Lectionary Sermon for October 30, 2016 on Luke 19:1-10(Proper 26C / Ordinary 31C / Pentecost +24)

Jesus and the Wee Little Man
Some of the stories about the events of Jesus’ life and teachings are easy to understand and applaud. The difficulties only arise when we take the next step and ask ourselves how the stories and teachings ought to affect us. So it is that today, the Lectionary brings us to one of the most well-known of all gospel stories. Simple yes, but in application almost mind altering, perhaps even life-changing.

Let’s go right back to the beginning. I don’t know about you, but one of the very few Sunday school songs I can remember goes 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.

That story of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus is of course one of the best known and possibly even one of the best loved in the gospels. I am guessing most of us remember Zacchaeus as that “wee little man” who came to see Jesus pass by when he visited Jericho. 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 how 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 as 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 of course is not a good recipe for getting himself liked by those who were less well-off.

According to the story he 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 regardless of his arithmetical height, 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 suggests 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 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 may we represent this same message to others? 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 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.

By way of example, I remember when in a nearby suburb, five counsellors who had been running anti-violence courses in a combined Churches establishment called Friendship house had to be dismissed because the Government as a cost cutting move decided to discourage the Courts sending those identified as violent to such courses.

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, I have to admit what I see is a humble man who truly attempts to live the gospel he has encountered. I cannot truthfully say that I see the same consistency in all other religious leaders, or more to the point, if I were backed into a corner, nor can I claim with any certainty that others would come close to seeing that same consistency in me. 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 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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Why Did the Chicken Cross the road?

Why did the Chicken Cross the Road? (Overheard yesterday at U3A)
It depends who you ask.

Obama said: Listen, this is America! Anyone born in America has the opportunity to seek the very best side of the road even if its birth certificate only says “born in Hawaii”.

Bill Clinton said: Why ask me? Read my lips! I did NOT have a road crossing experience with that chicken!

Hillary said: I have criss-crossed that road hundreds of times with many chickens. That is why ALL chickens look to me for guidance.

Dick Cheney said: Just give me ten minutes alone with the chicken…

Colonel Sanders said: You mean there was one I missed!

Donald Trump: Another lie from Crooked Hillary! How many times do I need to tell you?  It was just locker room bantam!

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Lectionary Sermon for 23 October 2016 on Luke 18: 9-14 (Proper 25C / Ordinary 30C / Pentecost +23

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a familiar story to many. Here is this self obsessed Pharisee placing himself in a prominent position in front of the crowd and praying a self righteous prayer – in effect gloating over that other player in Jesus’ story, the wretched tax collector.

And yes, the tax collector is a miserable specimen, in all probability a man with a reputation for dishonesty and by virtue of his occupation, one identified as a collaborator with the hated Romans. As if that wasn’t enough, as a handler of money and an agent of a Gentile Empire the tax collector was also 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 must 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.

And of course each time we encounter this story we all think we can relate to Jesus’ conclusion. Of course the tax collector was the one who finds justification before God with his act of humble and even desperate contrition, whereas the Pharisee for all his pompous obedience to the law has somehow failed.

We like to think we have a preference to associate with humility – well at least in theory(!) – and this certainly lines us up with one of the key features of Christ’s teaching. St. Augustine once wrote, “Should you ask me what is the first thing in religion, I would reply, “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.

Yet I wonder if the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is always totally understood? The central theme of the story raises the question about which of the two is justified by faith, yet in terms of standard theology, at first glance surely the Pharisee has 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 tithing all his possessions. Isn’t this going the second mile, which is the sort of thing for which Jesus would normally show approval? So what is amiss?

For me the Pharisee only does what is all too common today in the way in which he misunderstands what faith is supposed to be about. Faith we should remind ourselves 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.

Greek word for faith (Pistis) comes from the Greek Goddess of the same name. Pistis (Πίστις) was the personification of good faith, trust and reliability. Claiming belief or making a deliberate outward show of faith is simply not enough to make one seem to have these characteristics, and 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 on death row in US prisons classify themselves as Christian.

Bill Long in his exposition and commentary on this passage reminds us that although everybody claims to associate with the abject humility of the tax collector, he is yet to meet anyone who is prepared to associate themselves with the Pharisee. Sarah Wiles goes one better and tells the story of a preacher who once 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”….. Whoops …….– yet 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?

When we think of the number ( and I would have to admit sometimes that number includes me!) prepared to make disparaging comments about those with other beliefs and other lifestyles, 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.

Again the Greek is interesting. The Pharisee we should note stood …. what was it again…..Pros Heaton which superficially means “by himself”. However in that parable context 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 new-comers’ 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 who 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 new-comers? Do you think – even if the new-comers 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 kneeling next to a man from the mission church a new convert who in his previous life also 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 our saviour just as much as William Barclay’s humble judge or the parable’s penitent tax collector.

Pistis we are reminded was the Greek Goddess personifying all that was good and true, for that is what the Greeks understood faith to be. 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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Some brief reactions in response to Richard Dawkins’ the God Delusion

I have just finished re-reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It is well written, highly literate and raises some important issues for the modern religious believer. It has made me think and even where I disagree, I believe that those supporting any faith worth following should be able to learn from the issues the Dawkins raises. Rather than the conventional way of reviewing the entire book I thought I might start with a few quotes from his book which I have lifted from the Good Read Quotes extracted from his book “The God Delusion” and give my initial reactions. What might be helpful is if others join the discussion with their own evaluations.

The God Delusion Quotes
“We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: This quote is one I have used myself to caution street evangelists and self appointed theological experts who seem to expect me to want pay homage to their own private version of a deity. At the same time I can’t help but feel that one positive version of God common to a number of major branches of religion exists, at least as an ideal, namely “God is Love”. To me accepting that compassion is a mysterious human ideal which, if followed, enriches the community. At the very least such an ideal is less likely to damage the prospects of long term peace and mutual cooperation than Dawkins’ apparent certainty that all religions are wrong in all respects and (perhaps his unintended consequence) that followers of religions are to be derided.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Anyone who has worked through the Old Testament books like Exodus or Leviticus – or who followed through the explanations of misfortune as stated by the prophets and even the authors of the Psalms would concede that Dawkins is right on the button. What he seems to omit to say is that at the same time the scientists of the day were also using limited and now, by current understanding clearly silly models to explain cycles of disaster. When you can’t possibly know about bacteria and viruses why not have as your faith statement that God is inflicting disease as punishment ? I think of the priests of Babylon telling the people to shout and bang pots at the God who seemed intent on swallowing the Sun. The experiment by those Priests acting as scientists worked because the God monster swallowing the Sun did as predicted. If we must scoff at the religion because of those seeking to make sense of a presumed God, would Dawkins want us to scoff at science because the early scientists were also talking twaddle?

“There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point… The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: I agree. Mind you I am not entirely sure that Dawkins for all his scientific education has really worked out all his own answers to give his life meaning. Perhaps this is unfair but I remember my own undergraduate education in science when I received most of my knowledge second hand. I never measured the size of the Earth. I took the lecturer’s word for it. I accepted without question that Rutherford did his experiments to show the structure of the atom, that Darwin had assembled the evidence for his theory of evolution, and that molecular structure was revealed in X Ray crystallography and so on.

“More generally, as I shall repeat in Chapter 8, one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: I would wonder if perhaps the majority in every population are satisfied without understanding regardless of whether or not they have religious affiliation. Just because fewer now go to Church I am not sure that as a consequence people better understand how to get on with their fellows. Thinking of my own community there are not many who can tell you how the brain works, why computers keep getting faster, how mobile phones work, and so on and I am struggling to understand why this lack of understanding is not now somehow enhanced. After all Dawkins implies it is religion which was holding them back. If they have given up on religion if Dawkins is right shouldn’t we start to see improved knowledge and better values? Fewer at Church and the US may now choose Donald Trump??

“A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: OK …except for the conclusion. I would have thought that the sociological attraction of religion is that belonging to the local community religion gives one a sense of familiarity and belonging. If a child is attracted to its parents why wouldn’t a child of Muslim parents feel that adopting their ways and beliefs is a natural part of their acceptance?

“Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether they are ‘valid,’ let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Bill’s Comment: Seems reasonable. In fact the UK school syllabus already allows for this.
“Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.”― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Thou shalt not steal …..Nah….. do what you think is right for you. ??????

“Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up, apple-polishing, looking over your shoulder at the great surveillance camera in the sky, or the still small wiretap inside your head, monitoring your every move, even your every base thought.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: I agree … always assuming that the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment . Richard Dawkins clearly moves in different circles to me. None of my acquaintances talk this way and I always thought that Kohlberg had a much more plausible model for morality.
“To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: No argument with that for a good part of the Bible. However I would have thought that a more nuanced view would be that it also represents a set of documents which have historical significance and sufficient by way of positive instruction eg the Sermon on the Mount, Paul on the desirability of the principle of Love and James on what constitutes true religion to provide helpful guiding advice for positive life principles.

“Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: If Richard Dawkins had said “An exclusivist, judgmental faith ……..” I would have no argument.

“I am thrilled to be alive at time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

No problems here. I would even go further and say that it is a shame more people in religion don’t question long held belief in the light of current knowledge and the questions this knowledge might raise.

“The take-home message is that we should blame religion itself, not religious extremism – as though that were some kind of terrible perversion of real, decent religion. Voltaire got it right long ago: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’ So did Bertrand Russell: ‘Many people would sooner die than think. In fact they do.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Come on…Jesus saying “forgive your enemies” makes you commit atrocities? Say what.???? Surely Dawkins means cherry picking religious principles for the benefit and power of religious groups is always wrong and has been used to excuse atrocities since time immemorial.

“Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority. But a good first step would be to build up a critical mass of those willing to ‘come out,’ thereby encouraging others to do so. Even if they can’t be herded, cats in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Bill’s Comment: Those who self-identify as atheists do indeed make a lot of noise. Some of them are also very nice people. I look forward to the day when they self organize to the same extent as those who run food banks, hospice shops, soup kitchens and start to operate Aid organizations to the point where they are noticed.

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Donald Trump and the Miss Universe Connection

Image result for funniest Evans Trump cartoons

From time to time, given the extravagant promises of Presidential candidates, a reality check might not go amiss.

I am not sure if many have noticed but given Donald Trump’s long standing connection with the Miss Universe competition it occurs to me that we might remember that for many years it was a standing joke that many of the candidates claimed they stood for world peace, wanted to do something about world hunger and cared deeply about orphans. Only the most naïve amongst the spectators must have believed that these represented genuine aspirations.

Young ladies obsessed with personal appearance, particularly those who spent large sums of money on make-up, clothes, hair style are hardly likely to be found working as peacekeepers and few of the winners then go on to distinguish themselves in humanitarian ventures.

Presidential contests have similar temptations for unlikely promises.
Identifying emotional triggers for the voting public is not at issue. All the candidate’s team has to do is look at the various polls expressing public concerns. If the public express concerns about violence in the community, are concerned about an influx of refugees and illegal immigrants, are uneasy about race relations, care about paying tax they cant afford, worry about lack of world peace, are concerned for environmental challenges like pollution and climate change and are outraged at mass shootings and terrorism, then it is a total no-brainer for the candidate to say that he or she shares the same concern.

Sooner or later we have to look at the candidate and ask the very simple question. If you say you really care about these issues then like the beauty contestants are your claims consistent with what you have actually dedicated yourself in the recent past. Are these the sorts of things you are already involved with? – or like many of the Miss Universe candidates are they simply the sorts of things you think the judges (in this case the voting public) want to hear.

Care about the well being of the less well off? Forget the promises. Does the candidate have a track record of tax avoidance – or does he or she encourage the sharing of burdens? Care about the plight of minorities? What legislation has the candidate encouraged for the benefit of minorities. Frankly I don’t care if there is a one hundred per cent success in the chosen activities.   Far more to the point is what were they at least trying to do.Peacekeeping. How much of the last few years have been involved in peacekeeping missions? And so on through the list.

To quote Pygmalion. “Don’t talk of love – show me!

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Lectionary Sermon for 16 October 2016 on Luke 18:1-8 (Proper 24C / Ordinary 29C / Pentecost +22)

Some Thoughts on God Bothering
On one overseas holiday to Croatia my wife and I got to visit the small but ancient port city of Old Dubrovnik where our guide told us that despite being enclosed by less than two km of fortified wall, for several centuries the old city boasted of having 41 active churches. The guide suggested the reason for this incredible density of churches was partly because that the old city was the port city for the area and that countless sailors from the city were being lost at sea each year. The community evidently reasoned that if people prayed fervently and frequently, God would protect the men of the city. Again according to our guide, the churches were very well attended on a daily basis but despite the heartfelt and frequent prayers, in the last analysis the prayers appeared to be a pious irrelevance. Many were still lost at sea.

From the different sermons I have heard over the years on today’s reading from Luke, it seems one popular standard interpretation persists that just as the corrupt judge eventually responds to the continued pleas of the widow, so God will accede to those who continually pester him with their pleas. Well, if that is the case, at least for the God fearing people of Dubrovnik, was this simply a misplaced hope?

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 is staying true to the principles of God’s justice in the face of despair. To trivialize that interpretation 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. In verse 1 Jesus seems to be encouraging his disciples to call upon God for the coming of his kingdom, which is somewhat different to the somewhat trivial prayers often heard in places of worship.

It seems to me that there are several problems for the alternate 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 and even the efforts of the best of 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 can simply pray for the safety of a fisherman, or we can also buy him a life jacket and insist he wears 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 notions 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, we as his followers 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.

To focus on how God is expected to respond to our entreaties is probably less important than our choice of what we steadfastly yearn for. The focus for the widow was on nothing more, nor less than justice, and because she did not give up eventually even the hard hearted judge finally gave way. 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.  My friend Rev Prince Devanadan 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 …. not 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.

I used the example of an incident from some travel in Croatia at the start of this address. I would have to admit on our travels we encountered many historical examples of those who did not stay true to the principles of the Kingdom.

We saw Churches in Scotland, in France and in Croatia destroyed as the result of what now appear to have been petty disputes between those with slightly different religious belief. We saw evidence that neighbours with different religious beliefs had been attacked, tortured or killed for different interpretations of the Bible. We discovered Churches which had taxed those they served to the point where the churches had accumulated vast wealth. In no way were those sad examples a steadfast seeking of justice, but rather an active denial of the very principles Jesus was seeking to instil.

On the other hand we also came across 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 thought themselves to be religious, but who showed the true voice of that religion in their actions of pity, and the listening ear they lent to all they encountered in trouble. In terms of the principles Jesus taught as the Justice of God, we don’t gain 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. Just to take one example:
In New Zealand, a child is admitted to hospital every two days with injuries arising from assault, neglect, or maltreatment. Half of these children are under 5.

Last year alone, more than 58,000 children were referred by police to Child Youth and Families for family violence-related matters. Do we care enough to unite prayer and action to respond?

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Lectionary Sermon for 9 October 2016 on Luke 17: 11-19 (Year C)

On Relating to the Tenth Leper
When it comes to healing, healing is not quite 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 if not certainly 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 now show the signature of some long-term damage. Even diseases like leprosy if left untreated usually eventually burn themselves out – but sadly 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 it is a healing event that goes beyond physical healing.

This is not to say that physical healing does not matter. But I suspect the intended point is that being made whole again in the sense that we also feel right in ourselves and are at peace with our neighbours and wider world can still be achieved regardless of how incomplete the physical healing might be.

Which brings us to Geshe Chakawa and his experiences in 12 Century Tibet.
Actually that particular story starts even earlier when a man called Atisha from India had visited Indonesia where he learned of a form of healing which addressed the idea of enlightenment which in turn he then took to Tibet where he started using it as a form of healing. This healing took the name Tonglen.

In the 12 Century a man called Geshe Chakawa recorded his own success with the Tonglen method and according to Buddhist lore, Chakawa claimed good success with his students – a majority of whom were lepers.

The method is still used today which brings me to my reading about a Buddhist nun – a woman called Pema Chodron. This Buddhist nun, speaks of Tonglen taught nowadays in hospice settings and other situations where there is no hope of cure. The idea she says is not so much that it can physically heal incurable forms of cancer or diseases like AIDS but rather because it seems to heal the spirit.

The story in this morning’s Gospel reading – the story of the healing of the ten lepers is a story that seems to me also addresses that special form of healing, the healing of the Spirit. Certainly it is a story that has problems from a modern perspective – but it still deserves our careful attention.

In fact, if you think about it, this account is one of those pivotal stories right at the heart of what the faith is supposed to represent. Some of you may for example know that when Martin Luther was addressing the amazing changes in understanding and belief that characterized the church reforms of the sixteenth century, someone challenged him to describe the characteristics of true worship. His reply?…the tenth leper turning back. I think he has a point.

The gospel story is straightforward enough. 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, who tells him (at least according to some translations) that his faith has made him whole.

As a story, today’s gospel reading may not hold up as a literal truth. After all at least some Bible historians tell us that there was no area between Galilee and Samaria where the story might be 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 a number of other stories about Jesus there were no independent witnesses, which raises the awkward question about how the story was recorded in the first place.

On the other hand Luke appears to have a good grasp of the intention of Jesus’ teaching and an equally good case can be made for Luke not so much reporting this event as an eyewitness but rather telling this story with a clear theological message with the intention of bringing us closer to the essential message of Christianity.

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 mid ground between Galilee representing the people who are supposed to be the people of God and 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 moving on, 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?”

But 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.

Note that Jesus’ words give the credit, not to Jesus, or for that matter to any external force, but rather say quite literally that what ever has happened has been a result of something that emanates within. Jesus did not for instance say: “my faith“, or even, “my blessing has made you whole!” But rather “Your faith has made you whole“.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the question for us is not Jesus’ question: ‘where are the other nine?’ but ‘where is the tenth?’…
Where (she asks) is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions?
A good question indeed to ask ourselves because which of these we would have been likely to have been – and which we will intend to be may start to reveal what is most important to each one of us..

Presumably what ever 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. This 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, has it make sense as he 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 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 come close to true worship indeed.

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