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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Lectionary Sermon for 21 September 2014 on Matthew 20: 1-16

“We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” Rabbi Hugo Grynn

The standard, and I suggest limited, way of looking at this reading from Matthew about the Labourer’s and the vineyard is to use it to gain insights about God. If for the owner of the vineyard you read God, then at one level the reading might be telling us about the generous nature of God. In practice this unfortunately leads to some fairly strange ideas about theology.

For example for a period of several centuries some branches of Christianity taught that “the last shall be first” meant that just so long as you confessed just before your death it didn’t matter much what you did during your lifetime. The difficulty here is that this implies that religion has nothing to offer this life. There is also the problem that since the next life, whatever that might mean, is largely a matter of speculation in that there are just about as many beliefs about the nature of what the word heaven is intended to mean as there are versions of Christianity. Some even take “the last shall be first” even more literally. Theodosius, the Roman Emperor who made it compulsory to become Christian and persecuted those who failed to convert was also famous for his thirteen statues he commissioned to represent the apostles.

You may already know that when he was asked why thirteen – instead of twelve – he explained that his was the thirteenth statue. When asked why his was the biggest of the statues he replied modestly – “the last shall be first”.

But not only is this a shallow reading of the parable – it is even not paying attention to what Jesus was actually saying. He does not in fact say God is like the landowner who goes out to hire labourers. What he actually says is that the kingdom of God is like a landowner …..
In Jesus teaching he seems to be implying that the kingdom of God is the situation we become part of when we accept the call to follow.

In other words referring to the kingdom of God, instead of God, is really placing us in the parable. After all, if in symbolic language we wish to identify with the kingdom of heaven, then the story may not so much tell us about God, but rather gives us a clue as to how we might treat others.
Even although Jesus’ parable has been around a long time there are few signs that all those who attend Churches see it as having anything to do with their behaviour.

I want to give three examples of Church congregations which demonstrate what can happen. The first is something told to me about one particular Church where a woman said that she had shared with another woman saying that after twelve years she felt she was just beginning to be accepted as part of the congregation. The woman she confided to responded that she had been attending for even longer and she still felt she was not quite accepted.

My second example is a personal one. When I started teaching at Wesley College many years ago I used to take services regularly as a lay preacher at one particular small country Church. They were lovely folk – but never once did Shirley and I get invited to a congregation member’s house. What is more I noted that other visitors had the same reception – almost as if they had to have done the long service before qualifying for proper friendship. When we shifted to Papakura, Shirley and I went somewhat tentatively to Church on a Sunday morning and were not only greeted and made to feel extremely welcome we were also invited to a meal on the first day. Needless to say we reciprocated and started attending that Church as a place of friends. Now years later I wonder what might have happened in the little country Church I referred to earlier if my wife and I had done more to invite members of the congregation to our home.

My third example happened at a Church (not mine) in our neighbourhood when we lived in Epsom where I was told an elderly woman had arrived as a newcomer and after two or three weeks announced to the congregation that since she really knew nobody, she had divided the congregation up into manageable groups and was inviting first those with surnames A to L to her house for a pot luck meal. According to my informant this has had a transforming effect on the friendliness of the congregation.

Yet in every walk of life this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The kingdom of God is like……
Well it certainly can’t remain like words in a book – even clever words like the words of Jesus in a Bible. Stories and uplifting words can give encouragement but they are a poor substitute for the real thing: the lived faith.

If the kingdom of God is the equivalent of the open hearted landowner who does not demand extended evidence of extended genuine effort before giving a full measure in return, then perhaps one message we might receive from the parable is that is not so much a description of our entitlement – but rather guidance to us on how to treat others.

What would an election be like if those who claimed to be Christian chose their polical affiliation first and foremost on how the policies looked after not so much our own interestest but rather the interests of those who were the most vulnerable, the late comers to our communities.Whether or not we are aware of Jesus words in the parable is not then the point. Rather the issue is: would this attitude Jesus identified of treating even latecomers with due concern and consideration whether they had recently arrived or had been here for the long term be what others would notice in our behaviour..
To be truthful I am not sure whether this parable represents workable economics in the narrow sense of the word, but there are other values in life which we instinctively know matter more than the exchange of money.

I started my talk this morning with a quote from one person whose views I value in this respect namely Rabbi Hugo Grynn. Rabbi Grynn was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz where he had been sent as a small boy.

His key insight was a single phase “We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” He had won the right to speak those words because he was until his relatively recent death a few years ago as one who lived this principle as a campaigner for refugee rights.

From Auschwitz Hugo Grynn moved to the United Kingdom, where he worked first to become a Rabbi and from that point to become one of the United Kingdom’s most respected spiritual leaders, writers and broadcasters. He was entitled to his view because in his life it was clear he cared about those who deserved nothing from him.

What of us and our dealings with people to whom we owe nothing. When we reflect on how we are going with such people, what do we see? How are we are towards people such as, the very old, the very young, the retarded, those who don’t sound educated or who appear to be new immigrants, the strangers, those who have fallen from grace – alcoholics – and yes the unemployed…..those still waiting for employment chances at the end of the day because they werent seen as employable in the first selection. Would others see those kingdom characteristics in us?

If Jesus shows by his dealings with those who represented the undeserving that in the kingdom of God there is a place for such people – then we too – if we claim membership in the kingdom of God, should also be making our offer to the people to whom we owe nothing.

As a guiding principle it is not only of value because it affords dignity and worth to all people regardless of their circumstance; but more than this it is of value because it as a by-product we may just discover authentic meaning and purpose whatever we might previously have thought about our status and power.

In the parable of the labourers in the vinyard, the landowner is thoughtful of the undeserving – first of all in chosing workers originally passed over – but then in giving those workers more than they technically deserved. The people who were in fact owed virtually nothing.

Even if it is not what we might have done – we can sense the basic goodness in such an approach. But then the story of Christianity through the centuries is one of handing on the mantle. The landowner and the labourers story is a story of the kingdom of God to which we too might aspire. How will we in our turn make our offer to people to whom we owe nothing.

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Lectionary sermon for 14 September 2014 on Romans 14:1-12

LOOKING BEHIND THE DIFFERENCES
Beneath all differences of doctrine or discipline there exists a fundamental agreement as to the simple, absolute essentials in religion.
Julia Ward Howe

One of the sad things about Christianity is the ease with which some of those following the faith turn to become intolerant of anyone who might be walking a slightly different path. Even within the first generation of those forming the Christian Church the number of such divisive beliefs was extraordinary. Paul was only addressing one particular Church community and I guess their divisions are rather very different from our divisions today. On the other hand in Paul’s day people appear to have been just as likely to reject people for legalistic reasons as we are today. We might note that although the points of difference Paul referred to now might seem to us to be trivial and peculiar to the church culture of the time, yet in their setting, the issues must have seemed great indeed.

Paul talks for example about the division meat eating caused. Remember that in those days the issue was not so much the attraction of vegetarianism but rather a reaction to the fact that it was difficult to ensure that meat had been killed according to religious tradition. Meat which even had a slight chance of being killed according to some other tradition was considered to be contaminated and unlawful to eat by those with a Jewish background. If the meat for example, had been sacrificed on a pagan altar, or not killed according to strict religious protocol, it was thought to go against sacred rule to eat it. For those living in Rome, the chances that purchased meat was killed according to Jewish law would have been much less than they would have been in Jerusalem.

Although we would find it hard to see what the fuss was today, remember the underlying issue was whether or not they should obey the laws in the only scripture they had at that point. The New Testament was still to be written and the other scriptures were still a few years away from being formulated into what we often call the Old Testament (at the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD)

There were also disputes about days. Remember again we are talking Rome. There some of the new gentile converts to Christianity would have been far less attached to the Jewish sacred feasts and specific Holy days which were generally still followed by the early Christians who were Jewish. Conversely the non Jewish Gentile Christians would no doubt be wishing to retain some of their own more traditional days and festivals. Remember that both Christmas and Easter were originally non-Jewish and non-Christian feasts that got borrowed by the Christian Church and changed in meaning.

Paul was not so much saying the rules should be ignored. He was more suggesting that where the rules are dividing – we should look behind those rules to the principles and insights that unite us.

I guess one possible reason why Paul was far less attached to specific rules even if they came from scripture was that since becoming a Christian, Paul the missionary had been an inveterate traveller. Travel in strange places is great for realising that outward customs come in many different forms yet many might simply be different outward manifestations of what are essentially the same ideals and values.

Paul rightly sees the danger in disputes within legalism. Insisting on different customs and rules can lead to hurtful criticisms and abuse. Paul identified such divisiveness as being very destructive to the emerging Church community. Seeing beyond the different observances of religious custom whether it be communion, baptism, rites of membership, or the insistence of certain wording of our creeds, Paul’s suggestion that instead we should focus on what Jesus stood for, gives us a sense of perspective taking us back to centrality of principles of compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.

If we are honest with ourselves we would have to say that many of the differences we find within our Church today wouldn’t even have been recognised as legitimate in Paul’s day because the culture and customs have changed so much. I have seen churches where people argue about what is essential furniture forgetting that in Paul’s day, furniture for places of worship was largely absent and probably considered entirely irrelevant. We have also seen Churches where they stained glass windows portraying Bible scenes are valued whereas at one time it was considered inappropriate to have any images of human figures present in a place of worship. Women clergy are acceptable today in many Churches but in Paul’s day women were not even allowed to speak in Church and often were placed away from the men during worship. Consider for a moment a selection of issues that currently cause different opinions in the Church –

For some it will be issues like whether or not homosexual ministers are acceptable to the Church, for others it might be how we find meaning in the Bible, whether or not there is a heaven, whether or not God can change the weather or someone’s illness if we pray…Whether or not Christians should drink alcohol… and so on. Because we are all inclined to believe that our chosen faith is the best, we might also be uncomfortable with those who teach other versions of Christianity – thus for Protestants the teachings of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the Mormons and the Roman Catholics are all slightly suspect – yet as soon as we hear Jesus calling us back to his essential principles these things seem somehow of little consequence.

Yes and for those of a very conservative faith, there may well be 613 rules comprising the law of the Old Testament.

We might for example use those rules selectively to deal to those we don’t like – and say we are enlisting God on our side. Yet Paul says we have to put the rule dividing differences to one side as we focus on what Jesus really was about. And what again was it that Jesus said?

The most important rule is, “Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. You’ve got to love the Lord your God with your whole being – with your whole heart and every ounce of energy.” And the second most important rule is, “You must love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself.” For those attempting to follow no other rule is greater than these two.
(Mark 12.29-31)

With these words, Jesus abolishes religion of the sort which tries to cajole God into supporting whatever our current rules might be. He pioneers the way for Paul and, much later, the way for some of our modern prophets like Colin Morris as they point out that a religion of rules can neither buy God’s approval nor bring about social justice.

If our version of Christianity causes us to separate ourselves from our wider community and not notice where things are going astray for our community and our world, our religion becomes less relevant.

The upshot of Paul’s writing for us today is, I think, to recognise that the way our current rules and customs shape our religion in churches on Sunday may help us develop what to us are comfortable customs but in no way should they define how we are to be Christian. Nor is the Christian way of life even defined by an ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast (of the sort we might find in the detail of our creeds!) .

I suspect Christians are still best defined by a choice to love – rather than by obedience to religious laws (certainly Jesus seems to think so!); by a willingness to set aside the security of external ceremonies (says Paul); and both imply the need to focus on issues where the principles of Jesus need a clear input.

Let us stop to consider one of the big issues of the day. All is not well in this world. A glance at the headlines reminds us of Ebola, conflict fueled by nationalism and religious zealots and a planet being laid to waste by greed.

The economists and scientists tell us that for the possible the first time in history there is enough food on the planet to feed all the population. Yet the international surveys tell us that there are many obese – as well as many who remain hungry. Those who are hungry are in effect being denied access to the food. Almost a billion are seriously hungry – many to the point of starvation and in many countries (including New Zealand) there has been a growing gap between the rich and the poor. There may be a good number who attend Church – but surely the ones who are attending to the principles of Jesus are those who show by thought, word and action that they wish to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Allowing only minimal attention to rules of honesty would probably lead you to overlook the gap between the rich and the poor so here too in fact Paul is right to remind us that we need the over-riding principles.

In Words We Live By Brian Burrell tells of an armed robber named Dennis Lee Curtis who was arrested in 1992, in Rapid City, South Dakota. Curtis had a clear idea about what for him was a code of acceptable and unacceptable practice. In his wallet the police found a sheet of paper with the following code.
1. I will not kill anyone unless I have to.
2. I will take cash and food stamps – no cheques
3. I will rob only at night.
4. I will not wear a mask.
5. I will not rob mini-marts or 7 – Eleven stores.
6. If I get chased by cops on foot, I will get away. If chased by vehicle, I will not put the lives of innocent civilians on the line.
7. I will rob only seven months out of the year.
8. I will enjoy robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
It will not surprise you that the Judge took no notice of this code and passed the standard judgement according to the wider principle of accepted law. It seems to me that the overriding principles that Jesus taught would provide a good guide as to what is acceptable whether it be moral decisions about helping the poor and the hungry – decisions about what is acceptable behaviour for Denis Lee Curtis – or even the question as to what is the most desirable way to interact with those whose journey in faith is different to our own.

It is inevitable that sooner or later we will encounter those who see life and faith differently to ourselves. We will always be tempted to focus on the differences.
Yet in the midst of the rivalries there is a quiet insistent voice calling us to new possibilities as we meet in a spirit of love.

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