Lectionary sermon for 9 November 2014 on Matthew 25: 1-13

The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible, It ain’t necessarily so! (from Porgy and Bess)   Is today’s reading really about end times?

If you cast your mind back to 2011 there was something almost sad and tragic about the strange (and some said doddery) old Pastor, Harold Camping, who for the third time missed what he believed to be his certain date for the end of the world. When it failed to happen on his earlier predicted date in 1994, he read some more of the Bible, did some more calculation and announced was going to be 21 May 2011. For certain, he said, that’s when the faithful were to be raptured up to heaven. When despite the numerous texts he had used, that date too failed, a bewildered Harold Camping recomputed and clarified his broadcasts to explain that the 21 May was a beginning of Gods judgment and it was actually going to happen in its pyrotechnic and spectacular finality the same year 21 October. The only problem was that it didn’t.

That we noticed nothing on his third attempt consigns the late Harold Camping to that steadily growing line of failed prophets. Yet we might do well to remember he was not alone. Time after time (and sometimes among some fairly mainstream denominations) self-appointed prophets have convinced their faithful followers that the signs are now right for the imminent coming of the bridegroom to claim his own. Sometimes waiting in joyful and humble expectation, sometimes waiting with vast outpouring of emotion and even fear … and yet always the result appears the same. The fireworks fail to start, the riders are missing in the sky, the stars refuse to fall and the Lord fails to show. And, thus far at least, the world stubbornly refuses to end.

Yet the parable in Matthew is still there with its troubling message. When least expected the bridegroom will show …and hard luck for those who are not ready. Perhaps it is the wrong sort of coming and the wrong sort of getting ready which dominates our thinking.

When John F. Kennedy was campaigning for his 1960 Presidential bid he often used to close his speeches with the following story of Colonel Davenport, then Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives way back in 1789. It seems that one day, while the House was still in session in broad daylight, the sky above Hartford suddenly grew dark and gloomy. The alarmed representatives looked out the windows and the consensus view was it was a sign that the end of the world had come. In those days science education was virtually unknown and few would have even heard of eclipses – let alone be able to recognise the event for what it was. In the midst of the ensuing hubbub with many representatives calling for immediate adjournment so that they might rush home and see to their families Davenport rose to his feet and said, “Gentlemen, the Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.” Candles were brought and the session continued.

Perhaps Colonel Davenport gave advice for our time as well.

Looking at Christ’s original message and seeing what has happened to it through the best efforts of the modern doomsday prophets it is probably fair to suggest that there has been a human tendency to surround the message with unnecessary religious gloss and unnecessary fantasy. Although Jesus had a natural storyteller’s feel for a great illustration – time after time he reminded us that what he really required of his followers was that they should drop religious pretence and start caring about the God of Love they claimed to follow, and, what is more, expressing this love in the form of concern and compassion for all who are encountered as neighbours.

Preparation in this sense is more than getting “on message” and is not then particularly compatible with stepping up the religious emphasis. Every now and again I remind myself that when it comes to my biological father – a family doctor of great compassion and immense practical common-sense – to please him when I was growing up was simply accomplished by trying as best I could to follow his example. On the other hand had I knelt in front of him – or to sung a few rousing repetitions of “Majesty” in his honour, that would have rightly appalled him…particularly if he had realized my daily life was not affected by my artificial and contrived display of adoration. I appreciate it is only a personal point of view but I have long puzzled why we would assume it would be any different for a popular understanding of what God is supposed to be.

Dom Crossan, impatient with the strange prognostications of those claiming an individual enlightenment free from any bothersome need for scholarship or compassionate action put it as follows: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)
(Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, then and now. NY: New York. Harper SanFrancisco).

And for that matter there is no need to look for total mystery in Jesus coming when Jesus himself in several places suggests we will find him in the commonplace. Jesus says we will in effect be meeting him in the faces of those in need. If it was necessary for Jesus himself to reach out, meet and on occasion even touch those in need, whether they be lepers, those requiring physical healing, or those rejected by society, perhaps we too need to review who we meet, who we help, and how we are expressing the love we claim to have in our hearts.
The religious setting of a Church has one potential downside in that it is very easy to convey a false sense of religious concern when we are so to speak “on show.”

Years ago, when 20th Century Fox advertised in the New York papers to fill a vacancy in its sales force, one applicant offered a novel alternative to the usual CV: “I am at present selling furniture at the address below. You may judge my ability as a salesman if you will stop in to see me at anytime, pretending that you are interested in buying furniture. When you come in, you can identify me by my red hair. And I will have no way of identifying you. Such salesmanship as I exhibit during your visit, therefore, will be no more than my usual workday approach and not a special effort to impress a prospective employer.” From among more than 1500 applicants, who do you think got the job?

But bringing it closer to home…. I have several friends in the airline business and three of them have independently told me they have had to deal with some well known TV personalities. Two of these they identify (and named) as people who have a wonderful TV presenter personality – but a nasty and unpleasant way of dealing with airline staff when they are dealing with those they consider of no importance. Our usual workday – or everyday approach to those who we encounter in our day to day lives is in fact a measure of our prepared state.

Now back to Jesus original story.

For those of us aware of how modern weddings occur, the story of the bridesmaids may well seem virtually incomprehensible. A wedding party when the bride is not even apparently present, when the bridesmaids have no idea when the bridegroom is to arrive …these are hardly part of our experience. Yet in Palestine in the first century AD, the scholars tell us of wedding customs that were similar.

Wedding feasts were in fact the main social highlight and were so important that there was even an allowance that those studying the law could be released from their duties to attend. Out in the countryside a great deal was made of the wedding procession which often went between villages and the whole village would turn out to accompany the bridal couple to their home – which for the bride would be often in a new village. There was a Jewish saying: “Everyone from six to sixty will accompany the marriage drum”. One of the customs was evidently to see if you could catch the bridal party unawares. The bridegroom might come in the middle of the night and since no-one was supposed to know for certain when that was going to be – or even the exact date of the wedding, the custom was to post a lookout who was supposed to call out – “behold the bridegroom is coming”. At this point those who were prepared were supposed to rush out to greet him.

At one level, as Jesus is recorded as telling the story, the parable appears to have been directed to portraying the Jewish nation as a whole. The story of the Messiah was deeply ingrained into national expectation of Israel and the Jews as God’s chosen people were the ones expected to be ready for his appearance. In his story Jesus was in effect saying that many were unprepared for the Messiah’s coming. Yet with the example of Harold Camping and numerous others like him as a warning, what the story does not make plain is when and how the Messiah is expected to make his appearance – and even more puzzling exactly what it is that we are meant to be doing by way of preparation.

Looking around at the various approaches we might note that in our world today, there are two big mistakes people often seem to make with regard to the coming of the Lord. One mistake is to assume that the preparation is for some Hollywood blockbuster type event perhaps in line with the Lord of the Rings and that the preparation is therefore best left to looking around for some self-assured authority who might explain for us the meaning of obscure texts and leave us with nothing to do other than to anxiously wait with a mounting sense of paranoid anxiety. The other mistaken notion is to join with others who are more in tune with religion than ourselves, watch from the side-lines and save our involvement for the odd foray into Church worship.

Finding someone to do the interpretation of this particular parable, and to organise our preparation for us, seems to me almost the opposite of what Jesus was suggesting. Leaving the preparation for our response until it is too late is silly at every level. In the same way that any impending event depending on us needs our attention, there are clear examples of mounting needs of neighbours that require our thoughtful and often costly response. Imagine doing nothing about a mounting debt, nothing about a known and worsening structural fault, and nothing about near neighbours facing crisis. If caring about neighbours is the Jesus thing to do, putting off showing concern is to be unprepared. Nor can we simply leave it to others and hope for the best.

Surely the point about the foolish bridesmaids was that they had not even done the preparation for themselves and wanted the bridesmaids who had actually organised their own oil, to share. Christianity by proxy – attending the same Church as the committed believers, and thinking that associating ourselves with others’ efforts to love their God and their neighbours as themselves is hardly likely to substitute for our own efforts in preparation. Jesus was in effect saying you cannot borrow someone else’s oil.

The foolish bridesmaids were only guilty of one thing – they slept when they should have been awake. I wonder what T.S. Eliot would have made of that. T.S. Eliot talked of the Hippopotamus who sleeps by all day and hunts by night. In his 1920 poem one verse reads:

The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.

And by the end of his poem he has the Hippopotamus taken up to heaven with the angels while as he puts it:….
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

The sleeping bridesmaids found themselves locked out of the action ….but regardless of what TS Eliot may say of the Church we can hardly join in his dry and uncomfortable criticism as outsiders. It is we who are after all are the Church – and if we are letting the chance to take action go by, whether or not we can be stirred to wakefulness will in the last analysis depend on no-one but ourselves.

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Lectionary Sermon for 2 November 2014 on Matthew Ch 23: 1-12

MATTHEW CH 23: 1-12 1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

When Jesus accused the Pharisees of losing the plot I wonder if you notice a contemporary parallel with the ways in which we sometime lose the plot in our generation and our church. In a whole series of telling verbal blows he is basically saying that self interest has overtaken the intention to be servants of God. Might that also apply to us?

His illustrations would have more impact on his audience of the day than they would for us because his hearers would have known what he meant by phylacteries and fringes. Whereas our clergy might wear an alb and a stole for an official occasion, in Jesus day (and in fact even today when the orthodox Jewish leaders say their prayers) they would wear a shoulder shawl with fringed tassels called a zizith and they would strap on two little leather boxes (the phylacteries or tephillin) – one on the forehead and one on the wrist.

The phylactery on the wrist contained a parchment roll with four passages of scripture from Exodus and Deuteronomy – and the same readings but on separate tiny scrolls on the forehead. The direction for the wearing of phylacteries and tassels both come from verses of instruction in the Old Testament and both are intended to be worn as reminders of the law and the intention to respect the law.

Unfortunately there were a number of things the Pharisees could also do for show to emphasise just how much faith and piety they had. For example they might invite people to give them the title of rabbi. If they wanted to be even more ostentatious they might invite people to call them Father. This was the title originally given to those like Elijah who were considered to be the father figures of the Church. The seating at worship also emphasized their status. The children and those considered to be unimportant sat down the back. The higher the status – the further to the front they sat – and those of highest status sat at the very front in the synagogue facing the crowd. To emphasize their piety they could wear ostentatious large phylacteries and get very large tassels for their prayer shawls. Jesus concern was not so much that they wore phylacteries or fringed tassels – but that they were pushing themselves forward in an ostentatious manner – or even thinking that this show of status replaced the need for servant-hood and piety.

I may get myself into trouble here – but in many mainline Churches the titles for religious leaders have become important, the seating is sometimes designed to emphasize the importance and the robes in some cases have become so ostentatious that the last thing you think of when you see such a splendiferous outfit is that you are looking at a humble servant. Perhaps some have forgotten that the stole which is nice to wear in decorated form is actually intended to be a symbolic yoke – indicating a preparedness to be a true servant to others. As the status increases, the temptation is to forget about the intended obligations.

In some Churches the elders still sit facing the congregation. That is not a problem as long as in sitting facing the congregation they are being constantly reminded of who they are there to serve. In some feasts like those which accompany weddings and funerals – the VIPs and those seen as important Church people get places of honour. Please note, I am not against offering respect to those who deserve it – but for those who are offered respect there is always a serious challenge to simultaneously try to hold to genuine attitudes of servant-hood and care for ones fellows ….and in so doing start to earn the respect. When people are honoured the honour is not necessarily theirs as of right and certainly not as of birth-right.

Saint Francis of Assisi was close to the mark when he suggested to his followers the only thing we really own as of right are our own sins. It was, of course, not just Jesus who noticed the growing hypocrisy. In the collection of religious writings called the Talmud, the Pharisees were classified in one place as being of seven different kinds, six of whom were described with contempt.

There was the shoulder Pharisee who in effect wore his good deeds so that everyone noticed. There too was the wait a little Pharisee who would tell you about the good deed he was going to do – but never quite got around to doing it. Know anyone like that? The bruised and bleeding Pharisee was the one who not only knew it was wrong to speak to a lowly woman in public but went to such an extent to avoid meeting one that he might shut his eyes and bump into walls in his ostentatious attempt to show his purity. There was the humped back Pharisee who would walk with an exaggerated stoop to emphasize his humility. The ever reckoning Pharisee was the one who focused on keeping a score of his good deeds so that he might prove his favour with God. There was the timid or fearing Pharisee always worried about divine judgement – and finally – the only sort of Pharisee who found favour in the Talmud – the God-fearing Pharisee who genuinely did love God and delighted in love for his neighbours.

For us the traditions have now changed. But don’t forget that almost the whole chapter 23 of Matthew is about hypocrisy – which is derived from a Greek word Hypocresis meaning actor. Where Jesus became seriously concerned was when he thought those involved in religious tradition were behaving as actors… making a great show of the act but forgetting the true meaning of observing the custom. Although the 12 verses above may not mention the word hypocrite the passage is clearly describing actions of hypocrisy, and although the word hypocrite is not used in this particular reading yet in the following verses it is used no less than six times.

Yes the actions have changed and in our tradition we no longer expect our Church worshippers to wear those leather phylacteries on our foreheads and wrists and fringed tassels on prayer shawls. Yet think for a moment about our current religious traditions. We still have plenty that for us are significant. We bow our heads in an attitude of humble prayer. Yet if we pray for the sick and show the sick no compassion outside this place, it becomes empty show – an act.

We gather to partake of the elements of communion. Are we really using the ceremony of communion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus life and how it unites us in mission – or are we thinking about other things as we go through the impressive actions? We sing those familiar hymns – yet are we thinking of what the words might mean – and more important are we prepared to act on the sentiments we sing. We expect familiar ritual and lay great store on keeping our Church setting as a familiar and worshipful surrounding. Yet this can only be good if we are using it as inspiration for our daily interactions with those neighbours we claim to love.

If we were to be happy to share communion with strangers, then treat them as strangers for the rest of the week– what else could we be doing but acting?

In a sermon on this text the Rev Roy T Lloyd once recounted the following story of a man who arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big moustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.””

Albert Schweitzer was indeed a walking sermon. A brilliant doctor, musician and scholar he could have had fame and fortune in Europe. Instead he went to minister to the sick in a forgotten corner of Africa. Many of us can talk about Christianity. When we encounter it in action – we cannot help but be humbled by the experience. Contrast this with those who are entirely focused on themselves and their advancement. Corporate greed certainly creates millionaires but there is also something very uncomfortable about the way in which some big corporations exploit the poor and vulnerable.

These days when Church features less and less in everyday life, because most of us still like others to thinks well of us, hypocrisy can still be readily identified. The fury with which the population treat investment managers who cheat their clients show naked greed with no thought to the consequences for others is seen as reprehensible. There is a line between the rich and irresponsible and the rich and responsible which is not always immediately obvious yet when you see the genuine benefactors in action, the contrast with those who steadfastly refuse to care about those they have cheated on the way to their millions are widely recognized for what they are.

Few for example would question the ethics of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet where they show such a responsible attitude to philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been a genuine benefit to hundreds of thousands. On the other hand it is hardly surprising that when a large investment bank pays its managers obscenely large bonuses while refusing to care about those bankrupted by unwise bank advice eventually the observing public will protest in the strongest possible manner.

That so many, included many with little or no church connection, could recognize that the investment bank practices were reprehensible to the point that they called for protest even at an international level suggests a way we might look at home grown hypocrisy starting with our own. Perhaps it even reminds us that if hypocrisy is recognizable beyond a Church setting how much easier it should be within a Church setting since we frequently hear of ideal standards. Perhaps in our church setting we should have even higher standards than those the protestors have been prepared to act on if our faith is to have practical meaning. But there is one more thing. The danger of a reading such as that we encounter today is that we will think it is really just a story about what Jesus thought about Pharisees. We arrive at a better starting place when we acknowledge that hypocrisy can even extend to those present, those such as ourselves. Self-knowledge is a useful place from which to embark on the next stage of a journey.

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Lectionary Sermon for 26 October 2014 on Matthew 22: 34 – 36

GETTING BACK TO THE BASICS

Earlier this year, under the direction of the present Pope, the Vatican released its list of priests defrocked over the last ten years. These were for the most part priests fired for child molestation and rape. There was also a larger list of priests given a lesser punishment, not so much because their crimes were less, but rather that they were so old and infirm that a lesser punishment was thought appropriate. But lest Protestants look at this list thinking to themselves, “Well that is the Catholic Church for you”, don’t forget that virtually all denominations have their own embarrassments of this type, their own ministers who are hypocrites, their own roll of shame.

Certainly Church leaders are expected to be ministers who lead by example. But even thinking this shows that we too can have distorted thinking, since Christianity in effect teaches that we are all to be ministers.

It is remarkably easy to lose the main point of Christianity and history is full of cases where sincere Church going believers have seriously lost their way. Just think for a moment about some of the more dramatic.

We have the Crusades where whole armies of those under the banner of the cross rode off with the intention of massacring those Muslims who controlled the Holy lands. On the way they sacked cities (including the odd Christian city that had easy pickings) and boasted on their return of blood up to the bridles. We also have the persecution of Jews with the excuse that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the forcible conversion of thousands to Christianity under some of the Roman Emperors, the burning of those suspected of being witches, the burning of those who translated Bibles into non Latin languages like English, Catholics massacring Protestants and Protestants massacring Catholics. We have the Inquisition, the defense of slavery and God enlisted as a rallying point (often on both sides) of just about every major war in every century since the time of Christ. I think for example of Hitler having his storm-troopers marching into battle with “God is with us” imprinted in German on their belt buckles and a US chaplain blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a city in Japan.

These days you don’t have to go too far before you hear indignant condemnation of ISIS for their public beheadings captured on video. Whether or not we are equally indignant about the innocent members of the public killed unintentionally every month by Drones operated by our allies may even reflect our own bigotry.

We find Christians on both sides wading in to argue moral issues like the acceptance of homosexuality, like the right to life, like abortion, like pacifism, like euthanasia and like genetic engineering, with each side claiming their beliefs in line with Christianity.

We have a variety of theological points of view with disagreements about the nature of what happens after death – different sets of often mutually exclusive assertions about heaven and hell. There have also been a host of failed predictions about the end of the world – and numerous failed attempts to predict Judgment day, including I must reluctantly add, failed predictions by both Charles and John Wesley .
If all these failures were in fact what Christianity brings to our world then there would indeed be little point in following Christ, yet fortunately this is only seeing one side.

At the same time as some have used Christianity as an excuse for self-advancement, we have self-sacrificing sincere Christians who set up schools and hospitals, who worked for justice for all, who freed the slaves, who worked for more humane conditions for widows, for orphans, for prisoners and for the handicapped. We have peacemakers, aid workers, hospital volunteers and many more besides. Yet here is something else – this large group many of whom seem largely motivated by Jesus’ teaching of love also, encompasses a wide range of religious affiliation and beliefs. These too, are people with radically different theology – different ideas about heaven and hell and creation – yet all can still apparently catch on to this teaching about love.

So we return to Jesus teaching for a moment. I wonder if you ever noticed that Jesus when he teaches he seems remarkably light in the theology department. Unlike the rule-bound Pharisees and Sadducees of his day who spent hours focusing on discussing slavish obedience to the law, in other words the 613 commandments found in what we now call the Old Testament, Jesus frankly doesn’t seem to care about the detail of the law.

Don’t forget that there were heretics in Jesus day, yet Jesus seems soft on heresy.

Those who didn’t treat women according to the patriarchal laws were technically heretics according to the law – and let’s face it, Jesus was one of them. At times Jesus could even deliberately flout the laws. He healed on the Sabbath, spoke to Samaritans (including Samaritan women),and he cared for the despised in society including prostitutes and tax collectors. He even touched the lepers.

When it came to heresy Jesus did most of his teaching by example. Those who followed different rules of sacrifice and even had an alternative temple – in other words the Samaritans – were also heretics – yet Jesus, as a Jew, could set aside those rules which identified the heretics and focus on basic responses of compassion – even making Samaritans sometimes the good guys in his stories. Those who have discovered statements about condemning homosexuality in the Bible are disappointed that Jesus does not even seem to mention the topic. Although Jesus did have respect for religious tradition – and true he identified the important laws – he produced his perspective by focusing on the spirit not so much the wording of the laws. Where he did stop to talk about law, it was usually in terms of hypocrisy and chiefly hypocrisy of the sort where the form of religious behaviour was on show – and his concern was more where the compassion was missing. Which raises the question: If those matters seemed to draw Jesus fire, should it also be our concern?

However, it would not be true to assume Jesus was breaking new ground in giving as the basics his two Commandments. When he points to loving God he was of course quoting from what we would call the Old Testament. The verse about loving God is the famous quote from Deuteronomy Ch 6 verse 5. This would be well known to his audience since it is part of the Shema, the sentence with which every Jewish service of worship still commences. These days it should remind us of that definition of “God is Love”. This love should come to dominate our thinking and provide the motivating dynamic for our actions.

The second commandment Jesus chooses is again another quote – this time from Leviticus 19 verse 18. It is almost as if Jesus is reminding us that the Love mentioned in the first commandment will find its meaning as we apply it to those around us.

Perhaps it is also as well to remind ourselves that, as some have put it, Love is not a noun – nor is it a feeling of gooey well-meaning. It is best thought of as a verb – if you like a set of compassionate actions and responses to what we encounter in our meetings with others.
I would like to remind you too that the world itself is not a fixed environment. The rapidly changing circumstances of our fellows and our knowledge about how best to respond are also rapidly changing. Love cannot be thoughtless reaction if it is to produce positive outcomes. Assuming that it must be sufficient to do whatever we have been in the habit of doing to help our neighbours, and that all that we are required to do is simply continue to do it like an energiser bunny might repeat an action until the batteries run out, is no longer sufficient.

For example almost every community in the Western world has undergone a real change as far as who now lives in the local community. At one stage virtually all newcomers came from a similar background. In the early days, for New Zealand, the immigrants usually arrived as a part of organized settlement with a strong preference given to those from the same area and preferably from Britain. These days when a newcomer arrives it is often not knowing how to get employment, how to make new friends and in some cases even how to understand the customs and language. 40% of those now living in Auckland were born overseas.

In the UK I have heard people complain there are so many foreigners the locals don’t feel it is their own country anymore. This is a new situation for communities and requires deliberate plans for positive action initiated by those who care.

Another change is perhaps more worrying. Rapid advances in technology have blurred the lines between what was considered the traditional lines of demarcation as to what humans could do and what they used to think God would have to do on their behalf. A few centuries ago if you got really sick, doctors could not help you. All you could do was pray.

A few centuries ago what was grown locally was all you ate. Food sent a long distance would spoil so if the local food ran out you starved and all you could do was to pray.

These days if you get really sick, in many cases doctors not only can help – they can even keep you artificially alive in the hospital. But sometimes the drugs to keep people alive are very expensive and those like the rest of us have to decide if the drugs should be available. We often no longer need to pray to God to keep Grandma alive. Now more often, the family has to make what was previously thought to be a God type decision about whether or not Grandma should be resuscitated. Since surplus food can now be grown in places like this country and shipped long distance, if a community is starving in some distant country – it is not God who we must appeal to get them fed. It is we who now have to make the sometimes literally costly decision about whether or not to save them. Loving your neighbour takes on new meaning in a changing world.

Should ninety year old Granddad get a kidney transplant? Should 12 year-old pregnant Jane have an abortion? Should genetically engineered crops be used to feed the hungry? Should the overstaying illegal immigrant be sent home to a grim future? If we find that a group of Muslims are being discriminated against in a workplace, whose responsibility is it to get action? Those decisions cannot be taken lightly – but if loving your neighbour has any meaning at all, genuine decisions to meet the reality of changing situations must be faced.
When Jesus says there are just two Commandments to follow, he certainly homes in on the essentials, but in so doing he has not filled in the detail. Until the detail is filled out it may just be an empty ideal. That detail we may need to work out for ourselves, and sometimes in practice with fear and trembling.

For aspiring Christians, knowing that Jesus once said something wise about love is hardly the point. What are we called to do? It is not to what William Barclay used to call “some nebulous sentimentality” but rather to a practical expression of the love, to which we are called. Without some actual response it would be hard to justify claiming that Jesus’ statements about love applied to our walk in faith.

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Lectionary Sermon for 19 October 2014 (on Matthew 22: 15-22)

WHOSE IMAGE DO WE SEE?
(My main source in the preparation of this address was some writing by Charles Hoffacker who at the time of my reading was rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Huron.)

A rich but miserable man once visited a rabbi seeking understanding of his life and how he might find peace. The rabbi led the man to a window looking out into the street and said “What do you see?”

“I see men, women, and children,” answered the rich man.

The rabbi then took the man and stood him in front of a mirror. “Now what do you see?” he asked.

“I see myself,” the rich man replied.

“Yes” said the rabbi. “It is a strange thing is it not? In the window there is a glass and in the mirror there is a glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, and you see only yourself.”

In our newspapers over the last few months there have been stories from all over the world with a common theme. When previously wealthy people find their way of life threatened, governments fall. When a government dares to try to balance the books by suggesting tax increases there is a massive reaction. Dare to suggest stewardship to help refugees, and the cry goes up – get things right at home first. When their wealth is threatened people become very upset. They have been surprised that this could have happened even to the most wealthy, and yes, they are understandably very angry. Yet for years they have not appeared to have noticed how the many, many thousands of seriously poor people have been getting on.

Maybe the wise rabbi knew something we might all think about.
Which brings us to today’s reading.

There are some phrases which are so familiar in English that just about everyone knows them. And as with some of the well known phrases in Shakespeare, today’s reading contains one of of the stock sayings: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. What we tend to forget is why the phrase was said and why the part we usually miss out is actually more important.

The statement Jesus made may have been clever and wise but I suspect it is also one which is often misinterpreted. I have heard it used to justify the need to pay taxes and I have also heard it used to justify paying a tithe to a Church… but I fear that both of these suggestions gloss over the main point Jesus was making.

If we wind the scene back it is probably worth just checking out why Jesus’ enemies were out to get him in the first place. Remember there were in fact two main groups who were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the sorts of things Jesus stood for.
First we have the Pharisees who were clearly well respected and firmly in control as the educated religious leaders of the day. They were certainly not forgetting their religious duties and in fact there is good evidence that they tithed – not only with money but also with produce. However Jesus had an unfortunate habit of reminding them that it was not the slavish obedience of religious law that really counted, rather it was spirit of servant-hood behind the teaching that mattered. Jesus also took exception to the status the Pharisees accorded to themselves.

Jesus time after time in his parables and actions showed that what he valued was actions of compassion – not position. Religious people who placed themselves above others were frequently his target – and those who might normally be expected to seem of least value were the ones who most often attracted his time and concern. It is important to reflect on why the Pharisees were made to feel uncomfortable with Jesus because it is possible that if we agree with Jesus there may be a need to look again at the way Church leadership is exercised today in terms of accorded status and direction of leadership.

Church leadership was only one part of the leadership of the community – the other part was of course the legal and civic leadership. Which brings us to the other main group who were deeply offended by Jesus…. the Herodians. These were the in- group of leaders installed by Herod Antipas. They were probably despised by many of the day because the Herodians were only able to retain power by supporting the Romans who were the invading power and were therefore seen by many as traitors and collaborators. Because it was in their interests to do so, they were strong supporters for the severe taxes demanded by the Romans – and in this they were very different to the Pharisees who thought that the tithe paid to the Church of the day was the key to appropriate tax.

Although they used honeyed words to start their conversation with Jesus, his questioners must have realised that no matter which way Jesus answered he would be giving the greatest offence to one or other of the two groups – and in fact leaving himself open to charges which in those days carried the death penalty.

Listen to them: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” That is the flattery bit. And now the no-win trap question….. “Is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?”

If he says “no” – he is to be reported to the Romans. That would be incitement to disobedience to the Romans who held ultimate authority. The Romans would have no compunction in sentencing him to death.

If he says “yes it is legal” – those against the invasion would publicise his reply, treat him as a traitor and at best he would lose his main support. It is truly a lose-lose situation.
Jesus recognizes their vicious trap immediately and challenges them. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” And why “hypocrites”? Perhaps it is that they have forgotten that there are more important and different values than those concerned with money. By talking taxes they are overlooking the higher values which they themselves offend against.

Jesus asks for a coin.

We remind ourselves what the coins meant in those days. New Zealand coins like the other coins of Commonwealth countries traditionally show on one side a portrait of the British sovereign Elizabeth II surrounded by an inscription. This design is a descendant of the coinage of imperial Rome when the symbolism mattered more. In those days the portrait then was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviated form, included the emperor’s name and his titles. The coins of the Roman Empire circulated over a vast area populated by people of many races and languages. The empire at the time of Jesus included Judea and Galilee and by the time Jesus came on the scene Rome had had just about enough from the fractious, fiercely patriotic Jews. The coins were used as part of the Roman answer. The coins quickly replaced local currency and became the only accepted form of money exchange. In the days of imperial Rome, back before photography and television and modern travel, coins along with sculpture were also the only ways that most of the residents of the empire had to see what their emperor looked like. These coins were essential to trade and taxation. They were also designed for control. People became dependent on them – nothing else had commercial value.

Jesus then was actually asking to see the coin used to pay the tax. He is handed a denarius. A denarius was a silver coin, a day’s wages for an ordinary labourer. The denarius brought to Jesus almost certainly depicted the reigning emperor of the day, Tiberius. One type of this denarius of this emperor has been found in every part of what was then the Roman Empire. The Latin inscription on this coin is translated: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus and Augustus.” [John Yonge Akerman, “Numismatic Illustrations of the New Testament” (Chicago, Argonaut, Inc. Publishers, 1966), p.11.] Notice that the Romans often claimed divinity for their emperors so the inscription would have been quite offensive to the Jews who recognised no other divinity but their God. So here, in the inscription the Jews would be reminded of the offence of Tiberius, portrayed as heir to his so-called divine predecessor.

Jesus now asks what seems a simple question. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” There was only one possible answer, the emperor’s. No-one would want to be heard discussing the inscription.

Jesus then gives his famous response. He is actually lifting the argument above his questioner’s attempts to portray him on one hand as a rebel or on the other a collaborator. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Now this is not quite as straightforward as it might first be seen. He didn’t say for example pay all taxes on demand. There is the hidden requirement of justice and fairness. It is hard to argue that we should pay what fairly belongs to the authorities – but if it were unfair – now there is a different issue. If unjust there might even been a case for non payment. Remember the second part. Again a hint of ambiguity: “And give to God the things that are God’s

Sometimes, you see, these notions can be confused.
Some years ago – one of my pupils told me her mum won Lotto. Mum being a keen Church goer and with a very humble approach to life – took a few simple necessities out of the 17 million dollars – then thinking her local Church could do with a new church building gave virtually the whole amount to her church via the pastor. Was that giving to God? The minister seeing the cheque made out to himself, took the money and ran. Mum was doing her best to give to God…. But the minister whatever his title, did not represent God in his actions.

What belongs to God? Consider! To go back to Lotto – it gets complicated because too much betting can destroy lives, yet if the Lottery Commission gives a proportion to worthy community programmes like Children’s hospitals and hospice nursing then surely it is not so clear. If the emperor can make a claim for a coin that bears his image, then wouldn’t whatever we mean by God be entitled to claim what bears God’s image. But what bears the image of God? Here it may not be easy. I don’t for example think we should necessarily think of the Church as automatically representing God’s image. Maybe we should follow something more like Christ’s words when he said, “as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters you do it to me”. At the very least Jesus’ through his parables and actions portrays compassion and justice as key ideas. In the Old Testament we find God’s image in the poetry of Genesis …and I guess in creation. But if Christ’s face, and a response to a God of Love or God in Creation is to be seen in our words and actions this is not achieved by a simple label of “Methodist” or even “Christian”.

Those of you who know me know that my hobby horses change from time to time. The current church related hobby horse is that there is a time to get oneself audited against one’s aims and aspirations. The Methodist Church with its mission statement has a great set of aspirations. I would even go so far as to suggest that to follow these aspirations would indeed provide a set of reminders about what it is to give to God what is God’s. But we also need a reality check. It is one thing to say we have these aspirations and it is quite another to seek signs that we are working towards their expression. Hence the suggestion that we individually and collectively might check up to see if the things we say we are striving for have any degree of real meaning in our thinking and actions.

Much of the Church Union debate between the Roman Catholics and the Protestant Churches focuses on the theological significance of communion – which then presumably takes our leaders’ time and focus. Yet when another issue like approximately one billion people in a world population have poor security of food supply leads to untold suffering there is the question if we are really rendering to God what is God’s if we allow this to take second place to an interminable argument about the theological significance of transubstantiation.

Yes it is inevitable that reluctance to share will play an important part in controlling our decisions. Jesus points us to another set of values that he reminds us must also have a part in our lives. We ignore that at our peril.

Let us pray that we might begin to notice that the image on the coin is only one part of life – and that Jesus provides a different way.

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Lectionary Sermon for 12 October 2014 (Matthew 22: 1-14)

Spitting Against Heaven
I once heard of a Spanish proverb which roughly translated says: “he who spits against heaven, gets it in the eye”.
This morning’s story from Matthew seems a perfect illustration of that proverb.

Picture the setting. A king is having a wedding celebration for his son and anyone who has had the slightest connection with what goes on behind the scene at a wedding will immediately know the potential trouble ahead. Who should be invited – and who should be passed over. When the guests arrive, where shall they be seated? and what protocols should be followed? That the wedding is of the son of a king just makes these issues even more problematic.

I heard of one minister who when counseling the bride and groom before the ceremony has a simple word of advice for the groom. “Remember young man, you are the least important member of the wedding party. Say nothing, think nothing, support your bride under all circumstances and you may just survive.

I remember going to one family party the night before a wedding at which the arguments about who should be asked to speak at the reception and what they should be expected to say grew in intensity until the bridegroom, feeling his wishes were being totally ignored suddenly announced. “Right that’s it. You can have the wedding without me.” And to the consternation of the family, he stomped out the gate and down the road pursued by some very concerned family members following, trying to get him to change his mind.

Any wedding when made to conform to that myriad of human failings and perceptions of pecking order is bound to produce some problems. And this wedding in Matthew at least sounds plausible when the first set of problems about wedding invitations spurned begins to emerge. But then things turn nasty, and let’s be honest, much nastier than when Luke told the same story. Why? Let me try to explain with a somewhat oblique analogy.
One vehicle I bought a few years ago was not my best purchase. The Toyota van looked fine and I foolishly accepted that sellers claim that the reason why it had new paint was because someone had marked the old paint with graffiti. Had I been a little more careful I would have spotted the signs that in fact the van had been in a major accident and as a consequence some of the parts had been exchanged with parts from at least one other vehicle.

This morning’s parable shows a similar match and mix signs of second hand parts coming from other sources and the result may not seem an improvement if pleasant stories are your choice.

The outline of the story seems intended as a straight-forward retelling of approximately the same parable we encounter in Luke where reluctant wedding guests turned down their invitation and found their places taken by randomly chosen people from the highways and by-ways. Matthew’s retelling is somewhat unexpectedly rough round the edges and the changes made don’t leave us with much comfort. Matthew is clearly dissatisfied with Luke’s version and embellishes the story – but unfortunately in the process paints a most unfortunate picture of the apparent nastiness of the master who in the parable appears to stand for God.

Remember the story from Luke is a favourite with preachers and it doesn’t take much examination to see why the Matthew version is often avoided altogether for a pulpit exposition.

First although the story would be in keeping with the kings of the time who had to hold to their power with total force, the picture of God is far more Old Testament than New Testament. Look again at the detail. Having been turned down by those originally expected to accept, the king probably correctly reasons that such wholesale rejection of his invitations is in fact a deliberate slight, and in all probability an indication of rebellion. How to respond? His answer is with a total display of power. He actually goes as far as to murder the messengers who return the rejected invitations. Next he orders the effective destruction of the entire city, butchers the rebellious inhabitants – and finally shows his contempt for the original ingrates by in effect organising a transfer of power to total new- comers – appointing if you like a new class of supporters. Then as if the previous mayhem were not enough, he takes one poor guest, identifies him as improperly dressed, has him bound hand and foot then tossed out for the apparently minor crime of being improperly dressed.

So there are puzzles to solve. Why did the story need changing in the first place?
In the first place when the story first started to circulate there was a different setting in which it was probably heard. Remember Matthew was probably assembling his version of the gospel at a time when the Romans had tired of trying to subdue the Jews who resented their invaders to the point that they had risen in revolt. To teach the rebellious Jews a lesson the Romans had had sacked Jerusalem and driven the survivors in effect out to the wilderness. Matthew then may simply have been putting a theological spin on the reason why this terrible event had occurred by adding a blood-thirsty bit of vengeance to the simple parable found in Luke’s gospel. Matthew appears to be using Jesus parable to remind us that those originally chosen – the Jews have not understood that the invitation to join the son’s party requires a response – and in the face of their inability to respond, others – presumably the Christians must seize the opportunity.

And there is plausibility in the choice. Turning down the invitation on the grounds that we might find a better offer would seem a relatively common response. Since we are not so much talking of Church attendance as participation in the good things of the kingdom, time after time history teaches us that to ignore those higher values of life can and does lead to crisis. Shutting your eyes to the poor, only works for so long. The French revolution and the Russian revolution are not mere parables and it is hard to pretend that the Arab Spring or the current Islamic State uprising had nothing to do with disenchantment with those leaders who had forgotten to care for their people.

Church leaders and even whole denominations lose their right to the seat at the feast if they do ignore the moral imperative of the real issues of the day. It is said for example that the same evening on the same Moscow Street at one address a group of revolutionaries gather to discuss overthrowing the Tsar – and at another address in the same street a group of Priests gathered to discuss the colours of their vestments. One of those meetings changed the history of the world.

In most nations there is a tendency to forget the embarrassment of the starving – and the growing gap between rich and poor. There is something sad about the way in which most wealthy nations refuse to take the growing world refugee problems seriously and although most large churches would claim to be concerned for the planet there is little evidence of concerted action. A few years ago in our universities there was a social theory explaining the lurches observed on group and individual behaviour called catastrophe theory.
Its main contention was that stresses would continue to build incrementally until there was a sudden switch in response and suddenly all was different. This is a lesson which has proved very difficult to learn at a national and even international level. A few years back, the partial collapse of the world banking system, and even today the insidious build-up of social pressures until rioting breaks out, the increase in world terrorism ….. all complex phenomena no doubt – yet in retrospect these were phenomena where the warning signs were present.

The notion then that those who might expect to have a seat at the top table suddenly finding themselves cast out to a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth may have more gritty reality than we might hope, particularly if we are more interested in preserving the goal of conventional symbols of wealth. William Barclay once put it that it is easy for a person to get so involved in the things of time that they have nothing left for the things of eternity.

This brings us to a part of the wedding feast parable which we find hard to comprehend unless we are aware of some local knowledge – namely why the guest who failed to put on the wedding robe got chucked out. Don’t think for one moment this would have been a George Clooney type celebration. Several knowledgeable commentators have pointed out that in Jesus time when guests often didn’t have a large wardrobe, the wedding robes would have been ones provided by the host. In other words putting on the robe would be a natural courteous response to the hospitality offered. But in order to understand this for its full meaning we need to look a little deeper.

Some commentators have also noted the likely parallel with the imagery offered by one of the letters attributed to Paul. In Galatians Paul entreats us that on accepting the challenge to follow Christ we clothe ourselves not with ordinary clothes but rather clothe ourselves with Christ. This curious analogy (Galatians 3:27) draws attention to the difference of clothing yourself temporarily for the occasion (eg a business suit for a day in the office) and clothing yourself for what some have called eternity.

In the context of the parable, all but one of the guests understand that to take advantage of this opportunity which has unexpectedly come their way, they had better do rather more than turn up. In this feast they have a part to play.

The analogy with church is clear. Simply turning up is hardly the same as clothing yourself with Christ – in other words our challenge is to cloak ourselves with the persona in which the values and attitudes of Christ become part of our own persona. Jesus in a number of places portrays God as not allowing oppressive regimes or uncomfortable injustices to remain intact. While it is probably human nature to prefer routines and even ruts to chaos – when the chaos arrives as a result of neglect – as with the wedding feast there may still be new opportunities but not necessarily for the same people. Those opportunities may well be opportunities of service, of compassion, of ensuring justice,- opportunities in fact that come with clothing ourselves with Christ. The parable comes also with an awkward truth. Not all those invited for the feast will accept the challenge – and not all will accept the offered robe. The invitation is there – how will we respond?

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Lectionary Reading for 5 October 2014 (Matthew 21 :33-46)

Ready to Deliver the Harvest ??
First the Reading: Matthew Ch 21: 33 – 46
33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who produce the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

There are different ways of reading the history of the Christian Church. Despite the subconscious acknowledgement that there is one Jesus and one essential gospel it is easy to get so tied up in the minutiae of our present local church setting that we might easily miss just how many times this particular parable has played out in the shaping and reshaping of the church into its current myriad forms.

As with many of the New Testament stories the key to unlock this allegory comes from earlier teaching. In this case the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah talks of the “well-beloved” as an image for God and talks of God’s pleasant planting – his people. Isaiah’s vineyard refers of course to the 8 century BC people of Judah, but Isaiah earlier explains very clearly what the harvest is. The people are expected to be an example – a shining light or beacon to the whole of humankind and in that context the harvest is behaviour in keeping with the character of God, with an emphasis on providing justice. If we look back to the first chapter of Isaiah we even find this justice defined. In verse 17 he explains it in terms of rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow.

And in case there should be any mistake about how important this is to Isaiah he makes it every bit as clear that if this justice is not delivered, it doesn’t matter how pious the people might sound – it is futile without the acts of justice. In that case Isaiah hears God’s words (Isaiah Ch 1 verse 13): Incense is an abomination to me.

Jesus theme is the same. The nation of Israel is that planting of grapes. The harvest which is to be produced is still justice. The workers are given chance after chance to hear the agents of the Lord – coming as slaves of the Lord which presumably are intended to represent the prophets, and the last of these is the owners son – clearly Jesus himself, and all came asking for the harvest. But not only are the earlier prophets ignored then reviled – What did Matthew say? : “beat one, killed another and stoned a third”…but then even the son himself – the son understood to be Jesus is taken to be killed.

Matthew in choosing this parable to record was writing at a time when Jesus had already been sent to the cross – and undoubtedly the listeners also saw the connection between the son of the land owner and Jesus himself.

Yet Matthew records Jesus as saying even that killing the son won’t stop the God from his insistence on the harvest. Thus comes the truth that would have been very upsetting to some in the audience. What of the tenants who had had their chance to deliver justice – to deliver the harvest and failed? They will be put to death by the owner of the vineyard and the vineyard given to others to take on the responsibility of the harvest.

The reason why this would have been upsetting is that, for the Jews of that time, there was an absolute self-assurance that they were the chosen people. Their whole faith was predicated on that assumption and to have someone say that they had had their chance and missed it would have been very hard to swallow. And I suggest it would be much the same for anyone today thinking that they had joined a Church with a satisfying theology where they felt at home with their place – in effect among the chosen…then to hear in effect that the Church had dropped the ball and some other people would have to pick it up.

Remember Matthew was probably writing after the knowledge that the Jews had been turfed out of Jerusalem by the Romans, and I suspect he believed the parable was saying that the Jews had missed their chance to deliver Justice – now it was up to the new Christian church to deliver.

But we have one advantage that Matthew did not have. We can read our Church histories and see that this story has actually been played out not just once but a number of times in the history since. That early church started to deliver – then failed. Others then took over… and in time they too lost sight of the purpose of the harvest.

Time after time the vineyard shapes up to give a great harvest and the workers lose sight of why they are there and treat those who call them back to their task with contempt or worse. When this happens the tasks are re-allotted to others – and a new Church is needed.

Think for example of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Martin Luther, ensuring prestige power and great wealth for the Church hierarchy. They had even hit upon the idea of selling places in heaven with the sale of what they called indulgences and had subverted the message of the gospel to the point where it had practically disappeared. Martin Luther increasingly discomfited by the Church failing to care about the harvest as delivered justice listed all the things he saw as being wrong and nailed up the list on the doors of the cathedral – the result was a total reformation – and the start of a new Church – the Protestant Church.

And as I suggested it is a story many times repeated. John Wesley seeing what had become an exclusive Anglican Church, a Church which had morphed into becoming a support of the wealthy, offended those who I suggest were uncomfortable in hearing his back to the basics social gospel – and was prevented from preaching in the Anglican Churches which is how the Methodist Church got underway.

Now however it is underway and has been going for a good few years we in our turn must be vigilant that issues like justice are not taking second place to Church maintenance and focus on ourselves.

Remember the more contemporary parable of the life saving station. (Found in Personal Evangelism 101 By Brent Hunter). In summary the parable goes something like this: In order to deal with the large number of shipwrecks on a particularly dangerous bit of coast some local people set up a rudimentary lifeboat shed and performed many rescues. Then as success attracted more donations a better and more comfortable lifeboat station was built – so comfortable in fact that dripping survivors messed it up and were not really welcome.

On a cold blustery day it was better to stay in the warmth and comfort of the lifeboat station – and the number of rescues tailed off. Eventually a few noticed that no rescues were happening, they protested and were told that if they insisted that life saving was still important, there was nothing to stop them going down the coast and setting up for themselves. And they did set up their own tin shed a little way down the coast where the cycle repeated.

Now of course there are many lifeboat stations down the coast – most of which are comfortable club houses – yet most who are shipwrecked still drown.

It is not up to me to say where a nation-wide Church or even an individual congregation is in this cycle. The New Zealand Methodist Church in its Mission statement has a phrase “each member a minister”. Rather than concern ourselves with “what’s in it for me?” it is worth remembering that “Each member a minister” is a very perceptive phrase which is rather easily glossed over. This I guess another way of acknowledging that the buck doesn’t stop with a Pope or Archbishop or President of the Church conference or even the leader of the parish. The buck stops with you and me. If we take this seriously it should not therefore simply be left to designated leaders to speak on the issue of justice as they feel like it. This is an issue where we as members, each as ministers, have to calmly and deliberately look at the evidence that we are still focussed on justice, and if not, ask seriously what steps we will take..

It is simply not possible to tackle every single justice issue but to my way of thinking maybe a case could be made that we no longer have the balance right.
The contemporary dimension of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is that the need for justice is just as important now as ever it was. There are very obvious and numerous examples where people are suffering terrible injustice. There are clearly those living without freedom and political rights. The one eighth of the world’s population who are inadequately fed in a world where enough can be produced is to my way of thinking an injustice. I think the same could be said for those whose lives are made miserable by slave labour conditions, the child prostitutes, those stuck in refugee camps because nations like ours say we can do virtually nothing, or those rotting in prisons without right to a fair trial. The large percentage of young children even in this country living below the poverty line is also another issue which needs attention. Those denied medical assistance, or basic education, or clean water also seek justice.

There are labourers working in the vineyards addressing such issues – but I would suggest to you that there are equally those whose actions show a total disregard for the harvest of justice.

The parable is clear. If we insist that our own interests come first and that helping with the harvest is not our concern – it may even be that the responsibility would be better be left to some other people.

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Lectionary sermon for 28 September 2014 on Matthew 21: 23-32)

Jesus’ parables are generally easy to follow but not all are simply vivid and memorable stories. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus, the master of creative story-telling, is recorded as telling the parable in a form that everyone listening could find something there with which to relate. That was the comfortable bit. But then, for a good number of the parables, with his listeners first following and then taking the bait, they would discover the hook. The parable was not always just a story about someone else – it was sometimes a story directly and personally aimed at those who would listen. Even when we find the story told again two thousand years later, the barb on that hook is as sharp as ever. Jesus aimed this particular story about the two sons asked to work in the vineyard at those who in his day who were leading religious figures. The barb was that to point out that others like the lowest of society were ahead of those leaders in their faith. Might his parable retain the same bait – and same barbed hook today?

The parable again:
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

There is an artificiality in the promises given for Church membership that has the potential to make Jesus’ parable of the two sons almost embarrassing. This is possibly one of the easiest parables to understand. Two sons are asked to help their father in the vineyard. One son promises – then fails to deliver on the promise. The other son says he won’t help – then does help. Which of the two does what his Father wants?….An absolute no- brainer. It isn’t the promise to help that counts – it is whether or not the help is delivered that matters.

Wouldn’t it then be embarrassing if Church members and even entire Churches and denominations were assessed, not on their assertions on entering membership, but rather on the evidence that they were delivering on the promises they had made.
Although Jesus’ detailed teachings are sometimes hard to interpret in a rapidly changing world, the principles are fairly articulated in most branches of the Church. Do you remember when, a few years ago, virtually all organizations including Churches were encouraged to come up with their mission statements?

At that time, the high school where I was currently head of science, spent many hours adjusting its mission statement until the entire staff agreed that it fairly represented exactly what we were trying to achieve. As it happened, a few years later, high schools had to be accredited and I was given the task of coordinating and writing the School accreditation manual. I thought we should start with the mission statement and since my copy was long buried under some disused pile of paper (as predicted by my wife!) – starting with the top management, I started asking everyone if they had a copy they could lay their hand on. As I remember it, I had to ask about ten staff members before I came across one with a copy, and that staff member had virtually no memory of what was in it.
Our Methodist Church has taken its task of setting up its own Mission Statement very seriously, developing it over more than one annual conference with numerous Synods in between and because I don’t want to embarrass anyone here this morning by asking how much of this they can recite from memory – I would just remind you that there are some magnificent intentions in this carefully crafted set of what in effect are our promises.
Without giving the whole of it in detail, we have at least agreed that we are going to reflect and proclaim the transforming love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and declared in the scriptures. No doubt the ministers do a reasonable amount of proclaiming on our behalf but do our neighbours and those in the community see evidence we are reflecting this transforming Love?

We are going to challenge people to commitment in Christ. I am sure we are – but it is also a fair question to ask which people we have challenged in the last week – or even in the whole of the last month?

We are going to be peacemakers between people both in the community and in the world. Well the Black Power is still fighting the Mongrel Mob, in Syria and Iraq ISIS is on the rampage, the Palestinians aren’t getting on with the Jews in Israel and a good part of Papua New Guinea is still unsettled. Our jails are full. Marriages are still falling apart. I am sure we are going to be peacemakers, but looking back over the last week – this last month where exactly has our peacemaking effort been visible?

Remember, these statements you see, are in effect promises. We are saying what we are going to do. Under ecology for example we say we are going to care for creation. Presumably this has to mean something about handing on the world to the next generation in better condition than it was when we took over our stewardship. Planting – rather than destroying native forests, cleaning our waterways rather than standing by and watch them be polluted, caring for our air and our soil and our endangered species. Having made and agreed with our statement of intent we can but hope that our planning as Church members includes action. So here is the question. Would others watching from the side be able to say that from what we see that Church is concerned with ecology.

We are going to work for justice for any who are oppressed in our country (Aotearoa New Zealand) Presumably this means that when new immigrants are getting a raw deal – or being denied entry because they are refugees rather than rich people – we will not only care, we will speak up. When did that speaking up happen?

Our promise on inclusiveness is that we will ensure the operation of our Church caters for all – so that our leaders meetings and worship will have visible representation by all groups, different cultures, newcomers as well as old hands, people of different sexual orientation, old and young. At one leadership course our District Superintendent asked how many of those present had young people fully involved in Church decision making… without going into detail I would have to say most present were a bit uncomfortable with the question.

And so we might continue to recall the promises we have in effect made. Those promises about Church unity, evangelism, cross cultural awareness.
But remember there was another part to Jesus parable – it was not just the ones who promised and failed to deliver – but he then went on to say that the ones who were not making the promise – but did in fact deliver on the test were the ones doing the Father’s will.

This is where there is possibly cause for embarrassment. We state we are concerned about ecology. If for example it is a group of young people who start to plant trees and clean up the environment, who gets identified as the group that is concerned about ecology?
If it is the United Nations or the Quakers who offer the courses in peacemaking skills and sponsors the peace convention – is it them or the Methodists who are entitled to say they are concerned about peacemaking?

Clearly we can’t all be predominantly peacemakers and ecologists and evangelists – and if it comes to that – in any case we are all at different stages of our journey. The elderly person on a walking frame cannot be expected to be a front line disaster volunteer, or a young teenager a disputes resolution mediator in a war zone, yet nor do we have the right to proclaim intentions unless somehow we follow through and ensure that somewhere in our organisation there are those who are delivering in these areas. You can see at the very least the mission statement highlights Church family intentions – and if they are intentions that seem be intended as having no part in the present expression of the family life, they might be better temporarily set aside as inappropriate for public declaration rather than trumpeted for others to wonder at. Yet there is also a reality to acknowledge. In each of us there is something of the sinner as well as the saint, and as with Jonah, knowing what we should do is not necessarily the same as doing it.

When it comes to those mission statements the real trick is then not so much to abandon the parts of the mission statement we are not achieving and nor is it for that matter even setting our sights lower. The Mission statement is after all the agreed ideal and within most mission statements there are indeed fine ideals. What however may be missing is a starting point of ruthless self awareness and honesty. The mission statement can provide the essential points of reference. The quiet acknowledgement of those aspects of faith where we are falling short – and the genuine resolve to attempt to do better might be all that is required as the beginning of genuine mission.

Here is another parable – this time retold (with scant regard to the original form) from the Talmud.

Once there was an old Rabbi who got to the stage in life where he needed transport.
He decided to buy a donkey and went down to Honest Joseph’s donkey yard.
The latest models were out of his price range but in the trade-in section there was a rather shaggy and care-worn donkey with a somewhat moth eaten appearance and a matted mane. A price was struck and honest Joe was seen rubbing his hands as the rabbi and his new second hand donkey left the yard.
When the rabbi got home he called his friend over to have a look. He was initially skeptical but on closer inspection this donkey looked rather better than he did at first sight. The rabbi said, “All he really needs is a good brush!” And right then and there he started to brush the donkey. There was a particularly stubborn knot in the mane and when he took a closer look – there was an expensive jewel bracelet.
“Wow!”, went his friend. “Now you’re rich!”
“Oh no said the Rabbi. I bought the donkey – I did not buy the bracelet.
And despite his friend’s protests, it was off back to the donkey yard.
To say that Honest Joe was flabbergasted was an understatement.
His reaction was interesting.
“Your God must be a great God!”, he said.

To follow through on the ideals of our faith takes us to a new level. But more than that, it provides purpose and meaning to what otherwise might be meaningless promise. Who then would Jesus say is doing the master’s will?

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