Donald Trump Sorts Canada – Well Sort of …..

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Well goodness gracious, President Trump has done it again, this time with a 20%plus  tariff slapped on some of the US imports of Timber from Canada. And once again, despite top info from the experts at Fox News and Twitter, not to mention listening as carefully as usual (!)to personally approved advisors, he managed to miss an important and very awkward detail.

I guess the Canadians probably saw it coming.

Despite overlooking such small details as owning luxury hotels and towers bearing his name in Canada Mr Trump was clear about how badly the US is being treated by the Canadians particularly in their trading relationships.

At a New York rally in April last year, he said he would change what he calls poorly-negotiated international trade deals, and mentioned Canada in the mix:

“I like free trade, but free trade is not free trade, it’s dump trade because we lose with China, we lose with Mexico, we lose with Japan and Vietnam and every single country that we deal with. We lose with Canada — big-league. Tremendous, tremendous trade deficits with Canada.” He added he last bit in verbal capitals.

It is a pity that despite his self-perceived perspicacity, not to mention his use of personally chosen family advisors, he has presumably been deliberately denied the Trade figures available to all other Americans.
Yes, President Trump. It is true the Canadians send more trade in terms of value of goods in the US direction than vice versa. The 2015 figures suggest a $15 billion disparity but surely someone in the White House might have heard that Trade includes Services as well as goods. The Services part is very heavily in the US favour.

The overall Trade picture is therefore in the US favour!!!  Don’t take my word for it …. look it up!

If it is fairness POTUS seeks, Canada will no doubt be happy to oblige with their own adjustments, but how that will advantage the US quite escapes me.

Now, why should someone like me from New Zealand care? Look again. Mr Trump says “we lose with …..every country we deal with“. Since we deal with the US we can only assume Trump directs his criticisms to include New Zealand. For the record, as with Canada, the US trade figures with my country are similarly in favour of the US????  What trade figures are Mr Trump using???

So the President insists on fairness. He has my support on that. Perhaps we should ask that when the US security reps visit this country for their highly secret assignations in our beautiful Queenstown Tourist resort (which are regularly reported in our daily newspapers!), that they pay sufficient tariffs to balance the books.

If I have missed something important please share it.

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Lectionary Sermon for Easter 3 Year A (April 30, 2017) on Luke 24; 13 -35

The Emmaus Road: A Parable about Jesus?
I have never counted them myself, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that on no fewer than 17 occasions Jesus has cause to reprimand one or more of his disciples for being slow in understanding. And if you wanted evidence for how thick they were, what about today’s anecdote? The Emmaus Road story, if intended as literal truth, would be one of the more confusing in the New Testament.

If we assume for the moment that all the post resurrection experiences happened exactly as Luke and the other gospel writers recounted, we ought to be puzzled. Hadn’t Jesus appeared to all the disciples except Thomas in the upper room and when Thomas finally caught up with Jesus, didn’t the account say he too set aside his doubts and was convinced? Didn’t the disciples also encounter Jesus on the lake shore where Jesus invited them to share in a meal of fresh cooked fish? So why then should these slow witted disciples be unable to recognize the familiar figure of their leader in yet another post resurrection appearance?

John Dominic Crossan, who to me is one the more interesting modern scholars of the Bible, reminds us that as well as the parables we remember Jesus telling, there are also parables about Jesus.

One of Crossan’s favorite examples is today’s story from Luke’s Gospel, Luke 24:13-35, about this strange meeting along the Road to Emmaus. Dom Crossan says that: regardless of whether we believe the story as fact or not, there is a way of discovering meaning in this story which makes it a parable.

Remember the scene as Luke tells it. Two people (not well known disciples – but disciples nevertheless) are walking to Emmaus and discussing the recent crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger approaches them and joins in their conversation. The stranger interprets Scripture to them as they walk, explaining to them that they should have expected Jesus to be killed, as had been foretold by the prophets in the Scriptures. When the disciples reach their house the stranger acts as if he is going to continue on, but they ask him in and once inside they offer some food. The stranger breaks the bread and in this action, strongly reminiscent of the last supper, they recognize him as Jesus.

Crossan suggests we might see the parable as follows. In our context today, meeting such a stranger in the unexpected setting means that you don’t know when you will be visited by Jesus. Reading Scripture is only preparatory and only finds meaning when we too are doing the equivalent of encountering a stranger on the road.

If it is history, it is merely curious. If parable, there is a teaching which speaks to our present. We are reminded it is only when we show kindness to the stranger, we may well recognize the unexpected significance the stranger represents.

So there is much to suggest that the story offers more than history. The experience of the two persons on the road to Emmaus is always going to be more than the story of an event.

By implication there are two things which might also be part of our experience. By all means let us respect the knowledge we can gain from Scripture, but let us remember that perhaps it is only when we go that one step further and do the equivalent of inviting the stranger in to share God’s food with us that we are going to have a chance of recognizing something more in the encounter with the stranger, the real meeting which in effect may be with Jesus.

The offering of food – or if you like – the act of friendly kindness to the stranger is more than an after-thought to the story. We would also have to admit it is not a characteristic of our age. Nor for that matter is it a given that we would be hospitable in practice even after reading this story. Many Churches set aside time for an enactment of the Emmaus walk, yet not all participants automatically become welcoming of strangers.

One of the unfortunate consequences of city living is that we build a deliberate shield around ourselves. It is possible to get through an entire day walking, eating and drinking in cafes, walking in the same direction along the pavement as others, sharing lifts, even park benches without even a single meaningful conversation.
Perhaps you, like me, have seen neighbourhoods where there is a culture of distrusting the stranger.

Neighbourhoods where the list of telephone numbers for legal assistance for taking legal action against all manner of neighbours and neighbourhood agencies far exceeds the list of helping agencies. Neighbourhoods where neighbours don’t know one another by name, where they do not help one another, where there are no street parties, and where the elderly remain lonely. I have even encountered Churches that will not offer communion to strangers unless they are already members of the appropriate denomination.

There is a sense in which the community ethos depends on a host of deliberate choices. When I was appointed to the congregations of Epsom and Mt Eden I was warned that the shift to that neighbourhood was unlikely to be a good experience. I was assured by someone who had had one such bad experience that I was likely to encounter snobbish people who insisted on keeping to themselves.

In point of fact, the experience turned out to be positive in the extreme. The neighbours in the street had a sheet of telephone numbers of everyone in the street. The residents had a regular street party and seem to know one another by name. They helped look after one another’s properties. My next door neighbour on one side trimmed my hedge, the one on the other side gave us fish and venison. Other neighbours fixed my computer.

I had also noticed that when one neighbour was away another neighbour took his dog for a regular walk. Oh, and one other thing. Did I remember to say that these friendly neighbours were not Church folk?

Yet on reflection such a neighbourhood would not exist unless someone first had chosen to visit the neighbours to invite them the share phone numbers, someone had to agree to host the first street party, and there was buy-in to the idea that residents had to welcome the newcomer to the street.

None of these actions depended on rocket science. Yet as a consequence of these simple actions, the benefits of comfort, security and sense of belonging were immense. Theologically, dare I suggest this might even be a glimpse of Christ.

So to return to this story of the road to Emmaus. We can certainly sympathize with Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple. They were clearly missing the one who they had been inspired to follow, yet did you notice that Jesus was in no hurry to make himself known?

Some commentators have suggested that because they were walking towards the sunset with the sun in their eyes they found it hard to recognize Jesus, but Jesus in his responses to them suggests that their lack of recognition might have had a more fundamental reason.
Indeed as they talked more with Jesus it became very apparent they did not understand exactly who they had been attempting to follow.

Jesus in the story of the Road to Emmaus, models a helpful way to conduct a conversation about the essentials of religion. Had he simply said –“ I am Jesus and I am back”, the two disciples would have been no further ahead in their understanding. In the same way a street evangelist telling me about Jesus and the meaning of salvation through his death sounds hollow unless I see the one talking to me is transformed by his or her belief.

Many statements and writings about Jesus illustrate misunderstanding in the sense that Jesus is portrayed as one who represents a form of action on our behalf that we are intended to stand back and admire. On the other hand Jesus himself treats his audience as those expected to live his teaching. Certainly such a shift in thinking cannot be hurried. After all Jesus disciples were with him for months and even years before they understood this fundamental distinction and there is no indication he insisted on instant acceptance.

The very last event in the story may also be significant as part of a parable teaching. Remember that just when the two disciples had worked out who the stranger was, he disappeared. Perhaps this might serve as a reminder that we should never expect to have the experience of Jesus in a form where all is absolutely clear.

I suggested at the outset that it may not even matter how we come out on the literal or metaphorical interpretation of the story. If the Gospels talk of even the closest disciples being puzzled by the resurrection claims, looking back at the same claims 2000 years later without the disciples’ experiences to ground our interpretation in reality the questions and uncertainties are not going to go away.

On the other hand Luke appears to be using the example of Jesus being found in an everyday encounter and not some esoteric religious experience. If we can accept that intended or not, this story has a parable like teaching, we too might be encouraged to look for experiences of Christ in our day to day encounters.
This particular meeting of the disciples with Jesus in today’s reading has two features which suggest relevance for us today.

The first is that the joy of meeting Jesus is sometimes discovered in the context of shared food. In a typical Sunday service the formal part of the service can easily take a form which precludes a genuine sharing and meeting with one another. Even the perfunctory hand shake at the door, the passing comments about the weather or even the complaints about the length of the sermon don’t exactly assist mutual communication. It is strange that all too often we come inspired by one whose practical ministry saw the shared meal as central to his means of sharing and accepting with others, yet we see the cup of tea after the service almost as an incidental extra.

The ministry of hospitality has a good fit with our claim that caring about our neighbours is a central part of Christ’s ministry.

Secondly there are so many Christian denominations (38,000 at one Wikipedia count) and within those, so many shades of interpretation about the meaning of resurrection, also means that we are unlikely to find statements about resurrection supported by an overwhelming majority. Where however we might find agreement, is to suggest that a tomb is no place to confine the spirit of Jesus.

We might well get our inspiration for action in the liturgy and sermons of our Church service but ultimately it is in the situations of urgent need we are called to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the persecuted, to show hospitality to the lonely – and in short – to live the gospel we claim we find in the place we call church.
And more than that, we have Jesus example and teaching to remind us that others will encounter him when those who seek to follow his words minister in practical flesh and blood situations.

So the question for each one of us….. In our encounters, will others see in us the warmth and welcome of the Love of God? Will we notice when others offer us the essence of Christ? In our encounters, will others find the same attention to the place of hospitality and acceptance that Jesus demonstrated? In our encounters, will others get that tantalizing and puzzling glimpse of the same Spirit that appeared to be so hard to kill – and yet which always seems a little beyond understanding even by his closest disciples?

Resurrection means life and the tomb is a most inappropriate place to contain the spirit of life.
Christ is risen……..

He is risen indeed! Yet will we recognise him when his presence is there?

 

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Lectionary sermon for 23 April 2017 ( Year A Easter 2) on John 20: 19-31

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The expression “Doubting Thomas” is traditionally used to heap scorn on those who question some aspect of faith. Yet I want to suggest this does a disservice to Thomas and even a disservice to those who want to question what is important about Jesus and the way the teaching is applied today.

Thomas gets hardly a mention in the four New Testament gospels, but before we get to his famous doubts, we might also remember that earlier when the disciples are trying to talk Jesus out of visiting Lazarus who was understood to have just died. The problem here was that of a dead Lazarus in the very area where villagers had previously attempted to stone Jesus. It was Thomas who reportedly said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him”. He may later have expressed doubts about Jesus coming back to life, but in the Lazarus episode he was showing clear signs of courage.

Tradition makes the further claim that Thomas subsequently made his way as a missionary, first to Persia and then onto to South India where he was eventually martyred. This was hardly the mark of someone perpetually paralyzed by doubt.

As John the gospel writer tells the story, we tend to forget that Thomas was entitled to his doubts in that unlike the other disciples he had not already seen the risen Christ.

Certainly sometimes doubts can be corrosive, but Thomas used his doubts in a constructive manner. His requirement of not believing in the risen Christ unless he met Jesus in the flesh was portrayed by John as a test by a doubter, and yet if John has the detail of the meeting between them as correct we are left to guess how what Thomas discovered was enough to inspire him to become a missionary. If anything his doubts appeared to lead to a firmer faith.

But why would we despise Thomas for his initial doubts. If we put ourselves in Thomas’s place, doubting even seems more rational than credulity. The equivalent for us today might be watching a good friend die – then later going to the funeral home to pay our respects, only to be met by a stranger telling us “Sorry, he’s gone. He came back to life and he is out there somewhere.” Be honest. Would you accept that without question? And even more to the point, would Thomas have been wise to accept such an outrageous claim without question.

Remember too that in one sense the claims are still outrageous. Since the Bible is a curious amalgam of patchy history, poetry, culture, inspiration, parable, myth and praise, it is always hard to be certain which narrative parts are being recorded as history and which parts are closer to parable to encourage us in faith. Even if we are of a mind to see faith in terms of a catechism in which the thinking is left to Church leaders who instruct us as to the acceptable answers to all the tricky questions, it seems to me that all the best answers have always come from squarely facing one’s own honest doubts.

Certainly it is true that Thomas’ doubts do not seem to have been remembered with affection by Christians through the centuries, yet we might wonder if this had its root in the gospel writers’ respective theological differences. Thomas, whose gospel was claimed to predate the other New Testament gospels, had Gnostic traditions interwoven with teachings of Jesus used by the other gospel writers. This may help explain why his gospel got voted out of the final collection of books chosen for the most commonly accepted version of the New Testament.

We might also note in passing that for the most part the gospel attributed to Thomas was mainly of sayings of Jesus and was clearly less mystical and more down to earth than a good part of the Gospel of John. Some scholars have even suggested John’s version of Thomas as a doubter was added later to undermine Thomas’s credentials as a rival gospel author.

For those who find it hard to countenance a Bible where editorial policy has helped shape the narrative just remember that the four gospels already differ in detail when they report the same events.(See for example my article “Shaping God”). We now know for example some verses were added some years later by an unknown author to flesh out Mark’s version of the death of Jesus at the end of Mark’s gospel. We know from earlier versions these verses were missing and they did not appear till well after the original author had died. Other changes have also been noted in other of the New Testament books, so it is reasonable to at least acknowledge later editing as a possibility.

One set of traditions claim Thomas was not only sometimes known as Didymus = the twin ( ie the Aramaic for Thomas gives us Tau’ma or T’oma also meaning twin) but within the traditions some have gone further and claimed he was no less than the twin of Jesus. If this was actually the case it goes without saying that this would have serious consequences for anyone insisting on the reality of the story of the Virgin Birth. However the notion of Thomas being the Twin of Jesus is also thought to lend a little credence to the implication in one of the Nag Hammadi texts (the Book of Thomas the Contender), in which Jesus himself is quoted as saying: “Now since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion…….” If there was this family connection, this may even have been why another book “The Infancy Gospel of Jesus” purporting to tell the story of Jesus early childhood is also attributed to Thomas.

At the same time these traditions are still important. There is absolutely no doubt that a Thomas who by all accounts appears to be the apostle Thomas was a major figure in starting the Church of South India. The Catholic Church also highly values the Thomas traditions and one of their major teachings, the assumption of Mary to heaven, lists Thomas as the only witness to this event.

It is hard to be certain of how much the record of readings attributed to Thomas or for that matter miracles later attributed to Thomas in India, are based on fanciful recollections by his later admirers.

My personal favourite Thomas story is one which has Thomas as architect and builder in South India getting the commission to build King Gundaphorus (sp?) a lavish palace. Thomas allegedly decided to teach the King a lesson by giving the large sum of money for the project away to the poor. According to the story, when the outraged King got wind of this trick, Thomas’s defence was that he was building the king a Palace in heaven with this act of charity. My own cynicism has me wondering if in fact Thomas would have been able to avoid death if he had actually tried that on any autocratic ruler of the age in that part of the world, but I still like the story.

In an even more improbable example in the Infancy Gospel of Jesus, there is the story of a five year old Jesus carving some sparrows out of wood on the Sabbath, only have them then come to life and fly away. This would be miracle indeed, but clearly quite different in type to the miracles in New Testament gospels.

Please don’t hear me saying that my doubts about the literal truth of some of the events and stories associated with Thomas to mean the stories have no value. All significant figures in history have a degree of accompanying mythology and, like Jesus’ parables, the values that emerge from the stories are where their real worth may lie.

I guess I am also implying that some dimensions of faith require a healthy scepticism, but in the same way that Thomas could express his doubts in an open and honest way without abandoning his faith altogether I suspect that ultimately we must be free to ask our questions and do our own thinking before we settle on the main directions for our lives.

There are some forms of doubts which lead to progress. I would like to suggest that the natural scepticism towards current scientific understanding shown by most of the now famous scientists was actually the key to their progress. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science used to say that it is only when you try to disprove an accepted theory that science moves forward. I suspect that has been the same for the prophets and theologians through the centuries.

The first believers in primitive Judaism were satisfied that their limited tribal notions of a localized and partisan God were quite sufficient and it took first the prophets and finally Jesus himself to show why this notion of faith deserved to be doubted. And historically this process did not stop with Jesus. Christian ethics have been continually doubted, questioned and reshaped to deal with the needs of a changing society. Slavery and blind nationalism, at one time cornerstones of a local insular tribal society, have gradually given way to understanding that neighbours do not have to share one’s own religion or status level in the community. The assumption that all disease and disaster had religious cause has been modified as science has informed us about the causes of disease. In the same way our growing understanding about the universe and the laws of nature has caused us to question previous superstitions about the night skies.

Since conditions for the World’s communities have continued to change we now have a whole raft of new problems to face. Now we can produce more food by mass food production techniques a whole series of issues relating to the fair distribution of this food are currently being debated.

We need those who can express their doubts about traditional trade practice and resource management regardless of what may have worked in the past. Love your neighbour needs new expression in changed circumstances.

In an age where physical strength was valued, it made sense to have a male dominated society. In a modern society where education rather than physical strength is the basis of leadership, it makes sense to re-evaluate the respective roles of males and females. To doubt the aspects of faith designed to retain the old values of male domination is not automatically anti-Christian. Since biblical statements about role were designed for a now out-dated culture the ethics that came from that culture also need rewriting.

Advances in medicine mean we now have the problem of euthanasia to consider for those being kept artificially alive long past the expected life span. Advances in weapons research mean we now have to reassess when war is morally acceptable.

There are those who object to all advances of thinking on the grounds that today’s understandings confront us with ideas incompatible with what the forefathers in religion used to believe. And a flat earth society still exists! Remember it was the orthodox Church who took Galileo to task for questioning that the Earth was the centre of the universe, just as their predecessors had done earlier when “heretics” had first suggested that the Earth was not flat nor supported on pillars as the Psalmist had asserted.

It was the Bible literalists who objected to the science of geology casting doubts on a six thousand year old Earth, and no doubt there will always be those who dare not question lest they find that their comfortable certainties are threatened.

Because we are blessed with those who continue to use their doubts to help sort out their thinking and those who insist that all unreasonable assumptions are tested, we can be certain that transforming knowledge will continue to grow. Whether or not we are brave enough to do our own testing, and allow it to extend the horizons of our own faith is a question for our own individual life stories.

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The Confusion of the Elderly Curmudgeon

Well I am getting older so forgive me if once again I am missing something. Have I got it right that the North Koreans who have the temerity to want to make and test nuclear weapons must be brought to heel by military force if necessary? But surely the US has a new Commander in Chief who wants an increase in the number of nuclear weapons and has advocated that significant US allies do the same. His reasoning, explained via something called Tweeting, is that if anyone sees you have such weapons they won’t want to mess with you. This must be very puzzling to the North Korean leader.

Now POTUS Trump has just rejoiced in the explosion of the World’s second largest non-nuclear weapon in Afghanistan. This weapon reportedly killed 36 terrorists and presumably an unknown number of prisoners. They died in an underground tunnel complex (funded by the CIA in the 1980s) and the bomb was dropped all for the expenditure of an unbelievably large sum of US tax-payers money ($16 million/MOAB). Just as well this is being paid for by a reduction in tax on the rich.

The terrorists world-wide are being reminded that such weapons are very effective in terms of damage and I read in Wikipedia the smaller versions are cheap to make. If anyone cares to access the relevant articles on Wikipedia they can get enough information to get them to follow the lead of the US. And this is somehow meant to make the world a safer place??? Well goodness gracious me!

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POTUS IN CHARGE

Somewhat to my surprise I find myself agreeing with something that Donald Trump says about Syria!

According to POTUS (not to mention Fox) there is evidently a bad unpopular leader in the Syrian affair who represents a minority, is responsible for killing civilians without compunction, and is not above supporting the use of weapons which don’t meet acceptable moral standards. Trump thinks this leader has to go! And so say all of us!

I do have the slight reservation that Mr Trump has got the name of the bad person muddled.

If the leader in question does not enjoy popular support it can’t be President Bashar al-Assad because in the last election in 2013 for his current seven year term as president he got something like 80% of the vote with his nearest rival scoring less than 4%.    You certainly wouldn’t want to keep a President whose popularity drops below 50% !   (I guess POTUS is intending to suggest the less than 4% man in Syria as his preferred leader for that nation!) Don’t forget the UN observers and representatives from 30 countries thought that the Syrian Presidential 2013 election was fair and square. Nor have recent events done much to shift public feeling in that last year (2016) they had the party votes and al Assad’s party and coalition partners again scored over 80%. Like the turnout of POTUS inauguration supporters at the Washington Memorial, that’s YUGE!

Mr Trump was almost certainly echoing the horror of a global audience when he talked of his reaction to the sight of children suffering from gas attack.   However we have enough TV evidence ourselves to wonder if this was a newly manufactured display of emotion.    Certainly on this occasion we witnessed Donald Trump who came out with: “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at (sic)  this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror!”     But had he already forgotten he said in the election campaign that he advocated the killing of terrorists’ families.  Surely families include children and wasn’t this a rebel village being targeted.  So does he really care about the children?   What of his reaction to the eight year old Yemini -American girl Nawar al-Awlaki killed in the US assault on a suspected Al Qaeda compound in Yemen.    That time there was zilch regret or concern for the small girl.   It was more concern that at the Generals for not making the raid to be more successful and rather than expressing concern for the child victim we heard POTUS  proclaim that the Navy seal’s death was now a legacy “etched into humanity”.

Now back to the killing of civilians in Syria…..
Quick fact check…. Who killed the most civilians in Syria last month?

As expected, ISIS (aka ISIL or the Levant) were pretty bad. The Syrian network for Human Rights (SNHR) claimed ISIS had been responsible for the deaths of 119 civilians in Syria in March. Among these were 19 children and 7 women.

The Russian and Assad’s Regime were probably even worse.  In the same month Russian and Assad forces were believed to have killed 224 civilians. The Russian/plus regime score of 224 civilians included 51 children and 42 women. That alone should qualify for the US disapproval in the strongest terms.

But there was one other group who were even more destructive. Unfortunately for Trump, the SNHR also claimed the international coalition forces, led by the US, (presumably accidentally) killed 260 civilians,  including 70 children and 34 women.

Well I agree with POTUS. Whoever the Commander in Chief responsible for the series of US Coalition attack on innocent civilians in March 2017 may be, he should indeed be encouraged to fall on his sword as soon as possible. And who is that??

There is the small matter of illegal use of US designed Sarin and illegal barrel bombs many of which distribute chlorine as a way of sowing panic. There is a slight problem here in that given the way the first responders were helping the child victims of the Sarin in the film reportage, the symptoms weren’t right for Sarin and the first responders were clearly doing it wrong in that they were touching the children without gloves and must surely have themselves become victims which was far from apparent in the film.

But the real moral issue is the question of why Saudi Arabia bombers have been dropping illegal barrel bombs in Yemen yet are acceptable allies of the US in the US led coalition in Syria. Surely there are not double standards at work! It almost reminds me of the Sarin sold by US agents to Saddam Hussein and used against the Kurds some years back, not to mention the glass contains held up in the UN Assembly by Colin Powell (containing a form of toothpaste) as proof positive of weapons of mass destruction.    And now I come to think of it, the last time the US used rendition of suspected enemies ex CIA operative told the New Statesman.  “If you want a serious interrogation you send them to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured you send them to Syria.  If you want someone to disappear -never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”   If the new POTUS and Commander-in-Chief had not already made it plain he wanted to re-institute water-boarding we might find his new conscience a little more plausible.

The last point we might consider is that a consequence of removing Assad from office would destabilize the remaining Assad controlled areas of Syria.

Even without this removal Syria will clearly need outside support. The UN reports currently state it would take $3.2bn to help the 13.5 million people, (6 million children), who will require some form of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.

The UN say about 70% of the population in Syria is without access to adequate drinking water, one in three people are unable to meet their basic food needs, and more than 2 million children are out of school, and four out of five people now live in poverty.

It occurs to me that although many buildings including many of the schools have been destroyed if the Assad Loyalists then become the enemy “We ain’t seen nutting yet.”

Thus far President Trump is ignoring this UN report and sees the rebuild as a side issue which doesn’t fit his America first policy. As he (and Fox) see it
• more air-strikes may be needed
• The US gives too much money to the UN anyway
• After talking with the few experts he does trust eg his daughter (who evidently told him to go ahead with the last strike in Syria), his son in law who is now an expert because he has now visited Iraq, and his Alt Right strategy chief Steve Bannon, it is all very simple. Bashar al-ASSAD must go!

What do the readers think?

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Lectionary Sermon for Good Friday Year A (14 April 2017) on selected passages from John Chs18 -19

Thoughts on Shifting the Wall
There was unintentional irony in the place chosen for Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus had spent much of his mission identifying and breaking down the walls between people, and there he was, being crucified at Golgotha just outside the physical walls of the city where he had been rejected.

Jesus appeared to have cared very much about removing non –physical walls. There were the metaphorical walls between the Samaritans and Jews, between Pharisees and the people, and the metaphorical walls keeping the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, the prostitutes, the lowly shepherds and fishermen in their place.

So Jesus told his parables, touched the lepers, ate with the prostitute, offered healing to the centurion’s son and when it was time to assemble his inner group of disciples, incorporated the fishermen, the tax collector and the zealot in his band of followers. In a very real sense this helped shift the walls. Yet there were also those who insisted on keeping him at a distance outside the walls they erected around themselves and their institutions.

For the zealots hoping for a Messiah was for-told to lead them to military victory over those who threatened their politics and faith. Jesus, with his gospel of forgiveness, did not meet their expectations. We cannot know for certain but some scholars suggest Judas his betrayer remained a zealot.

The High Priest and the ruling Sanhedrin did not accept Jesus’ right to give fresh interpretations of the law, or accept his healing and teaching ministry as valid. Certainly their walls may have been self-imagined walls of self protection, but in good part, it was the threat to those walls that gave the Jewish leaders the excuse to sell him out to the Romans.

The gospel writers paint word pictures of the traditionalists among the Jews becoming concerned at Jesus’ threat to their extensive habits of custom and tradition. The story of Jesus clearing the Temple of those who were trying to make large profits from their religion, the account of Jesus telling parables about the potential goodness of the hated Samaritans, the challenge to ancient customs of avoiding contact with lepers and the challenge to those who used religion to personal advantage all combined to make Jesus’ teaching a perceived embarrassment.

Given the strength of feeling against Jesus – particularly from those who represented the establishment, are we surprised that even Peter the leader of the disciples would be described as having his courage desert him at the vital moment?

Perhaps it was inevitable that they should crucify him outside the physical wall of the city.

Sometimes we need to take the familiar and look at it in a new way.

When we hear of the death of someone significant to the nation or community, it is one thing to acknowledge that the death matters, it is quite another to acknowledge that our personal attitudes might have something to do with the cause of death.

I guess at least some present today have heard the anecdote I am about to share, which as far as I know first had its origin in the events surrounding the Allied landings in France during the Second World War. Even if you do know the story, this time I would like you to revisit it, this time seeing it as a parable. I am uncertain where I first encountered the story but I acknowledge this account is remembered rather than copied.

It seems that the fighting in one forest area in France was bitter and among those who died of his wounds was an American soldier whose fellow squad members were determined that they would not simply abandon his body where it fell. With considerable difficulty they started to carry the body until they came across the walls of a Church cemetery. This, they felt, was the most appropriate place to bury their friend. They went inside, and there they met a priest. He knew enough English to understand what they were asking. He was sympathetic but there was one important issue that needed to be settled first.

This graveyard is consecrated for Church members”, said the priest. “Was this man a Catholic?”

Not specifically”, said one of his friends. “But as far as we know he was a Christian and we need to have him buried in an appropriate place. To know that we found a Church cemetery as a place to bury him would be at least a little comfort to his family

“Well”, said the priest, ” I am really sorry. But I have rules that I have to follow. He is not a Catholic. He cannot be buried in a cemetery for Catholics”.

The men protested. The priest remained adamant.
OK,” said one soldier. “Well at the very least may we bury him just next to the stone wall, just outside?”
The priest was understandably embarrassed, but he too thought that this might be the best compromise, so gave his permission.

After burying their friend as best they could, the soldiers left. After some discussion over night they decided they would return the next day with some flowers for the grave. They found the walls of the graveyard with no difficulty, yet there was a puzzle. When they went to the part of the wall where they had dug the grave – there was absolutely no sign of disturbed earth. Thinking that perhaps they had mistaken the place they walked further – then went back in the other direction – but all they found was undisturbed earth.

They sought out the priest.

“I can explain,” said the priest. “I was concerned that despite the rules stopping you burying your friend inside the cemetery, it didn’t seem to me to be Christian to ask you to bury him outside the walls. I started to worry about this. I couldn’t sleep, so in the end I went to the part of the wall where he was buried – and shifted the wall so that he is now inside, where he should have been in the first place.”

Now I suggested that we take this story as a parable directed at us – because I guess, like the Jewish leaders dealing with Jesus 2000 years ago, our lives are governed by the notional walls we set up to show who we accept and who we exclude. If our faith is to make a difference to our inclinations, maybe we too may have to see if there is a possibility that the walls can be shifted.

Understanding what happened on the first Good Friday has a great deal to do with the walls that the folk in Jesus day choose to make important. Finding the relevance of Good Friday at least in part, is to recognize that even we too have our often unspoken rules about who is to remain outside our protective customs. When we identify with those who are kept out by our customs it maybe like the priest in today’s more modern story, we may have to face admitting something may need to be done, for as long as the walls remain we cannot pretend God is in his heaven and all is automatically right with the world.

Like the priest administering the rules and customs of the Church we too might feel constrained by what our customs have become, but the real Good Friday test is to see if like Jesus staying with his mission, and like that priest in today’s story, we are prepared to do something about it.

Good Friday is a good day to remember that in war, as in peace, there are always those who can be persuaded to do the non-loving act. Of course there is the temptation to rush past Good Friday and on to the resurrection. But if the resurrection is to have meaning, then those who claim they recognize its meaning can hardly carry on to pretend that there are no human contributions to the continuing and very real suffering of Church and non Church people alike. Our institutions may serve the majority well, but can we find amongst us, those who are marginalized by their background?

Our communities – including our own nation all have their own way of keeping those beyond physical borders at arm’s length. When we consider the plight of the flood of war refugees in the Middle East and in Africa, and those simply searching for food, we can hardly claim that institutional violence died on the Cross with Jesus.

Nor can we simplify and pretend that whole classes of people other than us are singly and exclusively responsible for the evil that happened back then to Jesus and continues to happen today.

Despite John’s passing implication that the Jews as a total class were responsible for Jesus death, in reality it was some in the crowd, it was some of the leadership, and the failure of nerve of some of his followers which found Jesus on one side of the wall and, those that might have helped, found on the other. I guess we have to look to our own personal responses to evil to reflect how we should be perceived.

Certainly sacrifice was part of Jesus’ story. As any responsible parent or community leader must know, sacrifices can make a positive difference. But the transformation which can occur in lives is not some magic wrought by some religious act 2000 years ago. Telling the child prostitutes that we pray for them and that Jesus loves them, without doing anything to free them, is hardly following the way of Jesus. Telling the refugee carrying meagre possessions on their back as they face another day without sufficient food or water that Jesus has saved them by dying on the cross, simply won’t do it.

At one level, Jesus’ sacrifice was refusing to give up caring despite the metaphorical walls erected to his face, and this despite the weight of rules and custom. For almost all here present, I assume we are most unlikely to have to face anything like the physical threat of the cross, but its lesson is plain enough. Our challenge is to ask if we too care enough to take Jesus’ example and use it to reshape our lives and shift our walls to encompass more of those we do not currently treat as God’s people.

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Religion, Sermons, The wall | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Easter Sunday Sermon for 2017 (Year A)

It seems to me we it would be good to find our own personal answers to two questions about Easter. The first one is that perennial question – do we believe that Jesus was resurrected so that in some sense he has continued to live? We already know that from various well publicised polls in just about every nation considered to be Christian many will answer that one in the affirmative.

Of course in practice, Easter Sunday, globally by far the most important festival in the Christian year, has also become the most variable, with a profusion of religious customs and impressive occasions, most of which represent sincere attempts to demonstrate and celebrate the significance of Jesus’ empty tomb.

About the only thing in common across most denominations, is that for each an Easter Sunday service shape gradually emerges such that the regular church goers find predictable familiarity – both in the words of the oft told stories, and in the expected responses to the message.

I would imagine for example that when Pope Francis concluded one of his Easter messages with the words: “may the risen Christ guide all of you and the whole of humanity on the paths of justice, love and peace” that Protestants and Catholics alike would have almost expected those sentiments and would have been more than happy to say Amen.

But whether such sentiments came from a Pope, or a Protestant Archbishop, that should never be the last word on the subject. Our real challenge comes when we ask ourselves the next question: “Now, how is that going to happen?”

With some trepidation I would like to suggest that, no matter how entrenched our Easter Day celebrations have become, and no matter how well prepared and competently led our services might be, this in no way excuses us from working out our personal response to the Easter message.

Please note this is not insisting we reconsider the evidence either for or against a literal resurrection. Certainly that is an issue on which, sooner or later, we will probably reach our own conclusions and there are plenty of accessible books and articles summarising the main arguments for and against. Yet regardless of how literally we are expected to take the story of the resurrection, the real issue is whether or not we intend to do anything with the story at a personal and practical level.

I will try to explain by reworking a point made by the current Archbishop of Canterbury in an Easter sermon when he referred to a recent survey in the then recent news in which it was reported “that only 40% of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England”. Despite his obvious gifts, Justin Welby spotted the futility of the tested proposition and we should particularly note his comment in response. I quote:

I do hope that means the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question.”

I suspect if the survey question had been reframed to read: “Do you believe that Jesus of the first Easter could resolve the current problems that beset his church and his world today?” regardless of how strongly we believe (or disbelieve) in resurrection we should probably admit if the Archbishop of Canterbury were consistent, he would have a perfect right to label this question also as “barking mad”.

Despite the best efforts of dictators and power hungry leaders of all persuasions, history teaches that humans are not automatons, to remain totally controlled as puppets. Among most who have attempted to follow the teachings of Christ through the centuries there has been a real mix of saints and sinners, and I suspect that most of us remain a complex mixture of the two. Indeed if we were automatons there would have been no point in Jesus inviting us to consider moral principles, since as puppets we could have been better controlled by a resurrected Jesus playing us as if we were some kind of global or even cosmic computer game.

It is not up to Jesus to direct our responses to the very human problems that beset the Church any more than the Pope Francis can produce world peace with a word or Archbishop Justin Welby can solve the current dilemmas of the Anglican Church without corresponding buy-in from their respective followers. What however I suggest we should do as a minimum, is decide how our current actions reflect the essence of what we believe Jesus was really about.

As I remember basic high school science, I recall that one of the seven basic signs of life is movement. When we talk about Jesus being alive for us, this should be very different from signing up to a Church where there is no discernible movement of ideas and where the customs and beliefs are rigid and ossified in a pattern designed for a previous generation and different circumstances.

Even at the time of the first Easter, there were few certainties to fall back on. Given that Jesus’ early disciples would have been hurt and even confused by his crucifixion, and given that there was no formal or timely evidence gathering following the crucifixion we can hardly be surprised that by the time the varying versions of the story were recorded, uncertainty remained.

With only four of something approaching 30 Gospels surviving the final selection of books in the New Testament, we only see some of the options that those first disciples were offered. A further complication is that of some very obvious editing of the Easter story. For example the last nine verses of Mark were added years after the original was written and the oldest copies of that gospel show the earlier ending.

The best of modern commentators are probably no more of a single mind than the first disciples on the scene. There is a vast difference between those like Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright who might be seen as representing mainstream evangelical teaching which gives credence to the physical resurrection of Jesus and that of Professor Emeritus Lloyd Geering who makes a persuasive case for Jesus only being resurrected in a metaphorical sense.

Although I would class myself amongst the progressive camp in my personal interpretation, and while I cannot be certain what the resurrection means in terms of physical life, the characteristics of the early Church showed a Spirit very much alive as those first Christians sorted out their beliefs and tried to adapt to a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.

Like the earlier Jewish prophets who railed against a faith designed for a previous generation, the early Church leaders had to fashion their set of beliefs to fit with their experience and recent memories. There was movement alright and some of it most uncomfortable.

Look at the history of those very first Christians as they tried to come to terms with a society that neither welcomed nor even recognised their insights. There was constant movement as the creeds were fashioned and refashioned, and as difficult philosophic concepts like the Trinity were explained and re-explained.

Some of the refashioning probably came about as the Gospel writers looked back and came up with their individual views of Jesus. In the book The God We Never Knew, Marcus J. Borg writes:

How do we reconcile the two different images of Jesus, the historical figure that did once live and walk and preach and died a horrible death and the Christ the God incarnate and saviour?

He suggests that we divide our view of Jesus into two. The first is the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus of blood and flesh, a wisdom teacher who walked Galilee and who was crucified by the Romans for being a potential rebel leader who was a threat to the local community’s traditional faith, and to Roman notions of law and order. The other the post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience.

Many of us grew up hearing of Jesus mainly as the post-Easter figure: walking on water, feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes, Jesus as God incarnate, the Son of God, raising Lazarus from the dead, and himself raised again as a resurrected spirit body.

Is it heresy to suggest our task is to follow and respond to the wisdom he taught rather than stand transfixed in awe at what he has become in the retelling?

Not everyone welcomes such scholarship and continual questioning as a sign of life. Just as some of the Jewish leaders voiced strong objection when Jesus assumed a prophetic voice to show how the old faith had become too rigid to deal with the changes being experienced by occupied Palestine, others would later protest each change and each sign of questioning or reform in the early Christian Church. Later persecution of those who questioned rigid assertions, the burning or torture of Church reformers, the martyrdom of the first Bible translators and a strong reluctance to have Jesus’ principles of forgiveness and love of neighbour accepted as a blueprint for action showed not all wanted to recognise openness to change as a sign of life.

The previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once claimed that we make a genuine mistake if we assume that change can only be associated with the early church in the sense of those first Christians. Each generation faces its own new situations and challenges and in at least one sense, Jesus is not alive unless we allow him to be alive for us in our adaption to change. In the sense that we all come to the faith for the first time, and that we all have to struggle to find meaning for that faith in a changing society, Rowan Williams suggested we should all see ourselves as early Christians.

I suggested earlier that prominent scholars outline very different possibilities for what happened to Jesus after his body was removed from the cross. Just as the first disciples had different experiences and different witnesses to interview, if we are true to the notion of awakening to a living faith, I want to go further and suggest it doesn’t matter if we come to different conclusions, providing we never get to the point where we assume we now know all there is to know about what might yet turn out to be unknowable. More to the point, rather than argue the toss about whose image of Jesus is best, why not start with our current image and start to live accordingly.

In the last analysis, the unquestioning acceptance of a series of belief statements risks being not so much faith as a cop-out living on the assumption that others should do our thinking for us. Faith, if it is honest, must be tested against our realities. Remember that the early church is simply a way of describing those who were prepared to explore and develop their faith for their highly individual changing situations. Will we in our response to the first Easter be recognised as having the best characteristics of the early Christians?

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