Lectionary sermon for 24 September 2017 on Matthew 21: 23-32)

Jesus’ parables are generally easy to follow but not all are simply vivid and memorable stories. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus, the master of creative story-telling, is typically recorded as telling each parable in a form that everyone listening could find something there with which to relate. That was the comfortable bit. But then, for a good number of the parables, with his listeners first following and then taking the bait, they would discover the hook.

The parable was not always just a story about someone else – it was sometimes a story directly and personally aimed at those who would listen. Even when we find the story told again two thousand years later, the barb on that hook is as sharp as ever. Jesus aimed this particular story about the two sons asked to work in the vineyard at those who in his day who were leading religious figures. The barb was that to point out that others like the lowest of society were ahead of those leaders in their faith. Might his parable retain the same bait – and same barbed hook today?

The parable again:
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

There is something artificial in the promises given for Church membership that has the potential to make Jesus’ parable of the two sons almost embarrassing. This is possibly one of the easiest parables to understand. Two sons are asked to help their father in the vineyard. One son promises – then fails to deliver on the promise. The other son says he won’t help – then does help. Which of the two does what his Father wants?….An absolute no- brainer. It isn’t the promise to help that counts – it is whether or not the help is delivered that matters.

Here in New Zealand we have just emerged from yet another election. And boy – did we hear some great promises. Race relations would improve. Each party was going to fix the economy, the social issues and the environment. The education system was going to be reformed. Trade was going to increase. The children were going to be looked after. Employment was going to improve. The health system would deliver and the elderly would have a better future. New Zealand would become a more caring society.

But did you like me notice three things missing?

The first was the promises from last time did not seem to have made much difference in the last governmental term. The second was that most promises seemed pretty well like those we heard last time. And thirdly – and perhaps most significantly – we the voters were not called upon to account for how we had helped the government achieve their goals on our behalf.

If we had been called to account, how might we have responded?

But rather than complain about the way the politicians had met their past promises wouldn’t it then be also somewhat embarrassing if Church members and even entire Churches and denominations were assessed, not on their assertions on entering membership, but rather on the evidence that they were delivering on the promises they had made.

Although Jesus’ detailed teachings are sometimes hard to interpret in a rapidly changing world, the principles are fairly articulated in most branches of the Church. Do you remember when, a few years ago, virtually all organizations including Churches were encouraged to come up with their mission statements?

Our Methodist Church took its task of setting up its own Mission Statement very seriously, developing it over more than one annual conference with numerous Synods in between and because I don’t want to embarrass anyone here this morning by asking how much of this they can recite from memory – I would just remind you that there are some magnificent intentions in this carefully crafted set of what in effect are our promises.

Without giving the whole of it in detail, we have at least agreed that not only are we going to proclaim the transforming love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and declared in the scriptures we are going to reflect that love in what we do. No doubt the preachers do a reasonable amount of proclaiming on our behalf but do our neighbours and those in the community see evidence we are reflecting this transforming Love?

We are going to challenge people to commitment in Christ. I am sure we are – but it is also a fair question to ask which people we have challenged in the last week – or even in the whole of the last month?

Remember we are going to be peacemakers between people both in the community and in the world. Well out in our community there are examples of violence on a daily basis. Our jails are full. Marriages are still falling apart. I am sure we are going to be peacemakers, but looking back over the last week – this last month where exactly has our peace-making effort been visible?

These statements you see, are in effect promises. We are saying what we are going to do. Under ecology for example we say we are going to care for creation. Presumably this has to mean something about handing on the world to the next generation in better condition than it was when we took over our stewardship.

Planting – rather than destroying native forests, cleaning our waterways rather than standing by and watch them be polluted, caring for our air and our soil and our endangered species. Having made and agreed with our statement of intent we can but hope that our planning as Church members includes action. So here is the question. Would others watching from the side be able to say that from what we see that our Church is concerned with ecology?

We are going to work for justice for any who are oppressed in our country (Aotearoa New Zealand)? Presumably this means that when new immigrants are getting a raw deal – or being denied entry because they are refugees rather than rich people – we will not only care, we will speak up. When did that speaking up happen?

Our promise on inclusiveness is that we will ensure the operation of our Church caters for all – so that our leaders meetings and worship will have visible representation by all groups, different cultures, newcomers as well as old hands, people of different sexual orientation, old and young. At one leadership course our District Superintendent asked how many of those present had young people fully involved in Church decision making… without going into detail I would have to say most present were a bit uncomfortable with the question.

And so we might continue to recall the promises we have in effect made. Those promises about Church unity, evangelism, cross cultural awareness.
But remember according to Jesus it was not just the ones who promised and failed to deliver – but he then went on to say that the ones who were not making the promise – but did in fact deliver on the test were the ones doing the Father’s will.

This is where there is possibly cause for embarrassment. We state we are concerned about ecology. If for example it is a group of young people not connected with the church who start to plant trees and clean up the environment, who will get identified as the group that is concerned about ecology?

If it is the United Nations or the Quakers who offer the courses in peace-making skills and sponsors the peace convention – is it them or the Methodists who are entitled to say they are concerned about peace-making?

Clearly we can’t all be predominantly peacemakers and ecologists and evangelists – and if it comes to that – in any case we are all at different stages of our journey. The elderly person on a walking frame cannot be expected to be a front line disaster volunteer, or a young teenager a disputes resolution mediator in a war zone, yet nor do we have the right to proclaim intentions unless somehow we follow through and ensure that somewhere in our organisation there are those who are delivering in these areas.

You can see at the very least the mission statement highlights Church family intentions – and if they are intentions that seem be intended as having no part in the present expression of the family life, they might be better temporarily set aside as inappropriate for public declaration rather than trumpeted for others to wonder at. Yet there is also a reality to acknowledge. In each of us there is something of the sinner as well as the saint, and as with Jonah, knowing what we should do is not necessarily the same as doing it.

When it comes to those mission statements the real trick is then not so much to abandon the parts of the mission statement we are not achieving and nor is it for that matter even setting our sights lower. The Mission statement is after all the agreed ideal and within most mission statements there are indeed fine ideals. What however may be missing is a starting point of ruthless self awareness and honesty. The mission statement can provide the essential points of reference. The quiet acknowledgement of those aspects of faith where we are falling short – and the genuine resolve to attempt to do better might be all that is required as the beginning of genuine mission.

I like retelling my favourite non Bible parable –admittedly with scant regard to the original form) from the Talmud.

Once there was an old Rabbi who got to the stage in life where he needed transport.

He decided to buy a donkey and went down to Honest Joseph’s donkey yard.
The latest models were out of his price range but in the trade-in section there was a rather shaggy and care-worn donkey with a somewhat moth eaten appearance and a matted mane. A price was struck and honest Joe was seen rubbing his hands as the rabbi and his new second hand donkey left the yard.

When the rabbi got home he called his friend over to have a look. He was initially sceptical but on closer inspection this donkey looked rather better than he did at first sight. The rabbi said, “All he really needs is a good brush!” And right then and there he started to brush the donkey. There was a particularly stubborn knot in the mane and when he took a closer look – there was an expensive jewel bracelet.

“Wow!”, went his friend. “Now you’re rich!”

“Oh no said the Rabbi. I bought the donkey – I did not buy the bracelet.
And despite his friend’s protests, it was off back to the donkey yard.
To say that Honest Joe was flabbergasted was an understatement.
His reaction was interesting.

“Your God must be a great God!”, he said.

To follow through on the ideals of our faith takes us to a new level. But more than that, it provides purpose and meaning to what otherwise might be meaningless promise. Who then would Jesus say is doing the master’s will?

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Lectionary Sermon for 17 September 2017 on Matthew 20: 1-16

We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” Rabbi Hugo Grynn

The standard, and I suggest limited, way of looking at this reading from Matthew about the labourers and the vineyard is to use it to gain insights about God. If for the owner of the vineyard you read God, then at one level the reading might be telling us about the generous nature of God. In practice this unfortunately leads to some fairly strange ideas about theology.

For example for a period of several centuries some branches of Christianity taught that “the last shall be first” meant that just so long as you confessed just before your death it didn’t matter much what you did during your lifetime. The difficulty here is that this implies that religion has nothing to offer this life. There is also the problem that since the next life, whatever that might mean, is largely a matter of speculation in that there are just about as many beliefs about the nature of what the word heaven is intended to mean as there are versions of Christianity. Some even take “the last shall be first” even more literally. Theodosius, the Roman Emperor who made it compulsory to become Christian and persecuted those who failed to convert was also famous for his thirteen statues he commissioned to represent the apostles.

You may already know that when he was asked why thirteen – instead of twelve – he explained that his was the thirteenth statue. When asked why his was the biggest of the statues he replied modestly – “the last shall be first”.

But not only is this a shallow reading of the parable – it is even not paying attention to what Jesus was actually saying. He does not in fact say God is like the landowner who goes out to hire labourers. What he actually says is that the kingdom of God is like a landowner …..

In Jesus teaching he seems to be implying that the kingdom of God is the situation we become part of when we accept the call to follow.

In other words referring to the kingdom of God, instead of God, is really placing us in the parable. After all, if in symbolic language we wish to identify with the kingdom of heaven, then the story may not so much tell us about God, but rather gives us a clue as to how we might treat others.

Even although Jesus’ parable has been around a long time there are few signs that all those who attend Churches see it as having anything to do with their behaviour.

I want to give three examples of Church congregations which demonstrate what can happen. The first is something told to me about one particular Church where a woman said that she had shared with another woman saying that after twelve years she felt she was just beginning to be accepted as part of the congregation. The woman she confided to responded that she had been attending for even longer and she still felt she was not quite accepted.

My second example is a personal one. When I started teaching at Wesley College many years ago, I used to take services regularly as a lay preacher at one particular small country Church. They were lovely folk – but never once did Shirley and I get invited to a congregation member’s house. What is more I noted that other visitors had the same reception – almost as if they had to have done the long service before qualifying for proper friendship.

When we shifted to Papakura, Shirley and I went somewhat tentatively to Church on a Sunday morning and were not only greeted and made to feel extremely welcome, we were also invited to a meal on the first day. Needless to say we reciprocated and started attending that Church as a place of friends. Now years later I wonder what might have happened in the little country Church I referred to earlier if my wife and I had done more to invite members of the congregation to our home.

My third example happened at a Church (not mine) in our neighbourhood when we lived in Epsom where I was told an elderly woman had arrived as a newcomer and after two or three weeks announced to the congregation that since she really knew nobody, she had divided the congregation up into manageable groups and was inviting first those with surnames A to L to her house for a pot luck meal. According to my informant this has had a transforming effect on the friendliness of the congregation.

Yet in every walk of life this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The kingdom of God is like……
Well it certainly can’t remain like words in a book – even clever words like the words of Jesus in a Bible. Stories and uplifting words can give encouragement but they are a poor substitute for the real thing: the lived faith.

If the kingdom of God is the equivalent of the open hearted landowner who does not demand extended evidence of extended genuine effort before giving a full measure in return, then perhaps one message we might receive from the parable is that is not so much a description of our entitlement – but rather guidance to us on how to treat others.

What would an election be like if those who claimed to be Christian chose their political affiliation first and foremost on how the policies looked after not so much our own interests but rather the interests of those who were the most vulnerable, the late comers to our communities. Whether or not we are aware of Jesus words in the parable is not then the point. Rather the issue is: would this attitude Jesus identified of treating even latecomers with due concern and consideration whether they had recently arrived or had been here for the long term be what others would notice in our behaviour..

To be truthful I am not sure whether this parable represents workable economics in the narrow sense of the word, but there are other values in life which we instinctively know matter more than the exchange of money.

I started my talk this morning with a quote from one person whose views I value in this respect namely Rabbi Hugo Grynn. Rabbi Grynn was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz where he had been sent as a small boy.

His key insight was a single phase “We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” He had won the right to speak those words because he was until his relatively recent death a few years ago as one who lived this principle as a campaigner for refugee rights.

From Auschwitz Hugo Grynn moved to the United Kingdom, where he worked first to become a Rabbi and from that point to become one of the United Kingdom’s most respected spiritual leaders, writers and broadcasters. He was entitled to his view because in his life it was clear he cared about those who deserved nothing from him.

What of us and our dealings with people to whom we owe nothing. When we reflect on how we are going with such people, what do we see? How are we are towards people such as, the very old, the very young, the retarded, those who don’t sound educated or who appear to be new immigrants, the strangers, those who have fallen from grace – alcoholics – and yes the unemployed…..those still waiting for employment chances at the end of the day because they weren’t seen as employable in the first selection. Would others see those kingdom characteristics in us?

If Jesus shows by his dealings with those who represented the undeserving that in the kingdom of God there is a place for such people – then we too – if we claim membership in the kingdom of God, should also be making our offer to the people to whom we owe nothing.

As a guiding principle it is not only of value because it affords dignity and worth to all people regardless of their circumstance; but more than this it is of value because it as a by-product we may just discover authentic meaning and purpose whatever we might previously have thought about our status and power.

In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, the landowner is thoughtful of the undeserving – first of all in choosing workers originally passed over – but then in giving those workers more than they technically deserved. The people who were in fact owed virtually nothing.

Even if it is not what we might have done – we can sense the basic goodness in such an approach. But then the story of Christianity through the centuries is one of handing on the mantle. The landowner and the labourers story is a story of the kingdom of God to which we too might aspire. How will we in our turn make our offer to people to whom we owe nothing.

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Lectionary sermon for 10 September 2017 on Romans 14:1-12

LOOKING BEHIND THE DIFFERENCES
One of the sad things about Christianity is the ease with which some of those following the faith turn to become intolerant of anyone who might be walking a slightly different path. Irish Catholics versus Irish Protestants, Liberal Christians versus Southern Baptists, the Western Christian suspicion of veiled Muslim women, the lack of mixing of Sikhs and those in the Christian host community and so on.

Even within the first generation of those forming the Christian Church the number of such divisive beliefs was extraordinary. Paul was only addressing one particular Church community and I guess their divisions are rather very different from our divisions today. On the other hand in Paul’s day people appear to have been just as likely to reject people for legalistic reasons as we are today. We might note that although the points of difference Paul referred to now might seem to us to be trivial and peculiar to the church culture of the time, yet in their setting, the issues must have seemed great indeed.

Paul talks for example about the division meat eating caused. Remember that in those days the issue was not so much the attraction of vegetarianism but rather a reaction to the fact that it was difficult to ensure that meat had been killed according to religious tradition. Meat which even had a slight chance of being killed according to some other tradition was considered to be contaminated and unlawful to eat by those with a Jewish background. If the meat for example, had been sacrificed on a pagan altar, or not killed according to strict religious protocol, it was thought to go against sacred rule to eat it. For those living in Rome, the chances that purchased meat was killed according to Jewish law would have been much less than they would have been in Jerusalem.

Although we would find it hard to see what the fuss was today, remember the underlying issue was whether or not they should obey the laws in the only scripture they had at that point. The New Testament was still to be written and the other scriptures were still a few years away from being formulated into what we often call the Old Testament (at the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD)

There were also disputes about days. Remember again we are talking Rome. There some of the new gentile converts to Christianity would have been far less attached to the Jewish sacred feasts and specific Holy days which were generally still followed by the early Christians who were Jewish. Conversely the non Jewish Gentile Christians would no doubt be wishing to retain some of their own more traditional days and festivals. Remember that both Christmas and Easter were originally non-Jewish and non-Christian feasts that got borrowed by the Christian Church and changed in meaning.

Paul was not so much saying the rules should be ignored. He was more suggesting that where the rules are dividing – we should look behind those rules to the principles and insights that unite us.

I guess one possible reason why Paul was far less attached to specific rules even if they came from scripture was that since becoming a Christian, Paul the missionary had been an inveterate traveller. Travel in strange places is great for realising that outward customs come in many different forms yet many might simply be different outward manifestations of what are essentially the same ideals and values.

Paul rightly sees the danger in disputes within legalism. Insisting on different customs and rules can lead to hurtful criticisms and abuse. Paul identified such divisiveness as being very destructive to the emerging Church community. Seeing beyond the different observances of religious custom whether it be communion, baptism, rites of membership, or the insistence of certain wording of our creeds, Paul’s suggestion that instead we should focus on what Jesus stood for, gives us a sense of perspective taking us back to centrality of principles of compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.

If we are honest with ourselves we would have to say that many of the differences we find within our Church today wouldn’t even have been recognised as legitimate in Paul’s day because the culture and customs have changed so much. I have seen churches where people argue about what is essential by way of furniture forgetting that in Paul’s day, furniture for places of worship was largely absent and probably considered entirely irrelevant.

We have also seen Churches where they now prize stained glass windows portraying Bible scenes, whereas at one time it was considered inappropriate to have any images of human figures present in a place of worship. Women clergy are acceptable today in many Churches but in Paul’s day women were not even allowed to speak in Church and often were placed away from the men during worship. Consider for a moment a selection of issues that currently cause different opinions in the Church –

For some it will be issues like whether or not homosexual ministers are acceptable to the Church, for others it might be how we find meaning in the Bible, whether or not there is a heaven, whether or not God can change the weather or someone’s illness if we pray…Whether or not Christians should drink alcohol… and so on.

Because we are all inclined to believe that our chosen faith is the best, we might also be uncomfortable with those who teach other versions of Christianity – thus for Protestants the teachings of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the Mormons and the Roman Catholics are all suspect – yet as soon as we hear Jesus calling us back to his essential principles these things seem somehow of little consequence.

Yes, and for those of a very conservative faith, there may well be 613 rules comprising the law of the Old Testament.

We might for example use those rules selectively to deal to those we don’t like – and say we are enlisting God on our side. Yet Paul says we have to put the rule dividing differences to one side as we focus on what Jesus really was about. And what again was it that Jesus said?

The most important rule is, “Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. You’ve got to love the Lord your God with your whole being – with your whole heart and every ounce of energy.” And the second most important rule is, “You must love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself.” For those attempting to follow no other rule is greater than these two.
(Mark 12.29-31)

With these words, Jesus abolishes religion of the sort which tries to cajole God into supporting whatever our current rules might be. He pioneers the way for Paul and, much later, the way for some of our more modern prophets like Colin Morris as they point out that a religion of rules can neither buy God’s approval nor bring about social justice.

If our version of Christianity causes us to separate ourselves from our wider community and not notice where things are going astray for our community and our world, our religion becomes less relevant.

The upshot of Paul’s writing for us today is, I think, to recognise that the way our current rules and customs shape our religion in churches on Sunday may help us develop what to us are comfortable customs but in no way should they define how we are to be Christian. Nor is the Christian way of life even defined by an ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast (of the sort we might find in the detail of our creeds!) .

I suspect Christians are still best defined by a choice to love – rather than by obedience to religious laws (certainly Jesus seems to think so!); by a willingness to set aside the security of external ceremonies (well at least says Paul); and both imply the need to focus on issues where the principles of Jesus need a clear input.

Let us stop to consider any one of the big issues of the day. All is not well in this world. A glance at the headlines reminds us of record number of refugees, conflict fuelled by nationalism and religious zealots and a planet being laid to waste by greed.

The economists and scientists tell us that for the possible the first time in history there is enough food on the planet to feed all the population. Yet the international surveys tell us that there are many obese – as well as many who remain hungry. Those who are hungry are in effect being denied access to the food.

Almost a billion are seriously hungry – many to the point of starvation and in many countries (including New Zealand) there has been a growing gap between the rich and the poor. There may be a good number who attend Church – but surely the ones who are attending to the principles of Jesus are those who show by thought, word and action that they wish to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Allowing only minimal attention to rules of honesty would probably lead you to overlook the gap between the rich and the poor so here too in fact Paul is right to remind us that we need the over-riding principles.

It seems to me that the overriding principles that Jesus taught would provide a good guide as to what is acceptable whether it be moral decisions about helping the poor and the hungry – finding guidance for making decisions about what is acceptable behaviour for those with other interpretation – or even the question as to what is the most desirable way to interact with those whose journey in faith is different to our own.

It is inevitable that sooner or later we will encounter those who see life and faith differently to ourselves. Remember that others will only be attracted to our conclusions if they find something in our lives that attracts them.

Certainly we will always be tempted to focus on the differences.
Yet in the midst of the rivalries there is a quiet insistent voice calling us to new possibilities as we meet in a spirit of love.

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Lectionary Sermon for 3 September 2017 (Romans 13: 8-14)

If there were to be one disturbing moral feature that characterizes our current age perhaps it is notion that the only way to persuade our perceived enemies they are wrong is to respond with overwhelming force or at least the threat of such force.

So we know what should happen if the Islamic State (ISIS) takes a city in Iraq or Syria. Call in the strike force to take out that city. So a strutting dictator has the temerity to seek to develop Nuclear weapons. Show him he is wrong by reminding him that our side has the power to blow his country off the face of the earth. Suicide bombers and deranged drivers attack civilians in the streets of our cities. Call out the troops and destroy the terrorists in a fierce gun battle. And yet somehow the number of terrorists does not drop.

Yes I know that by the time terrorists have become terrorists it may be far too late for alternatives. But it also seems to me that Jesus’ alternative message is largely untried in practice.

Now here is a thought. Why is it that we talk love in Church, yet those we pray for don’t notice that we love them? Remember that line in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. How come a good number of those we have in mind don’t even seem to know we have prayed that prayer?

Am I really guilty of heresy when I suggest that the prayer left as words is a waste of time.

Love is not just a feeling – it is inexorably tied up with action. If you were to turn it round for a moment and think of ourselves being the potential recipient of love, we would see just how dependent we are in looking to words and actions.

So just how do we know love is present? And for that matter, how might we know when what we are being offered is not love? The motivation for love – or its opposite hate – may well start with the feelings but it is the expression in words and actions that will determine how it is recognized. And it is that which is perceived which tells us what is in the other’s heart.

If I had to choose one key teaching that summarizes what Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity may be, for me it would be his understanding that the only really important principle needed to put all other teachings into perspective would have to be the centrality of love…but more than that, he showed by the examples he used, that love is not simply a feeling.

Although in other places he talks of positive actions associated with love, here he mentions some negative commandments – things that you shouldn’t do to your neighbour. He chooses as his examples some of the more extreme – adultery, killing, stealing and of course the attitude of coveting which sets up jealousies which would rapidly destroy any chance of developing good relationships. And on reflection this makes perfect sense because it is the negative actions done to us which very quickly identify our neighbour as unloving – and unfortunately in real life a single unfriendly act will imbed itself in the consciousness.

Unfortunately it is sometimes easier to recite the well known teaching about love than it is to find the teaching making a difference in our personal lives or for that matter in the lives of our self-claimed Christian communities.

With elections once more in the offing keeping score of wrongs is once more taking centre stage, and I suspect self interest governs more policy than any visible insistence that we show love to enemies, and insist on kindness for neighbours.

Paul himself would have been keenly aware of the gulf between theory and practice. The injunction to love had its equivalent in the Talmud and Paul as a leading Jew would have known those words. By the time he got round to penning today’s words from his letter to the Romans he had realised just how important this practical love might be.

It was not always the case. Remember earlier he had also been something of a religious fanatic who had persecuted the early Christian movement and even murdered some of the earliest followers of Jesus, thinking he was doing God’s will. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul seemed to be more interested in measuring himself against what we might now call the golden rule. If we admire his words, perhaps we too need to reflect on how our current behaviour patterns and attitudes must seem to others.
Remember what Paul said in the letter to the Corinthians:

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

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

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

I even suspect we make judgements about whole nations in the same way. Unfortunately others are also judging us.

Don’t forget that a decision made to support punitive action whether it be in the Gaza strip or Iraq or Afghanistan – makes it inevitable that such punishment would be remembered by successive descendants of those who see themselves as victims. There is an old saying to the effect that “Bombing a city has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants” Conversely decisions motivated by the intention to be kind and to offer generous assistance seem to lead to payback in the form of treaties and alliances.

Yes it is true the primacy of love is not yet a commonly accepted part of international relationships. The old maxim of: To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem resembles a nail– appears much more a part of the automatic response than following Paul and Jesus and offer kind actions towards any State that appears a threat. But remember, if Jesus and Paul are correct, casting your bread upon the waters has far more chance of a positive outcome than any heavy handed punishment any day.
Yet the adoption of a compassionate option always has to start at the individual level.

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

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

Having said that I am not implying that those who share meals at home are therefore saints fit to take communion beside you – or that by kneeling yourself after offering hospitality you then become a better companion for communion. It is rather that adopting Paul’s suggestions as best you can makes both you and the community better than you might otherwise have been….. not perfect.

Remember although what Jesus and Paul offered was welcome common sense, the love injunction does not cure all situations. A person who forgives does not turn all potential enemies into friends – at least not in the real world. After all Jesus forgave – yet was crucified. Paul extended the hand of friendship to many but was still martyred in Rome. What however he did do was pass on the inspiration for churches to grow in positive ways to the benefit of many.

In practice of course, just as we as individuals start with characteristics of both the saint and the sinner, most Churches would have an obvious mixture of good and bad attitudes amongst the members in their congregations. I once heard someone say “I love all humankind. All my family are members and some of my wife’s family are too”.

And I guess this is part of the challenge. One almost universal human flaw is that we naturally relate best to those who are like us and particularly if we are at ease with their customs. Most of us have acquaintances who we find easy to love because they return kindness as a matter of course. In practice, others have never learnt that skill.

Some are painfully shy, some are almost afraid to let others into their world. One of our current neighbours collects our mail while we are away and is prepared to look after neighbours’ pets. We have had other neighbours in the past who are aggressive and bad tempered, and others who prefer to keep to themselves, and on occasion I confess to my shame we have even had neighbours where I did not know their names. It is easy to write someone off because we suspect in advance that we are unlikely to agree with them.

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

What is at stake in effect is the very nature of the local church, and hopefully from there our community and even our nation.. Then, as now, Church membership is not sufficient to automatically reflect underlying attitudes and actions.

Paul of course was writing to the early Christian Church at Rome with some advice on what principles were needed for their fledgling community. I cannot be sure that should Paul have been considering our community he would have been drawn to the need for the same advice. With us he might have noticed something different. Nevertheless the advice he gives sounds as though it might equally apply to a host of communities. The real catch is that there are two issues that no-one else can answer for us.

The two questions that still remained to be answered are: first the question of self assessment. Do we consider that an observer might see in the way we live the characteristics of those who genuinely care for one another and care for those to whom we come into contact? And then the second question…. if not…what would we have to change to be satisfied that love had come to take a more central role in the way we live?

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Lectionary Sermon for 3 September 2017 (Romans 13: 8-14)

If there were to be one disturbing feature that characterizes our current age perhaps it is notion that the only way to persuade our perceived enemies they are wrong is to respond with overwhelming force or at least the threat of such force.

So we know what should happen if the Islamic State (ISIS) takes a city in Iraq or Syria. Call in the strike force to take out that city. A strutting dictator has the temerity to seek to develop Nuclear weapons. Show him he is wrong by reminding him that our side has the power to blow his country off the face of the earth. Suicide bombers and deranged drivers attack civilians in the streets of our cities. Call out the troops and destroy the terrorists in a fierce gun battle. And yet somehow the number of terrorists does not drop.

Yes I know that by the time terrorists have become terrorists it may be far too late for alternatives. But it also seems to me that Jesus’ alternative message is largely untried in practice.

Now here is a thought. Why is it that we talk love in Church, yet those we pray for don’t notice that we love them? Remember that line in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. How come a good number of those we have in mind don’t even seem to know we have prayed that prayer

Am I really guilty of heresy when I suggest that the prayer left as words is a waste of time.

Love is not just a feeling – it is inexorably tied up with action. If you were to turn it round for a moment and think of ourselves being the potential recipient of love, we would see just how dependent we are in looking to words and actions.

So just how do we know love is present? And for that matter, how might we know when what we are being offered is not love? The motivation for love – or its opposite hate – may well start with the feelings but it is the expression in words and actions that will determine how it is recognized. And it is that which is perceived which tells us what is in the other’s heart.

If I had to choose one key teaching that summarizes what Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity may be, for me it would be his understanding that the only really important principle needed to put all other teachings into perspective would have to be the centrality of love…but more than that, he showed by the examples he used, that love is not simply a feeling.

Although in other places he talks of positive actions associated with love, here he mentions some negative commandments – things that you shouldn’t do to your neighbour. He chooses as his examples some of the more extreme – adultery, killing, stealing and of course the attitude of coveting which sets up jealousies which would rapidly destroy any chance of developing good relationships. And on reflection this makes perfect sense because it is the negative actions done to us which very quickly identify our neighbour as unloving – and unfortunately in real life a single unfriendly act will imbed itself in the consciousness.

Unfortunately it is sometimes easier to recite the well known teaching about love than it is to find the teaching making a difference in our personal lives or for that matter in the lives of our self claimed Christian communities.

With elections once more in the offing keeping score of wrongs is once more taking centre stage, and I suspect self interest governs more policy than any visible insistence that we show love to enemies, and insist on kindness for neighbours.

Paul himself would have been keenly aware of the gulf between theory and practice. The injunction to love had its equivalent in the Talmud and Paul as a leading Jew would have known those words. By the time he got round to penning today’s words from his letter to the Romans he had realised just how important this practical love might be.

It was not always the case. Remember earlier he had also been something of a religious fanatic who had persecuted the early Christian movement and even murdered some of the earliest followers of Jesus, thinking he was doing God’s will. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul seemed to be more interested in measuring himself against what we might now call the golden rule. If we admire his words, perhaps we too need to reflect on how our current behaviour patterns and attitudes must seem to others.

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

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

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

I even suspect we make judgements about whole nations in the same way. Unfortunately others are also judging us.

Don’t forget that a decision made to support punitive action whether it be in the Gaza strip or Iraq or Afghanistan – makes it inevitable that such punishment would be remembered by successive descendants of those who see themselves as victims. There is an old saying to the effect that “Bombing a city has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants” Conversely decisions motivated by the intention to be kind and to offer generous assistance seem to lead to payback in the form of treaties and alliances.

Yes it is true the primacy of love is not yet a commonly accepted part of international relationships. The old maxim of: To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem resembles a nail- appears much more a part of the automatic response than following Paul and Jesus and offer kind actions towards any State that appears a threat. But remember, if Jesus and Paul are correct, casting your bread upon the waters has far more chance of a positive outcome than any heavy handed punishment any day.
Yet the adoption of a compassionate option always has to start at the individual level.

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

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

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

In practice of course, just as we as individuals start with characteristics of both the saint and the sinner, most Churches would have an obvious mixture of good and bad attitudes amongst the members in their congregations. I once heard someone say “I love all humankind. All my family are members and some of my wife’s family are too”.

And I guess this is part of the challenge. One almost universal human flaw is that we naturally relate best to those who are like us and particularly if we are at ease with their customs. Most of us have acquaintances who we find easy to love because they return kindness as a matter of course. In practice, others have never learnt that skill.

Some are painfully shy, some are almost afraid to let others into their world. One of our current neighbours collects our mail while we are away and is prepared to look after neighbours’ pets. We have had other neighbours in the past who are aggressive and bad tempered, and others who prefer to keep to themselves, and on occasion I confess to my shame we have even had neighbours where I did not know their names. It is easy to write someone off because we suspect in advance that we are unlikely to agree with them.

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

What is at stake in effect is the very nature of the local church, and hopefully from there our community and even our nation.. Then, as now, Church membership is not sufficient to automatically reflect underlying attitudes and actions. Paul of course was writing to the early Christian Church at Rome with some advice on what principles were needed for their fledgling community.

I cannot be sure that should Paul have been considering our community he would have been drawn to the need for the same advice. With us he might have noticed something different. Nevertheless the advice he gives sounds as though it might equally apply to a host of communities. The real catch is that there are two issues that no-one else can answer for us. The two questions that still remained to be answered are: first the question of self assessment. Do we consider that an observer might see in the way we live the characteristics of those who genuinely care for one another and care for those to whom we come into contact? And then the second question…. if not…what would we have to change to be satisfied that love had come to take a more central role in the way we live?

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Lectionary sermon for 27 August 2017 on Matthew 16: 21-28

If our Government or even our Church were trying to lead our community in a direction which went against what our consciences were telling us, would we be prepared to speak up? Can I suggest that most people prefer to delay speaking up for as long as possible.

I even want to suggest Jesus injunction that his followers should be carrying their cross rarely matches the practice of standard Christianity today.
At least Jesus appeared to live his own message. In fact he also appeared to be very deliberate in accepting what must have seemed to what many of the disciples to have been seen as a doomed path.

Taking up your cross in this context was a very vivid way of saying: become so committed to Jesus’ cause that you are even prepared to face death of a particularly nasty kind rather than surrender your commitment to his teaching.

I guess for most Church members it remains harmless rhetoric while the prospect of death is remote. But it may be worth remembering when Jesus spoke, it was a time where the people were not only under foreign military rule but a time where any form of civil unrest provided an excuse for military reprisal. It was not good to rock the boat.

To the disciples Jesus’ mission must have seemed more and more likely to end badly. The civil authorities were closely allied with church authorities and remember Jesus had been in effect accusing these authorities of not being true to what he referred to as his Father’s faith. From the establishment point of view, religious or civil dissent was likely to require severe punishment. We can understand Peter in particular being extremely uncomfortable with Jesus knowingly endangering himself in this way.

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

We, at least most of those of us in the West, now live in more settled times, yet we who claim to follow Jesus are always coming up against an awkward truth. Colin Morris, himself a battler for justice and for the poor, reminds us that the American poet Archibald Macleish said “there are only two kinds of people, the pure and the responsible”.

In that division, says Morris, the Church always stands amongst the responsible rather than the pure; the engaged rather than the detached; and amongst the red-blooded reckless rather than the anaemically dignified. And this because we follow Jesus who plunged into a Jordan soiled by a thousand bodies, lived amongst publicans and sinners, died alongside criminals and rose again out of a cemetery of decaying corpses. (from Mankind my Church).

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

Perhaps not unexpectedly this urge not to get too involved in following through on Christ’s teaching then tends to lead to confusion about what being a Christian actually stands for.

I am not so sure that claiming allegiance to Christ is necessarily clear cut.
Think for a moment about the different ways Christians set about carrying out their responsibilities as Church members within the huge variety of different denominations with distinctly different claims of belief and you may get my drift.

You may have come across Kosuke Koyama’s ‘No Handle on the Cross’ [SCM, London, 1976, p.7] where as he puts it: “There is no convenient way to carry a cross….if we put a handle on the cross to carry it as a businessman carries a briefcase, then the Christian faith has lost its ground. Jesus didn’t say ‘Take up your lunch box & follow me’”.

Yet perhaps on reflection it is not so much the wearing of the cross which is the problem because after all this can at least indicate to the observer with which group you wish others to know you associate. However where it might be criticized is if we wear the cross yet make a zero attempt to stand for something or indeed anything significant, regardless of the cost. In this case the trinket cross loses its meaning. And worse, because other too see the hypocrisy, in the same way as the Child molester priest undermines the position of other priests, the one whose badge is associated with hypocrisy makes it harder for others wearing the same badge to convey the intended message.

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

Every now and then the faith starts to live again when someone steps out from the crowd and makes a brave stand on a Christ-type principle. I think of those brave pacifist ministers who spoke up against the First World War because they felt it was not in line with Christ’s teaching. In New Zealand one preacher was actually pulled from the pulpit by angry parishioners.

Other Methodist pacifists went to prison or were forcibly taken to the front where they were ridiculed. I read one historical account where some of those pacifists were stripped and tied to posts in the snow. We may not agree with such a stand – and where you take your stand will differ…because Jesus’ teaching affects many different issues. But for those of us who have been Christian for a number of years it is worth pausing to think, asking ourselves on what issues we have already made our individual stand? And what issues would be so important to us that we will be prepared to risk everything should the need arise?

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

There is an element of self deception if we focus too much on hierarchies within the Church. Those for example who find as many superlatives as possible to describe Christ may have missed his emphasis on servant-hood. By overly stressing the divine nature of Jesus there is an implied trap whereby we are saying in effect it is up to this divine Jesus to sort out and look after the dilemmas we face. Surely it is not how well Jesus carries the cross for us which defines our personal Christian journey. Similarly if we look to the bishop or priest or minister to act on our behalf there is a risk that we will become minor bit players and mere observers of the Christian walk.

Where we are in this journey may be reflected in the issues that take our main focus. If the parish council or leaders meeting starts to become inwardly focused so that the meeting members are only raising issues which concern our congregation well being and gives minimal attention to questions of justice and moral issues as they concern our love for neighbour, can I suggest that is not taking up the cross.

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

There is also an underlying paradox. The notion of giving and self surrender is one dimension – but in the event it is not as negative as we might expect. The other dimension is that in giving we find our true selves.

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

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

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Lectionary Sermon for August 20 2017 (Genesis 45: 1-15)

Forgiving the Unforgivable
Not all funerals are sad, not all weddings are glad, and not all family parties are welcoming affairs – but on the other hand, funerals, weddings and family get-togethers can sometimes tell far more about family relationships most families would prefer the outsider to know. And let’s face it sometimes there is plenty of reason for tension.

Second marriages with all the attendant comparisons with the first partner, children exchanging the certainty of family affection with a birth parent for the uncertainty of step son or step daughter relationship, difficulties with new sets of competitors for family assets as wills get redrafted, children partially or completely dispossessed – I guess most of us are familiar with the real life potential script.

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

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

Yet forgiveness is important because anger can fester and boil over in socially unacceptable ways destroying lives of perpetrators as well as victims. For my country, New Zealand every year there are several thousand reported serious assaults on children. And because typically only 500 or so result in prosecution there are presumably more assaults in many of those families just waiting to happen. In some ways crimes against family members don’t generate public horror in the same way as public reaction to attack by a national enemy. Some commentators for example have noted that the 2000 or so deaths at Pearl Harbour launched the US into war with the Japanese while the 12,000 or so gun deaths each year in the US pass with weary and barely perceptible public reaction.

For the families affected by the violence there is still a price to pay. Unresolved anger will bring damage. . Specialists in stress related illnesses claim that many common illnesses including, higher blood pressure or simply catching the common cold – right through to angina and stroke can be laid at the feet of unresolved anger.

For those caught up in such situations, whether it be as the instigators, or the victim of the hurt, it can be immensely damaging to the ability to maintain friendships and circle of support.

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

This then raises the question of what to do about it. The story of Joseph and his brothers suggests some useful hints. And yes I am aware that many scholars claim this is not so much a true story as a story with a deliberate theological message to help the Jews see that God’s hand was part of their story. If you like an arranged story not so much about an event which just happened to take place, but rather a God ordained event. But for now we can put this aside. Like most of the stories in the Bible this set of circumstances being portrayed can be understood at many levels and this time I want us to look at the part of the story that portrays the characters as very real and very human, facing a dilemma.

Certainly both Joseph and his brothers come across as flawed characters. Remember there was a sense in which Joseph brought his initial problems on himself. He tormented his brothers with his show-off behaviour. He boasted and told them in no uncertain ways how much more important he was than them. He was not a good person in his boastful self promotion.

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

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

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

Then the true surprise. Not just forgiven they are rewarded. Joseph has taken his anger and transferred it to anger about their plight. We sometime pretend that anger has no place as a human emotion for those with a faith. Yet anger can be a great motivator. However the resolution of that anger often needs creative thought. Instead of being sent back to Canaan empty handed which would have been far more than they deserved, they find themselves being offered sanctuary land for pasture, a place for the Father as well as the brothers and the freedom to live relatively close to Joseph but sufficiently far from the Egyptian population, who as their natural enemies, might have made life difficult.

I guess in a way this discovery of the creative act is the real test of forgiveness. The words “I forgive you” are what most of us consider to equate to forgiveness, but they can still mask long term unease. When you have been genuinely wronged by another, shallow words may in fact not be enough to re-establish real relationships. On the other hand if the words are an integral part of action they might be seen as far more significant. But there is something else you may have noticed. When Joseph says “Now you must tell my father of all my splendour in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here.” There is still the basic weakness he had from the beginning. The pride and insistence if you like that the brothers should really notice he was someone of significance.

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

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

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

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

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

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