Lectionary Sermon (27 July 2014 ) Matthew 13:31-52 The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Jesus was a good story teller. These days we miss some of the best bits because we are sometimes ignorant about the setting for his story telling, but let me assure you this particular parable – the parable of the mustard seed would have caused his listeners to drop their jaws – and then tell and retell the story – “did you hear what that man said?” until it even reached the ears of those who would have been so horrified at his message that I suspect they would have wanted to have him permanently shut up..

The first bit of jaw-dropping subversion was that the story was a direct contradiction to that part of sacred Jewish law which was at the centre of traditional culture.

In the book of Leviticus there are some farming rules and one of them is that, on pain of death, you must not sow more than one type of seed in a paddock. Listen to the excerpt from Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus
you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed….

This in part was an acknowledgment that in those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, without today’s Supermarkets, corner dairies, and convenience stores, what you grew was your very means of survival. So to give the grain the absolutely best chance of survival, weeds or competing crops were an absolute no-no. Remember too the mustard seed was actually the seed of a shrub that was considered a weed and next to useless. The thought that the farmer would have allowed it first to grow and then to actually continue to grow until it reached the size of a tree would have been absolutely unheard of – and in fact could have got the farmer into a huge amount of trouble.

But there was something else. Since the time of Leviticus something else had happened. The Romans had invaded – and conquered. The Romans knew what they were doing. They were ruthless. The crops were a source of tax and at least fifty percent of everything that grew was taken from the farmer for the benefit of the Roman Rulers. To deliberately allow something to grow instead – especially a useless weed like the mustard seed was an act of sedition – stealing from the tax gatherers – an act, if you like, of silent rebellion.

The Greek word for empire as in the Roman Empire is basileia. The word Jesus is reported as using recorded in the Greek translation, is that very same word for kingdom, basileia, in the phrase the kingdom of God. Jesus was using a phrase that invited the listeners to think of two alternative empires, the Roman Empire and God’s Empire. His words then conjured up the mustard growing as big as trees in the garden as God’s empire rising up in the midst of Rome’s. True, it is a ridiculous image – but more than that, it was making a clear and unwelcome statement to the authorities.

Remember too Jesus used this as a story telling image and his images are technically inaccurate if seen as literal. Mustard seeds are not literally the smallest of all seeds. For example orchid seeds are much smaller. Then again the mustard plant doesn’t in fact grow into a mighty tree – at best it is a largish shrub – and then only if you find a particular species of mustard. So it is not literal – but it is great imagery and wonderful story telling for his chosen audience.

Because we live outside Jesus time, and outside the Jewish society of the time, there is something else that we might easily miss. When Jesus talks about the birds of the air finding their shelter in the branches of the mustard tree the surprise for the audience would not have been that the tree provided shelter – after all birds will nest wherever they feel safe and trees are usually the place. No, the surprise would have been that Jesus talked of the birds of the air because this was the standard Rabbinaical code phrase for the Gentile nations. To say that the “birds of the air” in other words, the Gentile nations, could find their shelter in the kingdom of God would have been something of a shock for the Jews of that time because the Jews saw themselves as separate – to the point of thinking that their God was theirs alone and had little to do with any other people.

The other bit of background that we need to think about was the situation for the listeners. Being invaded produces a high level of frustration and even impotent rage. What the Jewish people now thought they desperately needed was a charismatic leader who would call them to arms. One who would organise like a latter day King David and drive the invaders away – particularly from the Jews religious centre of Jerusalem. The historians of the day tell us at about this time, there were others talking of themselves as the Messiah. Each new suggested Messiah was scrutinised to see if possibly this was the one. Jesus who showed such confidence and quiet authority when it came to dealing with the collaborator leaders must have seemed to have particular potential. Yet in his actions he must have seemed a total and frustrating disappointment. Not only did he not call the people to arms, he taught pacifist surrender. Forgive your enemies. Turn the other cheek.

For his followers, his crucifixion would later have seemed the final straw. The snuffing out of the last hope that somewhere and somehow Jesus was going to lead them into a new age.

Some time after Jesus told this story, later when the authorities eventually came for him – even then he told Peter to put away his sword. The odd and apparently useless mustard seed – the growth of a tiny and finally apparently unwanted weed was indeed the perfect analogy for Jesus as the symbol of the kingdom.

The story has an inbuilt puzzle that speaks to us in the seed itself. The seed is small indeed and I guess we could get a thousand on a teaspoon – but under normal circumstances who would be interested in such seeds. An acorn – that can grow into a mighty Oak – or a Puriri seed – at least the Puriri is a good solid tree that lasts for hundreds of years, we might understand seeds like that that as a symbol, but what good is a mustard seed. Yet when you look at who Jesus stopped to help – the untouchable lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors – healing, accepting all at table with him, and remember too even a good proportion of his disciples were from the uneducated lowest of class, this mustard seed was at the least yet another signal for what people Jesus thought to be worth his time.

But as to what happens next – the tiny wild and inappropriate seed not sown in accordance with the rules takes root in an typically hostile environment – and starts to grow in a most unexpected form, until in a strange way it becomes a force to be reckoned with.

I suspect not everyone would be comfortable with this idea. That sort of growth can’t be controlled – a seed dropped at random, anywhere, is not a planned and not a certain certain recipe for success.

Now I know there are those who like absolute certainty – and yes – some of them are in the Church.

These are the ones who love neat formulae of belief – believe every problem can be met by reciting the right prayer and finding the appropriate little Bible quotations – what CT Studd used to call neat little Biblical confectionery. Well unfortunately for those who like the neat certainty and organised plan for growth I have some bad news.
Wonders, mysteries, genuine fears and doubts are all uncertainties. Yet they are also all part of the struggle to truth. The message Jesus was sharing here was that the Kingdom is one of almost random, mysterious growth. The growth, like the scattered weed, is “happen stance”.

So is Jesus parable true to how it turned out? History certainly says it is true. Everything was against Jesus message getting through. Jesus – the leader of the new movement was crucified. Who could have predicted the Romans would drive the rebellious Jews out of Jerusalem along with the members of the fledgling tiny Christian sect. The traditional Jews didn’t want the Christians, and the Christians were persecuted almost to the point of extinction by just about everyone including the Romans.

In some places they were driven to hide underground in caves or catacombs. Yet there were unplanned strange triggers for growth. The emperor Constantine looked at the Sun one day and thought he could see a Christian symbol there with the words By this sign you shall conquer – and suddenly Constantine decided Christianity might be a good luck symbol worth supporting. Then another apparently random event – a Christian Bishop called Eusebius – not even a particularly nice man by all accounts, stepped into the picture. These days we might even call Eusebius a crawler for the way he sought to win the Emperor’s favour by writing a very biased history praising the deeds of the Emperor…. This Eusebius came to Constantine to complain that some of his fellow Bishops were picking on him and saying his beliefs were wrong and even that his favourite writings weren’t as good as some other Holy Writings.

The result…. Constantine called a Council at Nicaea in Asia Minor and made the Bishops sort out their beliefs, from which we got the statement of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed. At this conference they were in effect working out what it meant to call Jesus the Son of God and also arguing which Holy Books should be in the collection we now call the Bible. Without that conference, the beliefs and writings of the Church might have taken an entirely different shape and nature. A few years later, the Emperor Theodosius decided to make Christianity compulsory and started persecuting those who didn’t sign up – again causing an unexpected lurch in Church history which some Church Historians claim was not exactly good for the historical nature of the Church as the “body of Christ”.

Listen to the words of Theodosius’ edict:
It is Our will that all the peoples We rule, shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. We shall believe in the single Deity of Father Son and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.
We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians ….(Now the heavy bit) …. The rest however, Whom We adjudge demented and insane shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of Churches, and they shall be smitten first of Divine Vengence and secondly by the vengence of out Our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement.”
(in other words he was saying God said it was OK to persecute the non-Christians…. where else might we have encountered such certainty?)

Theodosius you may recall was the one who had thirteen statues erected for the thirteen apostles with the largest representing himself. When asked why the thirteenth statue – his statue – was the biggest – he replied modestly, “the last shall be first”.

And repeatedly –( John Pridmore says – sickenly) – time after time there are those in the Church who have checked the other seeds to determine which should planted and then consigned the mustard seeds and other doubtful weed producers to the rubbish heap …. And just as repeatedly the rubbish heap continues to show signs of growth.
The other curiosity was that growth was happening while so many in the Church were not concentrating on the growth part. Think for a moment of all those monks simply praying, meditating and doing nothing more than caring for travelers, the poor and the sick. What would a modern PR company make of that?

And yes, the Church continued to grow but in most disorganized and unexpected ways. It is now more than 1.6 billion and what a disparate group they are. We have liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, mystics, orthodox, liturgy bound and liturgy free. The Russian and Greek orthodox Churches finished up with a slightly different Bible and a different slant on some of the beliefs. And each of the now 38,000 denominations has its own history and chance starting point. If we look for a moment at the Western part of the Christian Church, had King Henry the eighth not wanted to marry in a way that the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognise, the entire Anglican Church might never have got started. Had John Wesley not gone unwillingly to a chapel in Aldersgate Street one evening on 24 May 1738 he might never have had a conversion experience, and had that same John Wesley subsequently been a little more restrained in his preaching he might never have been asked to stop preaching in Anglican Churches and the Methodists might never have got started. Had William Booth not found the Methodists were reluctant to support him in his mission to the poor, the Salvation Army might never have got started…and so the Church continued to grow – with I guess different birds finding vantage points on different branches of this curious mustard plant.

Christianity does not exist in some special Church vacuum. It takes many forms and is the faith for real live people with their faults and own tangled and confused lives living in a very real world, growing in unexpected ways. And let’s not forget this is the case for the church members as well. For example, I met my wife to be (who lived on the other side of the City) by what seemed a fortunate coincidence at a Methodist Bible Class Dance in Christchurch because I had a mate who had a Triumph motorbike who could get me to the dance and Shirley had a Bible Class leader called Dick Sealby who thought his duty was to help his Bible Class members have a social life that for him included driving them to Church activities. I wrote Shirley’s name on a banknote with her phone number – then before I could ring her I forgot and spent the money. Had I not remembered where she told me she worked, I would probably never have found her again and the whole of my subsequent history would have been different. Each person has their own history and potential interaction with their faith and those around them.

A plant deliberately planted in carefully prepared ground might well have a predictable future but the kingdom of God according to Jesus is the weed with no special advantages that has to develop amongst others where it may not always be welcome. But let us not also forget the weed, which he likened to the Kingdom of God in his parable, has the potential to grow in unexpected ways. ..

Jesus ever the good observer found potential in the mustard seed. He finds potential in the least promising and I guess if we claim to follow his ways we should be trying to do the same for those around us. If we see weaknesses in others, let us at least acknowledge that to cast such folk aside is not the way of the kingdom. If we can see our own hidden weaknesses we are not identifying anything that would ever disqualify us from following the one who always had time for the least…….. because of such is the Kingdom of God.

(To the reader: This particular sermon is too long for direct use. Judicious pruning would help. Use what you like with acknowledgment – comments in return would be helpful since this is intended as a work in progress. In the event you find the draft sermon notes and/or my site of use, giving the site publicity would be appreciated.)

 

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Lectionary Sermon for Sunday 20 July 2014,( The Wheat and the Tares) Matthew 13: 24-30,36-43

Some of Jesus’ stories have lost something over the passage of time – but Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares takes on new urgency in this age when we are surrounded by competing teachings, different versions of religion and many who tell us that theirs alone is the one true faith.

Perhaps we need to start by looking again at what Jesus used as his example. The Greek word which is translated for weeds here is “Zinzania” – the weed that fools you. In some wheat producing areas, tares are weeds often now called Bearded Darnel. The darnel in itself is not poisonous. It could be eaten and cause one no harm. The problem is that it plays host to a fungus called the Ergot Smut fungus, which is deadly to both human and beast. Bread contaminated with the fungus is poisonous. The catch with it is that unless the farmer is blessed with super vision, the early sprouting darnel – the zinzania – looks superficially like wheat. Later on it does become more obvious – the grain from the darnel is smaller and darker and the plant itself is shorter, yet in practice as any farmer would tell you, weeding the wheat paddock once growth is properly underway would be disastrous.
The way the farmer deals with the darnel weeds, is either reaping above the height of the darnel – or more often these days, to run the wheat and weeds through a thrasher that first removes the chaff from the wheat and at the same time runs it over a sieve which allows the smaller Darnel to fall through and be cast off with the chaff. The deadly fungus goes away with it.

So what then do we make of the parable when we are thinking of the competing versions of Religion. There are, I believe, 19 major religions in the world, most of which have a variety of sub groups of belief. Wikipedia, that great mine of often trivial information puts the number of Christian denominations alone at about 38,000 and given the chequered history of the Church there can be no question that most would believe at least some of these would qualify both as deadly and as poisonous. Within each denomination too there is a range of attitudes, knowledge and belief. (Sit in on a Church leaders meeting if you don’t believe me!)

Between many churches differences exist on matters such as: whether or not abortion is permitted, whether or not celibacy is required for religious leaders, requirements for animal sacrifices, including mode of killing animals for consumption, appearance factors (for example if shaving is allowed, what, if any jewellery is to be worn and whether or not women’s heads must remain covered), birth control usage, agreed calendar, acceptable clergy gender, clergy organization and hierarchical control, meeting day, documentation, acceptable foods and drink, place of fasting, attitudes to war, family power sharing, family types, gender of deities, homosexual rights, the form of approved meeting place, nature of humanity, dates for New Year and Christmas, the allowed number of deities, origin and age of the universe, how prayer should be conducted, whether or not pre-marital sex is permitted, role of women, sacred texts, how suicide is to be viewed, surgical modifications to the body, special clothing, symbols, etc. (List adapted from the website http://religioustolerance.org )

Jesus appears to be saying – not that the followers of the different belief systems and all their individual followers all have it correct – but rather that it is not we who should  be the judges of precisely who the developing poisonous seeds are represented by in his story and he suggests that rather leave the judgement of this to the harvest of final outcomes.

With the huge number of religions to choose from we might pause for a moment to stop to acknowledge that there is probably no way of knowing for certain that any one of these religions is absolutely correct. If more followed Jesus advice perhaps there would be more by way of religious tolerance – fewer examples of religious genocide and far fewer examples of unpleasant attitudes to those of other faith shown in places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. etc.and in fact if we really want to get down to it, a neighbourhood near you.

If more people accepted their religion as the best faith for them, but at the same time recognized that there are other religions which offer other insights of spiritual truth, perhaps there might be more acceptance of other systems of morality, other religious practices, etc. As one exxample despite their presumed shortcomings most religions do have followers whose beliefs seem to motivate people to lead better lives. Look at the very low crime rate in Saudi Arabia for example.

So Jesus appears to be saying that despite failures in actions and intent we should not judge and reject those who don’t seem to be conforming – and that is probably the standard way of interpreting the parable, but it seems to me that there is an even more urgent message – namely that we ourselves should not make the ready assumption that it is we who are the true growing ones and it is the others who contain the poison. After all if the true growing plants can be confused with the harmful weeds in the initial stages then the assumption that our lives are the desired outcome should not be too readily assumed. For example I have often heard it said that Islam is a bad religion – and one that leads to ill-treatment of women and the existance if suicide bombers. Yet if you read what many Muslims are saying, they are claiming that it is the Christians who are dangerous. It is certainly true that soldiers who are Christian have killed many innocent civilians in places like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have the evidence from numerous surveys from such experts as George Barna telling us that those identifying as Christian are not markedly different in their behaviour from those who do not call themselves Christian. Almost the same marriage breakdown rates, similar crime statistics and so on. At the very least this should give us cause to pause before claiming that we alone have our lives as they should be.

You will also hear Church folk sling off at those they consider to be heretic – the conservative Christian view of Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons for example. The words the so-called heretics use are after all little different from the words we use – but those words are the easy part. The real test comes in what we do in response to the words we say that is important. For example we regularly get glimpses of the starving children in Africa in short segments of the TV news. If we are eating a nice dinner while we are watching – and doing nothing in response to what we are seeing – should we really be certain that it is only other hypocrites who need the judging. Should we therefore remain certain that it is the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Muslims who are in need of enlightenment?

Well who is right? Jesus is very clear in this allegory of the wheat and the tares. No-one, he seems to be saying is sufficiently wise to sort out the good from the bad in another person’s heart. Frankly we do not know what is in another’s heart. Some for example get a raw deal in life. You may be born with a brain defect….a chemical imbalance which gives you a bad temper. What you become is a product of many starting points and many influences. Whether or not the outcome is the best possible is not for others to judge. That may well be a question for final judgment yes – but it is not our final judgement.
I am reminded of the opening words of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”.

I am sure for many Christianity seems to be simply measured by which group you are connected with. Are you a Methodist – or a Roman Catholic – a Muslim or a Hindu – but if we know that, is that sufficient? Well, according to Jesus – actually no. And there are some very good reasons why his parable is justified. For a start statistics show clearly that most people stay more or less with the faith they are born into. If you happen to be born in Saudi Arabia to Muslim parents – you would almost certainly be brought up Muslim – whereas in the US Bible belt it would be almost as certainly be a conservative Christian. It would seem manifestly unjust if you were to take the blame for where you were born.

In any case, if it were Christianity you were born into while you may well accept the label of Christian yet this is no guarantee you would be following the entire spirit of Christianity. You may for example greatly admire a Christian – perhaps it was the one who introduced you to the Gospel…your mother – or perhaps your Sunday School teacher – and of course there is a place for wise teaching. But you know – sooner or later you have to decide how to order your own life. That your mother – or Sunday School Teacher or Bible class leader or Minister or wise friend happens to be a good Christian won’t necessarily help you when it comes to your own situational choices in later life.

Yet the judgements made of others are all around us.

You don’t have to look far before you encounter those comforting discriminations that keep our society what it is today. Howick with its new Asian population is still called Chowick by those who don’t like Asians. Christians often see their version of religion as superior to that of the Muslims. If you believe Christians are mainly folk of good-will perhaps you should look sometime at the variety of vitriolic sites on the internet attacking the followers of Islam.

I am indebted to the Progressive Christianity website of Rex Hunt for the following quote:

‘A sense that there is an enemy marks many societies, religious and otherwise. It is almost as though we need an enemy, an other, against whom to define ourselves. This need will sometimes sustain images of enemies, and even create enemies for survival… A mild paranoia keeps some people going and gives their lives meaning. There’s ‘them’ and there’s ‘us’. The simpler, the better. This is the stuff of prejudice. Religion is (often) exploited to hold the prejudices in place’ ( sourced from Loader/web site).

Yet sometimes we have blindness about ourselves.   Perhaps we shpould finish with the following from a work called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

If we insist on judging it could be that first we ought to start with ourselves.

POSSIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
Do suicide bombers and other terrorists influence our opinions about Islam, and is this what is meant by Jesus in his caution about us passing judgement?
Presumably anti–Christian terrorists are motivated to take their chosen course of action, so how do you think they see Christians? – and more importantly why?
Are civilians who are casualties in war equivalent to civilians who are casualties as a consequence of terrorist action?
Under what circumstances do you consider military action to be justified?
Which of the major modern conflicts reflect Christian responsibilities?
If circumstances of birth and upbringing are a major influence in a local population’s selection of faith, are we justified in wanting those with different upbringing to adopt our faith?
Should missionary attempts work both ways? Eg Islamic and Hindu attempts to proselytise Christians be the equivalent of Christian missionary enterprise among Hindus and Muslims?
Under what circumstances do you consider military action to be justified?
Are there some Christian distortions so bad as to require our judgement of heresy?
Regardless of Jesus caution about judgement are there minimal standards required of those who wish to join our branch of faith? (cf Pope Francis’ declaration that the Mafia were to be excommunicated) – if so what?

NB It would be good if those who do work through these questions were to share their answers to encourage others’ thought.

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Background Notes on the Insurrection In Iraq

As an author of two books on Middle East politics: War Clouds in the Gulf and Anatomy of Terror as well as a number of articles on related topics posted on my website, I have to confess to a long term morbid fascination with the build up to the current situation in both Syria and Iraq where the respective governments now find themselves facing an increasingly belligerent Sunni insurrection.

I offer the following, not so much as expert informed opinion, but rather more as a way of starting a conversation about Iraq and clarifying some of the main issues for my own satisfaction. It may also be that what I have noticed is helpful to some of my readers – or alternately it may provoke others to add their own insights. Please feel free to comment.

My first observation is that since, in many situations outside Iraq and Syria, the Sunni live in apparent peace with the Shi’ites, it seems more likely that it is long term discontent with local factors in Syria and Iraq that have caused the severe reaction against government control. As with many instances of terrorism there is probably an added dimension in that those offended by current conditions have a belief that violence might succeed in correcting the perceived injustices.

Secondly although both the Sunni and Shi’ite factions in the Muslim world have long believed that the other faction represents a form of heresy for Islam, since those with similar views have tended to settle preferentially among their own groups, those local arrangements have undergone considerable stress when external Eastern and Western powers have encouraged control systems which have resulted in targeted discrimination against one or more of the main religious groupings. For example in the early 1920s, Churchill redrew the boundaries to split Kurdistan amongst surrounding nations like Turkey and Iraq and carved off Kuwait in order to provide Britain with easy access to oil. The regional divisions are best understood as separate territories with each region being united by culture and religious affiliations.

Although dealing with a single state has economic advantages to the superpowers, particularly when it comes to buying oil, imposing artificial unity in Iraq where there are three distinct groups and separate interests has unfortunate consequences. For example every week for months there have been mass bombings – apparently instigated by militant supporters of the two major rival Islamic sects against rival communities. Although the total numbers of civilian deaths are still far below that caused by the US invasion of Iraq, the unease (and at times helpless rage) of the targeted communities makes any peaceful resolution increasingly unlikely.

While the superpowers have been more than happy to decide which of the rival groups they would prefer to deal with, it did not help that Russia finished up supporting Assad in Syria even although he represented a minority faction (the Alawites). In Iraq the US changed from first supporting Saddam Hussein (a Sunni) in the Iraqi war with Iran and then, after the later US invasion, changed their affiliation still further by encouraging a Western model of democracy which took no account of the ill-feeling between the two biggest groups in the country.

Since the Shi’ite faction outnumbered the Sunni, (in total, rather than across regions) this meant the effective disenfranchisement of the Sunni who were strong numerically in the North West and the establishment of a strongly pro-Shi’ite government.

In Syria the Al Qaeda breakaway group representing a hard-line Sunni extremist element acted as a focus for a widespread Sunni unease with an increasingly hard-line Shi’ite type government. Buoyed by success in North East Syria and by the by the widening support from private sources in place like Saudi-Arabia, the 7000 or so insurgent mainly Sunni rebels took advantage of the increasing chaos in the Sunni dominated area of Iraq and offered to set up a Sunni biased Islamic State straddling the two countries. This group has a stated goal of restoring a medieval Islamic state, or caliphate, in Iraq and Greater Syria, also known as the Levant — traditional names for a region stretching from southern Turkey to Egypt on the eastern Mediterranean.

The initial success of the rebels appears to have taken the US and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s government by surprise. The US leadership in particular seem bewildered that their US $15 billion spent on training the government forces seemed to have so little effect when the chips were down. The army in the North which on paper clearly outnumbered the rebels simply threw down their weapons and surrendered. At the same time, some of the commentators have been pointing to the inevitability of the rebellion. Firstly the initial area targeted by the militants including the largely Sunni city of Mosul was already a centre of discontent in that Prime Minister Maliki, after an initial and somewhat token attempt to include Sunni in his cabinet had yielded to hard liners and in effect developed policy favouring Shi’ites. Arbitrary changes of legislation and the removal of key Sunni leaders culminated in some Sunni areas being totally neglected. Rivals to Maliki were sidelined and popular radicals like Moqtada al-Sadr were taken out of positions of potential threat. Although in one sense this reduced immediate threat, the loss of popular leaders increased the number of potential enemies.

Another problem was that when Saddam Hussein had been in control it was considered mandatory for all senior officials to be members of the Baath party. Because there would have been no official leadership had all the Baathists been deposed, when the Americans arrived, the US had originally insisted that only Baathists with direct involvement with Hussein’s leadership structure be removed. As a consequence many of the other Baathists had continued in positions of responsibility. Because Maliki did not see them as particularly supportive, in 2010 when many Shi’ites were asking that candidates for election should be disqualified for connections with the Baath party Malaki joined in this move. In the 2010 election Malaki actually lost to the party led by Iyad Allawi Iraqi National Movement (INM). Malaki refused to accept the result, and persuaded the courts to rule it should not be the list with the most votes that would form the new government, but rather who could form the largest coalition . The prime minister then out-manoeuvred Allawi by offering government posts to the Sunni who were threatening to object. Subsequently it emerged that a significant proportion of the Sunni votes had been disqualified from the ballot.

Although the 2011 withdrawal of the US forces was made to appear as a hand-over to a government now ready to rule but a number of intractable problems began to emerge. The lack of US surveillance on the borders allowed potential enemies freer access to the country and although on paper there were plenty of soldiers in the army, a good number of these were not particularly well trained, and in any case the Sunni soldiers were so disillusioned with the Shi’ite government that they had little stomach for carrying out Government policy in Sunni areas. The police, mainly recruited from local areas, were similarly parochial in their interests and subject to local pressures. The Kurdish part of the army was possibly firmer in their opposition to the Sunni dissidents of ISIS but this was more by way of mounting a spirited defence of their own territory rather than offering support to Malaki’s government. The Kurds had been seriously offended when Malaki had previously tried to establish stronger control in the Northern Kurdish area by settling Arabs in their territory, particularly in the cities of Irbil and Kirkuk.

The prospects for a united Iraq, or a Government in Iraq with the interests of all its citizens at heart seems as remote as ever. No doubt the small number of rebels can be beaten in the short term by superior force, but in the absence of genuine goodwill it is hard to see the underlying problems disappearing.

I invite the readers to add their own understandings to the above.

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A Lectionary Sermon for July 13, 2014 (Pentecost 5) on Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

You may have heard the old story. Once a couple were driving down a country lane on their way to visit some friends. They came to a muddy patch in the road and the car became stuck. After a few minutes of trying to get the car out by themselves they saw a young farmer coming down the lane, driving some oxen before him. The farmer stopped when he saw the couple in trouble and offered to pull the car out of the mud for $50. The husband accepted and minutes later the car was free. When they thanked him and paid the farmer for his work he smiled and said, “You know, you’re the tenth car I’ve helped out of the mud today.” The driver looked around at the fields incredulously and asked the farmer, “With all that work, when do you have time to plough your land? At night?….” “No,” the young farmer replied seriously, “Night is when I put more water in that muddy patch there.”

I guess you might share my thinking when I say that the young man should have been rather more concerned with farming – yet I have met such farmers. I met one farmer who told me in all seriousness that the best crop he had ever planted was septic tanks – in other words selling off his farm in lots… yet that should make us uneasy because farms are what ultimately we depend on for survival…just as by analogy we should feel uneasy about anything that might take us away from the tasks that we sign up for in joining this mysterious place of Christian vocation – the Church.

I don’t know about others’ experience but it occurred to me that each time I have heard sermons and expositions on this story the emphasis seems inevitably to go on the different ways the seed can be received. Perhaps this is the passive easy option because the active disciple would surely be at least partly involved in spreading the seed. This raises two interesting questions. How should the seed be spread and where should it be spread? For a variety of reasons both the how – and the where have become very restricted so Jesus story has an intriguing twist in that he has the sower going against the custom of the day and scattering the seed even where it seems unlikely to grow. Perhaps we who seem to prefer the soil to come to us – and reject the possibility of sharing the words and actions of the gospel with those who seem at first sight to offer poor return might find new meaning in the parable if we consider ourselves to have the task of sowing as well as receiving the seed.

The man who went out to sow may well be the most familiar of Jesus’ parables and as we get familiar with a story it starts to lose its novelty – and its ability to make us think. Yet as with all Jesus’ stories there are layers of meaning we can uncover which I suspect might bring back the freshness of this master tale. So looking again at this story from a twenty first Century perspective we look to see what else might be noticed.

We might for example look at what we now know about seeds. From a scientific point of view, seeds, if anything are simply more miraculous than was first thought. Now with genetics beginning to be understood we now know that within each small seed there is a much tinier spot which contains the instructions for the incredibly complex life form which may result when the seed begins to grow. Each part of the new plant whether it be the tip of the root, the energy releasing parts of the cells, the complex hormonal communication system, the instructions for form and function, the parts that will provide strength, the chloroplasts for photosynthesis, mitochondria for the release of energy, starch for the store of energy, these and very many other things are all coded in instruction form.

Yet the instructions still need the right environment – without warmth and water the seed is unlikely to germinate. Without the right chemicals present the genes are not “turned on”. Without a continued food supply of the particular chemicals needed for growth including the trace elements needed in the smallest amounts, healthy and continued growth will not happen. Mind you this growth sometimes happens in most surprising ways. I have for example seen cracked mortar in old brickwork where where plants insist on growing – not even in soil …. This may explain why the man who went out to sow, scattered seed in some unlikely places.

Something else we now know about seed is that when farmers, year after year, only using the same specifically chosen seed and only growing it in one perfect place, they are following a long term recipe for disaster. Only one plant form and only in one preferred in one area rapidly and selectively takes the plants preferred food out of the soil and subsequent generations of plants in the same area rapidly weaken and the soils become deficient in the needed nutrients. Perhaps here we are being warned not to restrict our thinking to those who happen to come to our Sunday service.

If the soil can be used as analogy for the range of ways in which the church might offer the gospel – insisting that all adopt the same formulae of faith – and that all should focus on exactly the same age old traditional tasks would by analogy drain the church of nutrient. In any event, as the needs of the community changed there would be little expectation that the old chosen growth form would still be needed or even relevant.

Jesus knew that people are different. Listen again to the parable:
“Listen!”, he said, “A sower went out to sow. And as he
sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and
ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they
did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly since
they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they
were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered
away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew
up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and
brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some
thirty.”

Later, as we know from our reading of the gospel today, Jesus explained this parable for his disciples. Basically his interpretation tells us that different kinds of people respond to the gospel in different ways.

But in theory at least we have a distinct advantage because these days we now know a great deal. For example if we see ourselves as the different types of soil into which the seed, (ie the gospel) is made available we might to well to remember that soil can be improved, and not only soil can be improved but growing conditions too can be changed to enhance growth.

To return to the planting analogy, I have been told by keen gardeners that a previously struggling mandarin tree can be transformed with a bit of citrus fertilizer round the drip line of the tree.

So I guess taking the analogy a little further – finding the missing bit might transform the product. For example we might be continually talking about Christianity as service to the community – yet never be providing the opportunity or stimulus for actual opportunities for service.

Something else I learnt from the horticulturalist in my family – who I must make clear is not me!

When they start seed growing at the nursery they really look after the plants – starting with seed trays where they can make sure there is no competing growth from weeds. Then the plants are put in shade houses – this keeps them safe from the hot sun or the wind or those frosty winter days. But here is the thing. If you don’t toughen up the plant by taking it out of the tunnel house as soon as it is big enough – then when it comes to the first strong wind, – or the first really cold day, the plant will die.

This is why if again we go back to the gospel, it makes perfect sense that rather than keeping the young Christian sheltered in the Church where the hardest thing he or she might be asked to do is wave their hands in the air and clap in time to a chorus, we should encourage them to take on some real life challenges – perhaps serving as a volunteer for a time in a third world country, working for a soup kitchen, working with the IHC or the elderly, or even helping with a drop in centre for wayward teenagers.

Adults too need challenges. If we only see Christianity in terms of living in the tunnel house – or if you like, attending Church to do daring things like singing a new hymn – or even attending a leaders meeting – it may be that we need to harden up a little and start seeking to be Christ’s hands and hearts in places of need. It could even be that we should take our democratic responsibilities seriously when it comes to telling our politicians how they should be using our tax dollars. If our Christian promises are to mean anything, sometimes our selfish interests may need to be given second place.

We tend to see humans as superior to plants because we can move around independently – but one reason why I am attracted to Jesus likening us to drawing attention to the growing stimulus for plants, is there is another important difference between plants and animals like humans. We stop growing quite early in life. A tree on the other hand keeps growing right through its life. Just maybe there is another parable here – but that is for another day. AMEN

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR GROUP STUDY
1. Does our church currently give priority to acting on Jesus’ teaching about spreading the gospel?
2. Are those in the wider community generally expected to seek out the Church? – or are the church members taking the Christian message out into the community?
3. Do you think the local community recognises the relevance of modern Christianity? (eg are Church attendances reflecting this perception?)
4. What are the challenges to practical Christian service offered to
a) our young people?
b) the adults in the Church?
5. Do you think a majority of the Church adults are continuing to grow in their understanding and in their confidence to tackle the current issues?
6. List any political issues which should take the attention of modern Christians and reflect on whether or not the current attention towards such issues has the right balance

NB Feel free to respond via the comment box. For example I would appreciate finding out if questions such as the ones offered are of help at the local level.

 

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Lectionary Sermon for 6 July 2014 on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Ours is not the first generation in history where people have experienced feelings of superiority when they involve themselves in conversations describing the shortcomings of those who have chosen different paths of enlightenment. It is an age old game where the followers of one faith or version of faith poor scorn on the followers of another. I suspect it is a phenomenon which crosses land and sea and goes way back into prehistory.

Early in my teaching career I spent a year volunteer teaching in the territory of Papua and New Guinea where such was the suspicion of neighbouring tribes at that time that for less than three million people there were more than 700 different languages and within these many dialects. Inter tribal fights were common and historical grudges were nursed over many years so that pay-back could be exacted. While, to outsiders like myself, the tribes had very obvious similarities of belief and custom, minor differences were magnified to the point where discrimination was the rule rather than the exception.

It is an embarrassing realisation that this is only different in scale to the tensions between modern nations, and which at times have spilled over into extremely nasty warfare. This should cause us to step back and wonder to ourselves how much of the principles of Jesus and other religious leaders are internalised by those who claim to be followers.

I guess we all play some social, economic and even religious games appropriate to our setting and to our generation. Given that we have made a set of choices about what constitutes appropriate customs and values for our lives, the unspoken expectations of others is that their choices should preferably fit ours and at the very least not place restrictions on our decisions.

Using rivalry between John the Baptist’s followers and his own as an example, Jesus portrays the silly consequences for adults as being the equivalent to children playing their version of adult customs for weddings and funerals, with the boys dancing like men at a Jewish wedding and sneering at the girls who are not dancing while the girls are wailing as they copy Jewish women mourning at a funeral. The girls in their turn sneer at the boys for not joining in their game. The needless quarrels about such matters Jesus identifies as similar to the irrelevant diversions from what really matters.

We don’t have to look too far before we can find modern equivalents. Think of the upset Muslim women cause with their traditional clothing for those who consider Western dress is the only appropriate custom, the distrust of orthodox Jews for their appearance, and for the difficulties wearing turbans caused in the post 9-11 period.

Our assumption that our games are only be played by those as good as us moves far beyond church when it starts to affect socioeconomic outcomes. Most nations don’t want to be burdened by the poverty stricken and actively block the arrival of refugees. At a more refined level, even in cities with few refugees, it is common that some high class neighbourhoods set up local arrangements to prevent poorer houses being built in their district. It would be both interesting and almost certainly unpopular to invite a religious reaction to these common practices.

Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about the contrasting styles of John the Baptist whose diet was Spartan in the extreme and on the other hand Jesus who was criticised for his feasting and drinking with inappropriate company. Jesus is discovered here acknowledging the criticism but saying “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”. In other words the style of ministry is not the ministry – the deeds done as a consequence of the ministry are their own justification.

In that sense both John and Jesus offered their own useful cautions. John refused to see himself as required to join in the equivalent of the wedding dance because, as he saw it, with unwise leadership, enough had become more than enough. His followers raised serious questions for the rulers of Jewish society. On the other hand Jesus was reluctant to force the grim reality of the equivalent of funeral on those who were currently excluded from the dance and festivities. Jesus’ followers became open to new concepts of what it is to be a neighbour. That both John the Baptist and Jesus had something different to offer did not mean that one or the other needed to be rejected.

Here perhaps we should step back to reflect, not so much asking the common questions about whether those from a different religious or cultural setting should be required to adopt our customs, but rather the more pointed question. Do our deeds vindicate our religious and cultural choices, and the corollary, do our actions justify condemning those who are not acting as we act?

In one sense part of the answer to this question is surprising. Jesus performed his deeds in a variety of settings because he was meeting needs – not because he was necessarily being appreciated. In a modern context we too are just as likely to be rejected for doing what we know to be right. Peacemakers can be and are often rejected. Those who challenge rampant capitalism are still distrusted. Those who challenge corruption are certainly following the lead of Jesus who cleared the Temple of those trying to profit from religion, but are unlikely to find favour with some of the rich and powerful.

In Jesus’ day followers of the Samaritan faith were the heretics of the day. His finding them to be worth bothering with was in keeping with his teaching, but no doubt deeply unpopular with self appointed keepers of the faith.

Notice that Jesus made these observations about those who did not learn from his deeds. As Matthew recorded it in the bit censored out of the lectionary: “20Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

As Jesus indicated on a number of occasions, it is not for us to judge, nor for that matter, to withhold doing what we know to be right because we believe it to be unappreciated. But this does not mean that in the end wilful inappropriate actions and bad attitudes will not reap their own reward. We only have to look at the destruction and desolation wrought by nations on their own cities when their greed and belligerence leads to all out war.

For those of us who choose to follow Jesus, it seems that there are two requirements. First we have an obligation to adjust our attitudes so that our own actions and deeds reflect the teachings we claim to follow. Secondly we need to be looking, not so much at the play acting customs which have become an inevitable part of our culture and religion, as we need to focus on our relationships. Are there aspects to our game playing which act as a barrier?

I recently re-read a series of essays entitled “Stirrings” where a number of modern theologians and thinkers questioned the mismatch between traditional Church thinking and the sort of theology needed for modern society.

One of the essayists Donald Tytler looked at some obstacles built into typical Church liturgy. For example he reminded the reader of the cultic setting, only home to the initiated, whereby specialised buildings are consecrated – deliberately set aside from secular use. These buildings he said contain abnormal furniture and in some settings, stylised antique clothing is worn. Again following Tytler, the liturgy in such places typically expresses ideas through images and concepts which are alienated from modern discoveries. A childish dependence on a great fixer of natural and historical events neither matches historical records nor scientific understanding let alone makes room for new cultural, economic or political developments.

Finally Tytler questions liturgy which encourages a pattern of submission rather than acting as a call to relevant action.

Religious games which draw attention to exclusion eg only offering communion to those who play the identical game, may help the initiated with their sense of belonging but surely that same game does little for those whose sense of alienation can only be heightened in knowing that they do not belong.

Perhaps in the last analysis we might ask ourselves how closely our practice of religion offers something resembling Jesus’ promise when he said:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is a key passage in the gospels. Perhaps more than any other verse it reminds us that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship. Certainly there is mystery. Turning to Christ with heavy problems is often seen as more than just applied psychology because some who have been driven to despair by tragedy and overwhelming grief later attest to their feeling that in the midst of their despair they found their load to be lifted.

Modern burdens are diverse indeed. Some are burdened by poverty, and depression is a condition which is surprisingly common across all socioeconomic groups. The burden of alienation takes many forms and how we arrange to help may reflect the nature of our community.
I acknowledge that for some who follow Christ, their feeling of identification is such that they feel they can in effect approach Jesus – perhaps by heartfelt prayer, without an intermediary. My personal observation is however that for many, indeed I would even say for most, the approach is made in the first instance to those people whose manner suggests they will be open and sympathetic. Again the games we play show very clearly whether or not we are seen by others to be open to their approach.

If the Christ we follow could claim that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, then presumably it follows that as his representatives in his church we should be offering the same deal to those who come with their problems and burdens to ourselves.

If we have found relationship in faith, we can only hope that others will encounter this same relationship in us.

 

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Lectionary Sermon for 29 June 2014 (Pentecost 3) on Matthew 10:37-42

37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The notion of acting as if our Church buildings are the only place to encounter religion may be partly inevitable, but that perception misses out on a most important dimension of what Jesus was attempting to convey. If nothing more was required of us than we should care about those who care about us, attend Church on a Sunday and drink tea or coffee with our friends after the service, then to portray ourselves as carrying the cross and claiming to be a messenger in his name would become something of a nonsense.

Please do hear me saying I have it right and many have it wrong. I freely admit although I try at least part of the time to be a Christian, even at best I am still one who, more often than not, has a desire to lead the peaceful untroubled life, and what is more, with a faith so levelled that I am untroubled by difficult texts. But strangely enough I can’t help suspecting that sometimes I have made sacrifices for other dimensions of my life that I might not have made for my faith. Perhaps it is human to look for compromises and comforts, but with today’s text, at the very least, we should listen to what it says and ask the question of ourselves, to wonder if there might not be something there that might help shape our lives?

When we look at today’s short but demanding reading, early on we come up against this phrase about the cross.

To understand what Matthew’s first audience might have made about Jesus introducing the phrase about carrying the cross we need to remember that when it was first written it would have had real bite. “….whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Do we need reminding that those first encountering these words would not necessarily have been thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion? To understand why, we might remember the date of Matthew’s gospel is generally accepted to be shortly after the abortive rebellion in Jerusalem (66-70 AD). The contemporary historians of the time tell us crucifixion was part of the wholesale punishment of the Jews who were reckoned to have had 1.1 million killed during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans with a further 97,000 captured and enslaved. As part of this punishment, at one stage something like approaching 500 per day were reportedly crucified as a warning to anyone else who might have been contemplating rebellion. Josephus states that as part of the punishment the Roman soldiers amused themselves trying to dream up new ways of crucifying their victims in different positions. I suspect this phrase about picking up your cross and following might even have caused an intake of breath to a people who had recently witnessed such acts and for whom crucifixion was a grim and very real possibility.

That setting of Roman punishment and forced exile guaranteed the early Christians turbulent times and a most uncertain reception when they took Christ’s message to the roads. With terrified refugees fleeing a devastated Jerusalem, offering a Christian alternative to take attention away from the now weakened but familiar and supportive Jewish community would not have seemed a viable option and as a consequence, the apostles would have been met with suspicion and at times downright opposition from the Jews.

For non Jews trying to keep a low profile in the presence of the angry and suspicious Romans and for those anxious to avoid being seen as potential rebels, there would have been antagonism offered to anyone even hinting that the new faith being promoted was talking of Jesus being a possible Son of God, a title then currently reserved for the Roman emperor. Small wonder then that Matthew chose to record how Jesus had once asked for practical support for what he called the “little ones” which was shorthand for the new and understandably nervous apostles.

Certainly as far as we are concerned today, crucifixion (or whatever its modern equivalent would be), is now virtually unknown. This does not mean there is no hard edge to encounter for those who carry the gospel. Perhaps such problems need stressing. As with this reading this morning, we don’t normally find Jesus putting the priority on attendance at worship. If he had, there would be no chance of likening our journey with Christ to carrying the cross.

On the other hand the ethical imperatives of how to treat the stranger, how to deal with enemies, how to act as a servant and how to discover Christ in the form of those who are normally rejected by society may well all be helpful to the wellbeing of society, but are also all likely to encounter serious opposition. For example those opposing nationalism or insisting tax dollars be spent in third world countries, those who are advocating pacifism, and those who insist on welcoming those who come as immigrants from places that do not share our culture and religion, these all will soon learn that not everything that Jesus taught is likely to have the support of the community. Like it or not, giving attention to the poor is at the heart of much of Jesus’ teaching, but for those these days who insist that local and national government move priorities in line with the Gospel imperatives would soon start to encounter resistance as those advocating such moves have always done.

Notice too, Jesus is not asking his disciples to simply stay on home territory mouthing the right words to those who are already friends, or even that we should only welcome those who come in his name with the customary platitudes. If there is a message worth sharing, Jesus’ thinking was apparently that we shouldn’t wait until the intended recipient of the message comes to us – we should go to that person. And what is more he seemed to be asking for practical hospitality of the sort anyone might offer, even as simple as offering a glass of water, rather than going through the charade of some religious dogma, when we welcome those who come in his name.

In today’s passage from Matthew we get a glimpse of a world now virtually unknown. This was an age where letters were often used as a means of communication, but there was no postal system. If the author of the letter was unable to personally deliver the message, an envoy would be appointed, and welcoming the proxy was considered the equivalent of welcoming the author of the letter.

The “sent ones” tradition was part of many cultures of the time and the Jews used the term shaliach to refer to such an envoy or “sent one”.

Similarly the word “Apostle” also meant “sent one” and the intention for the early Church was to have many who were prepared to take on such a task. Because of the natural tendency for those receiving the messenger to see the apostle as a proxy for the author of the message, there was of course a danger that the status of the Son of God would be associated with the one who comes in the Son’s place. Think for a moment about those religious leaders who throughout history claimed personal power – and even some of the more self centred religious teachers today who seek personal wealth and demand something close to worship from their followers. I guess Jesus was pre-empting this danger when he reminded his followers of the essential need to remember the cross that was to be carried.

For those of us caught up in Church leadership, we might check our own actions to see if we are still true to the intentions we brought as new Christians to our faith.

Clearly there are some through the ages who have forgotten this reminder. Those anxious to preserve their mystique as important people in a hierarchical Church have clearly missed Jesus’ teaching about servant-hood and we would be wise to remember that we ourselves risk a similar mistake each time we use the Church to reinforce our personal status.

I suggested at the outset this was a demanding reading. In reality, with the best will in the world we cannot be certain in advance that when the chips are down we will be found amongst those who put Jesus’ teaching ahead of our personal relationships and inclinations. Nor can we know how welcoming we will be to those who challenge our consciences. What is more likely is that when we encounter those whose lives already reflect these principles we are likely to find there an integrity there that can inspire us in our own personal journey.

Because for most of us the serious challenges are uncommon we may still be unaware of how we will react when we too are asked to do the equivalent of carrying a cross. Perhaps the best we might do is to change the analogy and remember a wise comment attributed to Jimmy Dean when he said:

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

If we take the gospel seriously we have no way of predicting the difficulties ahead. Perhaps like those invited by Jesus to welcome the Apostles our task will be limited by circumstances and opportunity to supporting those who carry the hard edge of the gospel. Whatever is our lot, all we can do is have the determination to hold to the course, and trust that in some, perhaps mysterious way, that good might be served, if not for ourselves, then for others.

 

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Lectionary Sermon for June 22 2014, on Matthew 10:24-39

There are some passages in the Gospels that are just plain awkward and the first impression of today’s passage from Chapter 10 in the gospel of Matthew is that it hardly fits the traditional artist’s image of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. However, remembering that this Gospel first appeared some years after Jesus had faced crucifixion, this particular teaching passage would have had real meaning for the early converts. They would have already begun to experience the rejection. What is more, for us too, it is also a timely reminder of how modern prophets and how those who speak up as a public conscience are still likely to be received.

We should feel great sympathy for those early Christians. Converts would have to face their families with the unwelcome news that they were now in effect turning their backs on traditional faith, challenging the teaching of powerful religious authorities, and perhaps even inadvertently making some in the community feel guilty. In so doing the early converts were not exactly setting themselves up for a good reception.

In those first years of the Christian Church, contemporary histories tell of new converts being ostracised, many cast out from family and community, leaders of the new faith being maligned, reputations destroyed and some converts beaten or even killed.

What was it Jesus said? “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Relatives will turn against relatives, and friends against friends. Notice this is not so much a declaration of Jesus’ mission, but rather a statement about what will happen for those who join him (and what did happen) –in other words, the backlash.

In the decades following Jesus’ death, as the Christian faith spread, families and communities became divided – sometimes violently. We have local histories, both from Biblical and non-Biblical sources, as to what happened when one member of a family, or one family of a community, became followers of Christ. Because they were taking a radically different approach to life, and an approach informed by their faith, Christians were ostracized, abandoned, rejected and even killed by their families and communities. All too often, those outraged were family members and former friends – people who had made the decision that the norms of the culture were so important to protect that even close family members would be rejected if they dare questioned traditional views with what the Christians thought was essential gospel teaching.

Given that it is not a phenomenon confined to ancient history, from time to time there is a need for some self reflection. How do we ourselves react when someone close to us advocates tolerance or forgiveness for someone our cultural traditions would normally reject? Could it be that we ourselves join in the rejection of our modern day prophets.

Given that in other places and at other times Jesus taught the principles of forgiveness and peacemaking we may well be initially surprised to find him saying “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In this instance we might also note that the word being translated as “peace”, here means creating “ order or harmony or acceptance in worldly ways”.

On occasion this particular text about bringing a sword instead of peace has been lifted out of context and used as an excuse for taking up arms against those who rejected Christ. Although much is made of the early Christians who were martyrs to the faith, it is sometimes (and perhaps conveniently?) forgotten that when Christianity was later adopted as the preferred faith of the Roman Empire with the Emperor’s support, some Church officials interpreted this as compulsory conversion and those reluctant to convert themselves became martyrs. From time to time over the centuries leaders of a variety of State Churches mined such texts to excuse wholesale genocide and also proscribe torture or execution for those daring to set up variations of mainstream faith.

Even today many can find plenty of excuse for rejection of immigrants on the basis of faith differences or in worst case scenarios, taking arms against those who are traditional opponents of Christianity. In practice many modern military incursions, no matter how they are presented, turn out to be hopelessly compromised since target states usually coincidentally have strategic or frankly commercial attractions.

Selling such invasions to a nation’s public sometimes focuses on bad behaviour of self appointed guardians of rival faiths. For example instances of suicide bombers and those who choose to use Sharia law selectively eg honour killings, make it extraordinarily easy for us to demonize our Muslim opponents, yet all too often in practice those who have oil or gas or other natural resources turn out to be disproportionately targeted.

The association between previous foreign incursions and the subsequent suicide bombing is rarely remembered and the notion that somehow the practice of our religion is better than that of our rivals overlooks inconvenient texts which we prefer to overlook such as those when Jesus specifically asked us to treat enemies as neighbours and when he directed his followers not to store up treasures on Earth. This doesn’t somehow match the unequal oil and mineral grab visited on defeated opponents.

I would like to suggest that being true to the teachings of Christ does not include lifting texts out of context. With a little thought we can begin to see why the same Christ who said blessed are the peacemakers is the same Christ who says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”

If we think for a moment about divisive issues of recent times, we can see why the message of Jesus will not always bring peace. The role of peacemaker may be good for society as a whole but when the message is taken to those engaged in activities which encourage violence they are unlikely to react well to anyone attempting to change their behaviour. Think for a moment about the policemen who steps into a domestic violence situation to protect a victim. All too often in practice it is common for both the aggressor AND the victim to turn on the policeman.

Peacekeeping forces in a mediating role in a civil war situation are often themselves subject to aggression, and I would have to say from my own observation that the same applies even as far as those attempting peacemaking in local Church and family situations.
In this sense even if the warning words from today’s Gospel passage (always assuming they have been accurately reported) namely that Jesus does not come to bring peace but a sword, may have been intended as metaphor, but since we know Jesus’ teaching enraged the self appointed guardians of culture and religion in his own time, those of us less confident that we are following through his directives, have no right to expect more peace that Jesus was offered when we show what his message might mean when interpreted for our own communities.

In this country we saw evidence that this antagonism is close to the surface and when a relatively small number of pacifists tried to challenge this nation’s involvement in both the First and Second World Wars they faced severe backlash at the hands of an angry administration.

In no way does this mean that we should shut our eyes to some future Hitler – but nor should we behave with self interest if there is a moral issue at stake. For example the Holocaust with its wholesale murder of the Jews by the Nazis was indeed an outrage and the six million victims justified a military response. However when we as proponents of the war against Hitler are reminded that Stalin, our ally in that war, subsequently killed an estimated 30 million in his acts of genocide, we grow strangely silent.

The start of Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus issuing the disciples their challenge to: “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” But remember, Jesus also warns them what might happen to them on the way, and in case they are under any misapprehension he tells them to flee to another town when they are persecuted. Jesus reminds the disciples that because the current dominant culture is opposing Him, they should expect no less. In other words they are not above the same treatment that their teacher encounters.

And, lastly, Jesus tells the disciples what they will encounter in families and communities as they deliver the good news. The reaction to the good news of the gospel may not be good news for the messengers.  One last time:……..
Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

I think Jesus’ words might equally apply to us. The modern world offers some values that are not Jesus’ values, and we need to face our own current standards with his alternatives. It is realistic to admit that standing up for Jesus’ values may turn out to be uncomfortable and is unlikely to be trouble free. On the other hand what Jesus offered is a potential way of transforming relationships and bringing love to a loveless world. Now that is a goal worth pursuing.

 

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