Lectionary sermon for 11 December 2022 (Advent 3 A) on Matthew 11:2-11

One significant contrast between many modern Christians and what we know from New Testament stories of at least some early followers of Jesus who largely grew their faith in their everyday world, is that for many of our lot, the recent emphasis seems to have become centred on what happens in acts of Church worship.  The problem there is that our faith then risks seeming to have nothing significant to offer to the real problems of our age.  I look at today’s news and see pictures of some of those issues: those environmental disasters, victims of earthquakes, stories of unfair trade practices, refugees helpless in the face of war and famine, mounting evidence of genocide, destruction of whole ecosystems, and corruption in high places. No wonder some are left with the question as to why the Churches are so muted in their response.  The standard emphasis on Church ceremony seems far removed from what was highlighted back in the time of Jesus.

Today’s typical church singing with lots of expressions of words of admiration for God and Jesus in our worship may make us feel we are responding as serious church followers but is very different from those earlier followers who eventually understood a good part of their main response to what Jesus taught should be in following his lead in terms of needed action in the everyday world.

Using John the Baptist as today’s example, if I were looking for a single word to describe his words and actions, the word would not be “religious”.  John was very much a straight talker – and from the Gospel record, some might say even unwisely so. Last week we encountered John berating those who had come for baptism because he saw them as hypocrites.

As background to today’s Gospel, we might need reminding the reason why John was now in prison was not so much that he was a religious prophet as it was that he believed in telling it as he saw it and didn’t seem to soften his challenges just because in the process there might be some offended.

John’s undoing in this instance was that he believed Herod Antipas the Tetrarch had done something quite immoral, but despite knowing Herod Antipas’ unpleasant reputation, told him so. As background Herod Antipas had been named as king by Caesar Augustus on the death of Herod’s father King Herod the Great, but the Romans had decided the Son’s power should be limited and only gave him a quarter share of his father’s territory.

Herod Antipas set about trying to win back more power by building the city of Tiberius in honour of his current patron, the emperor Tiberius.

The immoral action which had offended John was that Herod Antipas used his attraction for his brother’s wife, Herodias, as an excuse for divorcing his current wife and marrying Herodias. Well, it is one thing to believe the king had done wrong but telling him so was quite another. It is understatement to say upsetting a ruthless king from a ruthless family by calling him immoral was not a wise career move. No surprise to any of his contemporaries then that John was now imprisoned, and, according to the historian Josephus, in the forbidding fortress Machaerus.

Remember John had been offering Baptism in the first place to prepare the faithful for the appearance of the Messiah. Now as the stories of Jesus teaching and healing in Galilee began to circulate, John appears to be a bit uncertain as to whether Jesus was in fact the expected Messiah. He somehow manages to send a message to Jesus from his cell. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer? “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

In referring to deeds rather than any claim he might make, Jesus focusses on what matters. After all there were others at the same time apparently claiming to be the Messiah, and such claims can only be substantiated with evidence.

We should note in passing, that even today there are many claiming to be modern day prophets, and I understand most large psychiatric units have had at least one patient believing themselves to be Jesus reincarnated. Others are convinced that they are chosen by God to pass on a message, including a substantial number down through the centuries who have wrongly predicted the date for the end of the world. Almost invariably their behaviour is not consistent with their message and accordingly we would be wise to be extremely cautious about such claims.

We would not for example be very much inclined to accept that Jim Jones had been the prophet he claimed to be, particularly after he is known to have made his followers commit mass suicide.  Likewise I guess most of us would not wish to follow a Church leader who absconded with Church funds or for that matter want to seek moral guidance from one who was known to interfere sexually with children.

When Jesus describes John as more than a prophet or says that he is not one who would bend with the wind like a reed, he is doing no more than relating what would be public knowledge.

The Old Testament prophets were probably better known for their ability to stand up against kings and religious leaders than they were for their piety and John was certainly in that same mould. John was a servant of the truth he had discovered and was going to speak that truth no matter how inconvenient this might have been for his personal welfare. Small wonder then if some assumed that John was Elijah returned.

And yet this is where the commentary gets puzzling.

The tricky part comes in realising that this Sunday, when we remember this exchange between the imprisoned John the Baptist and Jesus, apart from being Advent 3, the third Sunday of the Advent season, is also known as Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word meaning “to rejoice”

The problem is really a question. Did John really have much to rejoice about given his impending execution? And the more serious question. What of the rest of us now, something like two thousand years later?

Clearly, we need to be honest. Jesus’ coming did not solve all problems. For example, there are still huge numbers who live in grinding poverty, there are still areas of the world where personal safety is threatened, places where there are refugees facing a grim and pitiless future and we don’t have to look too hard to encounter cities where the air is acrid and poisonous, and the water polluted.

When I last looked, $1.90 per person per day was the threshold for extreme poverty as the standard adopted by the World Bank and other international organizations to reflect the minimum consumption and income level needed to meet a person’s basic needs. That means people who fall under that poverty line can be identified — and according to the international surveys, that turns out to be about 1/10 of the world’s population, in other words 1.4 billion people who lack the ability to fulfil basic needs, whether it means eating only one bowl of rice a day or forgoing health care when it’s needed most. At the same time some of us live in great luxury. What does Gaudete Sunday mean in that context?

Perhaps it is just as well that John the Baptist now has his story associated with this Sunday because if the cause for rejoicing has any meaning at all it is that when times were grim someone cared enough to speak up. Since there is widespread agreement that Jesus’ coming brought thought provoking teaching and an attitude of compassion which is a source of hope, we may need reminding that there is an urgent need for those prepared to act in his name. The alternative of leaving this teaching and set of attitudes within the walls of the Church would hardly be good news for those on the outside.

I have heard it said that the real reason why Church attendance is now smaller than it was one hundred years ago, is that for many it is now the most boring hour of the week. Certainly, if the only call for response is to expect us to drone fatuous words of praise without for one moment acknowledging that the praise should affect any of our consequent decisions during the week, then it is both boring and irrelevant. If that was indeed the case, the sooner the Church closed its doors the better we might all be.

If on the other hand the call is to use the teachings of Jesus and example of the prophets like John the Baptist to seize on the injustices of our time and insist on a change of priorities, then there may be genuine cause for rejoicing.

I suggested at the outset that John the Baptist does not come across as being particularly religious. I even wonder if Jesus himself cared much for formalised religion. This does not mean that there is no purpose served by coming to Church. Where else might we be likely to encounter the stories of practical people of faith and reflect on the thought-provoking teachings of Jesus.

But surely the real cause for rejoicing is that we too have the potential to respond to those teachings, not in history, but in the here and now. Perhaps then hopefully, inspired by those like John the Baptist, we can go out from our worship with the determination that what we learn as history will help reshape our future and the future of those like the folk for whom Jesus and John the Baptist first came.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who risked his very life for what he knew to be right in his speaking up against Hitler. He is quoted as writing “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spike into the wheel itself.”

Clearly, as an everyday occurrence, we are unlikely to be called to speak up against evil yet as we move towards Christmas, we still need to ask ourselves what part we are playing in response to Jesus coming, and at least to perhaps wonder if the example of John the Baptist or those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer should also challenge us to speak up for what we assume to be true.

It seems to me that if we only find the gospel in the deeds of those in the past then we will never find the gospel of our present. Now that is a challenge, and a gospel discovered in the here and now may even be a real reason for rejoicing.

POSTSCRIPT TO THE READER

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Lectionary Sermon for 4 December 2022 (Advent 2A) Reflections on Matthew 3:1-12

Here we are in the second Sunday of Advent expecting to get ready for Jesus to come into the story at Christmas.   So how to prepare?   The Lectionary writers encourage us to centre our thoughts by looking at how the prophet, John the Baptist, prepared the people for an encounter with Jesus.

For those for whom Advent familiarity with figures like John the Baptist and the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah is no longer a novelty, dare I suggest there might be those (including me) who have almost forgotten to notice how strange they are. Yes, Isaiah was a great prophet who could weave a wonderful story with his prophecy of the coming Messiah. The only catch was that his description of the Messiah was hard to match with the gospel Christ.   In short the prophecy was misleading.

When the Saviour, Jesus arrived, he simply wasn’t the Isaiah-described sort of King. When Jesus came… The wolf didn’t lie down with the kid and Jesus didn’t judge the poor, or strike the Earth with the rod of his mouth or kill the wicked with his breath …yet in a strange way Jesus still came with a message that can make a huge potential difference to a lot of people.

As for the reported scene from the gospel today why even put that strange story there when we are thinking about the coming of Jesus?

One possible response is that if Baptism will come to mark the beginning of a Christian life for many– then why not have a story of Baptism mark our approach to Christmas?

Given our familiar Church setting, the rite of John’s style of baptism must seem strange and archaic to those with no familiarity with its history and meaning. The other uncomfortable truth is when we set aside whatever form of baptism we are familiar within our own tradition, and instead look at other versions from other branches of faith, the act of baptism raises almost as many questions as it does answers.

Think about it … The mental image of John the Baptist, wild eyed, unkempt and dressed in animal skins, berating members of the crowd before dunking them into the weedy, dirty water of the Jordan river doesn’t quite match what happens in my own church for a Baptism – nor for that matter other churches I have encountered. How does it square with that typical genteel reality of a robed minister or priest reciting a few carefully proscribed words from a standardized prayer book before gently sprinkling a few drops of pre-warmed water on the forehead of a tiny baby and then baptizing him or her in the names from the fourth century formula of the Trinity.

What would it sound like in Church if we swapped to using liturgy from equivalent of Matthew’s reported version of the ranting and threats of John the Baptist delivered in full voice 

If is come to that, should an heir to the throne of the UK and the Commonwealth be offered the Matthew Version of some modern John the Baptist in the not-so-clean waters of the Thames?

Even for ourselves might we ask what, if anything, is retained in most modern church versions of John the Baptist’s offered baptism when set against Matthew’s original gospel account?

For the record, we might remind ourselves John was not the first to baptize in Palestine. Please note the ritual of baptism back then was usually the dramatic symbolic step in the initiation for the gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. It should be emphasised that this was not the case for most of those born into the Jewish faith. Those from a family in good standing with Judaism would be presented to the Temple or Synagogue soon after birth and be expected to go through another ceremony at about age 12 before they could take their full place in Jewish society.

The understanding at that time was that baptism was unnecessary for Jews since being born into the Jewish family community was enough to begin as a member of the “Chosen Race”. On the other hand, to join that Chosen Race from the outside meant setting aside one’s old faith, which was seen as needing evidence of total commitment. Thus the ceremony of baptism by full immersion in the river was considered to be the outward display of one prepared to renounce their previous beliefs and take on the new life and new direction.

At the time of Jesus, the emergence of small number of baptizers, including John the Baptist, wanting to baptize Jews, was part of a growing movement reflecting the desperation experienced by the Jews at the time of the Roman occupation. Their historical understanding had been that they were a special people – chosen by God – yet the promised Messiah who had been expected to appear like King David to lead them to their rightful restored place had not arrived. Now some, like John, were now teaching that this was really because the Jews had gone so far from the ways of God that they might not even have the right to be thought of as God’s people.

Jews they may have been in name- yet as far as those like John the Baptist were concerned, what was required was for them to re-join the faithful and demonstrate their commitment by having themselves baptized. Only then would the Messiah appear.

Matthew’s version has John calling the Pharisees and Sadducees amongst the crowd “a brood of vipers”. In Mark’s earlier version of the same story, it is the crowd in general who are thereby addressed, and although we would almost certainly be shocked if a modern preacher were to address those who arrive at one of our places of baptism in those terms, it may usefully remind us that if baptism is to mean anything at all we should at least reflect on why John the Baptist thought it was needed.

Historians amongst the congregation may remember that many years ago, the Greek Orthodox Church could not accept soldiers who were still serving soldiers as candidates for baptism, since a baptised Christian was not allowed to kill.

One story I confess I like to tell at least once for each congregation is that when the Russian emperor Ivan (I think from memory… Ivan the Great) once wanted to marry a Greek Orthodox princess he offered to have his personal guard of top soldiers baptized at the same time. The Greek king (or so the story goes) said once they are baptized, they won’t be able to kill anyone because this is what baptism means. Ivan’s solution (if you believe the story) was to have the guards baptized but to hold their sword arm up so that the arm would still be able to kill on the King’s behalf

So each soldier was baptized but the un-baptized arm could still kill in the service of the Emperor? Baptized – yet not quite totally baptized…er..like us perhaps? Ok, I don’t think many today still believe that Baptism means a perfect life from then on.

Is there not a parallel with what we find today? Most of us – (and I include myself here), can probably identify activities where our religious beliefs take a back seat to more immediate concerns. Quite apart from the continued attraction of the so-called deadly sins, many Church-goers can be noticed demonstrating characteristics that put them in opposition to Jesus’ teaching.

Can you imagine a congregation where some members are into storing up riches, taking thought for the morrow and holding grudges instead of forgiving those who wrong them? I can too…

Surely most modern societies treat Baptism in a far more cavalier fashion. For example, these days all soldiers are expected to be allowed to kill the designated enemy – and I suspect if you were to approach their commander and explain that those under his command were unable to go into combat because as infants they had been baptized, the commander would refer you to the Army psychiatrist.

Very well then, if not for soldiers, what other context is expected to matter for baptism? Remember that baptism is also a public display of an intention not only not to kill but also to live in a different way, associated with a whole new way of life. As we reflect on our own lives it is fair to ask what changed or different characteristics an independent observer would notice about us as a result.

When it comes to baptizing a small child, I don’t think it is being unnecessarily cynical to admit, at least in a typical worst-case scenario, the action of baptism or christening is typically seen as a desirable custom rather than a genuine declaration of intent.

I have on occasion put it to a congregation that if the child is baptized and is subsequently brought up as a virtual stranger to the Church, this is roughly equivalent to going along to a sports muster day, signing the child up for a football or basketball team, and perhaps even paying the club fee, then never encouraging the child to turn up as a participant for the sport. If we find that silly – why do we not find encouraging baptism to be equally silly in the case where no difference in behaviour, or action, is intended?

No doubt what happens after infant Baptism is initially a parental responsibility yet if the words of a typical service are to mean anything, the responsibility goes rather wider than that. When the congregation is invited to vow that they will support the child being brought up in the faith but then do nothing to ensure that happens it also seems to me that such words of the service become empty and that the public vow is  vacuous.

John the Baptist enjoined those he baptized “to bear fruit worthy of repentance”. This is a helpful reminder that Matthew’s use of the Greek word for repentance, “metanoia”, does not simply mean to be filled with penitent remorse – but actually suggests something closer to the Jewish equivalent word “teshuva” – meaning “turn about face” – or at least to undergo a change of mind or change of direction. We may well claim that has happened, but should still at least wonder if others might notice that the change is enough for others to see.

Although probably a majority of denominations still use the ceremony of baptism at least as a preliminary to the induction into the Christian faith, we might also pause to ask ourselves why some denominations teach it is not necessary. The Unitarians and Salvation Army for example do not practise the rite and before we, who do practice Baptism, insist that our customs are more correct, we must also be honest with ourselves in checking that we are the better Christians in the life expression of our faith as a consequence of our way of starting in the faith..

Since some can start to live their Christianity without recourse to baptism we might also wonder whether baptism is critical in practice and may even need to be more relaxed about which form of baptism is absolutely essential, no matter what tradition might teach us. At the same time, if we ever become aware that our course in life is not leading us in the direction our consciences tell us we ought to be heading, I wonder if we can just make out Matthew’s reported words of John the Baptist echoing faintly down through the centuries, reminding us to bear the fruit of repentance …what was it again…. metanoia, the change of direction.

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Lectionary Sermon 27 November 2022 , Advent 1A Matthew 24: 36-44

Thinking back to my distant youth I remember encountering end-time missionaries with their dire warnings of impending doom for the unbelievers. By then the arms race was well underway. Nuclear bomb testing was in the news.    And it certainly seemed plausible that something terrible was bound to happen.   Today with President Putin of Russia sending troops and rockets in a worsening war with neighbouring Ukraine and at the same time suggesting he may have to use low grade nuclear weapons, even now I am not sure if it is time to claim the fear of end-times should altogether be put to rest. 

 I find it far harder today to share such conclusions with those whose sense of zeal and certainty seems to welcome such a set of end-time beliefs.  While I have much to learn, I now know far more about the history of failed “Bible based” prophecies and rather more about the way the Bible was assembled. Because today’s passage is so commonly seriously misrepresented, I want to start with some intentionally pointed observations.

We might start with reflecting on what faced the early copyists and editors of Matthew’s text. By the time we get to encounter the text it has been copied many times and differences in the subsequent versions suggest it has been extensively edited.

The wisdom of hindsight (eg knowing the Temple had already been destroyed and the Jews driven out) which must have been powerful editorial factor. Yet, even assuming we are reading the relatively unedited text of what Jesus had originally said, we should at least look at the whole of today’s text. The lectionary allows for a certain amount of wriggle-room and it is perhaps unfortunate that some denominations (and that includes my own!) start by often simply avoiding parts of the chosen readings that don’t have a good fit with their particular favoured theology.

For example, if you compare the Roman Catholic lectionary reading for today’s gospel with those of the other Churches’ readings you may have noted that this time it is the Catholic version which starts one verse later. I don’t happen to know the official reason, but I cannot help but wonder that, since in the dropped verse Jesus states that “no-one knows the hour” and for emphasis adds, “neither the angels in heaven nor the Son – but only the Father”, to some this would be an awkward admission that Jesus was not in the same league as the Father.  Perhaps today’s Bible prognosticators need to be asked if Jesus himself can’t give a time, what gives them the right to their certainty.  We might also note that some copyists or editors were so discomfited by the three words “nor the Son” that a number of versions of the gospel quietly leave those words out altogether.

I guess we can at least understand their motivation. If Jesus admits he doesn’t have total knowledge about what is being predicted, he comes across as being more human than the God who is all-knowing which is a problem for some traditional Church theology.

Next we consider the setting. When Jesus uses the analogy “Just as in the days of Noah” – he is saying figuratively that this applies to those caught up in cataclysm. The Greek word, translated in NRSV as “flood” in verses 38 and 39 is kataklusmou—which we can equally translate indeed as “cataclysm”. This should give us a clue, namely that here Jesus is thought to be talking to those who are shortly to be caught in a maelstrom which of course is exactly what the early Christian Church was facing.

The early Christian church membership at the time of Matthew’s gospel numbered a few thousand at best. Those who were struggling to help their own particular tiny church survive, lived in frightening times. For the most part many would have been suffering the double difficulty of being rejected by the Jewish community while at the same time being harassed by the Romans, offended by the Christians’ reluctance to acknowledge the Emperor as a God.

As if this wasn’t enough, the scholars’ date for Gospel of Matthew, set at about 80AD, tells that the sacking of the Temple and destruction of most of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans had already happened (the Jewish war was from AD 66 to 70. In a very human setting, editing to remember to slant prophecy with hindsight may well have been a reasonable -even sensible- temptation. But whatever the reason, a very visible cataclysm was already part of the experience for the first readers of the version of Matthew’s gospel which today’s translators are left to work with.

This should offer the opportunity for us to draw at least some parallels with our own lives. Do we really need to wait for end-times to encounter cataclysm? Part of the human condition means that virtually everyone born, sooner or later will experience at the very least a “quiet apocalypse” in their own lives. For example, for many, sooner or later there will be a health crisis, remembering cancer is depressingly common especially with the elderly. Even in the best ordered family death will need to be faced, whether it is one’s own death or a death of some figure absolutely critical to the well-being of the family.

In this nation at least, there are other issues which may resonate with some. Sooner or later, most families experience severe financial pressures, perhaps in the form of unexpected redundancy, and it is common that one or more family members may get caught up with addiction or depression. If it comes to that, even nice houses and quiet neighbourhoods are no protection against marriage breakdown which is an ever-present feature of modern society.

We must also be honest, at least if only with ourselves, admitting that even if Jesus had been predicting his second coming in the near future for his contemporary followers, and if the second coming was intended to mean what the rapture predictors claimed to be the truth, Jesus was simply wrong. It didn’t happen in the lifetime of his listeners nor has it happened in that form for the approximate two thousand years which have since passed.

But what if there are some clues here to suggest Jesus may have been on about something rather different.

This coming is certainly portrayed as unexpected. The thief in the night is unexpected just as each crisis is often unexpected. Yet encountering the experience of Jesus may not be separate from the cataclysm. Parousia—the Greek for “coming”–is formed from para and ousia. Literally, the term means “being alongside.” What if “coming” (erxetai) is in the present tense, not future.

OK we should admit we can’t be certain of his words because even if he is accurately reported, Jesus was presumably not speaking Greek, but this simultaneous coming and being experienced alongside implies that Jesus is found in each apocalypse whatever form it might take. At the same time we should reflect on the fact that nowhere in the Bible do we find the words “second-coming”. It is certainly reasonable to suggest Matthew was recording an suggested event intended to remind his listeners of the Apocalyptic Book of Daniel where in Daniel 7:13, Daniel saw “one like a son of humanity, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

The notion that Jesus doesn’t come for all may be a picturesque way of suggesting that those unprepared will simply fail to recognise his presence because they cannot recognise his presence in the familiar. It is only an opinion but from other things Jesus is thought to have said, being prepared for Jesus coming seems very unlikely to have anything to do with rushing to the top of some mountain to sing hymns and say Amen to the loud prayers of some self-appointed Holy-man.

It is for example interesting to read today’s text alongside that other famous passage on the final judgment from Matthew Chapter 25.where the confused chosen ones asked “37 …… ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Recognizing Jesus may seem an easy task, but even the thought that everyone starting with King Herod, to the religious leaders, to Pilate and even the soldiers at the foot of the Cross reportedly had the greatest difficulty in understanding who Jesus was, even when they had met him in the flesh.  Maybe if Jesus specifically claimed that it is rather in our understanding that he is present in those who need our help, perhaps we need to start by reflecting on how we approach those who are the least among us.

In short – if Jesus is right in his parables of his coming again, staying awake and being prepared to recognise the coming of the Son of Man, is not and never has been a so-called religious event. Perhaps it is rather, nothing more nor less than a sincere attempt to recognize opportunities to live the Christian ethic.

It is probably uncomfortable to many Church members to allow in Jesus’ terms that sponsoring the installation of a well for poverty stricken villagers in the third world, providing a food bank for the destitute in our own city, or even volunteering for a peacekeeping force may be closer to getting ready for whatever is meant by the coming of the son of man than lustily singing a few verses of Onward Christian Soldiers and quietly sleeping through the preacher’s well intentioned sermon.

Cataclysms can still come as they always have come, and for each of us the ultimate cataclysm may seem more dreadful in our future.

Far from impending cataclysm our Advent candles seem to offer a gentle and even ordered approach to Christmas. Today the first Sunday of Advent (at least in many churches) we lit the candle of Prophecy or Hope for what the coming of Jesus might mean. Next week we would probably light the candle of Love, then it will be the candle of Joy and finally the candle of Peace. Only then according to this ordered tradition will we be ready to light the Christ candle on Christmas day.

I like this tradition, but if we really are to celebrate the coming of Christ to the real world, perhaps we need to be more keenly aware that for many of the least of our brothers and sisters, caught in their own genuine cataclysm of poverty, pain and despair, words like Hope, Love, Joy and Peace will mean little until those who claim to share Christ’s vision for the future reach out to the despairing with genuine compassion. I wonder if we will be found numbered among those who care. Jesus of the Parousia may be noticed alongside as we light our candles. How we prepare ourselves to recognize his coming is the challenge now before us.

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Alternative Sermon for “Reign of Christ” (Christ the King) Sunday 20 November on Luke 23 33-43

Honouring the Un-king-like King

For those among us who like to make a great fuss of visiting royalty, there must be some puzzlement at our lectionary compositors in choosing today’s gospel passage to honour Christ the King Sunday. Those lectionary scholars have apparently set aside the possibilities of texts which might be seen to be highlighting the greatness of Jesus and instead selected a passage to feature the sadness and pain of the crucifixion.

Perhaps a clue to help us understand when we remember that the Christ the King church feast was only added to the Church calendar in 1925 (and originally as a Catholic feast).   The then recent memory of the suffering and sacrifice in World War 1 must have brought home some of the reality of the world’s problems and perhaps it was something of that memory that made the sacrifice of Jesus a more relevant memory for his radically different form of kingship.

When I thought of that Crucifixion scene it came to me to me just how few reportedly showed they were prepared to stand up for the man who later followers would come to call their King. There were those (perhaps a majority) who stood and watched- and no doubt said very little.  Before we judge, just remember many among the crowd would no doubt have been anxious not to come to the attention of the executioners. There were also those who mocked – just as I guess we know there are probably many today who are prepared to mock the modern-day Kings and Queens. It was almost if the only ones who really got what Jesus was about were that thief on the neighbouring Cross, the Roman officer at the foot of the Cross and the almost unknown friend who offered to place Jesus in a grave.

The temptation in the context of worship is to be drawn to the convention of using words of praise, often repeated in a series of repeated phrases in our Hymns and Choruses to focus on the power and might of Jesus as the Son of the all powerful God of Creation.   Yet the focus in the gospels is that of a very different King who did very un-king-like acts.   “We have a King who rides a donkey” or “Kneels at the feet of his friends” takes us part way towards a more thought-provoking recognition.

What is more, there is the question of why the resurrection scene doesn’t fit with what often happens in formal worship in what many call “church” today? There, a thoughtful observer might notice a curious mismatch between the Crucifixion scene and the way modern worshippers often join in singing of “Jesus the King” with fulsome words of praise on one hand while at the same time almost completely side-lining Jesus’ teaching when it comes to making day to day decisions about practical problems.

As it happens every now and then a scholar emerges to rediscover that even the elevation of Jesus to bestow a royal title might be missing what the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching was on about. Putting it bluntly, Jesus made it clear what he expected of his followers to do and is certainly recorded as making abundantly clear that he had no pretensions to fame and glory.

Yet as one of New Zealand’s prominent (and seen by some as a radical priest) Glynn Cardy once pointed out:

‘Christ the King’ is stirring stuff in Handel’s Alleluia Chorus, but it hardly fits with the gospel picture of Jesus the man who wouldn’t be king. Instead of singing “King of Kings, Lord of Lords”, it would be much more accurate to sing ‘Rebel of rebels, misfit of misfits’.

Historically, this shift from Jesus recorded words and works to what some might call unthinking and empty words of praise was actually quite rapid. In the two centuries following his death a variety of gospels written subsequently by some of his leading followers did their very best to give Jesus’ image a make-over. Like Paul they seemed more interested in making Jesus acceptable as a great religious figure to the initially hostile Roman Empire, while at the same time, where possible trying to present a message to gain recognition from the now splintered and dispersed Jewish people.

As the years passed a number of scholars have noted the gospels were edited and re-edited to emphasise Jesus’ right to the Emperor’s standard titles like Son of God, Lord, Prince of Peace, King of Kings not to mention titles more commonly used by the religious figures of neighbouring religions.  Some of you who read early church history will for example will know that it was originally from  Zoroastrianism where the terms “Born of the Virgin” and “Light of the World” were earlier used by the followers of Zororoaster.    As it happens there doesn’t seem to be much evidence from the contemporary accounts of the day that such titles about Jesus were used in Jesus’ lifetime.

Perhaps worrying about the titles themselves, is somewhat irrelevant in that most people would claim that they are a poetical or metaphorical well-meaning way of stressing that Jesus is totally exceptional.

The catch is that it also risks implying that the best and even only way to honour Jesus is by words of praise. I say the “catch” because to praise by word and song comes across as something close to hypocrisy if we were to offer Jesus praise and expressions of admiration but then go ahead and live lives thereby showing we don’t accept his teaching.  In the worst-case scenario, expressions of praise would across as empty particularly if our lives appeared to contradict everything he stood for.

As far as I can remember, typical Jesus-type teaching in the gospels includes injunctions like: forgive your enemy seventy times seven, don’t store up riches on earth, welcome the stranger in your midst, cast not the first stone, don’t make a show of your faith, judge not lest you yourself be judged – not to mention heaps of teaching and lived examples showing ways to express empathy with those who are typically rejected by society.

Let us suppose we come across a hypothetical Church where the leaders make a show of their faith, yet where the leaders get very rich on the donations of the members, where the preaching seems to encourage wars of aggression to increase the self-claimed host “Christian” country’s wealth, and where appeals for help from those who have the misfortune to be born into the wrong religion are given token attention or even rejected. Should we pretend to follow Jesus if those who offend our self-interest are not offered forgiveness, where the self-claimed Christians seek the limelight, demand unequal trade arrangements, ignore the plight of the poor …… and yet through all that, praise the very one who taught a very different way of living. Is that what it should mean to praise the one we call “Christ the King”?

Perhaps we need constant reminders that some of our more recent theological teachers about the historical Jesus insist he was fundamentally opposed to the accumulation of power, wealth, and privilege symbolized by monarchy. Those who are drawn to the trappings of religious paraphernalia and the hierarchical nature of Church leadership would no doubt be uncomfortable to be reminded that it is hard to imagine Jesus in a Bishop’s splendid regalia or setting aside places of honour for the Church leaders at ceremonial feasts.   (I won’t pretend it is original but perhaps I should be brought to task for drawing attention to that carried symbol of an archbishop being that of a double cross!)

Whatever else he might have been, Jesus was a anything but a haughty monarch and was reportedly accused of eating with criminals and mixing with the misfits of society. He would probably be described as a pacifist than a supporter of what our gun lobby American friends call the Second Amendment today but we would be unwise to assume he would condemn the typical targets of fundamentalism eg homosexuals, those born into a non-Christian faith, or those who offended against some ancient edict. From the gospels is hard to imagine Jesus as an imperious ruler on the side of those who wanted to exclude those who are rejected by society.

Jesus was then a man who challenged religious customs by inviting into his apparent ‘extended family’ tax collectors, lepers, casually encountered women, children, Roman “enemies”, and even on occasion priests and Pharisees. Maybe he expected his followers to do the same. Unlike those who like the well-known rugby player who assumes God punishes Australians who voted for “gay marriage” with devastating bush fires, there is little evidence Jesus distinguishes between the clean and unclean, the righteous and unrighteous, the polluted and the pure – and in case you missed it, he specifically enjoined his followers not to judge others. So if we are of a mind to judge perhaps we need to remind ourselves that Jesus cautioned us against such behaviour.

Time after time the deviancy of Jesus’ over the next few decades was ‘corrected’ by the Church. Christianity was re-fashioned to be supportive of ruling classes, class structure, and restoring the position of the male as the leader of the Christian family. Christianity instituted hierarchies of bishops and priests and to this day some Churches use such control to shape people’s religious behaviour.

Again I want to acknowledge Glynn Cardy in drawing the following to our attention. He noted there is a very sober quote from Eusebius describing the assembling of the bishops for the Council of Nicaea in 325. This Council would go on to produce a now famous creed that in effect ignored the ministry, vision, and challenge of Jesus. Any creed on the basics that leaves the believers to imagine what comes between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is in effect saying the teachings are little significance.   Eusebius writes:

Detachments of the bodyguard and troops surrounded the palace with drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the Imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor’s companions at table… One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth…”

Is it surprising then that Jesus’ teaching and attitudes should so easily have subsequently been bypassed in the articles of faith in the creed produced in the name of the Council of Nicaea?

My final question is one that I address to myself as well as to my readers. If we do indeed want to honour Jesus as Christ the King, would we perhaps be better to put less effort into making suitable expressions of admiration and adoration – and perhaps a little more into following the direction indicated by the one we call Christ the King?

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Lectionary Sermon 13 November 2022 on Luke 21: 5-19

Now that our nation has reached the point where a great collection of different nationalities, religions, behaviours, clothing styles and even very different political parties jostle for our attention it may be time to ask how our particular church in our chosen denomination is seen by outsiders.

A few years back I went through a stage of watching the Simpsons on TV. I wonder if you agree that we might be intrigued how many of the apparently fatuous remarks of Homer Simpson seem a fair representation of what in our more honest moments we suspect many people think.

Let’s hear from Bart:
‘Dad, what religion are we?‘ —
Homer replies ‘You know… the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work out in real life… Christianity!‘ ……

.. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if that is the way it is meant to be, and from there, how the myriad of modern versions of the Temple contribute to this Homer-type attitude.

Well, what is not to like?    Our churches are readily recognized and even the old ones send a message that here is a place of worship.

Certainly the more significant Church buildings are imposing and overseas they are magnets for the tourists.   If they weren’t there what would the church mean to the majority?

Unfortunately, the implied message to onlookers is that from the outside, such structures also imply a declaration of power and even warning.

We only need to reflect on some of the better-known walls round historic cities or even religious centres to realize that these hardly fit Jesus’ teaching of welcoming the stranger in our midst.

Traditionally the famous temples of the past were often quite direct in their message that only the elect were welcome.

There are numerous references to the Temple in Jewish history and religious writing. We might remember Jesus himself, (as for virtually all his first followers) was a Jew with feelings of identification with the Temple. Luke implies a greater respect for the Temple than the other New Testament writers and for example, unlike the other gospel writers, Luke places virtually all of Jesus’ final teaching in and around the precincts of the Temple.

Certainly, the Temple building was a magnificent structure. The pillars of the porches were reportedly some 40 feet high columns of white marble, each allegedly made of a single block of stone. According to the contemporary historian Josephus, the front of the temple was encrusted with gold plate and from a distance the body of the temple appeared to onlookers as if covered in snow. One of the most significant of the offerings (which presumably were the ones talked of by Jesus in this passage) was a gold relief model of a grape vine described as having clusters of grapes, each cluster standing as tall as a man.

As the religious centre for the Jews, the Temple had additional significance and although a cynic would no doubt say that it had been rebuilt principally to glorify Herod, it was clear that as far as most early followers were concerned, they considered it first and foremost to be a Holy place. Jesus’ reported indignation in clearing the temple of the money lenders and his apparently single-minded intention to return to the Temple to complete his mission were indicative of how Jesus viewed the Temple’s importance.

Luke tells us that Jesus had prophesied that the entire temple would shortly be pulled down with “Not one stone left upon another”. In fairness we should also acknowledge that Luke was recording prophecy in hindsight. By the time Luke recorded his gospel, the Temple was finished. Yet there is a strange anomaly. The destruction of the walls and the consequent dispersal of Jews and Christians from Jerusalem was in all likelihood a good part of the key to the spread of the gospel.

Although in one sense the Temple was a celebration of the way to approach God, the walls themselves had been designed to put visitors in their place. Gentiles (non-Jews) were encouraged to visit the outside courtyard, but the archaeologists have discovered the sign on the gentiles’ wall which could hardly be more direct. The gist of the translation: “If you are a gentile, and if you go beyond this wall, it will be your own fault when we kill you!”

The next courtyard was as far as Jewish women were allowed to go, then it was the courtyard for the Jewish men, then an area for the Priests and finally that veiled place of mystery, the Holy of Holies, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter – and then only one day a year.

Walls to confine, to exclude and to obscure but ultimately walls that would not and perhaps should not last.

We humans do so love our significant structures. The immense effort which has gone into building great walls and huge buildings throughout the ancient world is an indicator and even a barometer of the fortunes of history. Think of the Great Wall of China which the contemporary historians of the day claimed cost more than a million lives, the great cathedrals of Europe –the great Cathedral at Cologne took 600 years to build – and some of the great mosques, palaces and lavish tombs of the mighty rulers of the past also required great effort. Yet for outsiders, and even for insiders, the walls and buildings also serve as symbols which may obscure true understanding of the spirit they are supposed to represent.

At its most basic the problem is if you can’t see in, by the same token you can’t see out. Here we might think of our modern Churches as well as the Temple. And if you listen to the language inside the Church services and the language used by the same people outside the Church you might be excused for thinking that there are two separate worlds and even separate existences…. I even sometimes wonder if we should think of ourselves as bipolar Christians!

Let me illustrate. Inside the walls of the Church, we use our religious vocabulary to give thanks for salvation, seek forgiveness of sins and talk of meeting not for a mere cup of tea but for fellowship. In church you will hear those phrases which are meaningful to those in the know, the bread of life and the blood of the lamb …The fellowship of the Holy Spirit… and they all said AMEN. Comforting words no doubt to the initiated….

Outside much more commonly it is talk of what most would think as the real world. Not time for “fellowship” but meeting up for coffee at the town centre. Not time out there for prayers of confession. Rather: What have our politicians been up to behind our backs? Are the contractors offering a fair price? Did you watch the final? What’s for dinner?

This raises a question. If we can create this religious enclave in Church, having “done Church” on Sunday is there really any need to have anything to do with those awkward people we don’t really want to get to know outside the Church during the week? Or do you think what we should be asking about why we seem not to notice the difference? Having prayed for healing for Aunty Dolly on Sunday, we need to guard against thinking as if: having prayed, do we still need to visit Aunty Dolly in the hospital? Surely the more pertinent question is: if we prayed for Aunt Dolly in Church, what were we doing if we didn’t intend to follow it up with the hospital visit? Yet how different might it be if we return from Church to the world transformed, taking what we learn on one side of the wall to the other.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if that is the way it is meant to be, and from there, how the myriad of modern versions of the Temple contribute to this Homer Simpson-type attitude.

True a building can increase the pride and feelings of security and place for those who are privileged to use the building, but there is always a cost. Because outsiders cannot see in they feel excluded and of course those inside, while they are there they cannot notice what goes on beyond the walls.

I am not against the idea of Churches. I have always been struck by the atmosphere inside, the architecture and furniture and wall hangings which help us centre our thoughts and provide a place of contemplation and even wonder. Yet surely, we must remain keenly aware of what our building can do to the way we interact with those beyond the walls.

In Robert Frost’s work entitled “Walls” I was struck by a thought in the poem:
“….Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence”.

As far as the religious community was concerned the destruction of the Temple was tragic and in all likelihood, totally traumatic. The Jews who were not tortured or killed were driven out of Jerusalem and forced to interact with the world outside the city gates. And in truth it must have seemed to them like the end of the world. Yet like so many apocalyptic events through the centuries it was not the end of the world. The Christian missionaries, like so many since, were forced away from their protective Church enclaves into a world where they lived and shared their faith and actions as best they could, and we inherit their efforts.

In choosing which of Jesus’ words to recount, Luke is not pulling any punches. Not only will the Temple have to go but genuine problems and even anguish is ahead. And that is of course the nature of the real world. Some will have it worse than others. Some might be lucky enough to live tranquil lives and die peaceful deaths but when you are prepared to put faith and life on the line – in the real world, even life itself can be required. Luke finishes this section of his gospel with Jesus having just said some will be put to death, yet then Jesus comes out with this curious enigmatic statement. “But not one hair of your heads will perish. By your endurance you will win your souls”.

For the survival and spread of the faith, in the last analysis the temple is not needed. If anything, by its misuse, the temple once got in the way of the next step of faith, just as our Church will get in the way if we allow its walls to become part of the problem. Yet outside the security of those walls, even if the sacrifice of life itself is called for – that which Jesus calls the soul – or if you prefer – that which is most important because it is the very essence of life – is somehow won.

It is frankly beyond my knowledge and level of faith to talk confidently of exactly what it means to win our souls, yet it does seem to me that in restoring our priorities, we regain the dignity of the human condition, which at the very least is a prize worth winning.

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Lectionary Sermon 6 November 2022 on Luke 20:27-38

THE GOD OF THE LIVING (Based on a sermon preached in 2019)
Have you ever noticed that the people who are most certain about what happens after death are still alive? I know the Bible makes thousands of statements but knowing which of these are best assumed as literal truth may need a to be approached with a bit of cautious humility.

We have probably all encountered many people who have favourite Bible passages, yet because the Bible is from its title (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, “the books”) This means is a veritable library of books, which incidentally sometimes varies with different main branches of the Church.  Are we surprised then that the favourite texts chosen can vary widely and usually coincide with individual preferences of the believer. This is not a new phenomenon. For example, the Sadducees in Jesus’ time only recognised the first five books of what eventually grew into the Bible. Consequently, they derived their teaching and justification from these books. In the same way we encounter Christians today so fixated on end times that they cannot seem to see past the Book of Revelation. This selectivity leaves tremendous blind spots from which no doubt we also are not immune.

I cannot say for example that I have ever encountered a married fundamentalist Church goer who would by preference be found quoting this morning’s text as their favourite – and in particular Luke Ch 20 verses 34 and 35 when Jesus – talking about resurrection for the dead says: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage”. Luke has Jesus saying, “but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age, and in that resurrection, neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

( In other words to take Jesus literally, if you are married you might as well forget being resurrected!).

For what it is worth, while I am not a Bible literalist, I still believe that the gospels have practical value, particularly if we read them remembering the context of each section.

This particular passage from Luke’s gospel appears aimed specifically at the Sadducees who were vehemently against any suggestion of resurrection since it was not mentioned in those first five books of scripture. Note then about the Sadducees’ own beliefs, that they were at loggerheads, first with the Pharisees and then with the emerging followers of Christ because at least according to the historian Josephus, the Sadducees’ beliefs included a total rejection of resurrection of the dead. On this occasion they were recorded trying to trap Jesus into tangling himself with one of their standard arguments.  In this case, namely that serial marriages produce real complication for those believing that they are going to be reunited with loved ones after death.

To understand where they were coming from – and I guess to understand why the Sadducees are no longer significant to modern Judaism, you also need to know that the Sadducees were in effect the aristocratic keepers of the faith at the time of the Roman invasion. They safeguarded the Temple, administered the state and from their ranks came the Jewish diplomats. They collected taxes (including taxes from those Jews who were scattered outside Israel). They equipped and led the army, sorted out domestic disputes and regulated relations with the Romans. For what it is worth, I am guessing that their inability to safeguard the Temple and maintain a working relationship with the Romans presumably helps explain their subsequent loss of authority and status when the Romans destroyed the Temple and drove the Jews from Jerusalem.

So, we come to today’s story. As far as the Sadducees were concerned, they were being very clever – and what is more by using scriptures in a way the Pharisees would have to accept, but which they thought had a consequence which was laughable, they assumed there was no reply that Jesus would be able to find.

Certainly, before we get too carried away, there is another problem to admit. The fine detail of this debate is not certain. Honesty should compel us to acknowledge that Luke’s version of the debate varies from that in the gospel of Mark (Ch 12:18-27), and the gospel of Matthew (Ch 22: 23 – 33) because in those two gospels Jesus had been more belligerent and had denounced the beliefs of the Sadducees and their ignorance of scripture. In Luke’s version there was no denunciation and instead Jesus chooses a more subtle approach where he found his argument in the very books the Sadducees accepted.

Unlike Mark, Luke has Jesus talking of a resurrection reserved only for the very few who are entirely faithful, and his rebuttal of the Sadducees is based not on their ignorance, but on stories from the scriptures about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he would have known they held dear.

Luke’s retelling of Mark’s account certainly suggests a similar distaste for the Sadducees’ style of argument and in this he had a personal background that gave him good reason. For example in the book of Acts, also written by Luke, in Ch 23 of Acts he refers to the hearing for Paul’s trial after he had been arrested in the Temple for supposedly having insulted the High Priest.

In that instance Paul had started his defence by saying that he was really on trial for his belief in the resurrection of the dead. According to Acts Ch 23 this caused a great uproar since there were both Pharisees and Sadducees present and their personal divisions on the subject actually led to blows. Before we are too hasty to condemn the Pharisees and Sadducees remember we do go too far back in our religious history to notice it is stained with confrontations between those who were prepared to kill those who differed on what in retrospect now seem small issues of obscure theology.

If we go back to Jesus’ confrontation with the Sadducees, at first glance it appears of little relevance to today’s world. You would be hard put to find Sadducees in our city today, but those who question resurrection for all generally do so nowadays, not because they think it contradicts some obscure point in Old Testament theology, but because modern science has given us new insights into the likely meaning of death.

However, what ultimately makes the argument relevant for us today is the reminder Jesus gives at the end. “(vs 38) Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

In fact, it seems to me this implies the foolishness of the Sadducees was not so much that they were wrong to point out logical problems for those who held to a particular view of the afterlife. The foolishness is that focussing on what it means to be in relationship with God after we die is essentially speculation.

To pin too much on pretending the speculation in fact leads to problems. Certainly, I have been present at funeral services where preachers or funeral attendees have made firm statements about what the dear departed is probably now enjoying in heaven, but like the myriad of statements about prospects in hell, at best this can only ever be speculation. Where it becomes something worse is where we use these speculations to separate us from our fellows. The Sadducees had arrived at a different conclusion from the Pharisees and both sides were using the difference to condemn one another. Why else would they have come to blows at Paul’s trial?

Our own speculations about the foolishness of others’ beliefs about the un-testable hereafter are similarly potentially dangerous.

If, on the other hand, we can bring ourselves to see that the God of Love can be at the centre of life (or as Jesus put it: the God of the living – not the dead) then the transformation which is probably at the heart of what Jesus called resurrection can start to awaken.

I am rather hoping the phrase God of the Living might also remind us that what happens in the rarefied (and I would like to suggest artificial) atmosphere of a Church service atmosphere is not all there is to life. As Colin Morris put it in his work, Things Shaken and Things Unshaken, “truth is the capacity to bring one’s thinking and feeling into agreement with the world outside; to value whatever comes our way at its proper worth”.

The alternative of talking of the spiritual world as if it is separate from the outside world is to consign faith to irrelevance. If our Christianity can’t persuade us to live according to values that count in day to day living like honesty, compassion, justice and truth then why would anyone care about what we choose to believe? For example, many of those in our local community and certainly those in the unstable parts of the world daily face real life problems like the disparity between the rich and the poor, like decisions based on bioethics, like those places where only fair trade and fair food distribution are going to make life worth living. If our beliefs don’t help, then why is our religion relevant?

Speculation about what happens after death takes our attention from the essence of what Jesus taught. Since Love is at the heart of proper relationships, it is in seeking ways to live this love right through our week, not just in the Church for the day of worship, but outside, in the daily choices in the real world, a world with all its everyday problems and possibilities. Surely that is the only way that might bring us into relationship with the God of the Living. If we cannot bring ourselves to face this truth, how then are we going to begin to find meaning in the term resurrection?

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Lectionary Sermon for October 30 2022 on Luke 19:1-10 (Pentecost 21)

Jesus and the Wee Little Man
For many of us Zacchaeus brings back happy Sunday school memories of a simple story showing that Jesus cares even for someone who is rejected, even one who doesn’t count. That could have been me……And yes, back as children, we may well remember joining in singing that particular Sunday Song.  I suspect this is one of the few songs I actually recall from those days as going something like: 

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

And when Jesus passed that way
He looked up in the tree,
and said, “Zaccheus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house you see!”

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
Now a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a very happy man was he.

But just a thought….what if it wasn’t about Jesus recognising someone like worthless me?   What if we were meant to follow Jesus’ example?

Simple yes, but if that more sobering application is expected I want to suggest the story is potentially mind altering, perhaps even life changing.

I am assuming that most of us remember Zacchaeus as that “wee little man” who came to see Jesus pass by when he visited Jericho, and yet the reject was the one singled out for attention. More to the point I guess the part of the story we prefer to ignore is NOT the question of how Jesus treated the social misfit – BUT rather the question of whether or not, we as the followers of Jesus, are inspired by this story to make our own connection with serious rejects from society.

So, to the story. Here we presume that as a tax collector – well actually a Chief Tax Collector, would most definitely qualify as a social pariah, and, as a consequence, for him to be mingling with the crowd to get closer to Jesus might not even have been an option.

You probably already know the tax collectors at that time were seen as collaborators in that they served the Roman invaders, and since a good number were also known to skim something off the top for their own gain, it is very likely Zacchaeus would have been greatly distrusted. This distrust was probably all the greater because in a Jewish society one known to handle money on behalf of gentiles was technically unclean in a religious sense.

Another reason why the tax collectors were deemed unclean was that they were expected to base their assessment on people’s possessions, and this involved handling goods that were not owned by them – again forbidden by Jewish law.

We might also note in passing that because Jericho was a prosperous centre of Balsam trade, it is also likely that Zacchaeus would have had ample opportunity to make himself very wealthy indeed from fleecing the rich merchants, which when to think of it,  is not a good recipe for getting himself liked by those whose fortunes were thereby lessened.

According to the story Zaccheus was unable to see Jesus over the crowd and I guess the logical inference was that he was indeed a short man. We note in passing, that there is much evidence to show a good number of people from that time and region were often considerably shorter than they are today.

(Some commentators quite reasonably suggest that the same problem might have arisen if Jesus was the short person(!)) But even if his actual height wasn’t an issue, Zacchaeus was looked down upon in every other possible way. Perhaps this is what one commentator, tongue in cheek, called the “Stature of limitations”!

In any event Zacchaeus, climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus and no doubt to everyone’s surprise, Jesus not only takes notice of him up there, even addresses him by name and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ place for a meal. Zacchaeus, apparently overcome with Jesus’ accepting attitude, is sufficiently contrite to offer to reform and not only promises to repay those he had cheated, but to give back more than he had taken.

In terms of our modern understanding of what traditionally used to be termed sin, this repayment plays an important psychological role. Jesus in effect nudging Zacchaeus towards this opportunity for redemption should not be underestimated. 

The famous Psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, in his book “Whatever Became of Sin?”(1973, New York: Hawthorn Books), suggests to us that feelings of past guilt can cripple unless an opportunity is given for some sort of act of restoration. He further suggested it is inappropriate to downplay the notion of sin or alternately try to pretend it doesn’t exist, because the individual needs to identify what it is that casts the shadows that distort the personality.

While it is true that Jesus does not appear to have done anything particularly dramatic to bring Zacchaeus to his moment of redemption, Zacchaeus nevertheless chooses his own form of restorative justice perhaps as a result of Jesus’ intervention.

Although the Gospel account leaves the story at that point, just for the record, some early Christian writing takes the story further. For example, Clement of Alexandria in his book Stromata claims Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles and took the place of Jesus’ betrayer Judas Iscariot. The later writing called the Apostolic Constitutions identifies the first Bishop of Caesarea as “Zacchaeus the Publican”.

Although we can readily see the compassionate wisdom shown by Jesus in the story, less obvious is the contrast with what most of us might have done in the circumstances. Pariahs are typically shunned – after all that is what the term normally means. When we spot someone in the crowd who is normally rejected by decent society, by convention, we are not expected to show them recognition or acceptance. I would go so far as to suggest this would be more unlikely on an occasion when we ourselves are surrounded by friends and even in this case by admirers.

And did you notice?….. Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name. Again, beggars and other forms of society rejects do not normally attract our personal consideration to the extent of discovering and using the names of the so despised.

Furthermore, it is one thing to show ourselves to be sufficiently generous to stop to talk to someone unworthy of our trust. It is quite a different matter to offer to dine with them.

Certainly, we can see why this recognition and acceptance by Jesus may have been likely to have made such an impression on Zacchaeus – and with a little reflection we can also probably see that these actions were entirely consistent with the message Jesus represented.

The question then becomes: how, in this century  may we represent this same message to others?

Custom shows us that those who are generally rejected are rarely welcomed. Rehab clinics, Dependency units, Alcoholics Anonymous, released prisoners, gang houses… all treated with suspicion – as are those ne immigrants from unpopular nations.   The customs and prejudices of most communities are not the customs of those who are living inspired by Jesus.

Placing a Church in the centre of town is not typically the same as offering hospitality to the modern day Zaccheuses of our world.  It is reasonable to assume if we left it at following custom, we most certainly will not be conveying by our actions what we learn about Jesus in this story.

So simply re-telling the story is not enough. Talking about it or reading about it to others won’t help either, particularly if others don’t see us, the self-appointed messengers of the one who reached out to pariahs, rather as the sort of people who themselves prefer to join the crowd and identify and shun pariahs. If pushed, we are probably only too aware that there is a technical term for the sort of people who claim to represent a message in words yet contradict the message with their own actions, but the question each of us must answer for ourselves – is do we really want that term …. of hypocrite…. applied to us?

This applies to our Church and even our nation. All around us we hear talk of pariah religions and pariah states. Islam, some say, encourages terrorism yet despite the talk of inter-faith dialogue we stand by passively when we notice actions that are anything but accepting of many, who despite being Muslim, are clearly innocent of terrorism. Similarly in our society and in our Church congregations we occasionally hear talk of reform of prisoners, yet from the limited action we typically offer in support of this policy, the net result is that reform effort offers minimal assistance to released prisoners.

I must have missed the expected widespread Church protest, despite the frequent reminders from the pulpit that we Christians must be leaders when it comes to social action.

It is unrealistic to assume we might ever reach a degree of perfection in our attitudes to the less fortunate. Nevertheless, if our sense of direction is so muddled that we are uncertain what values we are attempting to stand for then it might be time for some self-appraisal. And if our faith has anything at all to do with the world in which we live, our attitudes to others, including to the often un-loveable might be as good a place as any to start.

Fortunately, although I can find many examples of instances where we are reluctant to call the pariahs down from their metaphorical sycamore trees, I can also think of those among us who do care enough to offer a degree of acceptance and friendship. There are some among us who are the epitome of acceptance and who win the right to be messengers of Jesus by their living of his message. We can be grateful that not all servants of the Church are focused on personal advancement and respectability.

As a non-Catholic looking at the present Pope, Pope Francis, what I believe I see is a humble man who truly attempts to live the gospel he has encountered. I cannot truthfully say that I always see the same consistency in some other religious leaders. More to the point, if I were backed into a corner,  can I claim with any certainty that others would come close to seeing that I was living my faith? Would they with you?

Karl Menninger reminds us that the first step in redemption is in first acknowledging what some would call our sins. But that is not enough. Having acknowledged our weakness, just as Zacchaeus showed by his actions, next is to make the first tentative steps towards restorative justice.

If we can only step back a little to reflect on how successfully we individually reach out to whomever our church and society appear to treat as pariahs, perhaps we too may be in a better position to acknowledge we too may need some acts of redemption.

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Lectionary Sermon for 23 October 2022 on Luke 18: 9-14 (Proper 25C / Ordinary 30C / Pentecost +23)

A Bit of the Pharisee in Me?
There may be a problem for many of us when it comes to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.   No matter how familiar the well-worn and oft described characters have since become, the let-out clause which allows us to duck the challenge of the parable is that the setting and characters appear so different from our own.   Here is this self-obsessed Pharisee placing himself in a prominent position in front of the crowd and praying a self-righteous prayer. This prayer, in effect, is gloating over that other player in Jesus’ story, the wretched tax collector. 

Back 2000 years ago the tax collector in Palestine would have been perceived a miserable specimen.    There was good reason why the society of the day would be expecting a reputation for dishonesty. By virtue of his occupation, he is also identified as a collaborator with the hated Romans. In the eyes of the Pharisees, as a handler of money and an agent of a Gentile Empire, to the Jews of the time the tax collector would have been seen as ritually unclean. If you want to get a feel for the loathing he must have experienced, just look at the writings of Jews in the aftermath of the Second World War as they talked of those Jews who had joined the Jewish Nazis or turned against their fellows in the concentration camps.

The tax collector in the parable would have experienced a similar feeling of becoming a social pariah. As Luke reports the story, the tax collector is clearly only too aware of his own shortcomings and believes he can only pray for mercy. Yes, we might assume we can relate to Jesus’ conclusion. Remember the tax collector was the one who finds justification before God with his act of humble and even desperate contrition, whereas, of course, the Pharisee for all his pompous obedience to the customs of his religion is not the one Jesus praises.

No matter how we admire humility in theory, that is not always how many observers would describe some of our modern church leadership.   St. Augustine once wrote, “Should you ask me, what is the first thing in religion?”, He then replied to his own question., “The first, the second, and third thing therein is humility.” “ He goes on to say that without humility, all the other virtues are mere pretence. 

So what does history say about those religious tyrants served by ruthless armies?   Take Henry the VIII (self-appointed first King of the Church of England) would you describe him with the word humble? Humble?…

 Or those leaders of the Crusades as they encouraged their armies to sack and pillage?  Adolf Hitler, that self-claimed admirer of Jesus?…who would buy that?  Stalin, who served as a priest before becoming a ruthless leader of Russia and who had millions killed in Siberia.   And today, the modern religious leaders like the Grand Ayatollah in Iran- surely the current riots speak for themselves.  President Putin together with his great supporter of the Ukrainian War, the Patriarch of Moscow, are hardly the same as those living the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.  

Yet, did we happen to notice in terms of standard theology, at least at first glance, surely the Pharisee had travelled a good way down the path of faith? He obviously believes in the law, and the customs of his contemporary Church. He follows the main injunctions to the letter, not only giving a tithe, but actually tithing all his possessions. Wasn’t this going the second mile, surely the sort of thing for which Jesus would normally show approval? So, what is amiss?

In an age where we are surrounded by those with different beliefs, is it surprising we treat some as worse than ours? I heard one self-claimed man of faith saying that while he supposed it was possible to be a good Muslim, he thought that when they died, they might be better not to pack sunglasses – but rather a fire-extinguisher. Yet faith is far more than being called Methodist, Presbyterian or whatever our Church membership certificate currently says. We might even need reminding faith is not so much about passive belief but about being faithful to the spirit of the belief, and more particularly to the extent we live the things we say we trust.

Claiming belief or making a deliberate outward show of faith is simply not enough to make one seem to have these characteristics. Perhaps before we take too much comfort in our status as Church members or Christians, we should remind ourselves that many convicted criminals including a good number at present on death row in US prisons classify themselves as Christian.

I once heard the story of a preacher who preached a sermon on this passage and finished with this heartfelt prayer. “O God, we give thanks that you have given us grace so that we are not like this Pharisee”….Well hold on a minute. Is that so very different from being scornful of members of some denomination or religion where their background has caused them to express their faith in very different ways to ourselves? Surely a modern follower ( Christians?) Christian today would show humility in the way they related to the “streeties”, Mormons and JW’s. That us?

I am not convinced church members in my own hometown are all prepared to offer friendship to those at the bottom of society. I am not even certain of my own attitudes.   Perhaps we should not forget that was what identified as being wrong with the Pharisee. He didn’t want to associate with the tax collector. Can you think of anyone you know who prefers not to associate themselves with those rejected by society? There are some who walk the streets of our town centre who don’t know the names of any of our regular beggars. There are some who sail past those thought of by many as religious nutters – the JWs, the Mormons, the Hare Krishnas. Is that perhaps like saying that Thank God we are not like them?

I am embarrassed to admit we need to take a good hard look at ourselves to be certain there is not something of the Pharisee in most of us.

This attitude where we believe we are entitled to set ourselves above weaker members of the community, and that superiority, often justified by the most dubious reasons, is at the heart of this parable.

Here the Greek words of the original is interesting. The Pharisee we should note stood …. what was it again…..Pros Heaton which superficially means “by himself”. However, in that parable context, I wonder if there is another possible translation – namely that he prayed not to God but to himself. I concede that he started his prayer with a term for God – so at one level it appears addressed to God, yet that doesn’t make the words mean it is a prayer genuinely addressed to God. Like some prayers we occasionally hear in public worship, there is always a suspicion that at least sometimes such prayer is a self-serving performance for public effect, and here in terms of the Pharisee’s prayer, the words suggest that it is a product of total self-absorption.

That the tax collector stood at some distance is not just commentary on the tax collector’s frame of mind, but also a commentary on his awareness of the judgmental attitude of the others who were present. Before we decide we ourselves are not pharisaic in our attitudes, perhaps we should reflect on whether or not all appear happy to share our company.

What signals do you think we might have been unconsciously sending to the so-called street people if they do not seek our company? I can indeed understand why most communities are not particularly welcoming to those who are different particularly when the newcomers’ religious or ethnic dress or habits seem foreign.

We do so like a feeling of common and safe familiarity with our own surroundings and a community which relates to us as we relate to the community. On the other hand, I am sure most have at least heard the expression: “that since they come to our country the newcomers have to learn to conform to our customs”.

I wonder if it ever occurs to us that this might be saying something about us as hosts rather than saying something about those who are newcomers? Do you think – even if the newcomers are maybe mistaken – do you think that just maybe our visitors are picking up the unspoken message – “ Thank God we are not like them”?

Even something as commonplace as reflecting on those who stand apart during morning tea after church may tell just as much about ourselves as those who appear reluctant to join us.

William Barclay once told the story of a judge who was an active member of church. His church had started a mission church out in the country. It became their custom that once a year, around Christmas time, the whole congregation of this small mission church would come into the city and worship with the downtown church.

When it came time for communion, the judge found himself kneeling next to a man who was a new convert. The only problem for the judge was the new convert in his previous life happened to be a convicted robber sent to prison by that very same judge.

A friend of the judge was most impressed, “Isn’t it a miracle what God has done in that man’s life?” he said.

The judge replied, “That may be so, but it’s a greater miracle what God has done in my life.”  His friend was puzzled so the judge went on, “I was raised in a loving home. I never went without anything. I had the finest education that could be provided. I think it’s a greater miracle that God could get through to me and show me that I stood in need of a saviour as much as that robber.”

When Jesus is quoted as saying that the tax collector went home justified in the sight of God there is an underlying question which should prick our consciences. The question is do you think the tax collector also goes home justified in the sight of the onlookers? Well – does he? – for in one sense we are among the onlookers.

We are onlookers not only to this as a New Testament story, but to the repeated parable in all the forms it continues to take today. Just as St Augustine draws attention to the centrality of humility, we need to be alert to our own tendencies to parade our superiority to those whose past and present setting leaves them vulnerable to our judgment and derision.

We are in need of Jesus’ quiet wisdom just as much as William Barclay’s humble judge or the parable’s penitent tax collector.

As our lives continue to take shape and form, we too, individually, will no doubt continue to shape and personify what is most important to each one of us. We leave the last word to St Augustine. “Without humility, all the other virtues are mere pretence”.

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Lectionary Sermon, 16 October 2022 on Luke 18:1-8(Proper 24C/Ordinary 29C/ Pentecost+22)

The simplistic way of interpreting today’s parable is that we should redouble our efforts for winning justice by renewing our petitioning efforts if we find we are facing an unjust judge.  Yet I am far from convinced that this merely means praying extra hard to get through to a disinterested (or overworked) God.   Given the past clouded history of the variety of churches who have sought to extend their power, a more interesting contemporary possibility is that the parable might even remind us that some of our own church’s judgements are also traditionally unjust.

But here is the catch. Locally, for most people, what is going to happen from here depends on what we are going to do in our own setting. It is not sufficient to simply celebrate the choices and actions of what others before us chose to do for their time. I concede that it is no accident that some congregation settings last a long time – some well past one hundred years…particularly if our predecessors showed wisdom in the actions and in their vision. But it is equally true that other churches have their leaders make silly decisions or even allow us to limp along for a good while just drifting and then quietly fizzle out. So which choices will our own congregation be noting at their next annual meeting.

Can I suggest that it is surprisingly easy to miss the opportunities in front of us. I even wonder if this might be because we tend to be almost deliberately blind to what is happening around us in our wider community and wider world in case it changes our life pattern.

In the gospel reading this morning, there is the story of the unjust judge. A curious story – particularly if we only see it talking to those in Jesus’ time. But like most parable stories it gets to have some bite if we were for example to see ourselves sharing the callous attitude of the unjust judge blind to those like the victim widow seeking justice. And there are many victims in a modern community.

In the Gospel introduction to the story of the persistent widow, we learn that this story has a particular purpose, namely to meet the fears of Jesus’ followers as they face the up-coming struggle against the adversity that looms.

Although the story might appear to refer to a relatively minor issue of justice for a wronged widow of no consequence, in verse one we learn that the real issue for the widow is staying true to the principles of God’s justice in the face of despair.

I don’t agree with the common trivial interpretation namely to imply that any intercession will eventually be rewarded if whatever we mean by God is hassled enough by repeated requests, no matter what the requests might be. This takes us into very shaky territory.

It seems to me that there are several problems for the God bothering approach for trivial concerns. First, it paints a very unflattering and, dare I say, implausible picture of God, and in view of what little we know about the mysterious forces of the universe, also a curiously irrelevant image of whatever might be behind this creation.

What is more, it is one that does not seem to correlate with the world as we know it. Despite the needs of the Church picnic, what was it the prophet once put it?… the rain still falls on the just and the unjust. Prayed for children still die when the earthquake flattens their house, or when terminal cancer defeats the efforts of the best nurses or skilled oncologists. Sailors can still be still lost at sea when the boat is leaky and the storm rages.

Second by taking the view that God behind our metaphors will eventually listen to persistent petitions about our wishes shifts the responsibility away from the people and divests it with God. We might only pray for the safety of a fisherman, or we might also buy him a life jacket and encourage him wear it.

I believe there are much more constructive ways to learn from this particular parable.

In the first place I have no problem with the notion that we should follow Jesus in drawing attention to the plight of the humble widow. In our attitudes to those on the edge of society, we can learn from Jesus telling his stories about needs of those caught in such situations. If the poor man at the rich man’s gate, the blind beggar, the tax collector hiding up a tree, the leper who was a Samaritan, or here, the widow seeking justice, all have a place in Jesus’ scheme of things, if we are indeed his followers, we should share his concern for the marginalized.

Second, whatever our preferred metaphors for the God we follow might be, to assume that an unjust judge is an appropriate image to represent a God associated with creation and the forces of Love does not suggest a good match. If on the other hand we were to turn the image around so that we, as representatives of the God encountered in Love, begin to see that our past actions may have found us behaving like the unjust judge, then perhaps the parable reminds us that eventually our unjustified deafness to the petitions of those like the widow must change.

In a way our chosen interpretation of this parable depends on our theology of prayer. We can hardly claim Luke’s Jesus did not think prayer was important in that in several places Luke talks of Jesus going away to pray. Yet Jesus himself did not use these prayers to transfer responsibility to God. Rather, and in the face of plenty of potential discouragement, and that even from those who he was relying on to help with his mission, he is recorded as using the prayer for strength for getting on with the task. For Jesus, prayer seemed to be the means of clarifying thought and seeking strength so that he might continue with his concern for the powerless, as well as persisting with his concern that society start to develop attitudes of forgiveness, humility and a desire for justice for the downtrodden.

This is very different from the easy out, the persistent asking for favours and the desire that our God will become the one to enrich us and solve the problems that are rightfully ours to face. Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that the way we approach God in prayer, and indeed the way we live out our faith, reveals what our image of God has become. Talking to God as if in our mind’s eye “He” has become a haughty distant ruler takes us further away from a Jesus who taught that we must be the message. The God-likeness that Loader notices in Jesus’ teaching and not just in this passage, is fundamentally about self-giving and responsiveness to the needs of those around us, and above all, about love and care.

Working for justice is indeed a genuine concern of legitimate religion. I am reminded of John Morley who once made the observation that “religion has many dialects, many diverse connections, but it has one true voice, the voice of human pity, of mercy, of patient justice…”

There is of course a puzzle, particularly if we see the coming of God’s kingdom as an event – and specifically one on the verge of happening. And it is an issue that must be squarely faced. Despite Jesus’ words, the kingdom did not seem to arrive for his listeners at the time, and most certainly not in the form of a Hollywood type Armageddon. And in every generation since there have been some convinced that it is now to their generation he was referring – and in every generation there is disappointment.

On the other hand, it does seem to me that in another context, that of the Lord’s Prayer, the line about the kingdom ran something like: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done –and then the bit we sometimes forget, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Well, I can’t exactly justify what I am going to say next by reference to scholars I have read, but since I happen to believe it – and that somewhat uncertainly – I am going to say it anyway. I think for the justice to be delivered on earth, first we have to realize that ultimately justice is something which depends on those of us on earth. One friend, Rev Prince Devanadan, once pointed out to me that there are many prayers for peace and very few peacemakers. Jesus is said to have commented “Blessed are the Peacemakers ….” He didn’t say “blessed are the peace pray-ers”

Perhaps then this justice of the coming Kingdom is not an event for all at one instance, but rather something that can only begin to arrive as each one of us listen to the pleas around us and start to deliver the justice, not only to the widows but to all who cry out.

For those of you who travel you will have encountered rich churches in lands where there are many poor. You would have seen the results of persecution based on faith disagreements. You may even have encountered examples of death-camps, the consequences of religious conflict.   And few will have missed the current misplaced religious justification for Putin’s war in the Ukraine. In no way are those sad examples a steadfast seeking of justice, but rather an active denial of the very principles Jesus was seeking to instil. It is also equally unjust when Jews were sent to concentration camps while the Christians looked the other way and closer to our context a hopefully smaller number in this country when the Muslims at the mosque were attacked in Christchurch.

On the other hand, we also encounter those who had retained their focus on principles taught by Jesus. Those religious orders who maintained a mission to the poor throughout the centuries, humble servants of the Christ they understood and followed, and those who brought peace to warring peoples. We encountered Church members who might not have even considered themselves to be religious, but who showed the true voice of that religion in their actions of pity, providing a listening ear they lent to all they encountered in trouble. In terms of the principles Jesus taught as the Justice of God, yet we don’t gain enhanced credence by announcing to others which denomination or Church has our nominal affiliation. Rather we demonstrate our willingness to give priority to God’s justice by a steadfast holding to the course.

We have a community where injustice persists. We accept an absolute minimum number of refugees. Prejudice is common. Already present are many either homeless or living in inadequate homes.

Hardly a single Western country should be proud of their current statistics relating to inequalities within their society.

If our future is partly ours to begin, perhaps this Sunday is as good as any time for a reset. AMEN

POSTSCRIPT If you happened to find the above sermon of any use (or alternately disagree with its approach) why not share your thoughts – or better – at least from my viewpoint – share the website with others

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Lectionary Sermon for 9 October 2022 on Luke 17:11-19

WHAT MADE THE TENTH LEPER UNIQUE?  

It must have been difficult for the first historians who checked up on what made Jesus different from the host of itinerant teachers, preachers and healers who wandered Roman Palestine.  In an age before properly qualified physicians, faith healing was far from unknown.  Letters and records of that time include mentions of Apollonius of Tyana who was claimed to heal the lame, the sick and the blind and even claim he raised a girl from the dead.   In the National Geographic edition entitled Jesus and the Apostles there was reference to the strange Honi the Circle Drawer whose reputation appeared to center on a time of drought where Honi had drawn a circle on the ground, stepped into it and apparently argued with God, who as a consequence, then changed His mind and made it rain.    This made me think of an incident from a few years back when the Wizard of Christchurch visited an area near Temuka which had suffered months of drought.   He reportedly performed a noisy and spectacular rain dance…and Lo … it rained.  Admittedly his rain dance later turned out to have coincided with a weather forecast in “the Press” predicting rain in that area that day but I confess I smiled when some fundamentalist Christians thereupon accused the Wizard of Christchurch of a form of evil Black Magic!

But it also should encourage us to ask what it might have been about Jesus actions and teaching which make a difference for those of us living two thousand years later.

I am guessing that any unexpected healing, particularly faith healing, would attract attention for the “wow” effect, yet there is something a little more unexpected in today’s gospel.

Martin Luther for one, saw past the surface “wow” magic of today’s gospel extract and instead seemed to think of it as one of those pivotal stories right at the heart of what the faith is supposed to represent.   Back in the sixteenth century someone once challenged Luther to describe the characteristics of true worship. His reply? “…the tenth leper turning back”.

I want to share something of what I suspect Luther saw.

True that, as a story, today’s gospel reading may not even hold up as a literal truth. Some Bible historians insist there was no area between Galilee and Samaria where the story might have been set since the two areas had a common boundary and Luke, writing well after the event, was known to have made other geographical blunders. The other problem is, again like some other stories about Jesus there were no independent witnesses, which raises the awkward question about how the story was recorded in the first place.

I suspect Luke was not so much reporting this event as an eye-witness, but rather telling this story with a clear theological message with the underlying intention of bringing his readers closer to the essential heart of what Christianity is supposed to be about.

When it comes to healing, healing is not normally thought of as the same as being made whole again. Most of us have probably had a whole range of accidents and illnesses by the time we reach adulthood and even more so by the time we reach old age. Yet although we have recovered from most of these, we all show scars, signs of skin damage, while radiation damage from sunlight and chemicals in our environment continue to take a toll and an electron microscope would record chromosome damage as well.

There is for example, a good chance that some here might have had pneumonia at some time in their life and although recovered to the extent they no longer show the symptoms, yet their lungs will probably now show the signature of some long-term damage. Even diseases like leprosy if left untreated usually eventually burn themselves out. Unfortunately , if not treated early enough, there will be serious nerve damage and while the disease is still active the numbness in the limbs often means minor infections are not recognized before they can set in, often producing gross deformity and even loss of fingers or toes.

But even if the physical healing is apparently complete, the more serious dimension, the psychological aspect also needs attention. For some, healing miracles have more meaning if they are interpreted in a parable sense but even if we are intended to read this as a literal reporting it is still more readily understood when we see that this story is directing us to a healing event that goes beyond physical healing.

Back to the gospel story. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem in an area between Galilee and Samaria is recorded as meeting 10 lepers. Jesus heals them (presumably in the bodily sense) and sends them off to have the healing confirmed by a priest in accordance with the law. They all set off, but one, who happened to be the Samaritan in the group, returns to thank Jesus, and Jesus tells him (at least according to some translations) that his faith has made him whole.

So, with that in mind, looking at the setting for the message, it is actually helpful to us to realize that the story is indeed set in a middle ground, for that is where many of us must start. A sort of metaphorical mid ground between a Galilee representing the people who are supposed to be the people of God and a Samaria representing those whose beliefs are sufficiently suspect to disqualify them as bona fide people of faith. Perhaps to you, this sounds suspiciously like an appropriate setting for those with good intentions but sufficient weaknesses to make them appear like many of us today.

Secondly, we note the ordinariness of this particular healing miracle takes away much of its mystery. Ten lepers might equally be ten with any of a multitude of aliments or miseries. And yes, regardless of how we might prefer to make sense of miracles, we too are often released from at least some of our miseries by the ordinary intervention of people who care. And don’t forget, just as Jesus instructed his apparently cured lepers to seek a standard formal recognition of the healing – we too should be warned to do our checks according to standard practice.

So you think you have been cured of alcoholism, or of cancer or of some psychological misfortune like paranoia or loneliness – don’t assume the problem has gone away. Get yourself checked out.

And don’t think that just because nine of the lepers were not there to thank Jesus for his intervention that they were somehow being thoughtless or unfaithful. After all, didn’t Jesus apparently help all ten, then ask them to show themselves to the priest in accordance with the law? Thus, when Jesus asks the tenth leper who comes back to thank him, “Where are the other nine?” It would presumably have been in order to reply: “They are merely off to show themselves to the priest – and come to think of it, is that not what you told them to do?”

It was all to do with that tenth leper .What was it about this man that Martin Luther was so important? What lifts his actions to the point where Jesus can tell him his faith has made him whole.

Presumably whatever had just happened to the nine lepers also happened to the tenth leper – and there is no indication in the story that there was a difference between the lepers in the physical healing. Yet the tenth leper appears to have seen the situation rather differently. He followed his heart. Seeing things differently in some ways might also be said to be the heart of faith and certainly as Luther saw it, was also the attitude at the heart of true worship.

The thinking of humans its takes meaning and force only when the thought is defined enough to be represented by words. Ideas do not crystallize until we put them into words, so the tenth leper – in all probability struggling to work out what has happened to him, encounters some insight as he delves inward and puts it into his own words to give thanks.

In the story Jesus asks the grateful one – and where are the others? Yet noticing that the other healed ones had not shared that moment of insight, or even agreeing with some of the commentators in their interpretation is not sufficient to take us all the way. Just because the tenth leper had identified the need to thank the one behind his healing, his thanks does not absolve the others.

I guess another way of saying the same thing is that just because someone else is engaged in true worship, it would not follow that we too can ride on their coat tails. Saying AMEN to someone else’s prayer does not necessarily mean it is our prayer.

Perhaps we should learn from this because true worship in the sense that Luther referred to is so very different from simply being present, or for that matter nodding assent to other people’s familiar words and phrases and somehow believing that in so doing we are taking part in genuine worship.

In Luther’s framework, true worship then, is not following the rules of faith.

Rather it seems more akin to starting by looking back among the increasingly swirling memories to find there the things for which we truly give thanks, particularly those that we associate with what we understand Jesus to stand for…. and then, as best we can, finding there the words that make us whole. If we can allow ourselves to follow our hearts rather than the customs of belief maybe it is only then we might come close to true worship indeed.

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