people in our church have said they appreciate celebrating that as part of their Christian worship. It is a time when the church can acknowledge God's good earth, and our need to exercise our Christian faith in caring for it. THE PCANZ (Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand) sees 'Creation care' as part of its five faces of mission.

In reading some prayers written in other countries I became aware that it didn't express the unique character of New Zealand, with our unique flora and fauna. AS this Sunday is forest Sunday I started to reflect on the wonderful variety of different trees and habitats we have, and wrote a prayer of thanksgiving and confession to express that. I humbly offer it to anyone who might find it useful and also offer it for critique and response... if anyone has a good source of such prayers and liturgy with a Kiwi flavour that would be great... of course if you don't have a cabbage tree in the car park of your church the last verse maybe have to be amended.  I wanted to bring the prayer from images of our land to a concrete (well asphalt) reality for us here at St Peter's). Hopefully a reminder of the prayer as they leave...

From bush clad hill

Mist filled hanging valley

Farmland, Hedge row and even back yard

These bird filled Islands greets you each fresh day

We join our voices with that dawn chorus

We give you praise O God,


We stand with our forest land

 Kauri, Rimu, Kahikatea and southern Beech

like them we stand in awe of your greatness

Like them we acknowledge your provision,

Like them We thrive because of good soil and sure water source

We give you praise O God


Like our rugged coast at high summer time

Putting on the crimson Pohutukawa cloak

We celebrate your coming in Christ

We rejoice in the good news of your life death and resurrection

Your salvation has come to our shore and into our lives

We give you praise O Lord


Like fern koru unfurling

Because of Christ we are filled with new life,

We reach up to give you praise

We reach out to share that life

We open ourselves up to know you more

We give you praise O Lord



We confess that we have not treated your earth with the care it deserves

We have exploited it for our own gain,

Used it with no thought for tomorrow

We have left it broken and littered it with our refuse

We confess we treat each other with the same lack of care

Forgive us O Lord


We see hope in the marginal land

Clear felled, burnt or abandoned as no longer of use

We see Manuka, Kanuka start to re-establishing the forest green

We know in Christ that as we confess and repent You forgive

We know you are able to restore lush life in us again

Heal us O Lord   


Make us like the cabbage tree in our car park

At the slightest breath of wind it moves and dances

It becomes alive and animated

May we be as sensitive to your Spirit’s breath

Moving in praise and love and care for the whole of creation

Move a fresh in us O Lord


 From bush clad hill

Mist filled hanging valley

Farmland, Hedge row and even back yard

These bird filled Islands greets you each fresh day

We join our voices with that dawn chorus

All glory to you: father, son and Holy Spirit… amen


Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Last Word On Praise and Worship is an Open Ended Invitation... (psalm 150, Revelations 4:1-11)

We’ve been looking at the last five psalms in a the series called the last word on praise and worship’ and today we come to that last psalm, Psalm 150, and maybe you’d expect that this great book of prayers and songs would finish with some deeply profound statement about God, ‘To Attempt to say something final about God would inevitably be anticlimactic’. Psalm 150 rather continues to summons and call us to worship. It builds into a crescendo of invites , like wave after wave crashing on the shore, praise him praise him praise him and in that crescendo is an open invitation for all to come and hallelujah

And in the end Psalm 150 has to be open ended because how can we put a full stop to the worship and praise of God. To do justice to the mighty acts of God and his surpassing greatness,  is a never ending call on our lives, a never ending task a never ending joy. It’s going to take all of us, all we’ve got and all of time, all of eternity.  The Psalm acts, like the choir in the video we opened the service with, processes us out of the church into the world as they sung it… it opens the door for us to the ongoing life task and privilege of Praising God.

It opens the door by the way it is an open ending to the journey started in the opening psalm.   Psalm1 and psalm 150 are book ends to the five books which make up the collection. Psalm 1 starts us off by talking about how we should live in relationship to God’s word. It is a call to obedience, to put our roots deep and stay rooted in the word of God which is a water source that will not run dry. Psalm 150 finishes that by showing us that such a life is a joy, is a life of praise, of relationship, a spring that bubbles up within us and cannot be contained. Proverbs tells us that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of all wisdom, but we often stay at that starting point, whereas the greatest commandment in scripture is that we ‘love the LORD with all our hearts and our minds and our strength’.  The journey through psalms can be seen as a journey from simple obedience and fear through times of orientation, disorientation and reorientation; through the calm seas and storms of life to trust in and love of God: To drinking deeply and immerse ourselves in the river. Perhaps that is why music is such a large part of this open call to worship because it engages both hemispheres of our brain, the creative and the analytical, our intellect and our emotions,  and with dance our body as well as our minds all of us caught up in the love and worship of God. Our Presbyterian forbears summed this up in the opening question of the shorter Westminster confession… what is the chief end of humanity? To which the answer is to know God and enjoy him always and psalm 150 acts a resounding amen.

Psalm 150 also opens up a life of worship for us by providing some answers to some open ended questions. Open ended questions are those designed to get conversations going, not be cut off with simple one word answers… the Psalm opens us up to the where, why, how, who and when of praising God.

Where should we praise God?…Verse one invites us to see that we should praise God in his sanctuary.  The Jews once understood the sky to be like that TV show under the dome, they believed that the sky, the firmament,  was a dome over us.  You get the idea that the place to praise God is both in his heavenly court; above the dome.  As we saw in our reading from revelations this morning; heaven is full of the praise of the LORD. But also the earthly sanctuary as well, here on earth under the dome… Of course for those returning from exile that was gathering in the temple in Jerusalem, but for us from beyond the cross and resurrection, it is in the body of Christ that we are called to gather. As 1st peter says we are the living stones being built into the temple of God. There is a move today to place gathering for worship low on the list of priorities, to simply say I can do it on my own, but Psalm 150 tells us that praise is polyphonic, symphonic and it starts in gathering together.

But it does not stop there it is open ended everything that has breath is called to praise the Lord. The dome is to vibrate and resound not with people wanting to get out but with people acknowledging the renowned of the LORD.  It goes beyond the gates of the sanctuary… out into the whole of life.

Verse two gives us the why we should praise God? it gathers up all the reasons that had gone before  in the psalms, God’s creation, God’s promises Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God’s bringing his people out of Egypt, settling them in the promised land, his provision, his goodness to individual and to the community, his answers to prayer, his presence in times of lament and trouble, his keeping his word even when it meant taking them into exile and his bring them back from exile and re-establishing them in the land… It sums that all up in “his saving acts of power”. But it does not stop there it leaves the door open for that continuing story, the coming of Jesus Christ, his life death and resurrection, the sending of the Holy Spirit, how the gospel has been passed on and worked out in the lives of individuals and communities, amidst the churn and blur of history, our stories joining the story, our voices joining the choir, as we have come  to know and experience God’s saving acts of power  and as we saw last week in Psalm 149 on to the ultimate victory of the justice of God. All those great acts of power, reflecting the very character and greatness of God, the surpassing greatness of God shown in his love and grace.

Then in verse 3-5 we have a list of how we are to worship the LORD. This is a song for human singers but the focus is on what accompanies those voices. Some people have tried to use this passage to quantify what is in and what is out when it comes to worshipping God. But we need to realise that in these verses is a comprehensive list of musical instruments, the whole orchestra is here. In the ancient near east you only had stringed instruments, wind instruments and percussion. The list is wider now and maybe more wired than stringed but the call is still open, all should praise the LORD.

At the beginning of this series we talked about the worship wars, about what was appropriate music for worship and Psalm 150’s answer to that is simple, bring it all, bring it on. When I was preparing the service this week I went looking for musical expressions of Psalm 150.. I googled it and I was amazed at the depth and variety of hits I got. The Hits just kept coming…  Gregorian chants by Romanian orthodox monks, the Episcopalian choir from New York, various hymns, Hillsong and Vineyard churches, soulful black gospel choirs, rocky upbeat bands, even Hip Hop complete with amazing choreography (We are going to play that one foryou after the service).

But this is not a Cacophony of competing sounds; each instrument plays a part in the worship of God. This is an open ended summons but it is both structured to give it solemnity and gravitas and also bubbling with joy and spontaneity.  The trumpet that is mentioned in verse three is a Ram’s horn, used to summons people to worship. The lyre and harp were instrument used by the Levites and professional musicians to accompany choirs. The tumbrel and dance and strings and pipe are the instruments of the congregation in response to that. There is place for both the formal and informal, the great performance pieces and the sing-a-longs. The happy clappy tap your feet move about and the soaring stilling reflective artistry. And I am sorry James the two lines about the cymbals is not that percussion takes precedence that it is all with a driving beat. Cymbals were used in two ways in worship. To let people know that they needed to listen this next part was important, kind of like the gong at a dinner party or polite clinking of glasses to get everyone’s attention. So they could hear what’s coming next, in this case the word of God. But also to let people know when it was time to respond with a festive shout, which the second cymbal does in the psalm coming right before the call for everything that has breath to praise the Lord.

It echoes our reformed tradition, of gathering confessing and worshipping to prepare us to hear the word then hearing the word read and preached, then responding to the word with praise and mission.

Everything that has breath leads nicely into looking at the who of worship?  We may simply see instruments here and I’ve often heard this called the musicians psalm. But that is not the case, behind the instruments it is a summons to all people to come and worship. The ram’s horn was blown by the priests they are to come and to lead and direct, the lyre and harp were used by the Levites, so yes the musicians were called to come and worship. But the other instruments are the everyday instruments of the people, all of us are called to come and join our joy and creativity in worship.  The timbrel and dance were used by women in festivals and times of celebration. So it is inclusive of men and women to bring who we are to add to the worship. Music and Dance are also an expression of culture and it is an invitation to bring that as well to worship.  In Thailand the church has flourished away from western influences in many of the tribal areas because the main theologians and bible teachers in those areas are choreographers who use traditional dance to teach and preach. The Tokelauan’s similarly have dances that tell bible stories. Sadly they won’t use them in church because the western missionaries said it wasn’t appropriate to dance in church. In the end it is an invitation to all people all that has breath to come and join us in prasing the God who they have come to know... It's a missional call.

Finally it opens up the question of the when of a life of worship?

Maybe for some of us that might be a closed question and the answer is 9:30am on a Sunday morning, for an hour or at least 9:45am for a bit longer when Howard goes on.

But more than that I hope that this morning what you will take away from this is both the importance of gathering and worshiping together and structuring worship into our lives but also that you might be open to the worship of God in the whole of life.

May accept this open invitation to a life of worship, may you step through the open door of psalm 150.
May you be attentive to the rams horn, above the blaring traffic horns, inviting you to see and to know and to acknowledge God’s saving acts and his surprising greatness as you experience them. Now I happened to be day dreaming at the lights the other day and I needed a horn blast from the car behind me to wake me up to the fact that the lights had changed. I did resist returning the traditional hand signal… but we often need the horn blast to wake us up to seeing God’s great saving acts and surpassing goodness. On facebook recently people have been doing a challenge… they are asked to post five things they are thankful for for five days in a row. It is designed to change a person’s outlook… Can I invite you this week to do the same thing… not on facebook (unless you want to) but to take some time each day to actually write down somewhere five things you want to praise God for.

That you may find your feet dancing in tune to the praise of God as you are aware of god guiding your steps as you weave your way through daily life.

That you may hear the cymbals calling you to be quite this is important and to listen as God speaks. That you may hear the cymbals of the spirit call you to proclaim God’s goodness. 

That you may find your life being a psalm a song to God, as Adrian Aldrich says in lifestyle evangelism, our words be the gospel and our love be the wonderful tune that makes it catchy. An open ended invitation for everything that has breath to come know and praise the Lord.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Using1 Corinthians 16;23-24 As A Blessing for the End of Public Worship

Over the past month we've been using Paul's blessing at the end of 1 Corinthians to end our services.

It's interesting but I haven't really seen or heard it used before as a blessing in public worship, but as I thought about it,  I actually like the sentiment and theology that it has.

It picks up the hope and prayer that we have for each other.. that we may know the grace of the Lord Jesus with us in our lives as we go from public worship to serving God through the week. God's prevenient grace shown in his provision and creation, and his redeeming grace in Jesus life death and resurrection, God's continuing grace as we know his presence through the Holy Spirit's indwelling, Grace that looks to a future fulfilment...'having confidence that he who has begun a good work in us can be trusted to bring it to fruition on the day of Christ Jesus.' (Philippians 1:6)

While the second verse is Paul speaking, or writing, it does sum up our hope as Christians, that people may know the love of the Lord Jesus in their lives because of the love that they experience from us. Our love of the Lord is outworked in our love for one another. A love in Christ which is also missional, which is (I think) wonderfully picked up in the image I have been using with the blessing... an open hand offering Christ to others.

It took people a couple of weeks to get used to saying it to one another... I think for me as well as others you actually had to step out from behind liturgical words and step into the picture yourself... yes it can still be saying words... but It actually calls us to voice our blessing and our commitment to one another in Christ, and we are not used to doing that.

AS a church our vision is that we are called 'to be a authentic, vibrant, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus, and inspiring others to join us on that journey" and this blessing picks up the elements of this vision very well.

... and yes we do use the three fold sung amen...

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A New Song:-Worship as Hope in the Victory of the Justice of God (Psalm 149.. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12)

I read an article this week about singing in church… or the lack of it. It bemoaned the fact that modern technology had stopped people singing in church. With the advent of data projection and worship bands people had stopped participating in sung worship…Mainly because there were too many new songs… Before projection most denominations had a printed authorised hymn book of about 1000 songs of which only about one third were ever used, and there were definitely a top twenty loved by all. Now with the internet and mass electronic media you can hear new songs all the time from so many different sources and use them in services, simply downloading chords and lyrics. The article said it had become more about performance than congregational singing.

I don’t know if that’s true or  the whole picture.  I do know that it makes it hard choosing music for services … as a worship band when we introduce a new song we sing it three weeks in a row so people get to know it and hopefully can then use it to worship God. We try not to introduce to many new songs. I pick hymns that fit the Bible reading we are looking at and Stewart and I hope we can find a well-known tune… if the words are unfamiliar. I definitely try and pick a top twenty one to finish the service on a high note with.

So when it came to Psalm 149 this morning there may have been a collective groan as it invites us all ‘ to sing a new song to the LORD’. Not another one… what if we don’t like it…what’s wrong with the old ones…  But we can miss the encouragement in that invitation for a group facing real challenges and difficulties in their life. Alongside that you may have groaned about the use of military language in the second half of the psalm as well… as Craig Broyles says “in an Otherwise wonderful collection of Hymns  these verses sound particularly unpleasant”. But it lifts our worship from just singing songs to be about a just God who rights wrongs. This series of messages on the last five psalms is called ‘the last word on praise and worship’ and right at the back of the book as we are about to leave, this last word places our worship in a real life context. It gives it purpose and weightiness. As Walter Brueggemann puts it ‘Praise of God is not flight from historical reality”…  nor is it “escapism from either historical responsibility or historical temptation”.

Psalm 149 is a hymn of praise; In between its book ends of praise the LORD it is in two parts. The first follows the pattern we’ve observed in the other hymns of praise… it starts with a summons to worship, and then gives a reason for that worship. But the second section takes a surprising direction the congregation is not only summoned to worship but to take action as well. Action that is couched in military terms…

Psalms that summons people to sing a new song are usually associated with the coronation of a new king. These are seen as a time of fresh start, new hope, a chance for change and renewal. It’s not going to be the same old story, the same old tune. Maybe that’s a phrase we hear over used in an election year. But to make it a reality Israel’s kings were given the books of the law to remind them of the way God their true sovereign wanted them to rule. For the remnant that had come back to Jerusalem now just a province of the Persian Empire, they looked and saw God as their only king. This psalm fits in with the rest of the doxologies at the back of the book which emphasis the creator is their sovereign ruler and has shown his goodness and power to his people by his loving actions. The Lord has bought them back from exile and established them as a worshipping community once again. So they should worship him in song and dance and action. Instead of the king being given the law, it tells us in Ezra they had been read the book of the law and wept as they realised it called them to live in a new way.

Paul picks this up in the passage we had read from 2 Thessalonians this morning. He commends the church that found itself as a small minority in the Roman Empire serving a different king, they are a people who believed that in Christ the Kingdom of God had come and were prepared in their words and lives to sing a new song and live out a new story because of it. Trusting in God’s justice and victory.

The Psalm is a call for the remnant to change their tune, from the laments by the rivers of Babylon and the anxious songs as they wondered if they could make a go of it, to trusting in and celebration of God’s goodness and mercy. One of the things that depression does to a people or a person is rob them of their joy and energy. People often talk of lying awake worrying, tossing and turning in their beds or having no energy to get up in the morning and face the day.  Not having the energy to do the things that actually bring enjoyment into life and fill our tanks. The new song is one of hope and trust, to go to sleep and wake up in their beds acknowledging the goodness and grace of God.  To take steps to enjoy life, to dance and sing and make music, both in temple worship, and as they experience God’s provision and blessing in everyday life. God is sovereign and God had won the victory. 

The Psalm is a call to change the story, from the rule and domination of the powers of this world, to the exhalation and living out of the story of God’s grace and God’s justice. One the things that oppression does to people is rob them of their ability to take charge and live in the way that they believe is right. Because God is their sovereign even though they still find themselves in a difficult situation, a small and struggling community they are to act in a way that reflects the victory and liberty that God has given them.

In the west there is a reluctance to use the military language that this Psalm does. We are used to it being viewed from a position of strength and power, we are the product of Christendom, the crusades, sectarian bombings and violence, nationalism and tribalism being justified by the thin veneer of Christianity. AS Walter Brueggemann says we are used to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition… John Golderngay says we are used to people picking up the sword and then picking up the scriptures to justify it. For the remnant they are aware of their precarious position they come from a place of weakness and powerlessness. EM Blaiklock wonders if this Psalm does not come from the time of Nehemiah chapter 4 when those rebuilding Jerusalem have to work with their weapons strapped on or at least within arm’s reach because they fear armed opposition from their powerful neighbours.

It’s hard to see this as being understood literally. Judah did not have a standing army in the post exilic period, it was only a province of the Persian empire. However in the book of Maccabees the people who join the revolt and establish Israel as an independent state are called ‘The assembly of faithful people’. It’s hard also to write it off as simply the metaphoric language of poetry.  Some want to see the connection of dance and sword and see a ceremonial sword dance in mind. Others connect this image with the idea of the two edged sword being the word of God in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, very much picking up John’s vision of Jesus in the beginning of the book of revelation. Others see it as simply in terms of spiritual warfare.

However if we are to take it seriously we must see our worship as having an impact on the world around us. To worship God, to acknowledge the creator as our sovereign, to proclaim Jesus is Lord is to put ourselves into a position of opposing the powers of this world. To acknowledge the victory of Jesus is to actually acknowledge that the powers in this world, are defeated. They stand judged by the righteous God who has saved his people, not because of their own strength or power but because of his grace. 

It’s challenge to those in power… John Calvin wrote in the time of Christendom when to talk of the sword meant talking about the church having the power of the state. He differentiated between the violence of the saints and wicked violence that rings as a shrill mockery in God’s ears… That the battle for the saints is always fundamentally directed to giving praise to God, so is always a struggle for justice and righteousness.’ It’s interesting that even in today’s society  Christians will often speak of wanting political power and influence, and the challenge is that such things are used for God’s agenda and justice not ours. In our reformed tradition we are so aware of the dangers of such power, that it corrupts. Much of the checks and balances of a separate legislature, judiciary and executive built into the American democracy came from the influence of Presbyterianism.

But it also speaks to people who find themselves in positions of facing either themselves or others being oppressed and treated unjustly. To acknowledge the victory of the justice of God is to be prepared to suffer and to strive and to act to see it be defeated and changed. To see the rule and the reign of God.  Our worship of God calls us to be prepared to act for the justice of God. Knowing God is sovereign that Jesus has already one the victory gives us the hope to face those things.

I want to finish with two quotes that bring this psalm home to us today……

One is from someone you may not know John Pavlovitz.. a Christian pastor who wrote an article where he looks at why people are leaving Church… It has to do with singing a new song. He thinks that for many our Sunday Productions are wearing thin. Just maybe we need to rethink and change how we do church believe me I’m wrestling with that… but also he says that people have become concerned with the disparity between our worship; our acknowledging the sovereignty of Christ and our willingness to face in justice… Speaking for those who are leaving he says…

”Every day we see a world suffocated by poverty, and racism, and violence, and bigotry, and hunger; and in the face of that stuff, you get awfully, frighteningly quiet. We wish you were as courageous in those fights, because then we’d feel like coming alongside you; then we’d feel like going to war with you.

Church, we need you to stop being warmongers with the trivial, and pacifists in the face of the terrible.”

Finally a quote about  the hope that knowing the victory of Christ can have in the face of on-going struggle… on the night before he was shot Martin Luther King jr preached an amazing sermon Outlining the struggle for freedom and liberty, giving voice to his hope and assurance that their just cause of equality would prevail…  his last words were of seeing and knowing the victory of Christ and living and acting in its hope…