Lectionary Sermon for 25 September 2016 on Luke 16: 19 – 31

The Collective Blind-Spot                                                                                                  Early on in the book of Genesis, the writer has God confronting Cain to ask him what has happened to his brother. Cain replies indignantly “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A good part of the Bible and in particular much of the recorded teaching of Jesus could be interpreted as addressing itself to God’s implied answer which is of course a resounding “Yes!” Yet I want to suggest it is also a message which does not seem to be heeded by much of Christendom.

Consider the following three propositions. First the encyclopaedias and Wikipedia give statistics that make it clear that there are more calling themselves Christians than there are followers of any other major religion. Second in virtually every country (including this country New Zealand) where there is a majority calling themselves Christian, there is a substantial gap between the rich and the poor. And third – and I agree there are clear exceptions – yet I want to suggest there are relatively few Christians who make much of a fuss about the plight of the poor.

Today’s lesson about a man who had no intention of being his brother’s keeper could not be much more direct. On one hand we have the one without a keeper, the poor man at the gate of a rich man. The symbolism is clear enough. We have Dives who is only named as such in some translations in the title of the passage and whose name is not even considered worth noting in the body of this version of the text in the Gospel of Luke. (Some of you may well know that Dives is Latin for “rich man”).

Here this particular rich man is presented as someone unable to find any empathy or responsibility for a poor man, even one as close as his gate. For Luke, the rich man is not worth a name in his own right, nor does he need one because his position and fortune proscribe what we might now call his platinum card status. Since his own every need is met by the first century equivalent of getting out the plastic credit card it probably doesn’t even occur to him that anyone might have basic needs beyond their own abilities to meet. Nor does it seem to occur to him that even in his own case there will come a time when the flourish of the credit card or scrawled signature will have no meaning and can offer no help.

The poor man, named appropriately “Lazarus” (ie Greek for “God is my help”) is in a serious state. Ignored by the only person who might have made a difference, starving, covered in sores, lacking even the energy needed to stop the dogs licking his sores, Lazarus, the unsuccessful beggar eventually dies, and is carried by angels to be with Abraham in heaven. And then the twist to the story, the rich man, finding himself to be mortal despite the security of his riches, also dies.

The story does not say so, but we might even imagine the wealthy man was surprised that instead of having his riches respected, he finds himself being tormented in Hades. Across the abyss he sees Lazarus with Abraham and Dives, then calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus across with some water to cool his tongue from the torture of the searing heat of Hades.

Abraham points out that the time for making contact is now well past and the gulf between them is too vast. Dives then asks if Lazarus might instead be sent to his five brothers that at the very least they might be warned in time to change their way of life before it is too late. Abraham replies by reminding Dives that since the brothers have already had the teachings of Moses and the prophets to consider, it would therefore be a waste of time – and further that he claimed that even if someone should rise from the dead (which presumably was meant to refer to Jesus), even that would not be enough to those who were not prepared to notice.

A superficial impression might be that the rich man is in Hades because he is rich, yet don’t forget the Old Testament also refers to the wealth of Abraham who is here described as being in heaven with Lazarus. A more plausible interpretation is that the rich man is in Hades because he never noticed Lazarus or saw that his wealth gave him the opportunity to reach out to Lazarus.

But for all its drama, the central message of this story is not dependent on the form final judgment will take.

The gospel message is often given a complex over-layering of abstruse theology but at its simplest and most comprehensible the gospel is simply the message that we are all interconnected and need to look out for one another as a consequence. The rich man failure was that he fails to see his part in this interconnection and by his actions separates himself from what Jesus appears to teach as being the Kingdom of God.

Reality teaches that there are clear limits of practicality to what each person, or even each church, can achieve in solving the very real problems of fair distribution of resources. Even with the best will in the world even the very rich could not necessarily make a substantive difference for the very many poor of this world and indeed it is not realistic to think they might do otherwise. In any event, from birth to the grave, the typical person will have thousands of influences working to make a difference one way or the other.

I remember a teaching colleague at Secondary Teachers College, Rae Munro, tipping out a teaspoon of sago onto the screen of an overhead projector. Each grain of sago amongst the thousands present he said represented the amount of influence a single teacher might have on the life of a single pupil. “Now watch the difference to the total picture when I remove that influence”, he said. He removed one dot altogether. The picture of random dots remained almost unchanged.

Now reflect on your own life. If you are typical I guess most of the many adults in your formative years had little effect, yet every now and again I guess there was someone who managed to make a difference. And this difference was why? For me, the very few teachers who made a difference were those who appeared to care for me as an individual. And isn’t this what gospel is supposed to be about?

This is essentially the same advice that might have been given to the rich man with the poor man at his gate. Helping the poor man does not necessarily equate to giving a hand out. Indeed the perfunctory coin tossed in passing may not make a positive difference in that even the poor have weaknesses which can be encouraged. I wonder how many in a typical congregation, have had the experience of giving the apparently deserving beggar a coin only to see the beggar head off to the nearest pub or bottle shop

Perhaps what is better is to see the beggar as a real person and engage with him or her at a genuine level. Buying them a sandwich or chatting with them to discover where the real problems lie may be closer to the ethical commitment required.

Perhaps the real problem in interpreting the parable for today is that the beggar at the gate is not necessarily going to be easy to notice in the first place. The bewildered new immigrant or friendless new-comer to our community will not necessarily be obvious and if they have the additional difficulty of having visible characteristics of a group not widely accepted by society their need for friendship might be acute indeed.

Muslims, Sikhs, Asians, and Somalis are frequently scorned in our community and it is a sign of the times that the small number of genuine refugees accepted into this country are now being encouraged to head to communities where there are reasonable numbers of the same ethnic or religious grouping. Before this policy was adopted I am told by the refugee placement folk that the new refugees had greater than expected suicide and depression rates. In some ways this may also suggest something about the number prepared to ignore those at their gate.

While there is a growing reaction to the way in which refugees driven from their home nations are arriving in large numbers at the borders of richer and more stable nations perhaps some of you noticed a few days ago that a new survey on the resettlement of refugees placed our nation New Zealand number 93 per capita on the list of nations accepting refugees. In plain English we prefer not to notice their plight and hope that they will go elsewhere. New Zealand is not one of the more hospitable destinations.

The poor who are closer are those already in our midst. Those who lack confidence and financial independence may not be beggars in the conventional sense of the word but there is no shortage of those who are apparently able to turn a blind eye to their plight. We think for instance of the wealthy landlords price gouging rents knowing full well that their over-priced properties are properties of last resort for those who lack evidence of security. We think of those who illegally employ those who are awaiting work permits – and pay them far less than the legal minimum. We think of town and city councils closing night shelters without offering better alternatives.

Each of us will have to make our own decisions about who we can support and who we must fail to support. However as those who wish to align ourselves with the gospel, even if we don’t all finish up helping the same people we are still under an obligation to open our eyes to those sitting outside our individual gates.

Like Cain we may be wanting to reject any possibility that we might be expected to be our brother or sister’s keeper. Yet we can’t have it both ways. We cannot on one hand assume total independence and total lack of responsibility for others and yet on the other hand as individuals or as a church wish to follow a God who is depicted in our sacred literature as asking where our brother and sister might be – and a Saviour who tells the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

Who has been sitting outside yours – and my gate lately?

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lectionary sermon 18 September 2016 on Luke 16:1-13 (Year C)

A Parable for Nations With a Murky Past (Like ours??)
Whereas a saint might have the greatest difficulty with today’s parable, real life sinners might even admit a hint of secret relief that here at least there is some hope for the ones embarrassed by memories of awkward and real embarrassment in their personal life. The puzzle for all those who are aware of unresolved difficulties is in finding a way through. In those terms, the parable is pragmatic in what it suggests.

Because this parable has a likely general meaning for large groups with murky pasts as well as the more usual interpretation aimed at the individual maybe in this parable there are messages for our nation as well as those working out an individual personal faith journey.

Luke’s original audience of first century Jews would have been likely to understand the characters as addressing their situation as a nation. For them the master in the story was meant to be God entrusting his servant Israel to take on the extra responsibilities as a chosen people. By the time Luke was setting the story down it was becoming all too clear that the Jews, now facing disaster, had mishandled their stewardship and had become arrogant and high handed with their neighbours.

In this sense perhaps Jesus was using an imaginative way to remind the Jews that the realities of their situation meant there would be a day of reckoning which, at the time of writing, had already started.. Since there was no way to undo the past damage, the most hopeful thing they could now do as a people was to pull back from the rigid rules they had set and start behaving in a much more reasonable and responsible way towards the very people they had previously openly disparaged. This may not entirely recover the situation in time to avoid the on-coming calamity but had a reasonable chance of winning them some much needed friends.

This suggests one way we too might start looking at the parable. Among the self- claimed Christian nations there are a number whose past history suggests that like the Israelites they too have had times when they have taken upon themselves the role of a chosen people and in the process gone seriously astray. The common fault is in confusing the difference between assuming responsibility for those being colonised and the alternative of simply using strength to take advantage of weaker neighbours.

The history of most colonial powers is one of exploiting subject people for personal advantage. For example, the British and French in Africa, the Spanish in South America and both the Western and Communist powers in the Middle East should have much to confess by way of past domineering exploitation. While it is true that the colonists have enjoyed many advantages as a consequence, it is also true that many of the people, native to the territory being exploited, finish up losing their birth-right. Think here of the number of indigenous peoples whose social statistics now place them at the bottom of their communities. The aborigines in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, the North American Indians in the United States, the Palestinians in Israel – the list goes on.

The cycle of history is such that sooner or later a subjugated people builds its sense of resentment to the point where it rises up against its self-appointed masters. The Jews – themselves turned from colonizers to a people being subjugated in turn by the Romans- had a particular problem in that by the time they rose up against the Romans they lacked the military strength to win the day. What was worse their previous attitudes of superiority over those with whom they had shared their general territory over the years (eg the Samaritans) meant that if anything their plight was even welcomed by their neighbours who had no reason to be grateful to the Jews.

Even strongest nations sooner or later find themselves besieged. Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History described 17 major civilisations which came and in turn were destroyed – and these were only the major ones. What is more common is territory shared by different cultural and ethnic groups and where some groups assume superiority over others. In this country (New Zealand) by way of example, the British were happy to take land and resources from the indigenous Maori.

Recent immigration patterns have brought a much more diverse group of immigrants to New Zealand and each group is not necessarily anxious to preserve past patterns of privilege for those of British stock. Since we can’t pretend past injustices have not been perpetrated, nor that a simple apology will suffice, we have to face the real possibility that our final harvest will be reaping a whirlwind.

Like the Israelites we can expect no better treatment from others from that which has already been done in our name. This may not be judgement in the literal biblical sense but nevertheless it is a reality which has played itself out many times in different regions over the last few decades. Perhaps then the parable still speaks to us through the centuries. This is a time, not for conjuring up a claimed history of mythical perfection, because our predecessors’ past actions tell their own story, but at the very least, as the parable implies, we have little alternative to doing what we can to use the few resources left to us to make friends.

It is true that allowing the parable to speak to our group conscience is likely to leave us feeling very uncomfortable. But it is not only a group responsibility which is addressed. Remember the other standard approach to the parable is to look at the story from our individual viewpoints. Here too there may be discomfit.

The original Greek for household manager is “oikonomos” – from which we get our word “economy.” Literally, oikonomia – economics – is managing God’s household. To forget that the household is not ours to do with as we like is another way of saying our personal management risks selfish distortion.

One concern we should have today is that what was initially identified as dishonesty by Jesus is now common practice in our world of commerce. Perhaps it is also worth noting that there is also touch of that arch swindler Bernie Madoff in the manner in which the manager tries to cover up the degree of the mess he has got himself into by sharp practice.

Although Jesus states the manager is dishonest, perhaps we might remember that the main cause of dishonesty is that he has been charging interest on loans, which under Jewish law, was forbidden. In that sense there is probably not a bank or finance company in our nation that is not guilty of the same offence. Individuals working for such institutions under our law are only guilty of a crime if they go beyond the set agreed rates of interest – and unfortunately, year after year, the court records show that many in our community have been guilty of taking more than their entitlement.

The notion of partial forgiveness of debt has an interesting connection with Christianity when we remember the place in the Lord’s prayer where the words –” forgive us our debts as we forgive others” is often loosely translated as “forgive us our trespasses” or just as vaguely “our sins“, yet the original Greek seems to have retained the original sense of forgiving debts as financial obligations.

On a personal note, I find this is helpful in giving a hard and realistic edge to what might otherwise be an empty expression. It is easy to use expressions like “I forgive you” when no consequent actions are required, but since financial obligations can only be forgiven by releasing the debtor from their debt, the forgiveness has real meaning.

A single parable should not be expected to make too many points but it is hard to dissociate the judgement of the business owner from the notion of a final judgement. Here we don’t need to stray too far into the highly contentious issue of what judgement might or might not involve. At a much more basic level the meaning might simply be that, since after death, or even in old age, we lose the ability to use our money and tactical advantages wisely, we might as well make use of what time we have left to restore what can be restored in whatever compromised situation we find ourselves to be.

And modern life is inevitably compromised. There is no guarantee that even those who tithe for Church offering have made their money by entirely honest means and entirely ethical investments. Retirement savings are often invested with large organisations who may well be looking after shareholders and management ahead of the interests of the customers they serve. For those of us paid what we consider to be a fair wage for a fair day’s work there is also the shadow hanging over us that much of this income can be traced back to trading practices in a world where there is anything but a level playing field for third word nations.

The phrase attributed by Luke to Jesus “You cannot serve God and Mammon” may lose something in the complexity of modern society, yet the basic ethical dilemma remains. There would be few even in the Church who are sufficiently pure in their motives to have set aside personal desires to focus entirely on serving their God and their neighbours but where the balance has gone too far in the other direction Jesus’ words suggest we can be in danger of losing any genuine claim on discipleship.

Realistically it is unlikely that we are ever able to free ourselves entirely from the attraction of Mammon. Yet to the extent our money and possessions offer us advantage over our fellows there is potential for long term trouble. Again some idealistic solution is probably out of reach. Jesus in his parable seems to be suggesting that when we find ourselves compromised we should at least use all our ingenuity to find ways of making it easier for those who we have made our debtors.

This is why at the most basic level we should be seriously concerned at those who now find themselves most seriously in debt to society. Those who have had to borrow to survive, those who struggle to subsist, let alone progress, those who exist on a pittance that we might have cheap clothing and imported produce in our shops are all dependent on our present and future choices.

There are real sins in the shadows of our world. I guess many will know the Greek story of how Zeus gave his wedding present of a box to Pandora with instructions that it never be opened. Pandora’s husband, unable to resist a peek, opened the box and all the evils of the world escaped and have bedevilled every society ever since. Yet even there all was not entirely lost. The last to emerge from the box was not an evil – it was the spirit of hope. It might be foolish indeed to pretend that the evils are not present, either as characteristics of our society or as personal characteristics. When however we see the hope along with the evil, perhaps this is when we should begin to act.

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The United Church of Canada versus Gretta Vosper?

Gretta Vosper (57) who has been minister at West Hill United Church in Scarborough for close to twenty years has been a constant thorn in the side of Christian traditionalists in the United Church of Canada with her intentional moves to challenge belief in a supernatural interventionist God. Instead of following traditional sets of belief cf an unquestioning acceptance of the Creeds or treating the Bible as God inspired and true for all time, she is best known for books and articles which emphasize love, kindness and human connection. In her liberal approach to Christianity she is hardly unique and indeed many of her statements are typical of those like Lloyd Geering, John Robinson (Honest to God), John Spong or any of the growing band of theologians who self-classify as Progressive Christians (eg those supportive of the Canberra Affirmation).

Those who study the history of modern scholars critical of the traditional Christian Church will not be surprised to learn that Gretta Vosper has deeply antagonized those who are protective of traditional beliefs. Although the United Church of Canada formed in 1925 with the union of Methodists, Congregationalists and Methodists has long prided itself on what it calls its inclusiveness and tolerance of a range of denominational beliefs, three years ago Vosper crossed a bridge too far when she started to describe herself as an atheist.

From the most recent statements from the Church the investigative committee set up to consider her continued position as a critic we understand the present recommendation to be she will now be “defrocked” by the United Church of Canada.

“In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit,” the church’s Toronto Conference Review Committee concluded in a 39-page report released Wednesday.
“After prayer and much discussion,” the 23-person committee voted 19 to 4 in favour of a motion that found Vosper “unsuitable to continue serving.”

Vosper reacted by putting out a email statement press release which included “My sadness is for the many clergy and members and individuals currently studying for leadership in the UCC who are now also being told they need to keep quiet about their true beliefs or risk censure,”

It may not count for much but for what it is worth, my own opinion is that in this she may well be right in that those studying other Churches frequently report that clergy often entertain more liberal beliefs than those they are prepared to share with their congregation. (cf for example John Knight’s study on the Sociology of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Australia).

That traditional Churches have significant numbers of Clergy no longer accepting traditional credal beliefs is surely common knowledge for those who dare to look. For example in 2002 a poll in the UK of 2000 clergy reported that one third did not believe in the resurrection and only about a half believed that faith in Christ was the only route to salvation. Of the clergy who classified themselves as liberal (about one eighth of the total) the disbelief in traditional Christian positions was more marked, with three quarters of that sector unable to accept the Virgin birth and two thirds having doubts in a physical resurrection. Again I have not followed the literature closely but do remember that in 2014 a YouGov poll (Independent 28th October 2014) reported 16% of another large sample of priests described themselves as Agnostic and that, although only 2%claimed not to believe in God further questions showed that many of the Priests described the God in which they believed to be a human construct.

Although I have not formally studied the equivalent situation in New Zealand, I have had a number of conversations with Methodist clergy at various Methodist Church conferences from which I understood that there is a mismatch between what some ministers preach and their own personal uncertainties.

Vosper also noted “The majority report said nothing about ethos and spoke exclusively to theological belief. A very sad day for the UCC.” Again we might wonder why it is more important what ministers publicly say they believe rather than what they actually encourage by way of personal and congregational action which some commentators might think is more important.

(Bill’s Question to self: Why is it that the creeds talk about how Jesus is to be seen – eg Son of God…born of a Virgin …. on the third day he rose again……etc all of which many think the clergy are required to accept without question …. while at the same time Jesus’ teachings and the actions his teaching require eg the Sermon on the Mount and much of the Book of James are not considered of significance for the expected support of clergy????)

Vosper and her supporters will have a chance to respond to the report’s conclusions at a hearing scheduled for Sept. 15, before a separate, eight-member sub-executive committee of the church.

David Allen, executive secretary of Toronto Conference of the United Church of Canada, told one of the major papers, the Star. “We’re going to hear from Gretta and her congregation and it’s possible that they could say something that could cause us to go in a totally different or a slightly different direction.”

The committee next week can accept the report’s recommendations, reject them or modify them, said Allen. A decision could be made the same day as the hearing. It is understood that as a consequence she would in effect be fired by putting her on the discontinued service list.

The minority view of the four on the investigative committee who dissented to the interview committee’s motion finding Vosper unsuitable, wrote that many of her theological positions, “while not in the mainstream, are not unique amongst the ministers and lay persons of the United Church.” Although it is not spelled out in the report’s recommendation, to be consistent I would have thought that the Committee should make it clear that clergy sharing Vosper’s theology should also leave the UCC. Perhaps if the committee’s view is accepted by the wider Church, at the very least, in the interest of honesty, the UCC should admit that their inclusiveness and tolerance do not extend to liberal theology on the part of Church leadership.

The irony is that in the past, top elected church leaders, known as moderators, have enthusiastically come to Vosper’s defence, whether they agree with her or not. No one in top leadership apparently objected in 2008 when she published her first book, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe, or even a few years later when she published her, Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief.

Although her own West Hill congregation has stood behind her through the furore, others have gone on record calling her an abomination and a provocateur — and critics have demanded to know why an atheist is allowed to preach from a Christian pulpit.

Again it is only a personal reaction, but I would have thought that since there are many different views of what God is supposed to be like (see my Post “You think you have the one true God”) – even if the majority insist that only view they have is of an interventionist God, shouldn’t all Christians who have a different view of God eg those who think God represents love, or God as the Mysterious force behind the Universe, describe themselves as atheists in terms of that majority view? If so, can I be so bold as to suggest: assuming the current prevailing attitudes in the UCC include those who have similar doubts to those in the UK, there should be a lot more empty pulpits in the United Church of Canada.

Given this is a very current issue, the readers’ reactions would be of interest.

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Lectionary sermon on Pentecost 17: 11 September 2016 (Year C) Luke 15:1-10

FINDING VALUE IN THE LOST

It is almost part of the human condition to turn one’s back to the lost.   A vast majority in my city walk unseeing past the beggars and woe betide any politician who wants to use tax payer dollars to increase welfare assistance or speak up for the released prisoners trying to re-enter society.   We tell ourselves that beggars are the architects of their own misfortune, shut our eyes to whose weapons are creating international refugees and can even pretend that our faith requires us to keep our distance. After all the religious remind us :Psalm 1 declaims Blessed is the person who does not keep company with the ungodly.  Perhaps this is why Angela Merkel is currently finding a self claimed Christian party leading the political charge against her acceptance of Muslim refugees.

It is curious that we who would follow Jesus find it rather easier to keep what Jesus said confined to the religious setting of a Church service instead of looking to its application in the dealings of the day-to-day world where his teachings and parables insist the gritty reality of the kingdom is to be found.

Think not only of the number of times Jesus uses meal-times to make his points – but also the number of earthy and counter cultural parables he uses to unsettle the comfortable and bring hope to those whom society counts of little importance. Here for example, the over-riding and almost hidden metaphor in today’s story is that of the non-discriminatory table around which all must be made welcome.

Before rushing to the detail of today’s parables , we should remember their setting. Remember Luke tells us the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling and saying of Jesus, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Technically we note in passing, Jesus is often himself classified as a Pharisee as far as many commentators are concerned, particularly since the Pharisees were part of a fairly eclectic group who for the most part seemed to be trying to reform Judaism to make it more accessible to the common people. In the gospels however, when Pharisees are mentioned it is often as the group among them who today we might describe as fundamentalist nit pickers and who would no doubt have been offended that Jesus was far less concerned than they were with tradition and convention.

Notice Jesus does not deny their charge of him being accused of sharing food with sinners. Indeed he seems to welcome it and, rather than suggest why his opponents are wrong, he explains why it important to welcome and show hospitality to those who seem undeserving. Here he appears to say the sinners are worth worrying about because, no matter how insignificant they might appear, to Jesus they matter as individuals and are therefore worth caring about.

To comprehend the revulsion generated by Jesus sharing food with sinners, we need to be reminded of the Jewish purity laws. Part of this would have been fear that the lax choice of company might also mean the risk of ignoring laws for the presentation of food eg the tithing of food and the inclusion of incorrectly prepared food might which have made the meal unacceptable.

Even if Jesus himself was not technically a rabbi he was apparently accepted as a sage or a teacher and as such would be expected to have somewhat higher standards of observed conduct than would be the case for lowers orders of society.

The parable of the lost sheep loses something in the retelling for our 21st century modern society and in this country today at least, today the shepherd would be just as likely to be found on a four wheel farm bike with the farm dogs on hand to do the real work. In Jesus’ day the shepherd would have been much less respectable – and I relate to Glynn Cardy’s chosen equivalent illustration of the tow truck operator on his way to an accident when he stopped to lend a hand to on old man fallen over in the gutter. As for women, we should remember the standard daily prayer of the orthodox Jew which included thanking God that he was not born a woman. In that context the woman relegated to sweeping the house was hardly the acceptable way for finding another metaphorical description of God.

Women and shepherds were at the bottom of Palestinian society, so for Jesus’ accusers, to find him using these figures as metaphors for a caring God chasing after those considered the least of value, would be uncomfortable enough, but the real twist in the tail of today’s parables comes with the suspicion that if the one we seek to follow, cares about the least in our society, maybe, just maybe we are being asked to do the same.

When Jesus is talking of rejoicing in heaven, or the metaphors of the shepherd with the missing sheep – or the woman with the lost coin, our attention rightly goes to spirit of what he was saying rather than worrying over much about any literal interpretation. Nor do we need to concern ourselves with the possible implausibility of his examples for our day and age.

As it happens both of his chosen examples would have been well understood by the people of Jesus’ time. For the shepherd to lose a single sheep in a situation of low profit margins would represent unacceptable economic loss, and for the woman to lose a coin in an age where saving was extremely difficult and a woman’s savings might be absolutely critical when establishing her dowry – chasing after a single missing coin would also make perfect sense.

Jesus in this exchange with his detractors is also challenging a common understanding. Remember it was not his concern for sinners that was upsetting to his critics. The standard approach to sinners was that they should be made to see the error of their ways so that they might return to being acceptable in the eyes of the Priests. All Pharisees would have shared his hopes in the reform of those who were straying from the religious norms of the day. Where Jesus varied from his critics was that he saw the sinner of value before they reformed – where as to the traditionalists – they wanted evidence of reform as a prerequisite for becoming acceptable.

This brings Jesus teaching into our present. Jesus still disturbs if we listen to the challenge of his parables. Like Jesus are we treating those who fall from grace as already being of value, and in particular of value to the point where we are happy to seek out their company – or like the nit pickers and fundamentalists of his day, do we want the sinners to reform before we consider they are worth our time?

We can seem to have all the theoretical positions in the world, but the ultimate test is in which parts we incorporate into our thoughts and actions. I guess part of the answer to how much we truly value in these parables is in who we are currently prepared to entertain, and in whose company we ourselves are found.

This is where we encounter the real bite in the story of the lost sheep.
So Jesus poses the question, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Well if your community is anything like mine, I would suggest the answer may well be….. no-one!

The lost in this day and age are often left lost. This is why the gap between the rich and the poor steadily grows. This is why prisoner rehabilitation is left woefully short of resources. This is why there has been diminishing Government support for anti-household-violence schemes and the lack of interest in accepting more refugees. Child poverty in this country has increased over the last few years and the international rates of slavery and child prostitution are showing no signs of diminishing. It must be admitted that at best these are only probable indicators of a prevailing disinterest in those who have lost their way. At the same time it would also be true that if there were more in our community caring about the lost we could be more confident that our society would be the happier for the concern.

There is a huge difference between our acknowledging Jesus’ words and actions by listening to such accounts read in our churches – and the alternative of bringing ourselves to the point where we share his ideals by our own actions. Luke portrays a Jesus who engages with the fundamental Jewish precept that Heaven and Earth are supposed to reflect one another as a whole. If we can only make the leap to realize that parable can also offer personal challenge then maybe we can find ways of living our response.

Jesus appeared to teach the ideal of on Earth as it is in Heaven. There is obviously a huge range of perceptions as to what Jesus meant by “heaven”, but in parables such as the lost sheep and the lost coin Jesus seems to be insisting we seek the heavenly meaning in the human valuing of the human soul. He goes further and asks us to find such valuing in the shape of offered hospitality – and by implication – in the nature of the table we offer to others.

In one talk on BBC’s Thought for the Day, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby likened our perception to those at the crucifixion of Jesus. “What you see”, he said “depends on where you stand”. In the same way, if we choose to stand looking at the word pictures of parables as mildly interesting portrayals of Jesus’ expressions of thought – that is exactly what we will see. If, on the other hand, we stand expectantly seeking guidance for our personal journeys in the parables, we are far more likely to notice both their offence and their challenge. The choice of where to stand as always is ours.

We can find wisdom in unexpected places and despite my personal difficulties in accepting some of the themes of the Harry Potter books I was quite taken with the following.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Our question then of ourselves as we return to the world is simply this. Where are we with our choices?

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Lectionary Sermon 4 September 2016 (Year C) Luke 14:25-33

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LEDGER
A great spectator sport is to watch political candidates squirm when their dodgy business dealings are exposed to the gaze of the voting public. Can we trust a certain politician who refuses to release his tax returns? Should we trust a politician who has a complicated trust with opaque rules and compromised motives for charity? Unfortunately it becomes somewhat less entertaining when it is not the politicians but rather us … and our dealings… and even our motives which are under question.

Church-wise the same applies. We think in terms of easy, other people, targets. What about those naughty Catholics accumulating vast treasures through the centuries, or those powerful protestant Church leaders accumulating power, or those televangelists with their mansions and private jets ?… plenty there to criticize. But what about the humble church believers who tuck into their Sunday lunch with no real practical concern for the extremes of wealth and poverty. Is it only distant Church leaders who fail to reflect the unvarnished teachings of Christ?

The catch with following through the lectionary each week is that despite a certain amount of judicious censorship to keep us from meeting some truly appalling texts, every now and again the lectionary writers allow themselves to slip in a text that has the potential to shake the typical churchgoer’s complacency.

What we find in today’s gospel would only worry us if we thought that the words also apply to us but I suspect deep down we may already know that. While it is true that for many, Church membership is not much more than a non demanding ticket to a social circle and a more or less optional chance for a spectator’s seat for Sunday worship, in most denominations there are sufficient serious followers of Jesus to show us that there is a difference between a lived faith and a notional set of beliefs.

There has always been a choice between seeking a religion for what it offers by way of reward and seeking a religion for the opportunities it offers for service. Perhaps it is unfortunate that sometimes in the past, enthusiastic preachers and evangelists have talked up the reward side of Christianity and have almost hidden the investment side of the ledger.

Those few outstanding individuals who have made substantial contributions to Christian ideals, ideals like justice, equality and liberty, are often the very same folk as those who have given the most for their cause. Quite apart from the one we most associate with Christianity, Jesus himself, many who have upheld his principles, sometimes in the direct face of hostility, appear to have known exactly what it might cost. We may think for example of someone of the stature of Martin Luther King saying:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

No doubt when there is comparative peace and full employment we can pretend that current indicators of progress and peace will continue without effort on anyone’s part, yet this is to ignore the realities of history. It may be that in those times that we should be rather more open to the words of the wise like Thomas Merton.
What was it he said?

Peace demands the most heroic labour and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.
Thomas Merton

If we return to Jesus’ teaching from today’s gospel, on reflection we can at least begin to understand why Luke chose to record this particular set of sayings by Jesus.

When he set down the Gospel words from Jesus about giving up possessions, about counting the cost of building a tower and about carrying the cross as a prerequisite for discipleship, Luke had already witnessed some of the genuine costs suffered by the first Christians. Some scholars even believe that the gospel of Luke was written from a prison cell shared with Paul as they were awaiting trial, so to him at least, the costs of following this new faith were hardly academic.

The one verse in today’s reading which is at the heart of this type of challenge comes in the last verse, verse 33: 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

This statement in its baldest interpretation leaves us with a very exclusive and very small band of genuine disciples. Rather than seeking cunning interpretations of this passage to avoid the full force of the words perhaps we should become a little more humble and somewhat less certain of our entitlement to be numbered amongst Jesus’ followers. Perhaps all we can honestly claim is that we are attempting to follow as best we can.

Sometimes the context or original words used leave us with a convenient escape clause. Many preachers seem to do one of two things with this passage. Some seem to want us to believe Jesus was not really saying what he appeared to be saying, and instead he was merely asking for a change of emphasis. The other common approach is to say this is why stewardship – ie giving to the Church is important – and even more important than first looking after yourself.

Unfortunately there is a flaw in both approaches. The Greek apotassomai has a general meaning of renouncing, forsaking or even simply saying goodbye to- and in this case it is directed to possessions. Without some serious response to this apotassomai, if we hear what Jesus is saying, we cannot consider ourselves to be totally committed as Jesus’ disciples! In terms of most local Church congregations, I can’t honestly say I can think of any members who reach this level of commitment.

Although I have heard of those belonging to some odd-ball sects renouncing all possessions to hand over their all to the care of the sect leaders – and although I know of a number of religious orders , eg those in monasteries, who in effect do the same, it seems to me that they not so much renounce possessions as reallocate their control. If the religious order is known to take over ensuring the well-being of its members, then even if the eventual goal is some sort of pension care of the “Father Ted” variety, this does not quite square with the existential leap into the unknown of total poverty.

Nor does giving generously to a self-interested Church quite seem in the spirit of commitment of the sort Jesus was advocating. While that attempt at stewardship might be considered best directed to the Church (at least in the eyes of some Church leaders) – this is to misrepresent what Jesus actually said, and since Jesus’ focus is often on those in need, it would be reasonable to surmise that the divesting of possessions should most likely be either towards the needy or at least via those who have a primary concern for their welfare.

If the Church is truly putting such needs before its own, there is no double standard. Unfortunately if we look at typical annual Church budgets as a guide, it is probable fair to guess that many Churches only have a passing commitment to the needy. To invite Church members to give unstintingly to the Church – without requiring the same commitment to unstinting giving on the part of the Institutional Church, is to misrepresent what Jesus was on about. This is not to say stewardship is wrong. But it does suggest that to be consistent, the same leaders who are encouraging us to give should be equally diligent about making sure that the church as a whole reflects this self-giving attitude.

I would imagine there is much there to make us uncomfortable. But there is something else as well.

One standard view of this passage that, if nothing else, it suggests your treasure should be directed to where your heart believes it should go. Again….and perhaps unfortunately….. even assuming we are looking for easy answers….. this is not the gist of that Jesus appears to be saying. If anything your treasure going in the direction of your heart is the opposite of his actual theme which is much closer to: where you put your treasure your heart will follow.

In reality we need to acknowledge that for most of us we can at least choose our general direction in life and even when we don’t succeed in living up to our best intentions our interactions are bound to be more positive.

This is good psychology since we are probably much less free to make decisions than we might hope. The way our imagination translates to our action is confined by our realities. If we deliberately change those realities we are then open to different options.

Most of us will be familiar with targeted giving where special efforts have been made to help communities – either locally or overseas. Having witnessed or taken part in a number of such programs, the realization that one has been part of such an effort seems to shape future giving and I have been amazed at how previously tight-fisted individuals appear to become more relaxed and even pleased that they have helped others.

In most Western nations denominational churches differ widely in their understood responsibilities. For example it is no mistake that the Salvation Army is often associated with care for the down and outs, whereas some of the older Churches appear to have somewhat lost their way when it comes to a total emphasis on compassion. It also makes the signs of reorientation of the current Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis seem so refreshing.
Perhaps here we might allow the last word to that creator of Peter Pan, J M Barrie.

Dreams do come true, if we only wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it. ( James M. Barrie)
AMEN

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Because this sermon may come across as rather more blunt than many encountered in mainstream churches I would be particularly interested in the reactions of those who visit this site.

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Lectionary Sermon for 21 August 2016 (year c) on Luke 13: 10 – 17

The Modern Sceptic and the Miracles from Yesterday

From sermons I have heard I am coming to think the word “faith” is often unintentionally used to substitute for passive agreement with chunks of religious knowledge. As one trained in science it also seems to me that those concerned with religion might learn something from those who make breakthroughs in scientific research.

The research scientist takes commonly accepted beliefs, tests them as if they are true but notes truthfully when they fall short. Faith, in that sense to the scientist, means believing in an idea to the extent that it is deemed worth testing in practice. In science when the faith fails to deliver, the test results means the starting belief needs to be adjusted. This does not mean nothing useful is learned. The results tell us more about our realities than we knew before. The original belief is then either adjusted to fit this reality or changed to a new hypothesis to be tested. The changed belief will then be retested and the process continues. This to a scientist is the equivalent of a tested faith. Having enough faith to bring a belief to test is very different from insisting that we simply accept the original belief as a passive and untouchable truth.

Surely it should be the same for religious belief. In Jesus’ day, one standard belief was that no work should be done on the Sabbath, including the work of healing. Jesus apparently challenged this belief by healing in the Sabbath. The results spoke for themselves and Jesus argued that good had come from his actions.

There are two challenges to today’s gospel story that invite our thoughtful response.

The first is the dilemma we always have whenever we in the 21st century read of Jesus performing one of his jaw-dropping miracles in the first Century AD.

We live in a modern age where medical researchers bring us inexorably closer towards complete understanding of disease with each passing day, and as a consequence it is ever harder to believe in the miraculous as being outside nature. The philosophers like David Hume seem generally agreed that before we can agree that a miracle has occurred we should be certain there must be a violation of the laws of nature – yet such definitions can only remind us that we have no certainty that any specific miracle has happened. Even after all these years of discovery, the laws of nature are at best dimly and approximately understood, and to say that they have been violated presumes knowledge we may not have. Miracles reported by others are even harder to claim with certainty. Since observers’ records are usually how we get to hear about possible miracles we have to remain sceptical about whether or not such observers have objectively described what they later say happened.

What seems a miracle to one generation becomes nature at work when more facts come to light. For example, for several hundred years, monks in the Ural Mountains reported a sacred everlasting flame in the rock face. It is perhaps unfortunate that the monks expected payment from the pilgrims who came from afar to witness this sign from God. The sacred flame was later found to be a natural gas outlet that once lit had continued burning. We have no right to criticise the pilgrims or the monks for their naivety, particularly when it is remembered that Chemistry at that time was not sufficiently understood by the pilgrims to correctly interpret what they were seeing.

Back when the Bible was assembled even educated people had every excuse to believe that disease was often spiritual in its cause and to assume that mysterious miracles may have been the only hope for alleviation of suffering. These days when we have enough data to know that the human can recover spontaneously from some conditions, and particularly when we know even trained doctors can misdiagnose some medical conditions, we need to be particularly cautious before proclaiming a miracle.

In the case of the woman who was bent, while we should acknowledge the sincerity of those who reported the change in her condition after Jesus intervened, if we value honesty we should at least be careful before announcing this as a miracle, particularly when Luke himself makes no such claim. Curing cripples with a touch or a word is fine if they are not genuinely crippled in the first place. We might for example believe someone who is habitually bent over by habit may be persuaded – even dramatically – to good posture, although even here, without the advantages of modern diagnosis, we should be frank enough to say we have no way of knowing for sure that Luke is saying this is what is happening. Since we presume that Luke, a contemporary of Paul, never met Jesus this inevitably meant that the best Luke could do was to tell his stories of Jesus by using sources which were second hand. For example the gospel of Mark, considered the first of the gospels, had 661 verses and of these, 320 were reproduced in Luke.

In summary, since there is no way of using Luke description to be certain of the woman’s condition, nor the effectiveness and permanence of the subsequent cure, we simply don’t know how much of a miracle is being described. Nor should this particularly worry us. Regardless of how much of miracle worker Jesus was, our real task is to find how the stories speak to our situation today. Even if Jesus could perform miracles which challenge our understanding of nature, it does not follow that we too can perform those miracles. For most of us, these days at least, the serious medical condition is best met by state of the art best practice medicine. Common consensus of an educated majority would probably say cripples are best diagnosed by conventional systematic medical testing and ignoring the standard care available is unlikely to be in the sufferer’s best interest.

However if we really want to struggle though to find a meaning we also relate to, rather than getting too tied up with the woman’s physical condition it might also be argued it is probably better not to restrict ourselves to think of the crippling only in a physical sense. After all being held back by infirmity is not unique to physical cripples. The infirmity could be any of a variety of very common afflictions. Have we not all met those who cannot quite bring themselves to straighten up under their load of riches or feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps even self reflection might be in order. And if not others’ need for ever more possessions, perhaps it is our own need – if we cannot see such people around us perhaps we might even look in the mirror. Have we met those afraid to stand up to express an opinion lest if might disturb the collective conscience of those we are desperate not to offend? Can we ourselves straighten up to that extent? Perhaps we are sometimes simply crippled by a loss of confidence – perhaps a lack confidence to make serious decisions, a lack of confidence to do anything much beyond give assent to the opinions of the powerful.

When Jesus talked of the woman as a daughter of Abraham he was inviting her to recognise her own worth as an inheritor of the central faith. Just maybe we too need reminding we should see ourselves children of those who were our ancestors in faith.

The second part of the story of this story may be even more relevant in our day-to-day encounters with those in need.

When Jesus is challenged as to why he offered help on the Sabbath he responded by saying in effect that offering assistance on the Sabbath is a common-sense response such that even offering water to a tethered animal is expected and offered without question. He then draws a parallel with the woman who in effect is bound, not with a rope – but by her condition. And we read that his critics were silenced in shame and the crowd were pleased with Jesus’ response.

Since we are most unlikely to be faced with an identical dilemma, again we should look beyond the immediate situation to the underlying principle. Jesus is addressing a particular religious convention whereby scripture directs that no work should be done on the Sabbath. While it is true that few Christians today observe such a principle, each faith community has its own expected religious code of rules and conventions. For example we have a host of expected conventions related to worship.

One of these sets of religious conventions relates to typical practice for administering Communion, and what happens in a Roman Catholic setting does not necessarily conform to Anglican (or Episcopalian), Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal styles of offering the wine and bread. However the issue Jesus places before us with his healing on the Sabbath is that sometimes convention must give way in the face of genuine need. The cripple who cannot manage walking to the front to receive Communion should not be denied communion and I suspect (although I know some clergy would disagree) that choosing not to offer Communion to someone who has a different faith background is not true to the spirit of the Christian gospel. Similarly, regardless of the expected conventions,

I would imagine, that should for example an elderly person collapse during worship, first aid then takes precedence over ritual.

But prejudice sometimes requires a more direct intervention. It is all too easy to withhold aid to anyone we see as being outside our own circle. Again we are reminded that Jesus called the woman whose body was bent a “Daughter of Abraham”. By calling her a daughter of Abraham he was extending to her a tribute which was unlikely to be echoed by a good number of those present. While it is not explained in this particular passage, there was a popular assumption in Jesus’ day that victims of illness or infirmity were at least partly suffering as a result of their own or their family’s failings. By Jesus calling her a daughter of Abraham who has been under Satan’s influence he shifts the blame for her condition away from the woman, and in effect underlines her value to the others in the Synagogue.

Perhaps we need reminding that a blindness to noticing the ones crippled with needs as sons or daughters of Abraham is shorthand for not recognising value in the one who is different.

I said earlier that we can never be sure if a person has permanently recovered as a consequence of a miracle. If, in today’s story, the woman is viewed in a new light by those around her as a person of worth, it may be that this is a form of healing even more important than that which addresses physical infirmity. It is also significant that the permanence of this dimension of healing depends on the on-going choices of the woman’s faith community.

For we who are also members of faith communities, it maybe that we need to see ourselves as part of the miracles for which we hope. Finding and conveying a sense of worth in the ones who come to our community in the hope of help may not be complete miracle in the conventional sense of the word yet it may be miracle enough to takes us forward in our search for relevant faith in a modern world.

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Lectionary Sermon for 14 August 2016 (Year C) on Luke 12:49-56

An Unvarnished Truth
A Bible quiz question which seems to trip up typical church-goers is to ask: in terms of the total pages written, which author wrote the most? No not Paul. Luke as the only systematic historian of the emerging Christian Church with his detailed “Acts of the Apostles”, together with his gospel stories of Jesus, leaves Paul in the shade.

Just for the record from a sample volume of the RSV Luke is responsible a big chunk of the 552 pages for the New Testament. Luke’s Gospel is 78 pages and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles 71 pages 149 pages in all (over a quarter of the whole). Paul’s 121 pages is significant but more problematic in that some scholars claim some of his books may have been written by someone else.

To understand today’s passage we should remember Luke’s gospel was collected as a defence of this new Christian faith in a time when the followers were coming under attack. He addresses both books to the “most excellent Theophilus” and there is some reason to think of his writing as being assembled to give this high official of the Roman government reason to support this new faith. You also may remember Luke was a contemporary of Paul. Thus a number of Paul’s themes are echoed in Luke’s gospel and the early Church history contains many personal touches.

Paul describes Luke as a gentile and as a doctor eg Colossians 4, 10 – 14 and we also know that he alone accompanied Paul to prison in Rome, so he would have been very much attuned to the need for having the new Christians and their potential critics warned that Christianity could turn out to be divisive in practice.

When Luke was recalling Jesus describing the division that this form of faith would bring, even to family situations, recent memories of seeing families torn apart must already have been alive in Luke’s memory.

It doesn’t take very much self-reflection before we come across reasons for the discomfort that Jesus’ gospel can generate in practice.

You may happen to remember the line in a song by John Ylvisaker: “Jesus was sent to upset and annoy.” This would no doubt puzzle anyone who holds to the saccharine image of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with many appearing to act as if Christianity is basically that which happens within the confines of a Church service.

Another group who would be equally puzzled would be those who assume that Christianity is best practiced in complete isolation to others. On the other hand anyone who has thought of attempting to apply Christian ethics to family, community and international decision making would soon have ample reason for agreeing that such application upset and annoy big-time.

Because families and communities have the power to force decisions by weight of numbers, and since Christian principles often challenge popular assumptions of nationalism, selfishness and self interest, we can assume anyone attempting to live by the sort of Christian principles championed by Christ would soon find themselves at odds with those whose preferred actions follow basic self focused instincts. Honesty should also encourage us to admit that the principles advocated by Jesus are not always characteristics which we associate with all branches of the Christian Church – or even principles we associate with all factions of an otherwise apparently Christian congregation.

It is not as if we are unfamiliar with the teachings we aspire to follow. Taking no thought for the morrow, putting acts of kindness and compassion ahead of rules, forgiving seventy times seven, recognizing good acts regardless of expectations associated with religion or position (cf the Good Samaritan) and not storing up treasures on Earth – all of these are clear enough. What is less clear is how we might engage in such acts without disturbing our own baser instincts or for that matter, antagonizing those around us.

At the most basic level, think for example how the family might react if one member decides to disburse material wealth to the needy, particularly when those who have expectations of inheritance see their share under potential threat. Even when we are not personally affected by such decisions we can probably understand that those who give generously to the needy make their colleagues and family whose actions are less generous feel uncomfortable.

Even formal association with particular faith communities can be a problem. In my wife’s family for example I know of a father with a nominal Baptist background who would not attend his daughter’s marriage to her chosen partner because he was a Catholic. As a science teacher some years ago I was instructed by my Principal not to teach evolution to some exclusive Brethren pupils because he considered their acceptance of such a view would result in them being cast out of the family. More recently when I was doing my five year stint as a lay minister I in one of my two congregations, I had a congregation member who some years previously had been cast out of his Muslim family for marrying a Christian woman.

When we read in today’s gospel: 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” we find a truth that continues into our present.

Thinking of divisions immediately draws attention to the human weaknesses connected with the idea of Church. Historically we find much evidence that members of various Church denominations have traditionally favoured those in their own denomination, sometimes to the point of rejection of members of other faiths or those with other shades of belief. I bet everyone here knows of the Protestant Catholic rift in Northern Ireland. I guess you would have heard some Christians condemn followers of the Muslim faith and Hinduism, and patterns of immigration laws past and present should remind us not to pretend a formal association with Christianity will ensure that Christian principles will always win out.

Where a majority accepts an exclusivist stance, those who work for peace are sometimes rejected to the point where they are victims of stand-over tactics or even violence. While it is easy to be scornful about populations in places like Egypt or Iraq where religious intolerance sometimes spills over into acts of uncontrolled vengeance and where peace keepers are targeted, it is less comfortable to remember our own history.

Those who insist on forgiving enemies are considered traitors in times of war, and anyone who doubts that need only look at the history of pacifism in the West.

Colin Morris in his God in the Shower (Macmillan 2002) recalled how his father talked of a comrade in World War One who had served with distinction in the great battles of Loos, Ypres and the Somme. “ One day they were throwing the bodies of dead Germans into a huge shell crater to be rid of the sight and smell of them. This man suddenly stood up and said “Enough! This butchery is madness.” This man, said Colin Morris’ father, was the bravest of us all. “When the officer’s whistle blew and we went over the top again, he stayed behind in the trench. In no-man’s land we had an even chance of survival, but when he disobeyed that order he was a dead man”.

Although Morris does not spell it out, we don’t need to look too far to see the irony in officers who expected the enlisted soldiers to attend Church parade, yet use a court martial to proscribe the firing squad to anyone who refuses to disobey the commandment not to kill.

There is always a temptation to compartmentalize our thinking, in effect thinking Church when we are at Church, and community when we are in the community. We then risk having our faith become irrelevant to our day to day life. It is, as Jesus is recorded as saying, fairly easy to notice the weather signs yet there are more important signs of our times which are always there for those of us who are prepared to look. Remember he asks: You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Jesus calls those who will not look hypocrites, and perhaps we should ask ourselves why.

For each generation the signs will no doubt vary, but the charge of hypocrisy for those reluctant to notice must surely stand, particularly if we claim to follow a faith that has something to offer in our respective life situations. Community-wise, there would be few communities where there are no disadvantaged people. Some Church communities are very aware of such needs and the pattern of giving to food banks and organizing support services is to be commended. A reality check for a local congregation would include looking at which needs are actually addressed each month and each year.

A similar self assessment on attitudes to international responsibilities is also part of any congregation’s claim to be relevant. For example most would be at least dimly aware of a present situation where powerful nations regularly exploit weaker nations for the strong nations’ benefit. As a nation we pay lip service to international justice yet do not always insist our decision makers adjust policies to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources.

According to our democratic practice, to passively accept our nation’s practice is tantamount to giving our rulers support to continue in their current policies. This becomes serious when for example a nation’s industrialists believe they have support for their rights to produce obscene numbers of weapons and sell them to vulnerable nations.

Similarly there are statistics available to show that the world’s producers grow enough food globally to feed the world’s population and yet many would rather not notice that approaching a billion people have insufficient food for their needs. Policies of fair trade can be supported at the local level, and politicians can be lobbied.

This is only a sample of current tensions and we might argue that none are new situations. We can also argue that such issues are too big for individual Christians or individual congregations to make a real difference. However the hypocrisy comes when we claim a faith that concentrates on righting injustice and on offering compassion and fail to notice when we are making no serious effort at all. When the signs of division are all around us, to talk and act as if there is only unity in our corner of the world and community may lead to a comfortable Church, but some would argue this would also be a church with little to offer its world.

I said at the outset that Luke was using his gospel and book of Acts of the Apostles to defend Christianity. Unlike many faith protagonists today, Luke mounts his defence simply by recounting what has happened. The actions of Jesus and his subsequent followers are their own defence. It is an approach from which we might be wise to learn.

Ultimately it is our individual histories rather than what we might say we believe that will either convince toward or alternately dissuade others from our faith. To show that we can read the signs of our time and choose to respond in a way that addresses the realities of our day as best we can according to our gospel insights is what is needed.  We have to admit this is unlikely to solve many problems but might at least lend our faith genuine credibility. To fail to notice the genuine problems, divisions and issues may allow us to pretend to offer a relevant faith, but unless others can see the relevance in what we stand for for themselves we should not be surprised if our claims are then seen as empty and of no real value.

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