Lectionary Sermon for 7 September 2014 (Romans 13: 8-14)

So many gods, so many creeds,
So many paths that wind and wind,
While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1855-1919

Have you heard the story of the theological student with a sporty car who came back one evening to the College and announced to his roommate. “I think I have just found true love”.

“How do you know?” was the inevitable question.

“Well” the young man said. “I was out driving this evening with this girl who was my date and I came to this really romantic spot to park on the side of a hill overlooking the lights of the city”.

“Do you know”, he went on, that girl said to me, “If you lift the top on this car I think I would give you a kiss…. And you know what … I must have taken less than five minutes to get the top off so that I could get that kiss”.

“Five minutes?” said his friend scornfully, “I would have done it in five seconds”.

“Ah yes, but your car is a convertible!” said the young man.

I hardly think the young man’s notion of true love was quite what Paul meant in this day’s reading from Romans but nevertheless the young student has realized one thing about real love at least. Love is not just a feeling – it is inexorably tied up with action. If you were to turn it round for a moment and think of being the potential recipient of love, you would see just how dependent you are in looking to words and actions. How do you know love is present? And for that matter, how might you know when what you are being offered is not love? The motivation for love – or its opposite hate – may well start with the feelings but it is the expression in words and actions that will determine how it is recognized. And it is that which is perceived which tells us what is in the other’s heart.

If I had to choose one key teaching that summarizes what Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity may be, for me it would be his understanding that the only really important principle needed to put all other teachings into perspective would have to be the centrality of love…but more than that, he showed by the examples he used that love is not simply a feeling. Although in other places he talks of positive actions associated with love, here he mentions some negative commandments – things that you shouldn’t do to your neighbour. He chooses as his examples some of the more extreme – adultery, killing, stealing and of course the attitude of coveting which sets up jealousies which would rapidly destroy any chance of developing good relationships. And on reflection this makes perfect sense because it is the negative actions done to us which very quickly identify our neighbour as unloving – and unfortunately in real life a single unfriendly act will imbed itself in the consciousness.

Unfortunately it is sometimes easier to recite the well known teaching about love than it is to find the teaching making a difference in our personal lives and the lives of our self claimed Christian communities. With elections once more in the offing keeping score of wrongs is once more taking centre stage, and I suspect self interest governs more policy than any visible insistence that we show love to enemies, and insist on kindness for neighbours.

Paul himself would have been keenly aware of the gulf between theory and practice. The injunction to love had its equivalent in the Talmud and Paul as a leading Jew would have known thos words. By the time he got round to penning today’s words from his letter to the Romans he had realised just how important this practical love might be. It was not always the case. Remember earlier he had also been something of a religious fanatic who had persecuted the early Christian movement and even murdered some of the earliest followers of Jesus, thinking he was doing God’s will. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul seemed to be more interested in measuring himself against what we might now call the golden rule. If we admire his words, perhaps we too need to reflect on how our current behaviour patterns and attitudes must seem to others.

Remember what Paul said in the letter to the Corinthians:
If I… fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I am nothing.’ (1 Corinthians 13:2-3).

Remember too that Paul was writing not just for the individual but to encourage the emerging Churches as fully functioning communities. We are often reminded of ways our individual consciences need to be activated, but it is interesting to think what sort of letter we would write if we were addressing our own local Church community. What sorts of actions characterize our group? Would we be identified both as individuals and as a group as having loving actions?

The two notions of individual actions and group actions are always mixed together and whether we like it or not. After all if enough examples of bad individual behaviour are noticed the whole group gets judged accordingly. Fortunately of course the obverse is true. If there are warm relationships and kind actions being noticed, the group members feel good about their association with the group.

I even suspect we make judgements about whole nations in the same way.

A decision made to support punitive action whether it be in the Gaza strip or Iraq or Afghanistan – it is inevitable that such punishment would be remembered by successive descendants of those considered to be victims. Conversely decisions motivated by the intention to be kind and to offer generous assistance seem to lead to payback in the form of treaties and alliances. Unfortunately the primacy of love is not yet a commonly accepted part of international relationships. The old maxim of: To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem resembles a nail- appears much more a part of the automatic response than following Paul and Jesus and offer kind actions towards any State that appears a threat. If Jesus and Paul are correct, casting your bread upon the waters has far more chance of a positive outcome than any heavy handed punishment any day.

Yet the adoption of a compassionate option always has to start at the individual level.

This then makes the act of that Sunday Communion much more meaningful for such a congregation. Sharing the bread and grape juice, kneeling or standing beside someone you care enough about to invite them into your home for a meal served in a friendly setting – where there is laughter and story-telling and sympathy aplenty, makes the Communion setting one of gathering with genuine fellow travellers.

Contrast this with the other extreme. What if the communion celebration is with a group of virtual strangers who have never dreamt of inviting the others into their home – a group who might smile briefly at one another with a perfunctory greeting outside Church in the foyer – but who might have no genuine interest in one another Surely this raises a question. Is sharing the Lord’s supper with such partial strangers really remembering Jesus, who like Paul, said in effect that love of God and love of neighbour was the organising principle which put all other commandments into perspective?

Having said that I am not implying that those who share meals at home are therefore saints fit to take communion beside you – or that by kneeling yourself after offering hospitality you then become a better companion for communion. It is rather that adopting Paul’s suggestions as best you can makes both you and the community better than you might otherwise have been….. not perfect. Remember although what Jesus and Paul offered was welcome common sense, the love injunction does not cure all situations. A person who forgives does not turn all potential enemies into friends – at least not in the real world. After all Jesus forgave – yet was crucified. Paul extended the hand of friendship to many but was still martyred in Rome. What however he did do was pass on the inspiration for churches to grow in positive ways to the benefit of many.

In practice of course, just as we as individuals start with characteristics of both the saint and the sinner, most Churches would have an obvious mixture of good and bad attitudes amongst the members in their congregations. I once heard someone say “I love all humankind. All my family are members and some of my wife’s family are too”. And I guess this is part of the challenge. One almost universal human flaw is that we naturally relate best to those who are like us and particularly if we are at ease with their customs. Most of us have acquaintances who we find easy to love because they return kindness as a matter of course. In practice, others have never learnt that skill. Some are painfully shy, some are almost afraid to let others into their world. One of our current neighbours collects our mail while we are away and is prepared to look after neighbours’ pets. We have had other neighbours in the past who are aggressive and bad tempered, and others who prefer to keep to themselves, and on occasion I confess to my shame we have even had neighbours where I did not know their names. It is easy to write someone off because we suspect in advance that we are unlikely to agree with them.

I want to suggest that Paul and Jesus are right in identifying the key pre-eminence of the love principle – but I also want to suggest that it is an ideal that needs constant attention and even deliberate action that sometimes goes against our baser natural instincts.

What is at stake in effect is the very nature of the local church, and hopefully from there our community and even our nation.. Then, as now, Church membership is not sufficient to automatically reflect underlying attitudes and actions. Paul of course was writing to the early Christian Church at Rome with some advice on what principles were needed for their fledgling community. I cannot be sure that should Paul have been considering our community he would have been drawn to the need for the same advice. With us he might have noticed something different. Nevertheless the advice he gives sounds as though it might equally apply to a host of communities. The real catch is that there are two issues that no-one else can answer for us. The two questions that still remained to be answered are: first the question of self assessment. Do we consider that an observer might see in the way we live the characteristics of those who genuinely care for one another and care for those to whom we come into contact? And then…. if not…what would we have to change to be satisfied that love had come to take a more central role in the way we live?


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Lectionary sermon for 31 August 2014 on Matthew 16: 21-28

If you contrast what Jesus was saying in this reading from Matthew about carrying your cross with what all too often passes for the practice of standard Christianity today, the contrast could not be more marked.

Jesus appeared to be very deliberate in accepting what must have seemed to what many of the disciples to have been seen as a doomed path. Taking up your cross in this context was a very vivid way of saying: become so committed to Jesus’ cause that you are even prepared to face death of a particularly nasty kind rather than surrender your commitment to his teaching. We should not place too much insistence on the exact wording of Matthew’s account because when Luke refers to the same conversation he has Jesus saying “take up your cross daily” but this in no way lessens the impact of the intended meaning.

Either way it remains harmless rhetoric while the prospect of death is remote, but if you remember when Jesus spoke it was a time where the people were not only under foreign military rule but also at a time where any form of civil unrest provided an excuse for military reprisal. It was not good to rock the boat. Taking on the authorities is one thing – but Jesus was speaking at a time when the authorities had every reason to condemn all critics and rebels and to treat those who might teach things that could potentially lead to rebellion with severe retribution.

To the disciples this must have seemed more and more likely to end badly. The civil authorities in this case were virtually synonymous with church authorities and Jesus had been in effect accusing these of not being true to what he referred to as his Father’s faith. From the authorities’ point of view they not only had to protect their own name, they were under pressure to not be seen as allowing any form of dissent. We can understand Peter being extremely uncomfortable with Jesus knowingly endangering himself in this way.

Jesus’ analogy certainly seemed to take on new meaning for those in the early church who were indeed under constant danger of genuine repression and sometimes death. Matthew with presumably much more biographical material on Jesus than he actually used, may here have selected this passage for the express purpose of helping the resolve of those who would have been facing the threat of persecution at the very time he was was writing.

We, at least those of us in the West, now live in more settled times, yet we who claim to follow Jesus are always coming up against an awkward truth. Colin Morris, himself a battler for justice and for the poor, reminds us that the American poet Archibald Macleish said “there are only two kinds of people, the pure and the responsible”. In that division, says Morris,
the Church always stands amongst the responsible rather than the pure; the engaged rather than the detached; and amongst the red-blooded reckless rather than the anaemically dignified. And this because we follow Jesus who plunged into a Jordan soiled by a thousand bodies, lived amongst publicans and sinners, died alongside criminals and rose again out of a cemetery of decaying corpses. (from Mankind my Church).

If we are truthful, in our local churches I suspect many of us have a strong urge to disengage from the responsible cross carriers and in our weaker moments do everything in our power to dissuade other Church members from any signs of what we like to call extremism and instead guide them towards standing well back from the action in the front line, standing instead with those we like to think of as the pure.

Strangely enough this urge not to get too involved in following through on Christ’s teaching then tends to lead to confusion about what being a Christian actually stands for. By contrast I am quite comfortable wearing my Rotary badge because Rotary history is very straightforward, as are the sorts of activities Rotarians get involved with. Similarly I used to wear my JP’s badge (until I lost it!) because the Justice of the Peace activities in witnessing documents and other minor law related activities are well proscribed. I am not so sure that claiming Christianity is quite so clear cut.
Think for a moment about the different ways Christians set about carrying out their responsibilities as Church members within the huge variety of different denominations with distinctly different claims of belief and you may get my drift.

I may be alone and I suspect I will irritate my colleagues in saying this, but I am a little uncomfortable about wearing those nice little trinket gold plated crosses. I would prefer to be more certain that first I am genuinely prepared to carry a cross. The sort of cross you can wear as a decorative badge whether it be metal, greenstone, carved bone, plastic or polished wood may be a convenient label or even for some a status symbol in some perverse thinking but unless it is associated with a fairly single minded intent to follow the main teachings of Jesus at all costs it may not come close to what Jesus meant when he talked of taking up your cross.

You may have come across Kosuke Koyama’s ‘No Handle on the Cross’ [SCM, London, 1976, p.7] where as he puts it: “There is no convenient way to carry a cross….if we put a handle on the cross to carry it as a businessman carries a briefcase, then the Christian faith has lost its ground. Jesus didn’t say ‘Take up your lunch box & follow me’”.
Yet perhaps on reflection it is not so much the wearing of the cross which is the problem because after all this can at least indicate to the observer with which group you wish others to know you associate. However where it might be criticized is if we wear the cross yet make zero attempt to stand for something or indeed anything significant, regardless of the cost. In this case the trinket cross loses its meaning. And worse, because other too see the hypocrisy, in the same way as the Child molester priest undermines the position of other priests, the one whose badge is associated with hypocrisy makes it harder for others wearing the same badge to convey the intended message.

Because not everybody has their faith tested the same way I think it may be unwise to assume that when the chips are down we should be confident of our response. We read that Peter, identified by Jesus as the rock, backed down and denied Jesus … and in the same way more than one confident and gifted Church leader has fallen massively from grace when genuine temptation comes their way. How often do we read of some Church leader or elder accused of fraud or immoral behavior. If such people can fall from grace perhaps the best we can do is to resolve to face whatever life throws our way and attempt to hold true to our chosen path. Whether or not we will manage the form of the cross we are asked to lift cannot be decided in advance.

Every now and then the faith starts to live again when someone steps out from the crowd and makes a brave stand on a Christ type principle. I think of those brave pacifist ministers who spoke up against the First World War because they felt it was not in line with Christ’s teaching. In New Zealand one preacher was actually pulled from the pulpit by angry parishioners. Other Methodist pacifists went to prison or were forcibly taken to the front where they were ridiculed. I read one historical account where some of those pacifists were stripped and tied to posts in the snow. We may not agree with such a stand – and where you take your stand will differ…because Jesus’ teaching affects many different issues. But for those of us who have been Christian for a number of years it is worth pausing to think, asking ourselves on what issues we have already made our individual stand? And what issues are so important to us that we will be prepared to risk everything should the need arise?

And here is another question. What issues does our Church currently raise on our behalf with the public and with the Government so clearly that everyone knows where our Church stands. Now I have to tell you I know of some in the Church who are doing just that. I know one minister who raises issues of welfare and unemployment with the government and I know another who advocates for the homeless. I know another who is advocating fiercely and well for Pacific Island interests in the community. I know another – and some of you will know him too, who advocates for the plight of missions in the Pacific and tries his best to have us consider working with those of other faiths… but when I say the Church, that is not just our leaders…. it is also you and me. If we can’t hear the Church speaking up on those Christ inspired issues we think are important, the uncomfortable question becomes where is our voice? We too are in the Church.

There is an element of self deception if we focus too much on hierarchies within the Church. Those for example who find as many superlatives as possible to describe Christ may have missed his emphasis on servant-hood. By overly stressing the divine nature of Jesus there is an implied trap whereby we are saying in effect it is up to this divine Jesus to sort out and look after the dilemmas we face. It is not how well Jesus carries the cross for us which defines our personal Christian journey. Similarly if we look to the bishop or priest or minister to act on our behalf there is a risk that we will become minor bit players and mere observers of the Christian walk.
Where we are in this journey may be reflected in the issues that take our main focus. If the parish council or leaders meeting starts to become inwardly focused so that the meeting members are only raising issues which concern our congregation well being and gives minimal attention to questions of justice and moral issues as they concern our love for neighbour, can I suggest that is not taking up the cross.

It is also unrealistic to see ourselves as caught an inevitable cycle of martyrdom. History teaches that only in certain places and at certain times will belief be brought into direct opposition to circumstances. Not all Christian stands of self sacrifice will involve protest. I know a couple in one of my two congregations who for many years have insisted on taking meals to the shut-ins and another who regularly volunteers for Citizens advice bureau. Another takes the elderly shopping. Those are some who inspire me. This is a long way from steadfastly facing the torturer or executioner. Yet the thing that these volunteers share with those forced into martyrdom is that they have given themselves wholeheartedly into serving where their heart leads.

There is also an underlying paradox. The notion of giving and self surrender is one dimension – but in the event it is not as negative as we might expect. The other dimension is that in giving we find our true selves.
There is a theological issue here that must be squarely faced. Many put the emphasis in Christianity on waiting for the second coming. If we turn to what Jesus actually was reported as saying, there is a strong implication that whatever is experienced does not need to wait for some distant second coming. For to those both treating Jesus as infallible and yet expecting a second coming of Jesus in our near future there is also a rather odd bit in this small cameo scene that is a source of discomfit . Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

If Jesus is correct in his teaching and in the truth of this prediction, that actually seems to mean that Jesus can be experienced when we throw ourselves to the task of carrying the cross. In science, when we are presented with a testable hypothesis, the next step is to carry out the experiment to test what has been theorized. Can I suggest that in this instance the scientific approach suggests the real test is one that we must try for ourselves.

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Lectionary Sermon for August 24, 2014 (Year A) Matthew 16: 13 – 20

How do you see our religion? Five years ago I commissioned a side panel for the notice board outside the Methodist Church at Epsom. The wording then was: “True religion is lived – not just professed”. It took me a while to realize that this is only part of the story.

My previous teaching interest was in the area of science, and although at secondary school level it is relatively straightforward as you move up through the system to tertiary education, there is a gradual dawning that everything is not as straightforward as it might first appear.

If you take a topic like “sight” for example, the structure of the eyeball is relatively easy to understand. Light enters the eye through the pupil, a lens focuses light from the object you are looking at and sends it to the back of the eye where light sensing cells called rods and cones pick up the information and relay the information via the optic nerve to the back of the brain where the image is processed and the brain tells us what we are looking at.

Simple? Well no, actually it isn’t simple. First of all the image is upside down and it has to be turned right-way up as part of the perception process. Second the optic nerve from each eye crosses over so that the left eye sends the message to the right side of the brain at the back – and vice versa with the right eye. Where the nerve leaves the back of the eye there is a blind spot in the retina – and rather than have a hole in what you are looking at, the brain has to paint over the missing bit in the picture.

Dim and bright light is dealt with in part by the iris opening and closing, and with a photosensitive dye called rhodopsin which darkens in the retina, a bit like photo-chromatic lenses on expensive sunglasses.
But then comes the really hard part. How is the information actually processed and comprehended so that you can work out what you are looking at? My answer?…. I don’t know – and as far as I can work out nobody yet fully understands.

No doubt the objective physics of the optics part of vision is very straightforward. An optometrist can work out what the physical problems are when vision is impaired and devise all manner of clever ways of making glasses, reshaping the front of the eye with a laser, replacing a clouded lens with a piece of plastic etc all of which when you come to think of it are the objective answers to straightforward problems. But, when it comes to the perception and interpretation conundrum that is much more subjective. I remember back to experimental psychology with an experiment where volunteers for three days in a row wore lenses that inverted what they were looking at until the brain somehow turned the image back up the right way again. When they eventually removed the lenses what they looked at was now upside down. Easy questions can be given objective answers. But the real thinking comes when a subjective and even tentative answer is the best we can manage.

Jesus asks the question first for the simple objective answer. Who do men (and yes, now with our changed society, we would now insist he include women) say that I am? Objective question…. And an objective question gets the objective answer: “they say you are John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. I guess what they were really saying to Jesus is that we can see you disturb people with your particular form of wisdom – therefore you are the equivalent of those similarly disturbing famous people gifted with the ability to confront with religious truth – speaking for God. Objective question….objective answer.
Remember: How does the eye work? – By the pupil, lens, retina, nerves …that is the trite answer

But, how do we actually see? – Now you are asking!
Trite answers simply won’t do for the important questions. I was once told of one of the most banal answers to a religious question at a party, when one of those dreadfully earnest young men cut through the buzzing happy conversations and loud music and asked another young man the unwelcome non-party question. “Are you saved?” The answer: “As a matter of fact I am, Honey. But you can have the next dance”. And in some ways it is probably fair enough as an answer because such a question should not be asked in a trite manner and likewise the answer has no significance if it is merely the expected formula recitation.

But the Jesus of the gospels didn’t appear to want shallow easy answers. Not just who do others say that I am? He wants the deeper subjective and tricky part answered. In the same way that we are called to go from the straightforward physics of optics to the subjective understanding of perception.. I am not even sure that when Peter answered he even quite knew what he was saying. Certainly, terms like the Christ – which is actually the Greek version of saying the Messiah can be understood in a variety of ways. The Jewish concept of Messiah was in fact the return of one of the great leaders of the past – King David or perhaps Elijah – and it also had clear military overtones. Israel – so the teaching went – was to be led by the Messiah to its rightful place as one of dominion over the other nations. Jesus with his embarrassing pacifism would not have fitted the Jewish concept of the Christ at all so it was probably a great step forward for Peter to pull back from certainty.

Everyone thinks they know Peter’s answer. “You are the Christ, the Son of God”. Except to be fair to Peter that isn’t actually what he is reported by Matthew as saying. The key word in Matthew’s gospel is the word sometimes carelessly translated as Son …the Greek word “Uios” That word doesn’t mean the male child at all. It means far more than that. It actually means heir, the descendant or the first born. I guess this may even be a hint that Jesus has inherited characteristics that we associate with God – but it may not be all the characteristics of God.

In any event the expression used was not just the Son of God … and for God certainly not the God to be encountered in the hereafter ….it was in effect the heir of the Living God. This is the God who is elusive and mysterious… and so hard for the Jews to describe or comprehend his power that they dare not use his name… yet it means also God of the here and now…the God which is life itself and the God whose presence whispers to us through the mysteries of space. Some scholars even suggest that because God was referred to as the I am in several places that when Jesus said who do you say that I am? he was underlining his connection with God – and even making a scholarly pun.
Many of Jesus statements only reveal their meaning when they are seriously encountered with thought and deep reflection. How do you meet Jesus in the face of the poor? This cannot be answered at the shallow academic level according to some formula answer.. Only the one who takes Jesus claim seriously and genuinely reaches out to help a poor or disadvantaged person and makes proper human contact in the encounter will discover the answer at depth, because when you do reach out you are the one who comes away most blessed.

Another way of looking at Jesus question is in distinguishing between the version of Christianity which is about Jesus and the Christianity which is of Jesus. Learning about Jesus is the book knowledge. Who other people find Jesus to be is if you like, a catechism faith. When did he live?…where was he born?…what did he teach?…who did people say he was like?….how did he die?…if he died and got resurrected what is that meant to mean for us? These are the about questions…easily answered and asking little of us. On the other hand, showing with a whole life commitment that as Christians we are of Jesus, means that we are attempting to take notice of the less obvious and subjective side and live as he invited us by example to live.

There is a world of difference between Christianity being about Jesus and taking on the form of Christianity which is of Jesus.
The big polling organization in the US, the PEW research group, in one of their polls came to the surprising conclusion that many who say that they know about Jesus – and reportedly even many of those who say they are grateful to Jesus for promising to organize a happy mansion for them in the sky, are very uninterested in adopting the principles he taught. Indeed, we might even do well to remember in terms of history mass murderers like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Cambodian Pol Pot (and I guess more recently Anders Breivik in Norway), all boasted of their early religious training. They knew about Jesus. They claimed to admire Jesus. But the one thing they didn’t do is follow his teaching principles – his teaching like loving their neighbour, forgiving their enemy, showing care for the disadvantaged and so on. They knew about Jesus but their actions were not of Jesus.

And they are not alone. There are many who behave as if they prefer their Son of God imprisoned as a beatific image in a stained glass window or better yet an ethereal being floating around heaven waiting for their inevitable appearance which they see as their right because they got the right formula of faith sorted here on earth.

In reality we are forced to admit to ourselves this is not remotely true to Jesus’ teaching. Even the fragmentary gospel glimpses of Jesus in action have him putting all the emphasis on action, inviting us to share with him building the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We, who would be of the Christ we claim, need to be forgiving enemies, helping the bereaved in their distress, reaching out to touch the diseased, and treating the passing faces we encounter not as passing masks – but as real people with real feelings – waiting to be discovered as the real face of Christ. Jesus remember, is not merely the Son of God – but the inheritor of some human dimensions of the God who lives through Jesus and hopefully in part through us.

I suggested at the start I was beginning to realise a limitation to my Notice Board slogan: True religion is lived not just professed. It is probably OK as far as it goes, but did you spot its limitation. The bit I was overlooking was that religion comes in many forms and not all forms are in essence of Jesus. Perhaps I should have written more unambiguously: “Called to faith, which, in this church we hope is of Jesus not about Jesus”.

Being of Jesus in that sense may not even be an exclusively Christian expression. Think about it.
When someone asks, ‘who do you say Jesus is?’ perhaps there is the beginning of the a possible answer.

Jesus is the one who awakens us to a means of dealing with life in a way that lines up with the compassion principle associated with a dimly comprehended notion of God…… and here is the corollary…by the manner we live we will show whether or not we are of this Christ.

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Lectionary Sermon for August 17 2014 (Genesis 45: 1-15) Forgiving the Unforgivable

(Apologies to regular visitors to my site – I have been on holiday without Internet connection so this late post is an older sermon on the same text!)

Not all funerals are sad, not all weddings are glad, and not all family parties are welcoming affairs – but on the other hand, funerals, weddings and family get-togethers can sometimes tell far more about family relationships most families would prefer the outsider to know. And let’s face it sometimes there is plenty of reason for tension. Second marriages with all the attendant comparisons with the first partner, children exchanging the certainty of family affection with a birth parent for the uncertainty of step son or step daughter relationship, difficulties with new sets of competitors for family assets as wills get redrafted, children partially or completely dispossessed – I guess most of us are familiar with the real life potential script.

Sometimes too the bitterness that erupts at the family get together is totally understandable. The parents of the bride may have been deeply hurt by the haste of marriage of their daughter to someone they genuinely believed would not offer their daughter the love and security they believed she needed. The family can be devastated by the nature and consequences of a death. If it was death by accident, there may be someone considered to blame – a driver, a family member, even a doctor or nurse.

I have been to funerals where tensions have boiled over. At one the teenage driver of the stolen car which had killed the teenage passenger arrived at his friend’s funeral on crutches. An uncle took the microphone and castigated the hapless youth, until too upset to stay, he limped out in tears to stunned silence. At another funeral, some angry members of the family disgusted with the now bereaved second husband, actually heckled and swore at the distraught man from the back of the Church, as he tried to say some kind words about his much loved and deeply missed wife. I have also been to weddings and funerals where furious relatives have boycotted the proceedings. Forgiveness is not an automatic response.

Yet forgiveness is important because anger can fester and boil over in socially unacceptable ways destroying lives of perpetrators as well as victims. One recent annual report in New Zealand suggested there were approximately 20,000 reported serious assaults on children. And because only 500 or so resulted in prosecution there are presumably more assaults in many of those families just waiting to happen. Last year in the US with its much larger population I saw one authority was quoting an estimated figure of 60,000 child deaths as a result of being beaten to death.

The anger can also take its toll on the angry. Specialists in stress related illnesses claim that many common illnesses including catching the common cold – right through to angina and stroke can be laid at the feet of unresolved anger.

A sense of powerlessness and injustice is well known to relate to higher blood pressure and those stressed have measurably shorter lives. For those caught up in such situations, whether it be as the instigators, or the victim of the hurt, it can be immensely damaging to the ability to maintain friendships and circle of support.

To return to the funeral setting again, I have attended one funeral of an aunt who had frequently feuded with family and friends and who was known in the family as a hard and unforgiving woman. Although she was well known – and possibly for the wrong reasons – eight people attended her funeral and that included the minister and the organist.

This then raises the question of what to do about it. The story of Joseph and his brothers suggests some useful hints. And yes I am aware that many scholars claim this is not so much a true story as a story with a deliberate theological message to help the Jews see that God’s hand was part of their story. If you like an arranged story not so much about an event which just happened to take place, but rather a God ordained event. But for now we can put this aside. Like most of the stories in the Bible this set of circumstances being portrayed can be understood at many levels and this time I want us to look at the part of the story that portrays the characters as very real and very human, facing a dilemma.
Let me stress that like most real people both Joseph and his brothers come across as flawed characters. Remember there was a sense in which Joseph brought his initial problems on himself. He tormented his brothers with his show-off behaviour. He boasted and told them in no uncertain ways how much more important he was than them. He was not a good person in his boastful self promotion.

The brothers were not only resentful – they too were absolutely morally wrong when they had plotted to kill their brother. That they had sold him to the Egyptians instead hardly justifies their actions. These days we would call such an action human trafficking. The years of slavery and prison they left Joseph facing as a consequence would have been enough to fuel Joseph’s resentment and impotent rage to the limit.

There are many layers of meaning in this story. When we take up the story with today’s reading we see Joseph has elevated himself by giving wise advice to the Pharaoh based on what we would probably claim these days to be the strange and superstitious advice of someone claiming to be a medium who can interpret dreams and again if the story is to be treated as literally true – thereby actually saved the Pharaoh’s people and kingdom. The grateful Pharaoh has shown his gratitude and Joseph is unsurprisingly elevated to the position of trusted advisor. He is in effect now sitting pretty and no longer has any need of those family members who had turned against him. Nevertheless when his brothers unexpectedly turn up and he recognises them, regardless whether this was a coincidence because famine had struck their home – or whether God was considered to have arranged the whole thing – rightfully they should have expected no mercy.

That he did not immediately reveal himself to his brothers almost suggests he is initially playing with them as a cat might play with a mouse. The elaborate trick to plant valuables on one of the brothers – then let them go so that he can have them arrested is at best something of a mixed message – and when he eventually shows himself as their long lost brother, under those circumstances we can well imagine that the brothers, far from being delighted, they would have been horrified and extremely fearful. They had done the unforgivable – and now the tables were well and truly turned.

Then the true surprise. Not just forgiven they are virtually rewarded. Joseph has taken his anger and transferred it to anger about their plight. We sometime pretend that anger has no place as a human emotion for those with a faith. Yet anger can be a great motivator. However the resolution of that anger often needs creative thought. Instead of being sent back to Canaan empty handed which would have been far more than they deserved, they find themselves being offered sanctuary land for pasture, a place for the Father as well as the brothers and the freedom to live relatively close to Joseph but sufficiently far from the Egyptian population, who as their natural enemies, might have made life difficult.
I guess in a way this discovery of the creative act is the real test of forgiveness. The words “I forgive you” are what most of us consider to equate to forgiveness, but they can still mask long term unease. When you have been genuinely wronged by another, shallow words may in fact not be enough to re-establish real relationships. On the other hand the words are an integral part of action they might be seen as far more significant. But there is something else you may have noticed. When Joseph says “Now you must tell my father of all my splendour in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here.” There is still the basic weakness he had from the beginning. The pride and insistence if you like that the brothers should really notice he was someone of significance.

This is one of the things that many of the Old Testament characters display. They are in part flawed characters. Moses starts his leading the Israelites of Egypt with an act of murder. David rapes the wife of a friend then arranges to have her husband done away with, a number of the prophets show great signs of reluctance to do that which they know God calls them to do. They are real in the sense that like us they have flaws in their character. Their faith then has no prerequisite of perfection, nor the demand that their actions are only effective if they are perfect.

The New Testament characters are little better. Some of the disciples squabble about who is the greatest among them, Peter is boastful and weak, they desert Jesus in his hour of need, Paul’s followers fall out among themselves. It is almost as if we are getting the message that the actions we call God’s will have to be accomplished by people who have weaknesses in their character – perhaps even like you and me. That Joseph’s great act of forgiveness with his brothers is performed by a Joseph who is a flawed character in no way suggests he didn’t eventually do the right thing in his act of forgiveness. His actions were after all, right in line with Jesus teaching of “Forgive your enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour, and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-45)”.

Nor if we are ruthlessly honest would we say it was a solution which was perfect. Nevertheless the forgiveness was real and recognisable. Tensions which had been building could so easily have been resolved with a violent act. Joseph could have finished off the family and in that context brought the story of the people who later became the nation of Israel to a premature end.

A common error is to believe that the sort of love mentioned in the Bible – that which the Greeks called Agape – is merely a feeling. I am sure that some who come to Church share that misconception in believing that somehow having good feelings about people and situations is a complete virtue in itself. Why else would we sometimes feel good that in our prayers we had listed all our concerns, for the sick, for the poor, and for the victims of disaster. One learning from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that there is also not only a time for action, there are occasions where action is actually essential if a situation is to get any closer to resolution.

There is a postscript to this story. The story doesn’t just end with Joseph and Benjamin embracing in an emotion scene of reconciliation. I don’t know if you noticed but the other brothers hadn’t said anything to that point. The story finishes by saying “and Joseph and his brothers talked”. An act of forgiveness and reconciliation is only ever one stage of a journey. The significant act had indeed happened, but now as for us, the implications and continuing story must be played out for the forgiveness to find meaning.

Family tensions, forgiveness, Joseph, Benjamin,

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Lectionary Sermon (10 August 2014) Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – Take Two, Genesis 37: 1 – 28

Anyone who thinks Old Testament stories are inferior to modern stories must have overlooked the story of Joseph. Joseph has long been one of my favourites and I guess in part because it is a story of very plausible human characters. You will no doubt be as familiar as I am with the general gist of the beginning of this story. A bright, favored son with a massive ego, flaunting his new coat in front of his brothers and rubbing their noses in the fact that he is the favored one…he is the one with the special cloak and he in effect is the only one with his father’s special blessing – and presumably the one destined for the inheritance. So would it be surprising to learn that the brothers hated him for it.

The brothers are out together with Joseph one day and absolutely fed up with their brother’s show-boating and his insistence that his brothers acknowledge his importance that they finally snap and decide to kill him. Fortunately for Joseph, there was one brother who made all the difference and without that brother, Joseph’s whole significant future history would have ended right there. Now instead of rehearsing yet again all the details of the story – and it is a truly great story – I want us to stop to think for a moment about the situation this young man was facing. The brother’s name was Reuben. The others were so angry at Joseph’s in your face behaviour they wanted to kill him. Reuben’s problem was that he knew what they were proposing was wrong.

In terms of modern counselling technique, Reuben was right up there with the best. I once worked with an experienced counsellor who had a great reputation for calming down teenagers full of pent-up rage. The secret he told me was simple. First you don’t stand in front of the angry one. That is confrontation. You stand beside them looking in the same direction as them. Rather than assume you already know where they are coming from, you next seek to get them to explain why they are angry. When they feel they are being heard then they are more able to entertain reasonable alternatives.

Reuben was not particularly moral in his solution, but given the alternative of certain murder he didn’t do too badly. He didn’t wait until the stones and knives came out and the killing began. He showed in effect he was looking in the same direction as his brothers when he correctly identified that Joseph was no longer welcome in the family and that his father would be unlikely to get off his case until be believed Joseph was dead. Reuben’s alternative of putting Joseph in a hole and pretending to the father that he died as a result of attack by wild animals is reported as Reuben’s attempt to play for time… but whatever else it is, it does set the stage for Joseph’s eventual reuniting with his brothers, years later in Egypt. And I guess the key thing to notice is that Reuben was prepared to take action, no matter how difficult, to take away the possibility for violence.

One of the stories behind what we might call the mythology surrounding the story of the Buddha is the story of what happened when he met a notorious, mass-murdering bandit in the woods. The Buddha was reportedly aware of the man’s past history of mass murder but actually invite the man to meet him in the hope that he might that turn the bandit from violence to peace. There are several versions of the story yet in all variants, the Buddha does not behave like most of us probably would and remains very calm, centred and serene as he faces this sword-wielding, crazed killer.

In one of the versions of the story, just as the bandit lifts his sword to attack the Buddha, the Buddha says to him:
“If I must die then be good enough to fulfil my dying wish: The first part of my wish is :cut off the branch of the tree.”
One slash of the sword, and it was done!
“What now?” asks the bandit.
“Put it back again,” says the Buddha.
The bandit laughs. “You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.”
“On the contrary, it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. Even children can do that. The mighty know how to create and heal.”
And the story says the crazed robber was so taken by this, he turned from his violent ways – a completely reformed man.

Whether or not this story was of an actual event seems to me to be beside the point. The story points to one of those things we call an eternal truth – and resonates for me because it seems to me that it speaks to the human condition. Creating and healing are far more significant acts than wounding and destroying.

There can be no excuse for pre-emptive violence, yet common mythology glorifies violence.

We get it in our action movies where a lone individual using strength, cunning and guile, high powered guns and an apparently inexhaustible store of ammunition leaves the dead piled high… and is recognised in popular belief as a great force for good with which to be reckoned.
We get it with our international politics. A terrorist threatens – crush him with force.

A country appears threatening. Sanctions, guns, bombs, guided missiles and drones – if necessary full scale invasion and then of course they, the enemy, will capitulate. Only they don’t. Invade Iraq – crush Saddam Hussein and there is a threefold increase in terrorism.
I heard the other day that there are currently 40 wars in progress around the world.

I cant help thinking that almost all would fit this model. The Palestinians react to limitations on freedom and confiscation of land by terrorist acts. The Israelis respond by attacking Hamas and civilians are collateral damage. The families of those civilians respond by rising up to attack the Israelis and so it goes.

Of course for a decent war you need an enemy and if you don’t have one. Make one.

Depersonalise the foreigner. If the foreigner speaks a different language dresses differently and has different features so much the better. If they even believe different things – like Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus we can exaggerate the more bizarre features of the religion and even say they have an evil religion.

If we were ticking boxes for the above attitudes remember back to Anders Breivik, mass murderer in Norway, ticks most of those.
Loved uniforms, even made his own uniforms, read and agreed with those who wrote anti-Islamic literature, reportedly liked the judgemental parts of the Bible and I regret to say described himself as a Christian, advocated what he called regrettably necessary violence aimed at foreigners and immigrants and even advocated violence against those who offered hospitality to the foreigners, loved computer games of the violent sort especially as it turns out, the best selling war game called World of Warcraft, made bombs, collected guns and ammunition… and although there would be few who would have thought that what he did with his weapons was rational, there would be many who would agree with some of the principles he expressed, and many others who have fantasized about using weapons.

Unfortunately when violence actually does occur it rarely corresponds with how the fantasy is supposed to turn out. On the movies in the action films the hero dispatches all the clearly bad baddies each with a well aimed bullet and we don’t get to see what happens to the often very long suffering of the wounded. Nor do we see the despair of the killed person’s family and the years of anguish that follow. For this reason it can never be the right thing to do to wait until the violent action occurs before we take action.

While for most of us deliberately violent means of dealing with the dangerous person would be unthinkable there is of course the dilemma about what to do when you see the first warning signs of violence beginning to build. Anders Breivik is mercifully a rare extreme and once underway with his killing would have been very difficult to stop. Yet I would suggest there is probably no adult present in a typical Church congregation who hasn’t seen examples of unjustified violence or hate sometime in their life. And whether it is some crazed Anders Breivik or simply some little old lady who can’t stand her neighbour there always seems to be a need for someone to take on the role of coming alongside and looking in the same direction.

And I guess the reality is that we are often faced with less than perfect alternatives when it comes to reducing violence. It can quite legitimately be argued that pacifism has no place as long as there are genuine enemies to deal with. If the mass killer has already started a killing spree or a terrorist is about to crash a plane into a skyscraper it may well be too late to do anything but take him out by any means you have at your disposal. But I guess I would like to argue that perhaps we have to start our peacemaking sooner rather than later when the crisis is upon us.

Perhaps this might even mean putting better alternatives to those talking of violence. It might also mean speaking up when we hear others fulminating about new immigrants, about Muslims in the community, or about the need to close our borders to foreigners. I would not like to leave the impression I know what to say to people who fear and even hate. On my internet site I am frequently crossing verbal swords with those who are intolerant – and frequently I fail. Yet I still think it is worth trying. When it is obvious that the motivations for violence are distorted I believe it is necessary to speak up.

When we see children introduced to violent video-games there is reason for challenging the games values. We should be seeking to have the young meet those of other cultures and teach far more about values in others’ societies. When we encounter intolerance whether it be in our neighbourhoods or through media such as the internet it is worth putting an alternative point of view. And yes I can confirm from personal experience that there will be those whose form of bigotry is so firmly set that nothing we say will make any apparent difference.

Neil H Swanson tells of the Russian youth who had become a conscientious objector to war through the reading of both Tolstoy and the New Testament, and was brought before a magistrate. With all the strength of sincere conviction he told the Judge of the life which loves its enemies, which does good to those who despitefully use it, which overcomes evil with good, and which refuses war.

“Yes” said the Judge, “I understand. But you must be realistic. These laws you are talking about are the laws of the kingdom of God; and it has not yet come.”
The young man straightened, and said, “Sir I recognise that it has not come for you, nor yet for Russia or the world. But the kingdom of God has come for me! I cannot go on hating and killing as though it has not come”.

I cannot be sure I would have the courage of that young man, or even the courage of Reuben speaking up against a small majority group for the less violent alternative. Nor can I say with any certainty that I would know how to work towards a world in which there were fewer who hate – or a world in which some Anders Breivik would not run amuck. What however I can be more certain about is that there are many contributing causes of violence. If we claim the kingdom of God has come for us we must at least see it has something to do with the realities of the world in which we find ourselves.

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Lectionary Sermon for 3 August 2014 on Matthew 14: 13 – 21 (The Loaves and the Fishes)

There is a story told by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist, where he tells the fable of a young Spanish shepherd named Santiago, a young fellow who decided if he were going to make anything of his life he needed to get advice from the very best. With apologies to Paulo Coelho the following is a very approximate retelling of the story. .”……..After some difficult journeying the young man came across a grand old building high atop a big hill. There was a wise old man living there. He found the wise old sage seated. “Tell me what must I know for my life to be successful?” – the young man asked.

The old man thought for a moment then he handed the young man a teaspoon into which he poured a few drops from a small flask of olive oil.

“I will tell you”, he said – “but first you must do something for me. I want you to walk right round my big old house – through all the corridors – up and down all the stairs and into every room – especially the library. But you must not spill a drop of oil”.

The young man was puzzled, but decided to humour the old guy. So off he set – very, very carefully. Walking slowly, smoothly, avoiding any sudden movements and concentrating very hard on the spoon – even on every step of the stairs, it took a long time. It was a big house.
“Well?” said the old man when he returned.

“Not a drop spilled” said the young man with real self-satisfaction.
“Now the real test. I want you to describe everything you saw. The views from the upstairs windows, the books in the libraries, the tapestries and fine pictures on the wall and the gardens which my gardener has spent so my time and effort creating”.
The young man looked shamefaced. “Sorry”, he mumbled “didn’t see anything – but I didn’t spill a drop”.

“OK That was part one. Now this time go out again – this time without a glance at the teaspoon. Your task this time is to notice everything.”
Off he went – and boy, was it different this time.

He came back, his eyes sparkling, filled with excitement.
“This is a fabulous place he said. You can see for miles into the mountains from those upstairs windows – those forests , the patterns in the clouds… you can even see animals in the woods. And the library – where on earth did you manage to find such interesting books. Those oil paintings – I reckon they must be all original. Who designed the house? Those staircases and the grand dining room…”
“And the teaspoon?” asked the old fellow.

The young fellow looked down in embarrassment.. “Oh”, he said. “Well yes I might have dropped a bit of oil”.

“OK, you have it now”, said the old fellow. “You see, you won’t notice anything as long as you are only interested in what is in your hand.
Remember this truth – remember the drops of oil.”

Which brings us to this strange miracle of the loaves and the fishes. I want to suggest the key to understanding this strange account is our ability to notice things away from our personal inclination and focus…or if you like away from the “spoon” we carry. A superfical glance at the gospel story leaves us with an impression of a Harry Potter-type image of a magic God filled figure in the form of Jesus, waving his hand like a stage magician and causing the mysterious multiplication of physical entities like loaves of bread and actual fishes.

If this indeed is what we think happened, I would suggest it is not helpful to us as an image for two reasons. First of all it leaves the story entirely without the need for personal commitment to a situation. If meeting such a need – in this case, feeding the hungry can only be accomplished by a level of deep God-like knowledge and even then only if it is applied at what a visitor to this site once termed as operating beyond the job description of one’s personal pay grade, then we only wonder at it and do not expect any possibility that we too might be called upon for similar tasks.

The second reason it is not helpful, is that the total suspension of the laws of nature conveys the message that since we cannot suspend the laws of nature, Jesus’ interpreted form of magic action has nothing to do with our actions in the sort of world we currently inhabit.
With those two cautions let us look again at what appears at first sight a simple enough story, and let’s be clear, if we are honest, a story which I guess is totally unbelievable for anyone who has a grasp on reality. Loaves and fishes taken from a boy’s lunch don’t just multiply by themselves – at least not outside fairy tales. But if we forget ourselves for a moment and start to look a little further I wonder what we might see.

So let’s look again.

Jesus out for a walk – and all those curious people coming along too, to gawp….people….lots of people.

In a city we are regularly surrounded by people –go to a football match….wall to wall people. Go down town – those thronged foot paths. To see them as a crowd that is the easy bit. To notice their eyes, their aches and pains – to see them as persons – now that is unusual.

Yet with this particular crowd Jesus does something totally unexpected – and I am not talking about multiplying loaves and fishes. No what Jesus does is every bit as strange – he notices that they are hungry. If you look at Jesus’ encounters with different people this is his standard trick – the approach that sets him apart. The people see a mean tax collector – Jesus looks closer and sees someone worthy of a name, Zaccheus, and what is more an unhappy person. In another place the people see an untouchable leper – yet Jesus sees a person who suffers and wants the touch of human hand to heal. Again the disciples see a prostitute getting into Jesus personal space – Jesus sees her as Mary – again an individual with a name – a woman who can be welcomed.

Remember when the disciples see little children bothering Jesus – which kind of reminds me of the woman who according to the NZ Herald some time ago, put her children up for sale on E-bay. Jesus sees these children, who the disciples considered to be children apparently bothering him, rather as real live people deserving his full attention.

Let me stress that this is not a common practice. Remember it is all too easy to walk unseeing past the beggar on the street, the Muslim woman shrouded in a veil, see the refugees as part of the passing flickering images on TV but not see them as people.

Professor Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at Leeds University is one who has pointed to the dangers of not noticing. With the growing world food shortages, the rapid increase both in population and the prices of basic foods Professor Lang see the general public – as he once put it way back in 2008 “sleepwalking into crisis”. Perhaps because in these days when we have formalized and tamed the gospel to the point where we are no longer noticing, we don’t expect to encounter prophets these days, especially those who are not qualified Church leaders and who are merely ivory tower academics at ordinary universities, and I guess as a result of the widespread inattention to such warnings, the current statistics now show we are three years closer to the crisis. I wonder if others agree in retrospect Professor Tim Lang qualifies as a modern prophet.

Ivory tower dreamer or genuine prophet, Tim Lang does us a great service by reminding us of the growing disaster in the making, and last year the the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that on the basis of their most recent figures nearly 870 million people or one in eight, were suffering from chronic undernourishment. Almost all the hungry people, 852 million, live in developing countries, representing 15 percent of the population of developing counties but there are 16 million people undernourished in developed countries (FAO 2012).

Such figures year might seem so big they are capable of only eliciting dim incomprehension. Our miracle observed this morning might at least remind us that if we were to apply Jesus’ technique of noticing the individual –we might find ourselves looking at families with individual people like you or me, facing despair and feeling exactly as we ourselves would feel if visited by the same tragedy.

So to return to the loaves and the fishes…..
The second part of this miracle is that Jesus doesn’t see himself, the one many have called Son of God, as the only one to whom the responsibility for the act of kindness should be left. In another gospel version of the same story He calls a boy to him to start the sharing process. In this Matthew version, it is the disciples he turns to. And it works in an unexpected way. It is a sad commentary that these days we not only prefer not to notice too much by way of needs, but that when such situations are forced upon us we don’t see ourselves as part of the answer to need.

I am sure that many of us are unconsciously drawn to the easy option of praying for God to fix all. I have heard the most sincere prayers in Church or in Bible study groups for God to address the needs of the hungry. But what is that worth without the genuine intention to get involved in meals on wheels or food parcel collection and distribution or bothering the local politician to raise questions about overseas aid? It is an interesting question as to how many things would remain on the prayer list if only the situations where we showed ourselves to be part of the solution were allowed to be mentioned. But whereas it is easy to ask a vague conception of God to deal with these issues like famine, war, injustice and loneliness by praying his blessing, if we believe that Jesus would have been concerned with our present context of contemporary need – perhaps he too would still be looking for the non-entity child …or for that matter someone as ordinary as us to join with him in sharing.

I have heard some most interesting discussions about the validity of the loaves and fishes story as genuine magic type miracle. My personal short answer as to whether or not there was super-natural magic actually involved is that in fact we can never know. An experiment is only a true experiment if it can be repeated and since we cannot know about the accuracy of Matthew’s reporting and since Jesus himself is not on hand to organize the repeat performance with all conditions the same, we cannot organize the repeat for more objective recording.

My personal preference – I guess partly a result of my science background is to say that as far as I can see there is no reason to invoke magic where none is required. As far as I know atoms do not reproduce themselves in bulk such that fishes and loaves appear as if by magic. For me, I think it quite reasonable to say that the reason why the sharing miracle worked was that those present who did have food were moved by the disciples’ or the boy’s example to share. In this real world of ours even if multiplication of loaves by itself could occur the evidence is that this would simply mean that the few well fed would have taken an even bigger share. As we model large scale what actually happens when some are born into lucky situations in this unjust world of nations we see the hungry have remained hungry. The real miracle then came not with multiplication but with division. Division of bread gets more into the hand of few. Division (especially willing division) is actually what builds community. Turning a selfish crowd into community is indeed the best part of Jesus’ miracle

There were reportedly many hungry people that day – and any other day if their society was anything like ours, they would not have been fed. However that particular hungry crowd was what Jesus chose as his context calling for action. Whatever Jesus in fact did – by all accounts the people got fed and what is more – what to us might have been a crowd of the unthinking has been transformed (if only temporarily) into caring community – so Jesus has successfully addressed his context.

Our current setting is August 2014. Our context challenge is the still unequal distribution of resources and plenty who are hungry. Simple handouts may not even best the best long term answer because our sharing may need to include sharing the know-how and resources to grow and share the food so that at the end there will in fact be something left to gather. Can we lift our vision from the spoon in our hand and start seeing from a new perspective?

Monday may be the test of Sunday!

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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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