Lectionary Sermon 19 September 2021 on James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Recently I have come to wonder about the self-serving temptation of respectability by association.  Associating with the right brand of Christians as “Church members” didn’t cut it with Colin Morris who in a past “Thought for the Day”( BBC Radio 4 broadcast) commented: “Our love for God is measured by how much we love those we love the least in this world”.

We all come to our faith shaped by those who predate us. As a Methodist I happen to look to the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.   Wesley famously reminded his followers?:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can
.”

But claiming we follow someone like John Wesley has to mean more than we admire his statement of doing good, or even knowing some other people, not us, have indeed put their effort and money in living out Wesley’s exhortation. Well that might be them but is it us?

I am sure that every branch of the Christian Church identifies with its own heroes.   Such opinions are understandable.  Think of the world-wide admiration people accorded Mother Teresa for her work with the poor.  Others claim as personal Saint, St Francis of Assisi, who encouraged his followers to reject riches and even taught that his followers should care for everyone and even animals in need.

Perhaps we need regular reminders there is more to being Church members than knowing about some great saints.   There also some awkward facts.  Most denominations have some of their “living saints” AND – er –  leaders involved in scandals.  … Oh here is an awkward fact, some outsiders looking at my present denomination might happen to know that in the not too distant past some Methodist ministers were quietly shifted for such reasons and a while back it came out there was even some dodgy stuff in the past in some of the New Zealand Methodist child care facilities. I can even remember two past occasions of punch ups between two ethnic congregations in an Auckland Methodist Church , and,  despite large congregations,  an unfortunately high suicide rate for one particular Pacific branch of the Church.

I am all for holding to our satisfaction about the good stuff our church does, and rejoicing, but since at each annual church conference we are reminded that one of the Church objectives is to make each member a minister. We can hardly pretend that the good stuff done by others somehow inoculates us against present or future unfortunate lapses.  

It isn’t just what we say that drives us. Surely it is also what our lives show. It would of course be only hypothetical, but if unexpected fortune actually came our way – perhaps a bequest – can we be certain we would handle the new situation in strict accordance with the finest Christian principles? For the older ones and better heeled amongst us…..   What do our wills already read like? Is it us who have made bequests that show we actually believe what John Wesley said was important about doing good for others?

James has something of an undeserved reputation for over-simplification. I suspect this is because through the ages he has made many uncomfortable in his contrasts between the teachings of the gospel and what followers of Christ do in practice.   Perhaps we need James’ frequent reminders not to focus on the parts of faith removed from day to day realities.

For our own generation and setting, it seems to me James’ list of characteristics of what he calls false wisdom seems uncomfortably close to the ways in which we seem to structure our society. Jealousies and selfish ambition drive many popular realities and the whole advertising industry is predicated on presenting images of the way we can fulfill these ambitions.

If the media are to be believed, the so-called good life is a life in which the trappings of success are measured by our clothes, our furniture and household possessions, our cars, our house and even our choice of toiletries. We may talk glibly of a life of service to others, but in practice more often the community rewards those who achieve status and power. Certainly we live in a different world to that of James, yet it doesn’t take too much imagination to recognize in the values which drive our society today, the same conflict that James points to in the clash between God’s values and the values of the world.

James is being counter-cultural for us today when he says that in order to achieve the good life we need to approach our tasks with the spirit of meekness. Pure, peaceable, gentle, ready to yield….. hardly a description of what drives this or any other developed nation. Is this even a good description of what always drives our church? This is not to say he is advocating that Jesus’ followers become doormats. Much of this reading implies that James is nudging us towards focusing on a positive form of justice that Dom Crossan likes to call “distributive justice” – whereby instead of organizing retribution for potential rivals, our focus should rather be on the fair distribution of resources. This is not how our nation as a whole responds in practice – I am not sure of the latest figure but I do remember in the not too distant past we have been measured at number 87 in terms of order of being prepared to accept refugees.

Certainly, at least in part, there have been cases where we have seen both in our Church leadership and our political leaders demonstrations of selfish ambition – and frequently display jealousies – both traits of what James calls false wisdom. But here is the catch. Leaders are chosen from us. We have little justification for separating ourselves from our leaders.

Here is an example. We can sneer at the then Dean of Nelson Cathedral some years back for setting up a Church service for Religious tolerance – then forbidding the choir to sing an item as part of the call to worship because it was based on an Islamic call to prayer. But before we scoff too loudly, the question is: how do we or more precisely we individually make Muslims welcome in this country – let alone in our local Church?

Subtle discrimination, ambition and jealousies at every level seem part of the church congregations I have got to know. I suspect ambitions and petty jealousies are a fact of life in all community institutions and organizations. I know they are in my service club. However when we say the Church does or does not act on its principles, we would do well to remember this is our church as well as the church of our leaders. There is a very real sense in which we are the Church. In the same way we might remember that when we say our politicians are favouring those with the money and influence surely they are simply pandering to what the surveys tell us drive the voters. Aren’t we also among those voters?

The number of words we use to talk about our faith is not where it is at. Certainly teaching may start with words. Yet ambitions and jealousies may also just as easily produce a veritable welter of words. But identifying, or worse blathering on about our hopes and dreams, is only at best an indication of a hopeful intention to start moving forward. James implies that we are only likely to see signs of true wisdom when we can see the evidence of the simple and humble acts which tell us we are actually under way.

James is not being impractical. It may be unexpected advice but the wisdom of humility is not necessarily ineffective. One of my favourite political quotes came from one of Abraham Lincoln’s election campaigns when a particularly acid tongued opponent accused Lincoln of being two faced. Lincoln’s reply: “Do you think if I had two faces I would be wearing this one?” Do you think we could call that self-effacing? And if it comes to that, would it really have helped Lincoln to reply to his detractor with a worse insult? He did after all win the election.

….or to change the metaphor…..

On the Southern motorway out of our city there are warning signs to truck drivers on the lower bridges. Every now and again, a truck driver with a high sided truck will risk it and there have been a number of occasions when a truck has become wedged and apparently inextricably so, under one of these bridges. Rather than destroy either the truck or the bridge the solution is invariably the same. They let the air out of the tires. By analogy, the notion of deflating our egos to avoid further damage after a serious verbal collision may indeed be a forerunner of the saving wisdom required.

James says – and we would have to say he can point to plenty of supporting evidence – that false wisdom can in effect be recognized by what it produces: conflicts, people thinking they are better than others – and acting as if they have nothing to learn from others. To quote William Barclay: ‘There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever, with an acute brain and a skilful tongue. But his (or her?) effect, nevertheless, in any committee, in any church, in any group is to cause trouble and to disturb personal relationships. It’s a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that he (or she?) possesses is devilish rather than divine.”

James has a solution which is dependent on accepting a philosophical premise from left field. James is nothing if not paradoxical. His message…..You cannot get the good life if you seek it. Rather the good life is the incidental consequence of seeking true wisdom.
Seek true wisdom says James and the good life will follow.

The other paradox is that….. again according to James…. when we let our thinking be shaped by the impression we are above others, we are actually down with them since the true wisdom comes from above.

There is a subtle point made by James at the beginning of Ch 4 where he shows that he has noticed that a common form of attitudinal violence to others is building oneself up by the destructive process of putting others down.

In his commentary on this section from James, Bill Loader suggests that some Christians seem happy to express hate even although they dress up what they are doing with artificial justification. He also notes that the violence can have various rhetorical forms and by no means implies physical violence.

The other main teaching in this passage informs us about James’ way to respond to the concept of God. God as far as James is concerned is nothing more, nor less, than the concept of acting in love. James stresses self giving and recognizing that others too need space to grow.

As we start to relate to others with generosity, humility and consideration we become closer to God – for these same characteristics are part of what we hope we mean when we say God is Love.

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Lectionary Sermon for 12 September 2021 on James 3:1-12, Pr 19 B

Words with Consequences

I am guessing that many Church congregations can remember upset members who have left because of their reaction to something they heard, particularly if it were something they felt to be unkind or which seemed aimed at them.

Virtually every human emotion can be triggered with the right words. Even for those of us who would like to consider ourselves to be reasonably kind, our having internal kind feelings won’t quite cut it for those who have encountered intentional prejudice. It is as well to remember that kind or even unkind thoughts are difficult or even impossible to convey until they are put into words or actions.

Words can also paint pictures and the images evoked by these words are sometimes enough to cause us to take extreme action. For example, the words we encounter might help us decide who to vote for, when to take to the street with placards or even when to go to war. The words we overhear also tell us when others care about us.

Even those daft tweets on the internet can encourage fear or envy. In this modern variant, text messages can bully – even cause a young person to take their own life. Conversely at their best, words can inspire or give hope.  Words can also express prejudice or help shape our unconscious attitudes.

At first hearing, today’s reading from James’ may suggest exaggeration. What was it he said?:

“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

Think of those recent horrifying TV images of fires raging through the tinder dry forests, destroying all that lie in their path. We can be of no doubt about the real damage an unchecked physical fire can do from small beginnings. When James talks of a spark destroying a forest there are more than plenty of examples from which to choose.

But what about the part where James turns to a more extreme metaphor? He starts with the Genesis type image of creation, then with verse 6 turns from the earthly forest fire to the eternal fires of Gehenna. There are of course a number of images of hell in the Bible and because they are partly contradictory there is almost no reason to expect any one of them to be literally true. Translated “hell” in the NRSV, Gehenna signified the valley where garbage is dumped and burned on the south side of Jerusalem. In apocalyptic literature the Gehenna was further used as a metaphor for evil, with even references to the devil living in this most evil of places.

So what then should we make of  James going as far as to suggest an unbridled tongue, inflamed by the power of evil, might even destroy the whole of creation … If you have seen those photos of Hiroshima we might begin to see what he was getting at.

Some of you will know of the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. This is of course the famous 5 or 6 hour dramatic presentation of Jesus’ last week on earth, performed every decade for centuries by local villagers to mark the end of the plague. Certainly it is famous and obviously appreciated by the many pilgrims who have seen it since.  Perhaps unfortunately  Dominic Crossan in his book The Power of Parable reminds us that one of the play’s most famous (and I guess unexpected) admirers was Adolf Hitler who after seeing the play twice, once before 1930 when he was elected and again in 1934 wrote.

It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate, a Roman so racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole mire and muck of Jewry

Words to spark a fire indeed.   Six million Jews were systematically murdered and of course more lives were lost than that. Someone has calculated for every single word in Hitler’s long and emotionally charged book, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II.

Clearly we need to talk, and we need to write, just as we need to listen and read. Yet James does well to remind us this communication needs a good deal of care. James is accurate at least in potential when he talks of the tongue being of restless evil and full of poison.  We don’t have to look too far before we come across the Adolph Hitlers and Joseph Stalins of this world. At various times in history the power of words has unleashed unspeakable hate crimes even when those uttering the words no doubt believed themselves to have the best of intentions. What is perhaps more surprising is the number of what might otherwise have been considered ordinary sincere people who are persuaded by these messages of hate.

For example, soon after the advances in printing by the invention of the Gutenberg Press some well meaning Church leaders concerned about various misfortunes striking their communities, wrote and had printed leaflets quoting some of the more obscure and potentially hate filled parts of the Bible, telling people how to identify witches in their midst. As a result many innocent women (and some men) were drowned or burned. You will no doubt have heard of the witch trials in Salem and even today in some parts of Africa those claimed to be witches are still executed.

Sometimes it may also be that we need to use words to change someone’s course of action to avert evil. We might imagine an extreme situation when a person contemplating suicide is standing on the ledge of a high building, or more commonly, one who has left a Facebook message to say they are thinking of ending it all. Here the right words on the part of a person trying to help will be critical. Those of us who have had to deal with someone who is about to set off to drive a car while clearly under the influence of drugs or alcohol will also know how difficult it is to find the right words to avert a serious problem. When emergency services like ambulance or fire brigade are called, precise and careful directions can make the difference between life and death. Without verbal communication it is extremely difficult to change what someone happens to be doing at the time.

If you were trying to find something that distinguishes humans from other members of the animal kingdom, one of the clearest differences comes in the way we communicate. In James’ day this would have been dominated with the spoken word but these days it is also the written word and more and more the words supported by pictorial images which also help communication and shape our minds and our behaviour. But with our developing skill of communication there comes a real responsibility. Just as our feelings and emotions can be shaped particularly by what we hear, what we say can do the same to others.

Remember too, James’ comments are not just addressed to leaders. In fact here is practical everyday advice for many. He acknowledges that here is an issue we are all going to have a problem with. He says plainly in verse 2 “For all of us make many mistakes” But that awareness of our potential to make blunders in our speech should at least give us pause before speaking. James suggests this is the clue for how to get our lives on track. It is also in line with Jesus’ advice that what comes out of the mouth reflects what is in the heart. It is almost as if Sin might begin in the mind – but it is only when it is articulated, that it takes shape.

There is a principle in science that nothing is created or destroyed – it only changes in form. Once the sound is out there, it cannot be put back. The word once heard cannot be unheard – just as a word once written and read stays read.

A plaque I encountered some time back: “God keep one hand on my shoulder and the other over my mouth” I sometimes wish I had thought about this more often for my own words.

Yet just as unkind or thoughtless words can lead to much unhappiness, wise and kind words can continue to have an effect long after they are spoken. James reckons if we can get this right, everything else will fall into place as well.

Sometimes it is critical we do speak up. One of the saddest aspects of the lead up to the Second World War was the way in which many otherwise good people stood by and pretended not to notice when ill-feeling was being stirred up against the Jews.

Similar issues occur today. One of the more unfortunate consequences of the way modern economies have developed is the way some have prospered tremendously while others have been marginalized and allowed to drift back into poverty. In short, there are some issues on which voices need to be raised.

Even at the local contemporary level, think for a moment how many children have had to endure violence and how many, many, acts of unkindness have passed unchecked because their neighbours and family friends stood by and said nothing. Yet the basic rule (which is akin to the so called golden rule) is that behind all our significant speech decisions is that love is the basic underlying principle.

There is a Saudi Arabian proverb that says:
Four things come not back: The spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.

We have before us today the question of whether or not we need to heed what James puts before us and reset the control of our words and actions. For each of us the choices are going to be different. What choices will we have to make as we consider his words in the coming days to come?   AMEN

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Lectionary Sermon for 5 September 2021 on Mark 7:24-30

Jesus Called Her A Dog!

In a recent Auckland (New Zealand) outbreak of the delta version of COVID-19 one of the bigger centers of infection turned out to be a Pacific Island AOG Church.  Subsequently a number of that congregation reported receiving racist abuse via social media.   Can I suggest the fact that the New Zealand population has a significant number who would call themselves Christians is no guarantee that we should be surprised by such prejudice.

I guess to some extent we are all prisoners of our genetic make-up and influenced by communal attitudes. The evolutionary scientists would no doubt point to the selected characteristics which make us seek our support from those who look like us, those who share our feelings, beliefs – and those who history tells us are most likely to give us protection and support for our beliefs. This gives us a good base for working together – which help us keep our enemies at bay and under control. Countless examples through history show the development of tribal behaviour to the point where whole nations will band together and use combined efforts to gain economic and military advantage.

The catch is that knowing who is with us  goes hand in hand with being vigilant to where the threats to our well-being might come from. To make this work in practice we need to selectively misremember our history so that we might seem to have good reason for accepting those like us – and by the same token – adequate reason for rejecting potential rivals.

The Bible documents the struggles of the Israelite people as they sought to gain a permanent safe area they could call their homeland .  One consequence was that Israel turned out to be a place where the boundaries shifted many times.    The Bible describes how neighbours with discernible differences of belief or appearance were firmly kept at a safe distance. Are we then surprised the teaching in the Jewish community in Jesus’ day reflected an understandable fear and prejudice against non Jews and those who challenged mainstream community beliefs.

We might assume that we have moved beyond such attitudes and hope that we live in a much more open and accepting society, yet even the Christian Church has many centuries of examples of intolerance and sectarian narrow-mindedness to shape more recent patterns of behaviour.

I guess many would have seen that impressive statue of Christ standing with his hands outstretched on the mountainside between Sao Palo and Rio. Well according to two friends who have visited the area and talked to locals, there are some in the community of Sao Palo who say that he is standing in that position because he is getting ready to clap the first day someone in Rio does an honest day’s work.

We can smile at this prejudice particularly if we overlook our own deep seated prejudices against those of other faiths, or those with other patterns of dress, other customs or even our assumptions about those claiming different religions.

I was brought up to attend a Christchurch primary school in Fendalton where we learned much about the virtues of the British Commonwealth in retrospect much of what I now see turned out to be slanted information about those with other backgrounds. If I believed my teachers and fellow pupils, the Chinese were waiting to take over the Pacific, Arabs were presented as those who were to be distrusted (even although as far as I could tell, no-one at my school had actually met one), Muslims and Buddhists were portrayed as atheists.   Many of my class mates gave me to understand Communists were the new threat to the world, Jews were only in business for the money, and homosexuals represented sinful behavior even if at my primary school queers were only talked about in hushed whispers.

In short anyone other than us was somehow inferior. For many of us with fathers just back from the Second World War, our war comics assured us that Japs and Huns and Wogs had revealed their true character.

And just based on what I hear, even this year, I would have to say that for many in my community similar prejudices are still with us today. The Europeans in the community can often be heard talking of lazy Maori and the need to keep those dangerous refugees at bay.

I once heard a Maori ask why where possible Samoans are buried 12 feet down, the answer being that deep down they are not too bad. I have heard Samoans tell racist jokes about Tongans and vice versa. Fiji Indians in unguarded moments talk scornfully about lazy Fijians while the Fijians in their turn talk of money grabbing Indians. I have heard second generation immigrants scoff at the FOBs (Fresh off the Boat) immigrants.

Given prejudice in our own community I wonder why we sometimes are slow to accept the prejudice recorded in the pages of the Bible as normal.

Which brings us to today’s reading about the Syrophoenecian woman where Jesus, perhaps speaking from his own educational background appears to be reacting with prejudice. Surely in retrospect this should not surprise us.

Let’s look again at the story. The woman comes to Jesus begging for healing for her daughter whom she believes is possessed by a demon.

For those of us expecting Jesus to be perfect it may come as a shock to hear Jesus mouthing words of prejudice. “Let the children first be fed; for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (7.27).  “Dogs” to the Jews, included those of other faiths who did not accept the Jewish teaching.   At her response Jesus then appeared to do a rethink and offered genuine help.   I am guessing the story was told and retold because the way Jesus abandoned his very conservative (and traditional) stance in favour of compassion. Perhaps we need to emphasize his consequent inclusion made him seem very different from his contemporaries. The person who told the story first cannot have been bothered by the initial negative light it casts on Jesus.  

We don’t know and cannot know what was in Jesus’ mind if indeed he spoke these words. Some try to “save” Jesus by suggesting it is all a bit “tongue in cheek”. Another way to deal with the problem is to follow Matthew, who instead adds further rationale for Jesus’ initial refusal, explaining the validity of the distinction is part of the scheme for Jesus’ ministry. In other words He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Mark may also have something like this in mind when he has Jesus say that children must be fed “first” (like Paul’s “to the Jew, first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16-17). But dogs are still dogs. The image is demeaning.

We can never know if what we have here is accurate eye-witness recording, or alternately a parable about Jesus or for that matter a story where the story teller was a little careless. Mark certainly had no compunction about portraying Jesus as saying what many would have said: Israel are God’s children; Gentiles are like the dogs (not nice little lap dogs or puppies; the intention is negative).

Whether it be intended as a story, or in reality straightforward reporting, there is some good news. Jesus may well have started with the common negative view of unclean gentiles. It certainly would have been one that he had heard so frequently as he was growing up it would probably have been difficult for him not to have it influence his thinking. The good news is that Jesus refused to remain bound by such distinctions. He crossed the boundary. A woman from the coastal regions of Palestine persuaded him. Today we might even want to recognize her early attempts at equality! At the very least it might suggest the attitudes of the people in that area about women and their inclusion!

Yes we might well find argument to say Jesus was initially only trying to show the woman that he had been sent to speak to the Jews and did not believe his words of prejudice at the beginning of his encounter. He was after all the Son of God. Well maybe …yet if we are intended to learn from the story surely the real question is not whether Jesus had to step outside the prejudice of his day – but rather what our prejudices are and what we are intending to do about it.

If we reflect on today’s story of Jesus, that story should also challenge us to think about our own ethics. When Jesus had his ethics tested we read that he came to a point where he set his traditional background aside and accepted the person his community would have rejected.     If we claim to be members of his Church, it is not just a matter of talking in admiring terms about what Jesus represents.  When we encounter situations which challenge our own background or prejudice or alternately are tempted to follow our natural inclinations to take the easy way out it, is our ethics which are being tested, not those of Jesus – . We can hardly say that we follow Jesus without at the same time attempting to follow his example in the way we make our choices about our own actions.

When others watch us, in our turn, dealing with the concerns of people unlike ourselves, what would others see in our words and actions. 

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Lectionary Sermon, August 29 2021, James 1 17-27,(Year B)

Christianity, like many forms of religion, has evolved into a curious tangle of enlightened wisdom, no doubt contaminated with touches of daft mumbo-jumbo and even superstition.   Because both wisdom and mumbo jumbo compete for the power to influence our behavior, perhaps we may need to pause from time to time to ask ourselves whether or not our faith journey is still sufficiently focused to ensure we haven’t lost sight of the all important light of wisdom.

I suspect part of the superstition may be almost inevitable because it emerges when we feel a primeval urge to deal with situations where we know our own resources are strictly limited.  In a pre-scientific age earthquakes, epidemics, storms and floods were all assumed to be “acts of God” and for some placating God was the ultimate protection.

George Mackay Brown in his book “An Orkney Tapestry” gives a fictional example which, although entertaining, might give us pause for thought.

“We’d do weel to pray”  said a North Ronaldsay fisherman to his crew as another huge wave broke over them.   It had been a fine day when they launched the boat.   The sudden gale got up.  Willag was a Kirk elder.   The Skipper told him to start praying. Spindrift lashed in and over.

“Oh Lord” cried Willag. “Thou art just.  Thou art wonderful.  Thou art merciful, great are Thy works. Thou art mighty!”

Willag faltered in his litany of praise.  The boat wallowed through a huge trough.

“Butter Him up,” cried the skipper, “Butter him up”.

Given the present dilemmas of the spread of Covid and the political unrest in places like Afghanistan there are still those who seem certain that renewed efforts of worship would be the Christian answer, so it may be surprising to turn to Jesus himself and writers like James who seem to insist that religious posturing is not where wisdom lies.

The Epistle of James is one of those books in the Bible that almost didn’t make it at all. It certainly didn’t appeal to some of the Bishops who were making the original lists of Holy Books for what we now call the New Testament. The oldest surviving list of the New Testament books of the Bible – the so called Muratorian fragment, leaves out the letter of James. Some lists did include his Epistle, but Tertullian, one of the early Christian Church authorities, also left out James altogether in his list. Even if the Bishop Eusebius, writing about the time of the Emperor Constantine, did at least include the Epistle of James, the good bishop calls it one of the disputed books. While it is true that the later Church Councils reinstated James as part of what we now call the New Testament, there was certainly some prepared to object.  For some critics, not only was there doubt as to which James was the author, but it appeared to question if Paul’s notion of justification or salvation by faith was all that was required.

One of the best known critics of James was Martin Luther. The teachings of James clearly upset Luther who called the Epistle of James the Gospel of Straw. Luther’s beef with the Epistle was that, as far as he was concerned, it seemed to be insufficiently evangelical.

Luther’s famous summary sentence was: “I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove!

Even today, some of the more orthodox Christians continue to be uncomfortable with James. I have for example encountered some conservative ministers who tell me with some smug satisfaction that they have never preached on James. For those who love the finer points of theology, these modern day critics may feel some justification.

In his writing James appears to have absolutely no interest in the parts of the faith that require great learning. It would be hard for example, to imagine James taking part in discussions about intellectual theology. Not for James a consideration of how women should dress and behave in Church, nor for the slightest concern about the appearance of vestments, nor even the vexed matter of who is worthy to administer or receive communion. It would also be hard to think of James having the slightest interest in denominational Christianity.

I suspect what James is saying is that it makes no sense to be a hearer of the word if you don’t at the same time let yourself become a doer of the word. Or to change the metaphor…When we look into a mirror or check to see what others think of us, it is true we might have a clearer idea of how we may well be… but there is little point in letting the mirror help us with our perception unless we are going to do something about the self-image it shows.

James’ theology then, is only theology at the most basic level but just because it is simple it doesn’t mean it should be set aside. If Jesus could summarize the entire law with the two commandments focused on love – and if Paul could rank the expression of love as the greatest of the three things that last forever, is James doing anything different by grounding the expression of this love in suggested action?

True that from his writing we might concede James would not be likely to pass an elementary theological exam, but on the other hand we ought to be able to imagine James as a very practical and focused City Missioner. Whereas a Pope might make deeply authoritative statements about the assumption of Mary, or Transubstantiation of the elements, or alternately, an Archbishop in the Anglican Church might give a Bible-based opinion about the troubling issue of what rank a woman should be entitled to assume in the church hierarchy, James on the other hand appears to be giving his attention to the mundane and is going on here about nothing more significant than the treatment of widows and orphans.

James’ religion is summed up by one word:  “Kindness”. The example of pure and undefiled religion in God’s sight – at least as far as James is concerned – is nothing more nor less, than going to the help of widows and orphans in their distress. If we were to go back a little in history we would soon see why James was focused on widows and orphans. In an age where, since only the man of the household might be expected to get meaningful employment, it was indeed an extreme misfortune to suddenly find a family without a breadwinner.

According those who wrote the Bible there are a number of references to the plight of widows and the fatherless. In Deuteronomy for example there is a rule which insists the picking over of what is left after the harvest of grapes, of olives and of sheaves of wheat should be set aside for widows and orphans. (Deuteronomy 24: 17-22). God is also described in one of the Psalms as one who cares about orphans using the term “Father of the fatherless” (Psalm 68, verse 5) and Jesus himself uses much the same metaphor when he assures his listeners: “I shall not leave you fatherless” (John 14.18).

We might do well to remember that even in countries like England it wasn’t all that many years ago (up to the mid 19 century) that widows and orphans were at the total mercy of an unfeeling society. The widows were the ones who might only survive in the poor-house and orphan children were assumed to be virtually free slave labour for the mines, factories and cleaners of chimneys. Some commentators have suggested it may have been advances in technology rather than the application of Christianity that released them from their bonds. Unfortunately even today a very unequal set of varying circumstances ensures that the problems of many orphans are still by no means entirely addressed.

The modern equivalent of what James was responding to is seen in what happens where a large-scale disaster strikes in an area where there are few social protection measures in place. For example AIDS orphans are often seen as pariahs and on the African continent at least, the incredibly high number of such unfortunate children is worrying indeed. We might also reflect on the plight of war orphans. Or what about the huge number of child sex slaves. We might also remember those orphaned by chemical disasters, or where the orphans are from areas affected by nuclear accidents or past unwise nuclear testing particularly for those of our neighbours in the Pacific who have missed out on appropriate compensation and care.

I suspect if James were writing today he might still be talking of orphans and yet as you read on into James he was concerned for a number of other practical situations. If we extend his principle of caring for those in trouble, to caring for those now currently in trouble, I would imagine that James would be making some very direct and indignant statements about the growing gap between the rich and the poor that we find in operation in virtually every developed nation today. I can also imagine him being strongly in favour of a work like Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion particularly where she says that focusing on compassion is the most important part of all the major religions.

Why is it that, for centuries, there have been problems for the widows and orphans? Surely in part it was because no one acted to put sufficient safeguards in place. And to be truthful, those who should have acted are probably those like us. Why is it that in the most productive and advanced nations the distribution of resources is so unequal? Surely in part it is because those like us allow those who govern to set the rules to advantage those most likely to vote for them. Why else would we allow a situation to develop whereby the top 20% of the socioeconomic spectrum should have virtually all the resources and the bottom 20%, virtually nothing.

James is right to remind us to attend to the tasks our faith claims to be important. Our only question can be about which tasks actually matter. As society has changed and developed, problems grow in unexpected areas and if we care for our neighbours we need to constantly rethink how our priorities need to be adjusted.

If the occasionally unpopular James is right, we can understand some in the Church feeling a bit uncomfortable. It is one thing to see ourselves as Christian and to ask our leaders to help build our understanding of Church history and theology. It is quite another to see ourselves as James would have us see ourselves as being required to be practitioners of compassion. To follow James: pure and undefiled religion is visiting the widows (and I guess for today he would be looking at doing something for any of a host of our neighbours who are getting a raw deal). In short, expressing in our actions that single word, kindness.

The challenge James lays down is in effect a simple choice. Shall we join the critics in claiming the inclusion of his letter in the Bible was a mistake, or will we accept his simple message and act accordingly?

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Lectionary Sermon for August 22 2021 (Pentecost 13 54B) John 6:56-69

Should Christians like us be offended
I suspect that, at least for the most part, hearing stories about Jesus and the saints might remind us that the Christian life has potential, yet every now and again our sense of well-being is, or at least should be, disturbed. It isn’t so much that we find Christ’s teaching uninspiring but the uncomfortable realization that those of us who claim to follow Jesus are not always living his ideals. The hard question about how we are living the faith should not be set aside and at the very least we should check we haven’t lost sight of our initial vision. While we might hope others may at least see our Church membership as a mark of Christian principles,  in reality I suspect most of us should be prepared to admit that at times we fail to be part of or even advertisements for what we suspect Jesus actually stood for.

Reflect for a moment on Jesus’ question to his disciples in this morning’s reading from John’s gospel. “ Does this offend you?” or alternately from The Good News Bible “Does this make you want to give up?”

Because you see, no matter how we make the Sunday school children and ourselves feel good about a Jesus who cuddles the lambs, suffers the little children to come unto him, heals the sick and comforts the sad, there is also a part of the gospel, which even today, has the potential to be deeply offensive. The gospel is not always seen as good news to all because, as a perceptive 19th Century journalist once put it, the faith of Jesus “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable”. So how do you feel about becoming the body of Christ?

It is tempting to assume that like test match fans we are simply there to cheer on the performances of their heroes. Not everyone acknowledges that like the first disciples we are actually called to be participants not spectators,  Perhaps some would  be offended at that requirement.  Historically when the gospel principles intrude into politics, people get uncomfortable. My nation (New Zealand) has always had divided opinions on the rights of Indigenous peoples. A majority have always seemed luke-warm on spending tax dollars on helping those who are in need. So is my nation following Jesus as his body?..and if not what should I be doing?

Church leadership has failed many times through history. And history repeats. For the most part strong dictators are slow to be challenged by mainstream Church leadership. Slavery, the arms trade, genocide, exploitation of the poor – and even abuse of children by Church leaders are just some of the failed challenges of the past…and present And as in Jesus day, religious leaders were and are just as in need of a call to conscience as the worst of criminals.

Notice too that Jesus is talking to his followers in these terms, not those who would see themselves as critics or unbelievers. Anyone who thinks that believers are unlikely to get the huff with Jesus’ teaching should think back a few short years to the sorts of things that have affected contemporary Church. Every time there is a war or soldiers are called up to serve their country there will be those who are divided about the implications of Jesus’ teaching on peace. Far from bringing us together, interfaith dialogue is a continuing stumbling block. 

Homosexuality and the blessing of same sex marriages does not get universal Church approval, Middle East politics, the treatment of the poor, treatment of foreigners, mercy killing, abortion and stem cell research are just a few of the topics liable to stir up resentment and if the truth be known it is quite likely that for many,  Jesus type teaching is the last thing they genuinely want to consult.   Jesus who ate with sinners is often remembered instead with a Communion which is denied to many of those who don’t make the cut of “true believers”!!

Sometimes disputes over fine points of doctrine seem so unrelated to genuine problems they appear humorous to outsiders.

Some of my family predecessors once attended the Church of the Holy Rude (which I understand means Holy Cross) in Stirling, Scotland, where in the 17th century two of the ministers fell out over some minor teachings relating to their views on the covenant and since both men had followers, the problems were addressed by building a wall down the middle of the Church so that for the next few generations the two dissenting congregations could worship independently from one another. Before we sneer at the way such actions directly contradict the main thrust of Jesus teaching we might also wonder at why so many attempts at Church Union founder on similarly  minor differences in doctrine.

In the wider community there is even more marked rejection of the Jesus way. Some time ago I remember an acquaintance of mine who has been a tour bus operator in Europe and the United States was looking through a Trivia quiz with me. We came to the question, “ What is significant about Lombard St in San Francisco?” – “The zig-zag nature of the street” I ventured. “ Isn’t it supposed to be the crookedest Street in the world?”

“Second most crooked”. He corrected. “Which is the most crooked?” I wanted to know. “Wall Street” he replied. Good answer in view of the mayhem caused by the dishonest financial operators, yet think of the number who still cling to the notion that the creation of wealth, regardless of the ethical issues, is the main aim of business. I wonder how many of the current investors would be offended by the principles Jesus taught if they thought of his words applying to them.

I am not sure if you heard that one of the Taliban claimed requirements was that the Opium production in Afghanistan (and then on-sold to the “Christian” West) should no longer be supported by their proposed changes.    And how come so many of the Taliban weapons originated in the West?

If the Western nations claim a common Christian heritage how come the COVID vaccines are reluctantly shared with poorer nations. “Love your neighbour”? I am sure that many self-declared Christians have been reluctant to accept that their neighbours should include those stateless refugees in those teeming refugee camps and would be offended to think that their home nations needed to liberalize their immigration laws.

Jesus was a master of metaphor and when he asks his followers eat of his body and drink of his blood in effect he asks his followers to become one with himself. Unfortunately for those who prefer to keep their faith in a token form, this may well have caused serious offense. If John is correct that many of Jesus’ disciples at that point walked out on him, it is clear that offense was taken. While it is true that some of these might have been offended at the literal possibilities of Jesus words, for those who understood the metaphor, the other real problem would have been the threat to their comfort zone. It is one thing to recognize words as being wise – it is quite another to be expected to act on those words, and even harder allow them to become part of ourselves. For those who watched Jesus challenging respected religious leadership and confronting a variety of established conventions the thought that they too might be called to place themselves at risk would have been more than a little disturbing.

When John says that some of the disciples found Jesus’ words hard, we note John used the Greek expression scleros logos which, although it means literally hard word, this is only hard in one specific sense. Scleros is not hard in the intellectual sense – it is more in the sense of being physically hard or unyielding.

That Jesus could have followers who suddenly realized following was not for them is also a reminder that when we use words like God or Jesus we do not all mean quite the same thing. A significant number of Christians today as well as some in Jesus’ day thought of Jesus as some ethereal spirit while John clearly believed strongly that God had become genuine flesh and blood through Jesus. Still others today would say Jesus was human and only God in a figurative sense. It may infuriate some believers when I suggest that knowing which possibility is correct only matters if we are intending to allow our belief to become part of our being and living.

When Church authorities discuss the significance of communion they often refer to today’s passage from John. The relationship with communion is obviously open to different interpretations and we might note for example that for many in the Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic formal understanding of transubstantiation is that in communion the bread and wine somehow become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.

Although some Catholics and members of many other denominations might challenge that interpretation, since Roman Catholicism is the largest of the Christian denominations we cannot disregard the existence of the belief. The Romans in their early persecution of Christians may have been misunderstanding this same belief when they frequently accused Christians of practicing cannibalism.

Dare we observe that such issues have not saved some Churches from having their leaders involved in the horror of child abuse. This may raise a question of whether or not the Churches have understood Christian priorities.

You may have also noticed in this passage John records Jesus making frequent use of the word abide where the meaning is being at home. Abiding in Jesus – in other words being at home in Jesus may require a degree of commitment and attitude towards Jesus that goes far beyond what some would think to be appropriate. At the very least the word abide suggests Jesus is talking of the most intimate involvement between himself and his followers.

Allowing Jesus in to abide even in a metaphorical sense clearly doesn’t lead to perfection. Even the greatest of Church leaders still demonstrated very human faults. Augustine was a very naughty young man. Luther was intolerant of Jews. Calvin was intolerant of those who had a different theology. John Wesley had a very tenuous relationship with his wife (which may had contributed greatly to his willingness to be absent for long periods from home on his preaching journeys). Martin Luther King was a philanderer. And so on through a very long list. Nevertheless the mark of Christianity is for each of these leaders that they were prepared to attempt to walk with Christ even when the way was hard. It was the direction of their respective journeys that caused them to do much good. The challenge then for us may not so much be attaining perfection in Christ as it is to accept his offer to allow his abiding presence to give us direction.

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Alternative lectionary sermon for 15 August 2021 on Proverbs 9: 1 – 6 Year B

Note to the reader:  The Proverbs reading is only sometimes chosen for this week’s lectionary choices.   Because it raises some interesting points I am still retaining it as my focus.

Every now and again it is good to remind ourselves that the people who first tried to assemble the first writings that eventually became our Bible, started with a view of the world that is not our view. Historians now typically suggest that in Bible times the terrors of nature which I guess included earthquakes, flood, disease, storms and drought would have been assumed to be punishment from God or gods and were assumed to be the fault of those who offended the mysterious power about them.

I am actually quite sympathetic with the ignorance of the ancients because back then they knew virtually nothing of nature and had no way of knowing about the physics of lightning and even less about the biology of disease. Carrying out some mysterious ritual of dressing up in strange clothes, chanting and praying to unseen Spirits, making sacrifices and so on seemed to work in that eventually the lightning would pass and many of the sick would recover – and the priests could take the credit.   But surely today wisdom also suggests we should not leave that as the best we can do.

Nor is it even wise to assume that traditional Christian behavior carries its own attractions to outsiders.    One Christian writer I enjoy reading (because he makes me think) is Marcus Borg. In his book called “Speaking Christian” he talks about shifting to a College where the majority of students were not Church goers. He asked these Oregon students what they thought when they thought of the word “Christian” and found that more than half of his students described Christians as literalistic, anti-intellectual, judgmental, self righteous and bigoted.

Our self-image is not a guarantee of how others see us. Perhaps this is why we should guard against our Churches putting too much emphasis on the parts of our faith that don’t have much to do with the everyday.

In today’s reading from Wisdom literature in the Book of Proverbs we find one of the parts of the Bible which gives more attention to practical people-centered advice. This is surprisingly neglected in many Churches. Religion serves a variety of purposes and it is likely that many only get to meet religion in terms of its public face which is typically anything but associated with everyday life but rather largely to do with what is loosely termed Priestly worship. What members of the public encounter when they “meet Church” in all probability will include a good dose of that so called priestly activity particularly if they only come to the occasional church weddings, funerals and baptisms.

For some more regular attendees of highly traditional churches, there is familiarity with special robes, sacred music, candles, and in high Church settings incense along with sonorous chanting, carved lecterns, pulpits and altars all of which help which set the mood and fill the senses. The Pentecostals often achieve many of the same ends with a very different approach whereby equally impressive worship is experienced which is very much more preacher-focused, often using contemporary technology for the effects.

At its best the priestly tradition encourages us to experience the feeling of mystery and the divine. In some churches priestly actions encourage a  sense of belonging to the regular worshippers. Some of the traditions stretch back to the distant past.

At worst the priestly tradition can become a collection of mere archaic rituals and trappings, disembodied from modern reality and everyday life. In the popular mind, at least if city Church attendance is anything to go by, if worship is not actually avoided altogether, the priestly tradition can become something to be reluctantly endured and seen as largely irrelevant to the day to day problems, joys and sorrows of life.

This should give us pause for thought because surrounded by familiar friends and using accustomed phrases in worship we might assume that outsiders are aware of our prayers for the hungry, prayers for those in the grip of war or despair and our prayers for peace and think that knowing we pray such prayers might translate into others seeing us as kind, open minded and peace makers. But the majority of those in our community are not present to hear those prayers. Our self image is not a guarantee of how others see us. Perhaps this is why we should guard against our Churches putting too much emphasis on the parts of our faith that don’t have much to do with the everyday.

It may also be wise to remember if we are to take Jesus at face value from the gospels it is probably fair to say that he had little time for the priestly emphasis. At least according to the gospel record Jesus was rarely teaching in the synagogues and when he did so it seemed to lead to unsatisfactory outcomes. At times he specifically drew attention to the gap between the priestly religious observances and the central ethical ideas of the Jewish faith. Those who made a public show of the faith without honouring the spirit of the God of love – and those who used the Church for personal gain drew his particular condemnation.

This in no way means that we should ignore the value of the priestly function, but at the very least Jesus’ reaction points to the dangers of adopting positions of power and prestige or going through the motions of worship without a serious and heartfelt commitment to finding ways to live the faith in our relationships.

Apart from priestly observance, another main dimension of religion is to listen to those who will be the conscience of the priestly tradition, namely the prophets. When Jesus was making public accusations about the religious leaders’ hypocrisy he too was taking on the role of what the Jews understood a prophet to be. Certainly less common than those who are part of the priestly portrayal of religion, there is a long tradition whereby when authorities are failing, certain prophets have been known to step forward to challenge the status quo.

When for example the priestly dimension gets too far out of step with obvious needs of the people, and particularly when injustice is being ignored by Church leadership, it is then the prophets become most strident. An outraged Luther nailing his protests about Church greed and hypocrisy to the cathedral door was a kindred spirit to Amos who many years earlier who claimed to have heard God’s voice thundering “I hate, I despise your feasts!”

I am all for growing in wisdom but it has to be wisdom for our modern times.  Some of the past Biblical wisdom is transitory and culturally embedded. Instructions about what to eat, how women should behave, how justice should be administered and how to treat slaves might have been very helpful to the Jewish society in a different age but we would be foolish indeed to think all such instructions would be appropriate for us today. Nor should we be blind to the failings of those who claimed authorship of this wisdom.

Although for example the Bible includes the claim that Solomon was known for his wisdom, there is virtually nothing in the main events of his life that suggests he was living a wise life. When King David died the succession should have gone to David’s oldest son Adonijah. Unfortunately for Adonijah, some of David’s generals and advisors had an alternative thought – and decided instead now David was out of the way, one of the younger sons Solomon showed more promise. Solomon apparently liked the prospect of power and when Adonijah turned up to stake his claim, Solomon ordered his murder. Next he fired his father’s high priest, allowing him to live but sending him into exile.

Traditionally we talk of Solomon as being very wise and prospering because of his wisdom. If we look closer we find a self serving and ambitious man who was also unwise in that ultimately many of his decisions to increase his prestige turned out to be very bad for the long term future of his kingdom. Nor did having so many wives and mistresses demonstrate temperate judgment. It is true that his magnificent buildings including his palace and temple may well have awed his potential rivals, but his ruthless approach to crippling taxation appears to have been a main factor in the breakdown of his kingdom upon his death.

No doubt many of the wise proverbs attributed to Solomon are good standard aphorisms and I believe we can still learn from them. The catch is that Solomon himself was living by a different set of standards and hypocrisy is its own judgment, as it would be for each of us if we taught Christian principles and failed to demonstrate them in our own lives.

Regardless of the dubious character of some of the writers of wisdom there are nevertheless sublime and subtle insights as there are in today’s reading from Proverbs. In any case wisdom is hard to pin down because for most of us it represents gaining a healthy attitude to a stumbling journey rather than arriving at and defending a destination. Accordingly we benefit when wisdom is described in metaphor.

This metaphorical house of wisdom based on seven pillars sounds ambiguous but the clue to its understanding is in verse six. Laying aside immaturity and living in walking in the way of insight in no way suggests this house of wisdom is a fixed target or arrival point. In any case, some of the wisdom proffered in the Bible is for specific situations of the time and doesn’t translate into different times and different cultures particularly well.

Thrashing a child with a rod may well have been acceptable in Old Testament times but is likely to land you in court in many places in the Western world today. Anyway you would be hard pressed in virtually any modern community to justify having a child stoned to death for swearing at a parent no matter what some ancient verse might say. Nor will the ancient verses tell you about the ethics of modern finance, global trading, stem cell research, vaccine delivery, water-boarding or intercontinental ballistic missiles.

One last thing. just as there are limitations in finding practical guidance for personal problems in priestly observance, or prophetic declaration, while the next steps of the journey may be contemplated in the priestly setting of Church, the real steps of the journey of insight are going to be taken in our day-to-day context of our personal world.

We may well gain thoughtful inspiration from principles laid down by Jesus, or Paul and even from that deeply flawed individual called Solomon, yet eventually we have to do our own growing in wisdom. May it be that we encourage one another in our respective journeys.

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Lectionary Sermon for 8 August 2021 on John 6:35, 41-51

Address:  Bread with a Purpose

Well here we are… on what New Zealand Methodists call Lay Preachers Sunday, and it occurs to me that those who haven’t had a turn at leading worship might not quite appreciate that those of us who are required to be up front might actually be somewhat less confident than we try to pretend.    

There are all those technical words for preachers to try to understand and sometimes the simplest are the hardest.    Take that simple word “worship” for example.    Does it just mean expressing admiration for God and Jesus in our songs and prayers?   Even finding the words to say what we mean by God or Jesus as the Son of God is a bit confusing.   Then there is what to do with all those Bible stories and sayings from Jesus.   

Yes, I guess we all know that the Bible has some great ideas in it – but what are we meant to be doing with those ideas?    For example Jesus said don’t build up treasures on Earth. Well, dare we ask?  How many dollars do we need to have built up to have it called treasure? Was that meant to include not building Churches?  Those new cars and SUVs  that choke our motorways … are they treasures?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice new luxury electric car. Of course that would come our way sooner if we didn’t notice and object to child labour being used in Africa to dig out Cobalt by hand to help put together the complex batteries.

But then there are the really tricky parts of the gospels.  Jesus said forgive our enemies and…. Turn the other cheek.   So how many wars have the people of our nation gone away to fight?   And what was our Church teaching about that when they went to fight?  And if it comes to that I wonder how many of us would be prepared to put our hand up and say because of Jesus’ teaching we are pacifist?   

The New Testament has ideas like “welcome the stranger in your midst”.  Which I guess is why we see so many turbans and Muslim women wearing veils here amongst us this morning… or do we?  Don’t those strangers read the signals we send to tell the strangers they are welcome?  I hope Jesus didn’t mean refugees because for all the millions of refugees in those camps overseas, precious few of them are allowed to finish up on our shores.  Perhaps all this is why in practice we prefer to focus on the admiration part of what we call worship, yet even there I suspect most of us do have a sneaking feeling that perhaps we ought to be taking Jesus’ words at least seriously enough to assume that there should be something ….anything ….about those of us who come to praise that also sets our behaviour apart in a positive way.

Well today our lectionary gives us a well known phrase that should make us give pause for thought.    When John’s gospel tells us that Jesus talks about himself being the bread of life he was of course using a metaphor.  But it is nevertheless an interesting choice of words.   Notice he doesn’t say I bring the bread of life.  He says I AM the bread of life.    Bread – yes.   Bread was the staple food of the Middle East in Jesus’ day.

But I suspect the reason why he was calling himself the bread of life was that he was saying he actually was the message.   He took his teaching so seriously that it actually became part of him.  Perhaps this metaphor also gives us a clue.   Food can of course be admired but actually food is designed to be part of the structure and working of the body.

Now because I am a lay preacher (and only briefly for some of that time a lay minister) my theology is not particularly strong, but because I used to be a science teacher I do at least know something about food and what it does when it is internalized.

We pause for a quick science lesson.   So here are some things I know more about than theology.

Before food can become part of your body it has to be taken on board.   All those lovely foods at the supermarket are absolutely no use… while they are just being admired.   They have to be chopped up and ground into small bits by the teeth and then exposed to special chemicals called enzymes.   Different parts of the body break down or digest different foods.

Long starch molecules will get broken into sugars.   Proteins are broken down into amino acids – fats broken down into fatty acids and glycerol and then the real magic begins.    Some foods inside you in effect do a slow burn with the oxygen in the air – and that is respiration.  Amino acids link up to make new proteins – and the muscles begin to form.   Some other bits are needed for making more DNA and enzymes and some of the calcium is grabbed to make bone.  Digestion makes you the person you are.

Perhaps I might also say if you intend to take in food that is digested and then reassembled as part of the body, BUT if it is not then used then there are problems.   As I tried to explain to some of my friends, I have not only kept my figure, there is now more of it.

When Jesus talks about himself as the living bread, there is the clue.   Like other food – say in a lunch box, looking at pictures of the food, listening to specially qualified people describe the food, or even claiming what you believe the food would do if it was taken into your body – none of that is the point of the food.

In the same way listening to the amateur lay-preacher, or even the full time presbyter describe the bread of life might encourage us to admire Jesus, unless we too are prepared to take the bread of life and make it part of our very way of life, how can what we admire make a difference?

If Jesus’ description of himself as the bread of life had stayed simply as an interesting idea to be trotted out in instalments once a week in formal worship it would do little more than offer a reason for respecting Jesus.    But Jesus took it one step further.  Because Jesus internalized it and it became part of his words and actions, then part of his followers’ way of life, it started what in fact became what turned out to be a revolution.

In the interests of truth it is sometimes good to remind ourselves that living in a different way is not universally appreciated by others who are made uncomfortable by what they encounter.

Back in Jesus day I would imagine that many would feel threatened by a different philosophy that – if adapted – would mean their power would be reduced.   Most modern historians who specialize in the study of what was happening in Israel at the time of Jesus seem to have come to the consensus that as more started to follow Jesus this was seen as a threat to the public control of the occupying force of the Romans and more locally as a threat to the status and authority of the religious leadership.

Jesus hit out at the prostitution of the house of God.   I have no way of knowing exactly what happened in the incident of the clearing if the Temple but it is hard to believe that the message he was bringing would have been popular.    What was that bit in the Gospel of Mark:  “Beware of the scribes who walk about in long robes, to be treated obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the place of honour at the banquets.   These are the men who swallow the property of widows, making a show of lengthy prayers.  The more severe will be the sentence they receive”.(Mark 12 38-40)

Having been made a guest of honour a few times at various religious festive occasions I want to suggest that in some of our Churches this sort of thing can still happen …. and I inwardly squirm when I hear those words of Jesus.    But for those challenged, you can see how they would become angry and want to attack the one who was challenging their conscience.   The bread of life is not the only food on offer.

Some of you may be familiar with the Irish saying:  “ The person who speaks the truth should be ready to ride off at once”.   People do not like the truth when it challenges their current beliefs and practices.   But this is the tricky bit.    Jesus did not ride off.   For him the bread of life meant that the unpalatable truth would need to be told regardless of the personal consequences.

I may have it wrong but I see this same dimension of the bread of life being played out in international politics.   The United States of America as an example has about 5% of the World’s Population.   It takes a share of a quarter of the World’s GDP.   Their government under their recent President felt that their trade arrangements unfairly treated their nation and they tried to improve things so that basically the share of one quarter of the World’s GDP could be increased.    

But here is the question.    Is this the best a Christian nation can offer?  What would we say about that previous President who apparently wanted to get more of the World’s wealth for a country that already has 25% of the world’s wealth, and to organise immigration so that the richest and best qualified can come in and the undesirable unqualified poor can stay out.  (Oh dear that sounds like our immigration policy).  There are of course those that can and do call out leaders for following policies that seem to be the opposite of what Jesus was teaching.   But have you noticed two other things?  

First:  Those who challenge these policies are still currently ridiculed and where possible punished so I guess there is a strong temptation to keep quiet and not get in the way.

Second:  Before we sneer at nations like America, let’s reflect to see if our own Nation’s policies are in line with our claimed Christian principles – and that we are indeed helping the bread of life be discerned in our own attitudes and actions, particularly towards those whose standard of living and living conditions are much worse than our own.

That the bread of life must be identified as both an internal rebuilding and external expression is not always appreciated.   If we are casual about the place of what we learn in this place, this Church, I guess we can, and in truth at times probably do conceal the need in our outer world by simply not looking too hard. 

 Similarly if we are casual about our inner world we can cover our insecurities by surrounding ourselves with the good things of life, and accumulate possessions, prestige and power so that there is no time or space to become part of the answers to our prayers.

Jesus was his message.  He was in effect the bread of life.   I wonder what message others encounter in us. Don’t forget we too are our message.   AMEN

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Lectionary Sermon for 1 August 2021 on John 6: 24

(Note to Reader: This sermon was composed first for the same reading back in August 2018)

Although each of the gospel writers share some common material, each has their own style and each has somewhat different intentions in telling their story. John for example is strongly attracted to metaphor and seems to delight in poetic expression. Unlike the other gospel writers, he is attracted to the more obscure miracles, spending far less time on Jesus’ direct teaching and more on conveying the important truths by relating Jesus’ enigmatic answers to simplistic questions.

The passage for today is vintage John. The scene finds Jesus apparently pursued by a crowd who simply can’t seem to get enough of him, yet this same crowd is portrayed as including those who seem strangely naive in their questions. The crowd may or may not have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand but, at least according to John,  they have heard about it. Again from the way John tells it, they have probably at least also heard the rumours of Jesus calming the sea and walking on water, but their questions suggest they are simply baffled by his actions and words.

For example the crowd cannot even believe how he is now on the other side of the lake, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” they ask. Jesus tells them in effect they are missing the signs because, as he sees it, all they have really cared about is that he recently organized to feed them. This, Jesus says, is not the sort of food they should really be after, since ordinary food doesn’t last. Rather, he says, the focus for their quest should really be “for the food that endures for eternal life.” Again the crowd appears to misunderstand and instead wonder what they might do to achieve the same results as Jesus with his strange and wonderful acts.

Again Jesus is anything but direct. “Believe in the one God has sent” is implied by his answer. “Can you show signs like our ancestors received?” they persist. “Like for instance Moses giving them manna in the desert.” “That wasn’t Moses” says Jesus, “that was God acting. Anyway, the true bread from heaven is the bread that gives life.” “And how do we get that?” comes the inevitable question.

Then comes Jesus’ extraordinary and memorable answer.
“I am the bread of life”, says Jesus “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry”.

It might be a mistake to rush to assume those questions from the crowd are necessarily the questions of the stupid or slow witted. Think about it. Questions like “Who is this man really?” and “Can we have a share in his same gifts?” are actually standard typical questions that still appear to (and I even think should) puzzle many, even today. The standard answers to these questions that we often hear like: Jesus is the son of God – and – we will be saved by our faith and/or perhaps – known by our works – may well have scriptural verses to support them and may indeed sound good in Church but those same answers can become curiously irrelevant when we are at work or down at the shopping centre.

Which brings us to Jesus and the statement: “I am the bread of life”
Although it may sound at first hearing that Jesus is deliberately evading the questions with his obscure answers, there is another way of thinking of his words. The crowd has after all discerned that Jesus has something in his actions that sets him apart. When he says he does not so much bring bread but rather is the bread what I suspect he is really saying is that he doesn’t so much bring the message as he is the message. There is a ring of authenticity about that.

A televangelist who thunders about sin but has an affair with his secretary or siphons off the donations of the faithful into his own bank account, may in fact be using direct quotations from the Jesus and the writers of the Bible in his public address, yet despite using exactly the same words as Jesus, he or she is rightly dismissed as a hypocrite because they are not living my their message. The quiet little old lady who is thoughtful, kind and loving to her neighbours may not have a hope of getting all her Bible quotes word perfect, and may well be unable to use a microphone at all, let alone address a TV audience with confidence, yet her witness will be seen as authentic because she is her message.

Living in what for much of the rest of the world sees as luxury, we in the wealthy West probably don’t really grasp what bread meant to those in Jesus’ audience. In a typical Western supermarket, the shelves are stacked with a huge variety of food. Yet in many places of the world there is only one staple food. In much of Asia the food for necessity is rice – usually brown, unpolished rice. In first century Palestine it was mainly unleavened bread. In New Guinea it is often yams, or for the lucky, pork, coconut and fish. But whatever the staple food – it is the food that keeps starvation at bay.

There is of course one part of Jesus message which can be and often is misinterpreted. When Jesus says don’t work for the food which is perishable, in context he is almost certainly not saying, therefore forget about perishable food. After all a little earlier in John’s gospel he is recorded as feeding the five thousand. Fish and bread are indeed perishable food. On another occasion he was recorded as cooking fish on the seashore for his disciples.

What however he seems to be reminding us, is that food – particularly basic food in a physical sense – may be fine in its place but like other things we might seek, when the merely physical becomes our main focus and we see it as the main or even the only purpose of our effort, we are in danger of losing our perspective. Whatever takes our main focus and attention becomes our life.

You may be familiar with the old Danish folktale of the greedy spider. The spider in the barn spun this magnificent web. First he dropped a thread from the ceiling and from there set out to weave the most magnificent web. Initially the web trapped only a few flies so the spider made the web a little bigger – and as more insects were trapped the spider got fatter and fatter. The food gathering became an obsession and every day the greedy spider would figure out new ways of making the web more efficient and larger. He would remove any ineffective parts that were not working as food gatherers and place new threads where they were most likely to succeed. Finally one day the spider looked up at the thread hanging from the ceiling. Never once has this caught an insect, he said to himself. Reaching up he cut the thread. The web collapsed along with the spider who fell to the floor where he died, crushed under the hoof of the farmer’s horse.

I am sure we can all think of a human equivalent. Perhaps the most obvious equivalent of that hungry spider are simply those who forget the direction of the most important source of life, of action and of support, and instead focus on feeding their appetites with whatever comes to hand.

Traditionally politicians who wish to stay in power exploit this greed. Back in the times of the early Christian Church the Roman Emperors distracted the attention of the crowds with bread and circuses. Today the more subtle version is to woo and distract the electorate with visions of improved amenities, offer tax breaks for the rich and set up trade barriers and immigration barriers to prevent third world countries from sharing our wealth.

Jesus appears to be inviting us to change the direction of our attention, and instead put our main search into everything he stands for as our principal goal and purpose. To work for the food that offers eternal life may be metaphor but in no way can it be interpreted as passive. When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and tells us that we should work for that bread, it then becomes a call to action.

In one sense, attention to the bread of life or for that matter directing our focus to the heaven directed supportive thread should also help attend to some day-to-day realities. Working towards a goal does not in practice mean that we should expect to reach that goal completely. The real world is a little short on those fully deserving the title of saint. Yet short of shutting ourselves away from the world as a hermit saint, in practice it seems that without being fanatical it should be possible at least settle on attempting to live with a positive direction rather than chasing the illusion of rainbows of self gratification.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be taking a good hard look at areas of real life where a re-orientation is sorely needed. It is simply a fact that more than enough food is able to be produced to sustain the world’s population yet it is also true that many starve.

And why? Simply I guess it is that too many of us are focused on our own appetites rather than on the needs of others, or for that matter, seriously working for the other principles that Jesus lived. To partake of what Jesus called heavenly food is to take Jesus and all he stands for into our thinking and living and that includes accepting his attitudes to others. The challenge is to make that thinking our thinking. I have seen that same message in the lives of some others and I guess you have too, but the real question for my conscience is what others will see in me. For whatever I am is my message, just as whatever you are will speak more convincingly than any words.

Jesus called himself the bread of life and when we seek communion we seek to partake of that same bread. Jesus is the bread of life, and looking at his example and the example of those who have taken him at his word we can see it is a form of sustenance worth working for. How we now react to his offer to seek this bread and more importantly the extent we allow it to become part of our lives will be what we really have to offer to others.

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Lectionary Sermon for July 25 2021 on John 6: 1

The Unexpected Happening with a Message: Treating Others like they Matter
Do you think that Jesus as the Son of God would really have been able to set aside the laws of nature whenever he liked to achieve all those miracles of healing, walking on water or even today’s gospel reading about multiplying the loaves and fishes.

Today’s story, at least taken at face-value, certainly sounds as if Jesus pulled off a miracle.  Yet if it were a miracle,  I am far from wanting to be  saying Jesus magic-ed up  some sort of trick whereby many hungry people were mysteriously fed. I also need to add from a purely personal point of view, I have to confess I don’t actually care how exactly what happened nor how it was subsequently remembered and reported, but either way at least we are left with the same sort of clear challenge that a parable is supposed to do. As it happens, because I believe that that the working of the natural world and principles of nature are trustworthy, I strongly suspect that whatever Jesus was claimed to have done it would not have required some kind of magical or mystical intervention. Nevertheless there is something that is reported here that should set Jesus aside from how many important people would be expected to act in the same situation.

A number of modern Bible scholars like John Dominic Crossan remind us that a number of strange stories in the Bible are using the trick of sounding like magic, but in fact are telling a religious truth that should point us to a better way of living.   Remember a parable or strange story told with the intention of changing behaviour matters because, although the story might not have actually happened, it sounds so jaw dropping that first we can remember it, and second so that we seek out what it is trying to teach.

While it may seem a bit annoying that when each of the four gospels tell this particular story they seem to get details like the number fed wrong, in this case the starting point is that Jesus notices that some who have come to listen to him have been there long enough to be hungry.   Today’s reading from the Gospel of John written years after the other gospels, also adds something which in those days would have been even more striking (and that the other gospels missed).   Jesus turns to a small child.   The Greek John uses to show the child is small is not is just the word meaning “diminutive”, but the word for “very” diminutive.   In Jesus’ day small children were largely ignored as being of little significance.    After all, many would not live long enough to be adults.   So that Jesus’ expression of compassion should depend on noticing, then using, a child to bring about his act of compassion makes it more significant.

Living in the cyber age is changing society in new and strange ways. For possibly the first time in history the problem is no longer a shortage of information. Given our ready access to the web via Google and a host of other impressive search engines we are inundated with knowledge.

Faced with this avalanche of facts and understandings our real dilemma comes in the selection of life enhancing observations and principles. This includes sorting out what we do with the information from the countless sermons and commentaries on the feeding of the five thousand. No doubt the new Christian might well be content to hand responsibility for this selection to those who go before them on the faith journey, but sooner or later many of us come to the realization that we too must get to the point of making our own judgment and selection.

There is of course a problem in holding to closely to the literal truth of the loaves and fishes story quite apart from the multiplication of loaves and fishes mechanism. For a start there are other versions of the story in the other gospels and the detail varies in the retelling. There are actually six accounts given in the gospels of feeding the multitudes. Matthew chapters 14 and 15, Mark 6 and 8, Luke 9 and today’s version in John 6.

In one account, we read of 5,000 men and another 4,000 men; once with five loaves and two fish, and again with seven loaves and a few fish; once with twelve baskets of remaining bread gathered and in another five baskets. Perhaps it was the accounts of different incidents, but I suspect not.

That I should choose to see the story as showing how the actions of the least of us, even the actions of a small child, might inspire an open handed sharing is obviously not the only way to look at the event. Yet even if you are one of those who consider that Jesus would not have been constrained by the laws of nature, for me the real issue for the rest of us who most certainly are constrained by physical realities, is more focussed on how the story might inspire us to relax our attitudes to minister to the needs of others.

When the disciples came to Jesus to ask him to encourage the crowd to leave so that they might find food and shelter, did you notice that Jesus in some way might have almost been reminding them that they had not first shared what they had? ….And Jesus replied, “They don’t have to leave. Why don’t you give them something to eat?” Now note how the disciples replied: “We have only five small loaves of bread and two fish.” The passage doesn’t say so, but I would like to think that Jesus answered that in part by by raising his eyebrows and spreading his hands in question.

John Churcher has written a thoughtful commentary and sermon on this event and I would like to share one short paragraph:

“Which is more powerful and of greater compassion, for us to sit back and to look on this incident of the feeding of the 5000 in terms of a heavenly conjuring trick and perhaps singing self-indulgent songs of praise to the interventionist God residing somewhere out there? Or is the power, the compassion and the miracle in this story for each one of us, as incomplete as we are, to realize that by living the values of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, the hungry are given something to eat; the thirsty are given something to drink; the strangers are truly welcomed; the naked are given clothes to wear; the sick are taken care of and the prisoners are visited?”

In these terms, I prefer to notice this story is not primarily about multiplication of the loaves, it is more about showing carfe for those in difficulty. A moment’s reflection might suggest for those of us who are not saint-like, generosity ebbs and flows. A huge disaster for example can awaken our conscience. Wasn’t there an increase of giving for the Christchurch earthquakes, as there is each time there is a significant disaster in the Pacific? If we stop to think of the people affected, a hurricane on one of our nearby Pacific Islands, or for that matter a tornado or flood affecting a nearby neighbourhood we don’t have to remain selfish.

Suddenly the tight-fisted can become open-handed … but because they, like many of us, are human with all the weaknesses that entails, dare I suggest that a few months later they may well be back to being tight-fisted. Just remember they could do worse.

Perhaps the sometimes generous are not as bad as those of us who use their religion to insulate themselves from need. It is only religion by proxy if we gather in Church each Sunday to pray for the sick and the lonely – and avoid the sick and the lonely for the rest of the week. It is also religion by proxy, if on one hand we talk in awed terms of Jesus feeding the five thousand yet on the other spend more on eating out than we would dream of putting in the offering plate or than giving as a gift to Christian World Service. If we have five loaves and two fish, and the plight of the hungry is set before us it is not Jesus’ way to ensure that those two fish and five loaves may be consumed exclusively by ourselves.

There is a well known saying with a number of variations. In one of the more popular versions it is: “Don’t tell me about your values. Show me what you do with your money”. This even raises some interesting questions about how whole congregations allocate the money they collect each week. In those budget planning exercises that most Church leaders grapple with each year it is always worth asking where the emphasis actually lies. Could it be that virtually the entire budget is consumed by building and administration. Admittedly there are tradesmen to be paid, salaries of Church workers to meet and buildings to maintain. Yet if the whole purpose of our chosen faith is to reflect and live the values Jesus proclaimed by word and action, it may just be some change in emphasis is required.

No doubt on this occasion the disciples would have been hoping for Jesus to give comforting direction to the tired and hungry – but religion as Jesus would have it – is more than just words, it is the living of one’s true values. For some they will see the miracle of the loaves and fishes as a convincing example of Jesus’ power, something perhaps to wonder at for being totally beyond our ability to emulate. On the other hand there may be those who find in this story an insight into the values Jesus lived and invites his followers to share.

Because we are at different stages of the faith journey there is no point of insisting that we should be similarly affected by this or any other story about Jesus. On the other hand the Christian journey will have much more relevance if we aim for a first hand rather than a second hand faith. At the very least this story of the loaves and fishes might give some reason to encourage us all to seek our own individual interpretation and application in our own living. Whatever Jesus might or might not have been able to accomplish, we are clearly unable to cause loaves of bread and fish to miraculously multiply in a physical sense, but the lesser miracle of seeing others for the first time as those whose needs we might begin to meet with our own limited resources, might be miracle enough for this day.

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LECTIONARY SERMON 18 July, 2021 (2 Samuel:1-14A, Ephesians 2:11-22 Mark 6:30-34 , 53-56)

IS YOUR DREAM TEMPLE A HOUSE OR A HOME?

Most young people starting out as school leavers rapidly discover that building a magnificent house is beyond all but the very rich, let alone the most impressive temple in the world. Even King David had to start small. As a shepherd boy, much of his early life with all its difficulties and dangers must have made building a very distant goal.

Certainly his reported killing of Goliath of Gath marked a change in his reputation and from that point his fortunes began to change. However looking at it objectively, for David installed as a favoured young man in King Saul’s household there can’t have been much sense of security.  His music and popularity might well have won favour with the young women, but to Saul they were also signs of a threat to his position. Remember that incident when Saul irritated by David’s singing and the adulation he seemed to be getting, flung a spear at David and David had to run for his life pursued by Saul and his soldiers.

On the positive side he did have gifts and strengths. For example he was magnanimous in offering mercy to Saul when he found him asleep and defenceless in a cave. He also developed a wonderful relationship with Jonathan , showed mercy to Abigail and demonstrated great skill as a military leader as he led his men in one dangerous skirmish after another.

When eventually David did achieve enough of a victory over his enemies to enjoy the spoils of war, his first thought after building his own house, was to build an inspiring temple out of cedar.

Times of peace and plenty are no doubt the very times where such building can be contemplated, yet such building carries with it the suspicion that David rather thought that in so doing, people would not only acknowledge the God in whose name the building was to be established – but they would also know that in another way this was going to be David’s memorial.

There is always an uneasy relationship when notions of God get caught up with the rich and powerful. Leslie Milton points out when Kings and those who wield political power call what they do God’s power – this can lead to a deep ambivalence. Think for instance of King Henry the eighth wresting the Church power away from Rome and vesting the leadership and wealth of the Church of England with himself. It would be difficult to reconcile the following war against the Catholics and the sacking of their Churches in England with Christ’s message of humility and compassion.

Think also of the corruption of Rome at its worst with a Church groaning with riches, and the scandal of indulgences being challenged by Martin Luther. Think the crusades or the subjugation of the people in Central and South America in the name of the superpowers and the Church. Think back a few months to Mr Trump’s claim to be a Christian and his and his followers’ attitude to refugees.

So what of those who see the dangers mounting? Should they speak up?
And that brings us to Nathan. You have to feel sorry for Nathan, caught between his position of being a royal prophet wanting to support his royal master with all the sense of obligation for patronage that this entails on the one hand, and on the other, his conscience requiring him to tell the king he was wrong, and that in effect God was have been wanting something quite different.

The problem in fact may have been with David himself. The Old Testament presents David as a very complex character with flaws to match his undoubted gifts. The same David who was said to have slain Goliath was also on one hand a womanizer, a rapist, one who arranged the murder of his friend and general Uriah, apparently in order to get his friend’s wife. 2 Samuel tells us just how wrong David’s subsequent actions could be. Yet Nathan would also have known that here too on the other hand was one said to be a composer of at least some of the Psalms, one who had the apparent loyalty and support of his people, not to mention the power to deal harshly with those who got in his way. It was to this unpredictable patron Nathan must give his reluctant advice.

He presents it to David as God’s message in three simple parts. As you listen to it wonder that perhaps the words might also be intended for people a bit like us.

Nathan tells David what he thinks God would say: “Sorry but I didn’t ask David to build this temple. A simple tent would be good enough. What I did ask was that David should keep my commands.”

Then again, through Nathan, God further says: David’s reputation and name based on a life well lived is ultimately far more significant than any building he might put up.

What I need is for David to rest from his enemies and focus on giving the same love for his family as I have shown for him.

We are so used to the notion of great buildings built to celebrate God and the various saints that their grandeur can sometimes blind us to some serious basics. I guess the test question is whether or not the building is consistent with the notion of a loving God and compassion for the people, not just the favoured people. These days we might even ask: do the people of the building, perhaps even people such as us, follow the golden rule?

Well if that was the test then David’s dream of a cedar Temple comes up well short. In reality of course the Temple would have had to have been paid for by the spoils of war and no doubt largely built by slaves. Since the heavy cedar would have had to have been carried many miles, probably barefoot from the hills by those on subsistence wages at best, it could hardly have been built in the spirit of a God of love.

Unfortunately it is a message that has been very slow for David and his many successors to understand. In a way it is the message which strikes at the heart of conventional Christianity as well. It is the message that it is the relationships which matter more than the trappings of religion.

David’s Temple proved a disappointment in the long run. Built and rebuilt several times – destroyed by enemies and the focus of much enmity. The contrast with what Jesus taught could not have been more marked. Not for Jesus the need for a magnificent building. If anything Jesus himself was the temple to be sacrificed for others.

To present successful churches as mega churches rather misses the point that Jesus made over and over again.  While it is true that we read that from time to time Jesus attracted a large crowd with his teaching, far more often we find him directly dealing with the needs of individuals. Even when he was surrounded by w hat these days we might call his fans, if the gospel writers have it right, Jesus gave his attention to those around him as individuals.  Again in terms of what we might now term Church leadership, his disciples were not treated as incidental props.  He noticed when they were becoming too busy to deal with their individual needs and encouraged them to take time out for rest and meals.  Why is it that people in a crowd seem to lose their individuality, at least to an onlooker, as the crowd starts to grow? 

As an aside I wonder if you noticed the nice fit within today’s other reading from Second  Ephesians where we find some sentiments which seem to be written as part commentary for  the message in Mark’s gospel.   Here there is a timely reminder to those of us who find it easier to focus on the bricks and mortar of our buildings.   According to the Ephesians message attributed to Paul, the building we should give our primary focus is the living building which should incorporate the newcomers, even the gentile, newcomers to the faith.

 Not for Jesus the need for a magnificent building.  If anything Jesus himself was the temple to be sacrificed for others.

Even his mission was of the sort that required him to care not about buildings but about those who shared his tasks. All of which brings us to look again at our New Testament Gospel reading for today.

I don’t know if you have noticed but Mark rarely goes into much detail about what Jesus is teaching and appears to be more interested in the way Jesus interacts with those who come into contact with him. Time after time Jesus appears to notice not just who is there but what they bring to the meeting.

Because we look at a different reading each week with our lectionary it is tempting to see each of the stories as isolated events. However as Mark tells it we can see that what happens is not just what Jesus decides according to his master plan. He may be intending to build a kind of Temple – but his church or temple is built from willing hearts, not bricks and mortar, nor even with cedar. His focus on the human needs means he constantly has to take backgrounds and changing situations into account .

I think it is also significant that Jesus is not some super being who simply overcomes all odds with a word. His teaching and healing met almost total failure in his own home area. Capernaum was very different to Tiberius. Nazareth was not the same setting as Jerusalem. In today’s Gospel for example, Jesus also made allowances for such factors as the fatigue and worry of the disciples. Remember the event which we looked at last week in the beheading of John the Baptist who was after all Jesus’ cousin. Small wonder then, that Jesus was anxious to give his disciples a break after hearing that depressing news.

Perhaps this is a pointer for our own planning. In the same way that we might plan a Church programme in our leaders meetings or in the seclusion of the study at home, that programme absolutely must take into account the situations of those we are expecting to deliver the programme and even more importantly those for whom the programme is ultimately intended to serve. Perhaps this is why rather than organize the big events to wow the crowds we need to be constantly adjusting what we are trying to do for the personal situations of those to whom we minister.

It is very human to want to be seen as successful and I guess that many of us in our own way would like to leave something that sums up our life for others to admire. Remember David thought the ideal should be a Temple. Yet for Jesus, more important was his care for the people he met. Perhaps Nathan was speaking to more than just David when he said in effect a life well lived is more significant than anything that can be structurally built in God’s name.

There is a subtle difference between a house and a home.  The house is a structure.  The “home” is focused on those who live there.   Perhaps we might get closer to remembering what Nathan was on about if we could only focus again on turning the house of God into a home, a home where all might find a place.

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