The Quakers’ Response to Terrorism

Below is yesterday’s statement on terrorism from Quakers in Britain, the points made apply just as much here as they do there … link:

Quakers respond to terrorism

24 November 2015

As Parliament prepares to debate next steps in Syria, Quakers in Britain have made this statement:

The attacks in Paris on 13 November were deeply shocking and our hearts continue to go out to those killed, injured, bereaved and traumatised..

It is human nature that the closer suffering comes to us, the more acutely we feel the pain and grief. But that experience should sensitise us to the suffering caused repeatedly by acts of war and violent crime in more distant places, including Beirut, Sinai, Bamako and Aleppo. It should strengthen our determination to build a safer world together.

Terrorism is a deliberate attempt to provoke fear, hatred, division and a state of war. War � especially war with the West – is what ISIS/Daesh wants. It confirms the image they project of the West as a colonialist ‘crusader’ power, which acts with impunity to impose its will overseas and especially against Muslims.

The military actions of Western nations recruit more people to the cause than they kill. Every bomb dropped is a recruitment poster for ISIS, a rallying point for the young, vulnerable and alienated. And every bomb dropped on Syrian cities drives yet more people to flee and seek refuge in safer countries.

Our political leaders seem determined that Britain should look strong on the world stage. Quakers in Britain believe our country should act with wisdom and far-sighted courage. A wisdom that rises above the temptation to respond to every problem with military might. A wisdom that looks back at our failures in Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan and learns from experience. The courage � and strength – to think through the likely consequences of actions to find a long term, lasting solution.

The courageous response of ordinary people who refuse to give up their way of life and refuse to be driven by fear is one that politicians could learn from.

Although there are no quick or easy answers, there are things we can do, all of us together, which will defeat the terrorists more assuredly than military action. Quakers in Britain commit to playing our part in these actions.

We can quieten ourselves and listen to the truth from deep within us that speaks of love, mutual respect, humanity and peace.

We can and will refuse to be divided. By bridge-building among faiths and within our local communities we can challenge and rise above the ideologies of hate and actively love our neighbour.

By welcoming refugees, we can not only meet the acute needs of those individuals but also undercut the narrative of those who seek to create fear and mistrust.

And we can ask our political leaders to:
• Treat terrorist acts as crimes, not acts of war
• Stop arming any of the parties fighting in Syria
• Observe international law and apply it equally to all parties
• Build cooperation among nations, strengthening those international institutions which contribute to peace
• Export peace rather than war, so that we can create the conditions the world needs to address its most serious problems, including climate change.

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Some Passing Thoughts About Xmas Employment

The other day I heard of a new seasonal job vacancy. This was that of Christmas lights detangler for a UK branch of Tesco’s. Given the modern propensity of some to festoon their whole house with lights, and with a personal vivid memory of struggling with unwisely stored strings of old Christmas tree lights, I suspect the new position may have great possibilities for expansion.

According to some versions of Church history, Martin Luther is sometimes credited with inventing Christmas Tree lights. The story goes that one evening he was walking back home through the forest. The stars were shining and twinkling through the trees and he was so impressed he wanted to convey the same effect by bringing a cut tree into the house and rigging up candles among the branches. Even if that were exactly as it happened, I suspect such activity would be frowned on by modern Health and Safety inspectors not to mention argumentative insurance assessors. On the other hand it is not hard to see why light imagery came to be associated with Christmas.

Both Matthew with his story of Wise men following a star to the manger where Jesus lay, and Luke with his heavenly angels singing to the shepherds at night are using metaphors which fit a notion of Christmas lights. Similarly when some Christian leaders in the fourth Century settled on a formal date for Jesus birth they symbolically chose the Winter solstice as the date when winter darkness makes way for increasing light.

With the latest trends we may have gone astray in forgetting that we celebrate Jesus birth, not so much so that we can outdo each other with great parties and shimmering suburban streets, but rather that we should be trying to remember the original notion of Christmas was the start of a new way of thinking about what Jesus’ coming might mean.

Believing that we can best celebrate Christmas with extravagant and expensive light displays seems a little odd when we remember that the one whose birth we celebrate came to bring new ways of thinking about relationships with our neighbours and to insist that issues of justice should take priority in our dealings with others. Surely the best way to honour that message Jesus came to bring would be to choose a celebration and a way forward that fits with his message.

Remembering the widening gap between rich and poor as a world-wide phenomenon and the desperate plight of refugees in war torn and famine struck areas I am wondering if we might think of shedding light not with strings of detangled lights for ourselves but rather by contributing to any of the mainstream agencies like CWS working in such areas.

If we must be attracted to light shows, how about stepping back a bit for a clearer view? A few years ago the National Geographic put out a satellite picture of the world’s nations at night. Areas of poverty and need were also the areas of greatest darkness. Providing electricity, food, shelter and security to those who otherwise miss out might offer a way of showing respect for the one we claim to follow and celebrate.

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A Lectionary Sermon for 29 November 2015 Advent 1 C on Luke 21: 25 -36

In this post-Christian age, at least in this part of the world, the season of Advent usually kicks off with a Santa parade and everlasting soporific Shopping mall music such as Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and Snoopy’s Christmas to encourage the Christmas shoppers at the town centre.

I suspect those assembling the lectionary had a rather different message in mind when they chose today’s reading from the gospel of Luke. Before he is ready with his version of Jesus’ delayed Advent message, it has taken Luke something like 20 chapters to lay out the whole of Jesus’ life with the coming of the Messiah, the birth story, his presentation at the Temple, the baptism and preparation for mission, the calling of the disciples, the acts of compassion and wise words, his challenge and confrontation with those who wished to kill him in Jerusalem….. then, and only then, does Luke find Jesus talking on an Advent theme that sounds more Revelation than manger scene.

I don’t know if you picked it, but it was not just the poetic description of ….what was it? “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. … not to mention…. ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory…… but then comes the bit we are inclined to overlook. Listen carefully and while you are doing so just remember that Luke is writing for his generation, not necessarily our generation.

32Truly (Luke says were the words of Jesus) Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
Unless Jesus was mistaken, I guess what Jesus was reported as saying, or at least if if you think it were meant to be taken as literal and reliable, it implies that whatever was going to happen for the generation of Jesus’ listeners, has now already happened.

As far as the earlier verses 20 – 24 are concerned, Jesus may have been speaking figuratively but otherwise he was right on the button for his listeners. The failure to accept the sort of gospel Jesus was bringing about how to deal with neighbours, had totally disastrous results, particularly in terms of the Roman occupation – and if the powers of heaven were not literally shaken – at least as far as the occupants of Jerusalem were concerned the mayhem that befell them must certainly have seemed that way. Huge distress, divine anger: OK, picture language maybe, but as a relevant message for his time and place, very accurate indeed.

But it does leave us an interesting question. If the hungry sword is about indeed to lay waste – and if the survivors are to be imprisoned or scattered as refugees, in what sense will the Son of Man come for them? And now for us almost two thousand years later, in what sense will the Christ come for us? For that, after all, is the real question of Advent.
There is a sense in which Jesus prophecy is one that has been played out many times since the sacking of the Temple and destruction of Jerusalem.

The human tendency is for each nation to prefer to crush rather than forgive enemies. We might think for example of the Christians of the crusades laying siege to a Muslim Jerusalem, King Henry the VIII’s new found Anglican movement sacking the catholic monasteries, the Inquisition sorting the heretics, the Nazi’s final solution for the Jews, the firebombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In some ways it is a shame that there is so little genuine sense of history or there might be more humility among those who remember that the Jews of Israel, the Muslims and the Christians all share a wish to experience an Advent of the Messiah. The Muslims for example also teach Christ’s return and the Jews believe that the Messiah is still to show up. For some it may also be to our shame that we remember that the unkind treatment meted out by our so-called Christian forebears with their persecution of Jews and Muslims in the years gone by has a great deal to do with why the Islamic and Jewish people today find it hard to believe our current Church teaching that Jesus offers a universal answer to all people of the world.

For his listeners, Jesus makes no attempt to downplay the coming disasters in his prophecy. N.T.Wright in his thesis on the topic suggests that Jesus was focusing here not so much on the end of the world as on the chaos of the impending Roman assault on Jerusalem. Nevertheless the detail in his prophecy was lurid enough. I guess if you were living in Gaza or Syria right now, you would even say that the disasters are continuing to happen. And unfortunately there are few signs that the people of the world are capable of learning from past mistakes. The current confrontations occurring in the Middle East and in Africa in particular remind us that religion doesn’t always make people kinder and more forgiving.

Control of resources coupled with the ability to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others is hardly different from the forces holding sway in the days of the early Church. Nor do we always retain a sense of perspective. The attack on the Twin Towers killing 3000 is widely credited for the subsequent invasion of Iraq with the trillion dollar commitment of military resources, yet at the same time we can apparently give a mere token consideration to the plight of millions afflicted by AIDS on the African continent. We are apparently all for bombing ISIS in Syria and yet most in the West appear equally adamant that we shouldn’t accept the refugees which are the inevitable consequence. I am told today is World AIDS day observance Sunday yet today who really cares about AIDS. There are now also climate refugees, refugees created by power struggles, by famine and by unwise use of land. I ours the only nation that put strict limits on the number of refugees accepted.

Will Christ in the last day really come from heaven through the clouds to provide the final answer to these situations?

It is true that for Luke’s contemporary readers, the mounting despair would have been real enough, and others since have been certain that Jesus was talking of Armageddon, but end-times predictions may miss the point. While it is traditional Western thinking to talk in terms of a time line with a beginning, a middle and an end, the recurring themes of the Bible and the timeless nature of Biblical concepts like God suggests the encounters with the eternal are not dependent on points in time. After all if it is only to Luke’s generation that Jesus words have meaning, what possible relevance would they then have for us today?

The approaching trauma Jesus talks of may then arrive for different people at different times. Yet for each one it seems that in this setting of despair, whenever it may arrive, Jesus speaks, as he did for the early Church.

At the end of his parable about the fig tree he gives a clue when he actually says “heaven and Earth may disappear, but my words shall remain forever”. The Advent may then not so much be a personal meeting with the saviour as much as a personal revelation about the essence of what he represented.

Why then did the lectionary scholars choose this particular reading to introduce Advent? Although I cannot be sure, I can see how Jesus’ insistence that he will come in the midst of the swirling dark chaos may remind us also of the notion of a welcome if unexpected birth. Yet the birth, if it is to have meaning today, must be more than a story in a book.
The 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart conjured a striking image when he wrote: “What is the good if Mary gave birth to the Son of God all those years ago, if I do not give birth to God today? We are all Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

This suggests a different way of looking at Advent. What if the birth we expect needs to be embedded in our very essence before Jesus can be said to have come to make a difference?

It is not so much that we as members of the Church can claim to be unaware of the teaching of the Christ who was to come and who now has come, because for some of us we have heard the familiar stories from Childhood. Yet, until we take this teaching to be a part of our very being, Christ has not arrived for us. Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his essay God Only Has Us (from his book God Has A Dream) puts it rather more directly.

“What is interesting is how many times the prophets say that if your religion does not affect the way you live your life, it is a religion that God rejects”.

Advent then certainly heralds the birth of Christ at Christmas. But if we are thoughtful it may do more than that for us. Jesus may have come as a child first, but he also came as a child who grew to become associated with a message. As he is recorded as saying, the words are those that “remain forever”. But words require a listener before they take shape in a life. Before our time he has come for other listeners. This Advent will we see him as coming to us?

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Lectionary sermon for 22 November 2015 on John 18: 33 – 39

Today this Sunday is called Christ the King Sunday. For many folk today Kings and Queens have become something of an anachronism. And now Christ the King – another king – yes – but what sort of king and more importantly a king for who? Can we honestly say we live different lives or even that we can find the glory of the king in the picture of a crown of thorns?

We Methodists haven’t always been very good at dealing with this question. For example, older Methodist hymns seemed to have an Old Testament notion of king rather than the portrayal that Jesus appeared to teach. The traditional Methodist hymn book often used hymns that refer to the king, yet in one study by the contemporary hymn writer Brian Wren looking at how these hymns portrayed the idea of king, Wren discovered something like 80% of the masculine images of the king implied power over others and something like 60% references to Jesus as king were images of power with very few hymns using concepts of humility and servant-hood.

Even if we were clear about what sort of King we should see in Jesus, it does not follow that we would be clear about what it means to honour such a king. Appropriately honouring leaders is not necessarily something that comes naturally.  It may not be politically correct but it seems to me that in a world and a community where some values are clearly wrong, a king – or for that matter any leader who asks for radical change of attitude is hardly likely to be fobbed off with songs with repeated phrases of praise.

Think back to the end of the previous Presidential election in the United States where by courtesy of CNN we witnessed scenes of delirium and joy at President Obama’s Democratic election headquarters – and equally scenes of shock depression and deep disbelief from Mitt Romney’s home crowd.

The title might now have been secured for the incumbent’s second term, but although he was clearly the winner on the night there were few signs that the devastated Republicans recognized him as the rightful title holder. The Republican dominated US stock exchange promptly plunged and to cynical onlookers if anything the Republican dominated Congress became even more obstructive to the President’s legislative plans than they had been the first time around.

Titles such as President, Prime Minister, or King may tell us about intended status but what they don’t tell us is to what extent the status is respected and listened to by the majority.

Knowing that Queen Elizabeth the Second is Queen of England is certainly an item of knowledge that goes far beyond the shores of England. Yet among the millions who might know her title, the vast majority are those for whom the title has no personal meaning. There is a world of difference between those who know her to be queen and those who know her to be their queen.

By analogy, when it comes to Jesus as Christ the King, the first decision those of us who want to be called his followers might ask of ourselves is whether or not by our actions and even our thoughts we show he is our king, or alternately, is it that we think and act as if he is merely a memory of a king for others.

It would be arrogant and inappropriate for me to answer that question for others in this Church, yet I suspect there is still value in the question, in that each of us must be open to the leading of our own conscience. It is an entirely private question but still reasonable to ask ourselves if there are in fact discernible differences in our thoughts and actions because we have chosen to follow the Christ we understand to be our king?

I want to suggest that simply showing up in Church on a Sunday may not settle the question. Perhaps if we return to the current Royal family the issue might become clearer.

When Prince Charles and Camilla came to New Zealand recently there were the usual crowds of Royal watchers. For those present the main task seemed to be if they could actually see the couple in the flesh. Yet if the royal watchers took it a step further, perhaps they might have paused to wonder how their behaviour should be affected by the sorts of things Prince Charles is into teaching. Among other things Prince Charles is clearly interested in preserving heritage buildings, architecture, organic farming and developing National parks.

I am just guessing but I suspect that if Prince Charles had a choice on one hand between meeting flag waving amateur photographers, or on the other, inspiring others to take up his causes, there would be no contest.

I guess what I am trying to say is that looking at the future king is not quite the same as following the future king.

To change the illustration to one once suggested by Tom Wright and one to which I can personally relate, Shirley and I have owned two dogs. Both of them were difficult to train and shared the same failing. When we pointed to something we wished to draw to the dog’s attention, the dog would look at the hand.

Perhaps it is a trite comparison yet I wonder if focusing on Christ as a phenomenon to admire and labelling that focus as the point of our worship is to make the same mistake. We are always in danger of reacting to a popularist image of Christ rather than reacting to the essence of his teaching. Perhaps it is overstating the case yet I suspect that some prefer singing familiar songs drawing attention to the majesty or praise worthy nature of Christ – and giving far less attention to songs calling us to follow the direction he points.

There is always a tension between the type of King that would most satisfy a population and the sort who might be drawing the people’s attention to what they need to hear. There is a story some of you may have heard of a religious tourist walking past the spectacular treasures of the Vatican museum and who then made the comment to his guide. “Well at least St Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none’. ” “Well”, said the guide “ Perhaps by the same token he can no longer say “in the name of Jesus rise up and walk.’ ”

Israel did not always have a King. If we read 1 Samuel carefully we might note that the Judge and prophet Samuel managed to subdue the Philistines yet the people he served appeared to want a stronger military solution. In Samuel we should remember that although David and Solomon were later remembered by the people as representing the golden age of Israel, in I Samuel the people’s desire for a King to bring their nation to a point where other nations would respect them was portrayed as disobedience against God. Nor were David and Solomon necessarily always leading in a moral or positive sense.

I would suggest that the people’s perceived need to have the sort of leader who commands respect by force continued through New Testament times and I would further suggest even continues to the present. To suggest that our nation is primarily concerned with Biblical understanding and values may not necessarily match our attitudes and actions to our neighbours – whether they be living in a distant land – or merely living next door.

Have you ever heard the type of quiz question where you have to name a person or an object from an unfolding description. Each statement brings you closer to the answer.

So pay attention. The quiz question is under way. We start with the description from contemporary Roman historians.
Son of God, born of a virgin, miracle worker, prince of peace, could raise people from the dead ….. pretty easy ………it was of course …ta rah …. no, not Jesus …at least not the intention of the same Roman historians’ accounts…. For them it was Caesar Augustus. And that was only some of his titles.

In John’s gospel, when Pontius Pilate is portrayed asking Jesus are you the King of the Jews? it is most unlikely that he and Jesus could possibly mean the same in using the term King. When we look at the slogan “King of the Jews” that Pilate ordered for the cross what will the words conjure for us.

This happens to be Christ the King Sunday, and next Sunday we move to the season of Advent when we start to retell our Church story of the coming of the one we call Christ the king. Our challenge will be to remember the one who comes in humility, whose message starts with a manger rather than a pretentious jeweled crib, a king whose feasts are with fishermen, beggars and prostitutes, a king concerned with justice rather than finery and possessions, a king who despite resurrection bears the signs of the cross and a king who asks for followers rather than admirers.

We need to stay with these images not just for Advent but in the days to come lest we forget the meaning of this special day of remembrance for Christ the King.

(A question for the reader:   Can anyone out there suggest hymns that fit the sentiments of this sermon?)

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Lectionary sermon for 15 November 2015 on Mark 13: 1-8

Last Sunday evening, I watched a TV interview with a man who has survived 11 lightning strikes and lived to tell the tale. The lightning victim’s explanation was that God must therefore have some special purpose for him. I have to admit my immediate cynical reaction (which I promptly shared with my wife) was that if God did have a purpose it seems to have been using the man for target practice.

More seriously, I am continually astounded by the number of people who are certain they know God’s mind – not only being able to explain to the rest of us the reasons for natural disasters – and usually in terms of group punishment for some other people’s imagined God-offending behaviour. Even more remarkable are the doom-saying prophets who have it on divine authority that everyone (apart of course from the prophet approved believers) is for it in big and terrible ways.

Which brings us to today’s gospel message in Mark where Jesus is cautioning his listeners against the dangers of listening to false prophets.

History suggests since Jesus first spoke those words there has been no shortage of contenders for the false prophet classification.

Over the last few years, given the open distrust of President Obama in the Bible belt states of the US, I guess each time a mega storm, flood or wild-fire hits the US it is probably inevitable that a number of self-appointed prophets should immediately post articles on the Internet, attributing the latest natural disaster as a sign of the end times. Via the Internet I learnt for example that this was God punishing people for putting their faith in President Obama – or alternately that it was God punishing America because of the softened stance on Gay marriage.

As to what is needed for specific prophecies to come true, it is easy to identify the past failures. The Mayan Calendar closed off on December 12, 2012 but the world went on. Harold Camping, whose personally guaranteed predictions about the end of the world convinced a good number to sell their houses and await the end, yet despite the hype, the end failed to materialize. Other failures included numerous Jehovah’s Witness prophecies over the last century as well as some of the Seventh Day Adventist prophecies and many, many more dating back to Bible days.

That my eyes turned heavenward at the present offerings should not necessarily be taken to mean that I was astounded and impressed by the latest warnings. When Jesus said there will be many false prophets, his words should be heeded if only because history has since proved him right many times over. Yet the certainty with which many well meaning and no doubt sincere zealots keep climbing into the ring to replace earlier failed prognosticators might at least give us pause for thought.

It is of course very easy to be drawn to such prophecies and many sincere and otherwise mainstream people have, from time to time, lapsed into thinking that this time it is for real and people need to be warned. While it is not exactly an historical secret I would not for example be surprised that Methodist minister training down- plays the slightly embarrassing memory that first Charles Wesley and then even his brother John both incorrectly predicted different and wrong dates for the end of the world.

It is certainly not the case that all prophets are dangerously astray and when Paul reminds us that some do have the gift of prophecy we should remember that through the ages prophets have provided invaluable service both to society in general and to the Church in particular.

To quote one man whose reputation as a modern prophet is well deserved, Colin Morris:
There are men and women in the modern church who are worthy to be named in the same breath as those Hebrew wild men of the Old Testament. They see things steadily and see them whole while the rest of us thrash around treating the world as a cheap watch – to be subject to inexpert investigation until all the pieces lie in front of us, defying our efforts to put them back together.” (from Colin Morris, Mankind My Church ,P42)

However before we rush to identify those so worthy, we might do well to remember that Old Testament prophets were mainly concerned with drawing attention to the characteristics of their age and showing how these features were straying from what they believed was desirable behaviour. Their prophecies were grounded in painful realities which they faced squarely- often after much serious soul searching – before making their uncompromising announcements – often in the face of genuine danger to personal reputation and even sometimes their lives.

It does occur to me that there may be some warning signs that might help us distinguish the genuine from the misguided.

When it comes to those claiming to be speaking in the name of their religion, many of the false prophets I have met seem fixated on finding answers to complex contemporary problems by using the Bible for quotations of the sort the great missionary CT Studd once called neat little Bible confectionary. Unfortunately the Bible is not designed as a one volume Readers Digest of instant answers to life’s genuine dilemmas. And lets face it. There are more than enough well meaning church folk blundering into serious misfortunes with well meaning and thoughtless analysis.

That does not mean that the Bible is irrelevant – but to the genuine prophet, attention is drawn not so much the answers but more to the questions the Bible invites us to ask – not about scriptures but about our realities.

The attention of the prophets in the Bible was inevitably drawn to realities…and I guess in that sense Mark in his selection of the record of Jesus would have been most keenly aware of the disaster which had already befallen the Temple by the time he wrote his words. To Mark, Jesus’ words were not so much dealing with the implications of what was still to come, as the realities the disciples were likely to be encountering at the time of writing.

As Mark was writing his gospel there was a backdrop of real horror. The Jews had risen up against the Roman invaders – who had responded by destroying the Temple, sacking the city, torturing and executing thousands and if the historian commentators had it right, at the very time Mark assembled his gospel the Romans would have been in the process of driving those left from the city and from the land. So the message in Jesus words were not to the readers some dire warning about something still to come. It was a description of something that had already happened. And rather than recording these words as prophecy – Jesus message in the thirteenth chapter of Mark – was one of hope and comfort for the nervous and dispirited.

It is hard to be certain in what sense Jesus was talking about the Son of Man coming. Yet when Jesus talks of his impending world of unfolding terror we can see that for Mark at least, this was far more than Jesus talking about some mysterious unpredictable horrors.

Trial and betrayal. (Verse 9 – 13) Mark knew about this – it had happened. Desecration and fleeing refugees (verse 14 – 20)…. He might as easily been writing the weekend newspaper political column. False hopes and predictions.(verse 21 – 23) The talk in turbulent times is full of false hopes and predictions.

Some were reading the signs and calling this the finish. What did Jesus say? Ignore the false hopes. Don’t listen to the false prophets. Keep your faith in good times and bad. The implication for his contemporary listeners was simply that the temple may have been destroyed but the Church is still alive.

History tells us that the problems facing the human race are likely to be with us for many years to come. Foolish decisions destroying habitats and dispossessing communities stretch back into the mists of time and we need look no further than the Pacific where there are refugees aplenty.

The wars Jesus referred to may well have changed in nature – but two thousand years later they are no less distressing to those affected. The spectres of hunger, injustice and fear are there for those of us who will only look. In short, 2000 years of Christianity do not and have not provided respite or protection from the ravages of the horsemen of the apocalypse.

It may even be that the most constructive way of facing disaster is to focus on the rebuild. I remember talking this through with a young minister whose church building had been destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake. When I asked him how he and his congregation was coping, he said “Great. Now the church has fallen down we are rediscovering what Church really means.”

At present, for me and my family there is plenty of security. Unlike the situation for some victims of the Christchurch earthquake our home is intact. There is money in the bank. Most of my family are enjoying good health. We are surrounded by friends and family and we have a supportive church congregation. Yet if we read the signs we would need to be living in some other-worldly cocoon not to be aware that our situation is vastly different to many in the world. And we need our prophets to be forcing us to realize that not only are those in such situations facing grim realities – but that these are our neighbours. As self-claimed Christians, can we honestly pretend that these are our neighbours to be loved as ourselves – as our faith proclaims – at the same time we show by our actions we are unconcerned?

For those of us concerned primarily with our own settings – and how those settings affect us, our need is not for prophets who have the same myopic view. As a wise person once observed, to be wrapped up in yourself is a very small parcel. This is perhaps why the false prophet looking at his or her own immediate community disasters and projecting them on to the whole world for signs of impending doom seems so irrelevant,

The true prophet can see the bigger picture. I can for example see a true prophet reminding us in our current church setting that we are not only living in a post Christian world – but that we should be adjusting our goals accordingly.

I know that the term post-Christian is potentially upsetting to the Christian who faithfully attends Church each week – yet I think there is a serious truth to be faced.

New Zealand currently has an appalling set of statistics for a country with such a high place in the OCED ranking showing an increasing large proportion of children living in poverty – 11% in 1986 and 25% today – with all the attendant problems of disease and deprivation.

We as church members could well ignore the problems, since for many of us they occur outside our immediate family circle. And yes we might focus only on our immediate church families and local communities – but to do so would make us entirely irrelevant to this serious situation.

Those who presently remind us of the statistics may be showing us how a prophet should be approaching the situation. Telling the plain and uncomfortable truth helps us see our setting as it really is and identifies more clearly the places where we can apply the fruits of our faith.

So we admit we are embedded in a situation where genuine problems will continue to affect us and our neighbours. Some of these are very serious indeed. But the places of terror and dark foreboding continually recede and re-emerge. That is part of the human condition. We kid ourselves if we don’t admit the frequent failures of those who predict the final cataclysm in what comes next and are equally blind if we pretend that only the events which directly affect ourselves are the ones that matter. If we are listening to Jesus in his message we will know it is not blind panic or blissful ignorance we are called to. Rather it is the notion we can face the worst that our future holds with the mystery of hope and the certain knowledge that actions born of love have more to offer than despair.

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I want to proffer some recent thoughts I have had on suggesting whether or not a claimed assertion to be following the Christian faith appears authentic. Since we all have to start somewhere, I want to emphasize that my current thinking is that it is not necessary to know or believe everything that many claim to associate with Christianity must be correct and be present at the outset, but rather that to be seen as attempting to be travelling in more or less the right direction. The fact there are so many denominations and shades of belief within most denominations should remind us that whatever seems certain to any particular locally initiated in-group will not necessarily gain a widespread following from those across a variety of Church members calling themselves Christian.

While it may infuriate some readers, I want to insist that simply believing a typical list of common claims of truth with Christianity eg the Bible being the word of God, Jesus being born of a Virgin and dying for our sins etc etc may be far less important than choosing which teachings of Jesus we are trying to follow, or for that matter deciding how we show will respect for creation and how we behave towards our fellows (even the ones we don’t like!). Truth by itself is not sufficient. For example a driver may believe that the Road Code states that 100 km/hour is the speed limit for the open road. This is not to say that he or she will try to modify their behaviour at the wheel to keep to that limit. We may accept as a proposition that Jesus may be the King, yet if we have no wish to accept his “lordship” or for that matter clear guidance he offers in the Sermon on the Mount, he is not our King.

The word translated as ‘faith’ in the New Testament is the Greek word ‘πίστις’ (Pistis) which can also be translated ‘belief’ or ‘trust’. Here I want to suggest if we want our faith to be recognized as authentic we could do worse than follow what a professional scientist does when he or she tests an accepted theory. In other words trust enough to test in practice. Like the scientist, I suggest to be authentic Christians, when we find the theory doesn’t work out in practice we adjust or reshape our faith. The non-authentic alternative is to pretend things are true when the evidence says otherwise. Chalking a cross on the door and praying for the plague sufferer may once have been an initial or even the only known available choice for showing compassion. When we are shown evidence that flea carrying rats are spreading the plague, if we are serious in our wish to remove the threat of plague, eradicating the rats and fleas must become part of our response.

For the authentic Christian faith within Christianity is hopefully based on the actions and teachings of Jesus Christ. The one following Christianity declares oneself not simply to be distinguished by faith, but by a faith that fits what Jesus stood for. Here again we could do worse than start with Jesus’ teaching that Love is central. Those who start with the notion of intentionally showing love for God and love for neighbour would presumably be characterized by a profound respect shown by action for the works of creation, and a genuine compassion for one’s fellows again expressed in action as well as thought.

With many possible interpretations of obscure passages of the Bible, history teaches the Bible can be used as an excuse for all manner of unkind behaviour. History shows faith has been claimed to justify (among other acts) torture, genocide, terrorism, slavery, crusades, murder of witches, property theft, rape, driving out family members for supposed heresy, execution of those belonging to unrecognised denominations and even execution for translating the Bible into any language except Latin. I suspect that for most modern mainstream Christians authentic Christianity on the other hand would be recognized for the way it improved family, community and interfaith relationships. It seems plausible that following Jesus teaching would focus on peace-making, the fair distribution of resources, a caring compassionate approach to the poor and the refugees for difference of race, religion and social position. If Jesus is correctly recorded as taking issue with those who used religious position, wealth or political power to advance their own position, we might also admit that such behaviour is not the mark of those seeking to be authentic followers of Jesus.

Well those are some initial thoughts. The readers are invited to put their viewpoint.

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Lectionary Sermon for 8 November 2015 on Mark 12: 38 – 44

Last weekend I watched the TV coverage of the final rugby world cup match between New Zealand and Australia. The next day someone asked what had most impressed me about the match. For me it was that after-match incident where a young boy had rushed onto the pitch and been tackled by a security guard. Sonny Bill Williams with his just won medal around his neck helped the boy to his feet and to cheer him up gave the boy his newly acquired medal. That’s what stuck with me.  For my questioner I suspect what I had been expected to reply was the magnificent performance of the New Zealand team.

It is odd isn’t it? Two of us can see the same scene – or live through the same experience, yet notice totally different things. Perhaps it is inevitable because even things we are certain are true and totally familiar will always have hidden dimensions. Indeed, even that most measurable of all sciences, physics, seems to make most progress when scientists notice something new in the familiar.

Each of the gospel writers had their own preferences for their stories of Jesus. No doubt the author of Mark chose his anecdotes from amongst the many possible memories of Jesus, but I suspect part of his choice would have been slanted for example by already knowing that by the time he wrote his gospel the Temple had already fallen.

As with a number of the New Testament writers, Mark seems anxious to convey the notion that action carries with it its own judgment. The calamity of the fall of the Temple might therefore be explained in Mark’s view, if God seemed to have sufficient reason to believe his people had deserved the punishment. My guess is this would presumably make Mark very sensitive to anything Jesus might have done to draw attention to inappropriate behaviour in the Temple precincts.

But there is something else. In the field of observation, as Louis Pasteur once put it, chance only favours the prepared mind. Which brings us to today’s gospel account of Jesus with his disciples at the Temple. Jesus with vision, no doubt sharpened by his gospel of justice and compassion, looks at the daily ritual at the Temple – a ritual what is more that had years and perhaps even centuries of patterns of recognized and expected behaviour. Jesus unsurprisingly perhaps, given the main themes of his teaching, notices some things which had probably largely escaped the attention of the daily witnesses to the familiar sights.

First he looks at the gowned and tasselled teachers of the law posing for the crowd. In Jesus’ day, a long gown – totally impractical and restrictive to the movements of the common worker – was a mark of the respected scholar – and that the gown swept the ground, marking the wearer as someone above working at labour, carried its own message of importance.

Following the Book of Numbers Ch 15, verse 38 the tassels at the edge of the religious teacher’s outer robe were the traditional mark of the one set aside as a man of God – yet today’s commentators say that by the time of Jesus, many the tassels had grown in prominence as an ostentatious declaration of piety. These were the tassels of the Rabbis and, just as today’s religious titles carry deference and respect, the word Rabbi translates as “My great one”. To be addressed as Rabbi would no doubt have been pleasing to the one who carried the title.

The Rabbi would not only expect deference in speech, but also in action. Prominent seats were reserved for the Rabbis at the front of the congregation in the synagogues. In the Synagogue, in front of the Ark, where the sacred scriptures were held, the Rabbis would sit facing the congregation where they might be seen and hopefully be admired. At feasts the most prominent guests would be seated at a top table with the most important closest to the centre, and religious leaders would expect to find their place near the centre at such a gathering.

Such overt behaviour for effect would indeed make a mockery of the religion the Rabbis claimed to represent, but the additional accusation Jesus was making was more serious. This was in fact a more serious charge that they “devoured” the widows’ houses. Like some ethnic churches that officially claim to have ministers so dedicated that they work for no pay, the truth was that they took advantage of the vulnerability of some of the weakest in the community, including the widows, pressuring them to the point that in fact the teachers of the law could become wealthy.

We may argue about the degree to which Mark edited the recalled words and records of Jesus’ actions as he responded the actions of the Rabbis, but there is little doubt that the entire thrust of the gospel record shows us a Jesus totally opposed to those expressing faith by claiming privilege. That Jesus went beyond noticing what others preferred not to notice and actually challenged what he could see happening is also fair enough. He himself reportedly taught and demonstrated what it means to live by servant-hood and by so doing, won the right to question those who rather sought honour in actions directly opposed to servant-hood. It is also a timely reminder to us that we can hardly criticize what we see today unless others can see the alternative in us.

What made Jesus different from the others present in today’s gospel setting then had two parts. First, his was the prepared mind that could notice such hypocrisy. Second, and perhaps more importantly, he had won the right to question what he saw by living the alternative.

If we are honest with ourselves about our own society we ought to be able to relate to a situation whereby some are elevated to status and title which goes far beyond logic or necessity. The mega salaries offered to society’s identified elite and the excessive deference shown to those in the public eye is curious given the range of behaviour some of our celebrities exhibit. Today we are probably so used to the concept of honouring leaders and celebrities whether they be in the Church, in politics, in sport or even in show business that we are hardly in a position to see ourselves as more enlightened than people were in the days of Christ.

There is however a particular danger in not being especially vigilant when it comes to confusing such self serving adulation with expressions of faith. At one gathering of Methodist Church leaders in Auckland, one of those present, a Tongan minister, observed that he believed the Methodist Church in Tonga was currently losing ground to the Mormon Church. He wondered if this was because the Methodist Church leadership was clearly aligned with the Tongan feudal system of Royalty and nobility, whereas the Mormon Church was presenting itself in Tonga as the Church of the common people. Such speculations are inappropriate for those of us who live outside that society. Nevertheless it may encourage us to look at our own setting to speculate if our own way of “doing Church” also has some of the same hall-marks of the targets of Jesus’ observations at the Temple.

Remember however that Jesus was coming to what some might see as a chance observation with a highly prepared mind. By way of preparing our minds also, perhaps we might start by reflecting on what characteristics a Church should show if it were following the teaching of Jesus. What might we expect to see for example if our Church was focussed on obtaining justice for those being discriminated against, or perhaps focussed on ensuring love for our neighbours? What might this mean for our programmes, our meeting agenda, and what we expect from our leaders? It is not the first century Jerusalem Temple or what happens in distant places like Tonga which should concern us the most. It is our own setting and our own relationships.

Regardless of what standards other groups in the wider community might expect from themselves, it seems to me that the Church, and for the Church read us, is under an obligation to reflect the teachings of the one the Church members claim to follow.

The law of most Western nations takes this even further and implies that if a believer acts against the teachings of their belief they are guilty of the crime of blasphemy. The law usually recognises only a believer can blaspheme. The British 1967 Blasphemy Act is a typical example and confirms this as follows.

Any person educated in or making profession of the Christian religion who by writing, teaching or preaching denies….. etc etc” .

Certainly on a technicality, acting against the teaching of servant-hood by using faith to promote self ambition and pride, without writing or teaching or preaching such actions as being appropriate, we might argue in this case no actual crime is committed, yet it does seem the spirit of the Christ teachings is still in danger of being denied.

Perhaps here, it is that the claimed faith does not sometimes match the expected behaviour. Through the centuries there has been much discussion and debate about what people should believe. When however we think of where Jesus placed his emphasis, it was not so much belief but applied faith that seemed to draw his attention. A belief is something – often worked out by others – that is accepted because to the believer it seems reasonable enough to be true. A belief in that sense can also be academic, disconnected from personal reality and even artificial. We can believe a plank across a river is strong enough to hold our weight. We only demonstrate faith in the plank when we trust ourselves to take the first steps on that plank. Admiring the plank may be an expression of untried faith.

It is good that Mark finds Jesus following his criticisms of the behaviour of the teachers of the law with his observations of the widow and her mite for the offering. The attitudes he encourages are not simply the preserve of the Church leaders or the wealthy and the powerful. While our community is so structured that our celebrities are the ones who draw society’s adulation, Jesus reminds us that in his world of upside down values, it is the giving heart which counts, even if it is the heart of the most humble and unprepossessing in our community.

I would like to finish by asking us all mentally to step back a pace and wonder to ourselves what Jesus would have noticed if by chance he happened upon our community – and even more specifically he happened upon us as individuals. Would he see in us the one who posed for others – or the one who genuinely lived for others?
Abu Bakr the father in law of Muhammad, once prayed a prayer that for its reflective insight sounds almost as if it came from such an encounter.
Yes I know that we don’t often look for truth in another’s religion, but think carefully about these words and see if they might also speak to you.
Abu Bakr’s prayer……..
“I thank you Lord for knowing me better than I know myself
And for letting me know myself better than others know me.
Make me, I ask You then, better than they suppose
And forgive me for what they do not know.”
( If you have read through to the end of this sermon I would appreciate some feedback including criticism or suggestions for other ways of tackling the same topic. )

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