Lectionary sermon (homily) for Sunday 19 November 2017 (Matthew 25: 14-30)

TALENTS OF THE CASUAL PART TIME CHRISTIAN

To hear some leaders of great nations or even large Churches explain it – success or failure depends on the wisdom and efforts of the boss. If we prosper it is because we have chosen the right leader… really? It is true that in the world of money Western nations place great store on the Captains of commerce and industry. We presume leaders who deliver on our trust must be rewarded – and those who fail to deliver should get their just desserts.

If only Jesus could have left his parable of the talents as being about how the leaders dealt with their challenges and their talents! Unfortunately he insists that each one in the household has their own set of challenges. Even the lowly servant with his single minimal talent will be held to account. Our moment of self realization is when we suddenly recognise that he was not just talking about them. He is also talking about us.

By a global reckoning, our current position suggests some aren’t delivering on their responsibilities – but I guess the real question is whether or not we too acknowledge we should be numbered among the poor performers.
The U N October 2017 figures say the world population has exceeded 7 billion, of which 1 billion of whom have no security of food supply.

There is evidence of pollution and climate problems, not to mention growing energy uncertainties and political and economic insecurity virtually everywhere we look. Locally for this city, and for many cities, the alarming growth in the gap between the rich and the poor is a moral issue just waiting for the appropriate faith led action. That insufficient has been done is self evident. Less obvious is whether we intend to do enough , or frankly even care about the current state of the nations.

The recent election may or may not have delivered the sort of political majority that is designed for our personal benefit, but there may be a deeper question. Of course we, the relative rich, continue to move further ahead, but the continuing grim circumstances developing for the underprivileged poses an uncomfortable question for current priorities. To the extent we claim to live in a democracy and take pride in our nation’s role in the international community, surely our nation’s stewardship is influenced by our stewardship.

Impending disaster is not new. This gives today’s reading about the talents particular interest because as for Western nations today, this parable speaks to our own apparent dilemmas. Think for a moment about the setting for the followers of Jesus.

At the time Matthew was setting down this particular parable Jesus who was no longer physically on the scene. He had been crucified because his message was seen too dangerous for his community of the day. Quite apart from his followers, his teaching had seemed unsettling for the occupying Roman conquerors of Israel.

Despite their stories of resurrection, any chance that the new Christian sect might have had of appealing to the mainline Jewish community had evaporated when a Jewish rebellion occurred in 66 AD. This uprising had been s put down savagely by the Romans who had responded to the outbreak of insurrection with acts of punishment including many crucifixions over the following four years. This culminated in the Romans sacking Jerusalem, setting in train the Diaspora which scattered the Jewish nation to the corners of the known earth.

The Roman historians record the Roman General Titus returning in triumph to Rome with the spoils of Jerusalem (including the Menorah ie the great candlestick stand from the temple) and setting up tableaux to show how he had crushed those who had risen up against the might of Rome.

The leadership of the early Christian Church was very uneven, and without a settled body of teaching that was still to emerge as what we now know better as the New Testament – numerous and somewhat secretive sub sects like the Essenes, and the various satellite Churches in separate cities and regions with poor communications between them, had their leaders vying for control, offering a range of sometimes contradictory beliefs. Does that sound familiar?

Don’t think for one moment that the early Church was somehow more certain than the modern Church. Even their teachings were open to interpretation. There were arguments about which of the many available gospels to accept as authoritative. The early followers had to distinguish between levels of teachings with some writings being designed for the inner circle of believers. Matthew (like the other gospels) was being edited and re-edited by successive teachers.

Today’s particular story was a case in point because the equivalent story in Luke had those entrusted with the money being given much less that in the Matthew version. The word talenta used in Matthew was technically a weight rather than a denomination and was a substantial amount (vastly more than a week’s wages). This would in effect be the equivalent of a substantial lottery prize today.

The story would have had particular impact for that day particularly as each church community was virtually on its own and most would have been struggling for survival. With few certain resources the temptation was to hold to what they had and since the technical laws of the day condemned dangerous high interest money dealing there would have been an excuse not to risk investment. The preference for the option of in effect burying the money, and simply trusting to God to make things better would have been very strong.

When I encounter the story of the talents my first impression was that it struck me that Jesus was being very irreligious. Religious custom was then (and probably still is today) to expect the leadership to petition God for guidance and assistance, and by custom in most Churches this seems to lead to most members staying in a passive spectator mode with few in each congregation being proactive in individual actions and choices. Further even today we structure our Churches for the most part in such a way, that where, if indeed actions are to take place, it seems as if we prefer that selected people will act on everyone’s behalf.

There is a model of Church that seems to lead to us talking glibly of Church as the people – yet in practice behaving as if Church is a set of buildings with a hierarchy of leadership acting as a brake on any suggested action in response to the most serious societal and international problems. A more direct link of the sort in the early stories of faith where for instance Jacob has a personal encounter with one in retrospect he thinks may have been God, and what is more an encounter in a nameless, natural setting, is not normally part of our thinking.

Into this, our normally passive and relatively undemanding situation, the parable of the talents presents us with an uncomfortable set of truths.

We might start by reminding ourselves that although the natural tendency is to act as if the Church is should be preserved in unchanged form regardless of what happens elsewhere. In point of fact sociological studies tell us that the setting and indeed the congregations of most churches are undergoing change. If indeed the Church is the people surely we must expect this change to bring about new needs, and new needs will call on new talents and different abilities to meet those needs. If there is no sign of change of actions, the change is not being addressed and the church becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Matthew in his particular way of ordering his stories has assembled three of Jesus’ parables in this section – each of which talks of the rich master going away for many days leaving his servants to make their own choices. In each, Jesus seems to be stressing that even if the master is to return, we can forget that for the here and now because, in the meantime, it is we (all of us) who are responsible for acting wisely. I can imagine Jesus in effect saying … no-one else is going to do it for you…you with your varying talents and abilities and different starting points must start acting now.

So the first truth is in fact that there is no escape clause. We may not have been given the largest share of the talents – but regardless of the starting package, we are called upon to do what we can with what we have been entrusted with. There is no-one else.

I once came across another way of stressing the same point in the form of a question.
“If”…. So the question went… “ If you individually and your very own actual personal actions were copied by everyone else in the Church, what would the Church be like? – and what would it then be able to accomplish?”

The second awkward reminder is that the reward for good work – is not resting on the oars to bask in the glow of work once done. Rather the reward is further challenge.

The other – and possibly most relevant in terms of current models of actual Church – is that the only ones deserving of punishment are those who use the excuse of possible difficulties for doing nothing.

I know a standard application for this particular parable is to use it for sermons and programmes on stewardship. Yet I prefer to notice that the word talent is also to do with specific abilities which are not only different in value – but in nature. Again past custom causes us to stress abilities like abilities in worship which have been conventionally valued in the past.

In a Church setting perhaps in view of Jesus actual gospel message we have allowed the form of worship – the songs of praises, the public prayers and the act of reading and preaching to dominate almost to the point where other talents are devalued. Yet what else might “each member a minister” mean in practice. Not all can, or (let’s be frank), not all should preach.

Certainly not all can sing. (That is from personal experience!) But Jesus rarely (if ever) is found talking of the need to sing or preach. He does however talk time after time of those other gifts. He seems to focus on such talents as the gift of forgiveness, the gift of servant-hood, the gift of being a good neighbour, the gift of touching the untouchable, and even the gift of seeing past the rules to notice and to care about individuals who need our help.

Perhaps there is a case to be made for looking past what normally passes for Church activity – particularly the activity arrived at by custom – and instead start with what Jesus says is important. Jesus’ parable of the talents appeared to be aimed at those who were reluctant to risk their talents in a time of change. There is little question that we are currently in a time of change ourselves. Under such circumstances is it fair to ask if perhaps the parable of the talents might once more be seen as a reality we need to consider. AMEN

(Note to the reader: I would greatly appreciate the reader using the comment facility for feedback including criticism, suggesting other viewpoints or examples and offering corrections which are likely to be helpful to the author and other readers)

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The Bi-Polar “ leader” of the “free world”

Geddit…….?
I get it that Donald Trump doesn’t want a repetition of a lone ISIS terrorist killing six civilians in New York and wants to pass new laws restricting people who are likely to be potential terrorists getting into the country.

I don’t get it that a self appointed guardian of the defenceless ie one Donald trump – is unmoved by thousands of unnecessary gun deaths each year in the US and doesn’t want any substantive law changes to reduce the access to guns.

I get it that Donald Trump can call a terrorist who kills a handful of defenceless civilians “sick”and “deranged”.

I don’t get it that the hopefully non-sick and non deranged Donald Trump as the leader of a nation which has the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world can threaten to wipe a whole country (ie North Korea) including millions of defenceless civilians off the map for the crime of trying to build its own nuclear arsenal.

I get it that Donald trump is so concerned about the ISIS threat in places like Syria he wants his US led coalition to bomb any cities and towns where there is a ISIS presence even if this bombing kills more civilians than were killed by ISIS (according to the UN statistics)

I don’t get it that, having destroyed such towns and cities, Donald Trump wants to reduce the UN contribution to the welfare of those who are the victims i.e. feels no need to care about the refugees, the wounded, the destroyed hospitals and schools, and the wrecked infra structure.

I get it that since the evangelicals comprise a good part of his key support base, Donald Trump likes the tag of “born again Christian”.

I don’t get how the Mr Trump’s self perception of his own Christian behaviour fits with “keeps no score of wrongs”, “slow to anger”, “forgives seventy time seven”, “turns the other cheek”, “is not puffed-up”, “welcomes the stranger in his midst”, “does not store up treasures on earth”

Geddit?….. please add your own suggested gets and don’t gets in the comment box below!

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Lectionary sermon for 12 November 2017 on Matthew 25: 1-13

INSPIRED TO?……
I guess from time to time a large number of Christians have considered themselves inspired by some of Jesus’ wisdom as recounted by the Gospel writers. Yet given some of the realities of the day to day problems encountered by most modern societies it is also fair to ask if the inspiration has always moved our communities forward for the better. Inspired…. that’s all well and good – but inspired to change which attitudes? – and inspired to do what?

Today’s story certainly seems far removed from a modern Western setting. Join me in reflecting on Jesus original story.

For those of us more familiar of how modern weddings occur, the story of the bridesmaids may well seem virtually incomprehensible. A wedding party when the bride is not even apparently present, when the bridesmaids have no idea when the bridegroom is to arrive …these are hardly part of our experience. Yet in Palestine in the first century AD, the scholars tell us of wedding customs that were in line with Jesus’ story.

Wedding feasts were in fact the main social highlight and were so important that there was even an allowance that those studying the law could be released from their duties to attend. Out in the countryside a great deal was made of the wedding procession which often went between villages and the whole village would turn out to accompany the bridal couple to their home – in the course of which the bride would often finish up in a new village.

One of the customs was evidently to see if you could catch the bridal party unawares. The bridegroom might come in the middle of the night and since no-one was supposed to know for certain when that was going to be – or even the exact date of the wedding, the custom was to post a lookout who was supposed to call out – “behold the bridegroom is coming”. At this point those who were prepared were supposed to rush out to greet him. And the unprepared bridesmaids missed out altogether.

At one level, as Jesus is recorded as telling the story, the parable appears to have been directed to portraying the Jewish nation as a whole. The story of the Messiah was deeply ingrained into national expectation of Israel and the Jews as God’s chosen people were the ones expected to be ready for his appearance. In his story Jesus was in effect saying that many were unprepared for the Messiah’s coming.

Now almost two thousand years after the telling of the story, for a good part of the myriad of Church congregations, this parable has come to signify the second coming – with the message of be prepared. Yet prepared for what – Armageddon perhaps and Jesus returning…perhaps in something symbolized in Revelation?

If we are objective with Christianity’s record of numerous attempts to find the signs of this coming we should be honest enough to admit that over the last 2000 years there have been numerous failed attempts to prepare one another for a coming that failed to materialize….again and again and again.

Last month it was supposed to be the mysterious planet which was supposed to strike the Earth just like it was supposed to do by the failed doomsayers several years ago.

We might cast ours mind back to 2011 the old Pastor, Harold Camping, who for the third time missed what he believed to be his certain date for the end of the world. When it failed to happen on his earlier predicted date in 1994, he read some more of the Bible, did some more calculation and announced was going to be 21 May 2011. For certain, he said, that’s when the faithful were to be raptured up to heaven. When despite the numerous texts he had used, that date too failed, a bewildered Harold Camping recomputed and clarified his broadcasts to explain that the 21 May was a beginning of Gods judgment and it was actually going to happen in its pyrotechnic and spectacular finality the same year 21 October. The only problem was that it didn’t.

Harold Camping’s failures consign him to that steadily growing line of failed prophets. We might do well to remember he was not alone. Time after time (and sometimes among some fairly mainstream denominations) self-appointed prophets have convinced their faithful followers that the signs are now right for the imminent coming of the bridegroom to claim his own. Sometimes waiting in joyful and humble expectation, sometimes waiting with vast outpouring of emotion and even fear … and yet always the result appears the same. The fireworks fail to start, the riders are missing in the sky, the stars refuse to fall and the Lord fails to show. And, thus far at least, the world stubbornly refuses to end.

Yet the parable in Matthew is still there with its troubling message. When least expected the bridegroom will show …and hard luck for those who are not ready. Perhaps it is the wrong sort of coming and the wrong sort of getting ready which dominates our thinking.

When John F. Kennedy was campaigning for his 1960 Presidential bid he often used to close his speeches with the following story of Colonel Davenport, then Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives way back in 1789. It seems that one day, while the House was still in session in broad daylight, the sky above Hartford suddenly grew dark and gloomy. The alarmed representatives looked out the windows and the consensus view was it was a sign that the end of the world had come. In those days science education was virtually unknown and few would have even heard of eclipses – let alone be able to recognise the event for what it was. In the midst of the ensuing hubbub with many representatives calling for immediate adjournment so that they might rush home and see to their families Davenport rose to his feet and said, “Gentlemen, the Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.” Candles were brought and the session continued.

Perhaps Colonel Davenport gave advice for our time as well.

Looking at Christ’s original message and seeing what has happened to it through the best efforts of the modern doomsday prophets it is probably fair to suggest that there has been a human tendency to surround the message with unnecessary religious gloss and fantasy. Although Jesus had a natural storyteller’s feel for a great illustration – time after time he reminded us that what he really required of his followers was that they should drop religious pretence and start caring about the God of Love they claimed to follow, and, what is more, expressing this love in the form of concern and compassion for all who are encountered as neighbours.

Preparation in this sense is more than getting “on message” and is not then particularly compatible with stepping up the religious emphasis. Dom Crossan, impatient with the strange prognostications of those claiming an individual enlightenment free from any bothersome need for scholarship or compassionate action put it as follows: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)
(Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, then and now. NY: New York. Harper, SanFrancisco).

And for that matter there is no need to look for total mystery in Jesus’ coming when Jesus himself in several places suggests we will find him in the commonplace. Jesus says we will in effect be meeting him in the faces of those in need. If it was necessary for Jesus himself to reach out, meet and on occasion even touch those in need, whether they be lepers, those requiring physical healing, or those rejected by society, perhaps we too need to review who we meet, who we help, and how we are expressing the love we claim to have in our hearts.

The religious setting of a Church has one potential downside in that it is very easy to convey a false sense of religious concern when we are so to speak “on show.”

Years ago, when 20th Century Fox advertised in the New York papers to fill a vacancy in its sales force, one applicant offered a novel alternative to the usual CV: “I am at present selling furniture at the address below. You may judge my ability as a salesman if you will stop in to see me at anytime, pretending that you are interested in buying furniture. When you come in, you can identify me by my red hair. And I will have no way of identifying you. Such salesmanship as I exhibit during your visit, therefore, will be no more than my usual workday approach and not a special effort to impress a prospective employer.” From among more than 1500 applicants, who do you think got the job?

Looking around at the various approaches we might note that in our world today, there are two big mistakes people often seem to make with regard to the coming of the Lord. One mistake is to assume that the preparation is for some Hollywood blockbuster type event perhaps in line with the Lord of the Rings and that the preparation is therefore best left to looking around for some self-assured authority who might explain for us the meaning of obscure texts and leave us with nothing to do other than to anxiously wait with a mounting sense of paranoid anxiety. The other mistaken notion is to join with others who are more in tune with religion than ourselves, watch from the side-lines and save our involvement for the odd foray into Church worship.

Finding someone to do the interpretation of this particular parable, and to organise our preparation for us, seems to me almost the opposite of what Jesus was suggesting. Leaving the preparation for our response until it is too late is silly at every level.

In the same way that any impending event depending on us needs our attention, there are clear examples of mounting needs of neighbours that require our thoughtful and often costly response. Imagine doing nothing about a mounting debt, nothing about a known and worsening structural fault, and nothing about near neighbours facing crisis. If caring about neighbours is the Jesus thing to do, putting off showing concern is to be unprepared. Nor can we simply leave it to others and hope for the best.

Surely the point about the foolish bridesmaids was that they had not even done the preparation for themselves and wanted the bridesmaids who had actually organised their own oil, to share. Christianity by proxy – attending the same Church as the committed believers, and thinking that associating ourselves with others’ efforts to love their God and their neighbours as themselves is hardly likely to substitute for our own efforts in preparation. Jesus was in effect saying you cannot borrow someone else’s oil.

The foolish bridesmaids were only guilty of one thing – they slept when they should have been awake.

It is we who are after all are the Church – and if we are letting the chance to take action go by, whether or not we can be stirred to wakefulness will in the last analysis depend on no-one but ourselves.

(   A Note to the reader:  Share with a wider audience by adding your own reactions or examples in the comment box below.    Apology this week.  Initially I accidently posted this sermon for last week’s date!)

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Lectionary Sermon 29 October 2017 on Matthew 23: 1-12

NOT JUST THE PHARISEES

First the reading in Matthew from Chapter 23
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

When Jesus accused the Pharisees of losing the plot, I wonder if you notice a contemporary parallel with the ways in which modern church followers are in danger of losing the plot for our generation. In a whole series of telling verbal blows he is basically saying that self-interest has overtaken the intention to be servants of God. I wonder how Jesus or other independent observers in our community would see us?

Jesus’ illustrations would have more impact on his audience of the day than they would for us because his hearers would have known what he meant by phylacteries and fringes. Whereas our clergy might wear an alb and a stole for an official occasion, but in Jesus day (and in fact even today when the orthodox Jewish leaders say their prayers) they would wear a shoulder shawl with fringed tassels called a zizith and they would strap on two little leather boxes (the phylacteries or tephillin) – one on the forehead and one on the wrist.

The phylactery on the wrist contained a parchment roll with four passages of scripture from Exodus and Deuteronomy – and the same readings but on separate tiny scrolls on the forehead. The direction for the wearing of phylacteries and tassels both come from verses of instruction in the Old Testament and both are intended to be worn as reminders of the law and the intention to respect the law.

Unfortunately in practice there were a number of things the Pharisees could also do for show to emphasise their faith and piety. For example they might encourage people to give them the title of Rabbi. If they wanted to be even more ostentatious they might invite people to call them Father. This was the title originally given to those like Elijah who were considered to be the father figures of the Church.

The seating at worship also emphasized their status. The children and those considered to be unimportant sat down the back. The higher the status – the further to the front they sat – and those of highest status sat at the very front in the synagogue facing the crowd. To emphasize their piety they could wear ostentatious large phylacteries and get very large tassels for their prayer shawls. Jesus concern was not so much that they wore phylacteries or fringed tassels – but that they were pushing themselves forward in an ostentatious manner – or even thinking that this show of status replaced the need for servant-hood and piety.

I may get myself into trouble here – but in many mainline Churches the titles for religious leaders have become important, the seating is sometimes designed to emphasize the importance and the robes in some cases have become so ostentatious that the last thing you think of when you see such a splendiferous outfit is that you are looking at a humble servant. Perhaps some have forgotten that the stole which is nice to wear in decorated form is actually intended to be a symbolic yoke – indicating a preparedness to be a true servant to others. As the status increases, the temptation is to forget about the intended obligations.

In some Churches the elders still sit facing the congregation. That is not a problem as long as in sitting facing the congregation they are being constantly reminded of who they are there to serve. In some feasts like those which accompany weddings and funerals – the VIPs and those seen as important Church people get places of honour.

Please note, I am not against offering respect to those who deserve it – but for those who are offered respect there is always a serious challenge to simultaneously try to hold to genuine attitudes of servant-hood and care for ones fellows ….and in so doing actually start to earn the respect. When people are honoured the honour is not necessarily theirs as of right and certainly not as of birth-right.

Saint Francis of Assisi was close to the mark when he suggested to his followers the only thing we really own as of right are our own sins. It was, of course, not just Jesus who noticed the growing hypocrisy. In the collection of religious writings called the Talmud, the Pharisees were classified in one place as being of seven different kinds, six of whom were described with contempt.

There was the shoulder Pharisee who in effect wore his good deeds so that everyone noticed. There too was the wait-a-little Pharisee who would tell you about the good deed he was going to do – but never quite got around to doing it. Know anyone like that? The bruised and bleeding Pharisee was the one who not only knew it was wrong to speak to a lowly woman in public but went to such an extent to avoid meeting one that he might shut his eyes and bump into walls in his ostentatious attempt to show his purity. There was the humped-back Pharisee who would walk with an exaggerated stoop to emphasize his humility. The ever-reckoning Pharisee was the one who focused on keeping a score of his good deeds so that he might prove his favour with God. There was the timid or fearing Pharisee always worried about divine judgement – and finally – the only sort of Pharisee who found favour in the Talmud – the God-fearing Pharisee who genuinely did love God and delighted in love for his neighbours.

For us the traditions have now changed. But don’t forget that almost the whole chapter 23 of Matthew is about hypocrisy – which is derived from a Greek word Hypocresis meaning actor. Where Jesus became seriously concerned was when he thought those involved in religious tradition were behaving as actors… making a great show of the act but forgetting the true meaning of observing the custom. Although the 12 verses above may not mention the word hypocrite the passage is clearly describing actions of hypocrisy, and although the word hypocrite is not used in this particular reading yet in the following verses it is used no less than six times.

Yes, the actions have changed and in our tradition we no longer expect our Church worshippers to wear those leather phylacteries on our foreheads and wrists and fringed tassels on prayer shawls. Yet think for a moment about our current religious traditions. We still have plenty that for us are significant. We bow our heads in an attitude of humble prayer. Yet if we were to pray humbly for the sick yet show the sick no compassion or visiting time outside this place, it becomes empty show – an act.

We gather to partake of the elements of communion. Are we really using the ceremony of communion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus life and how it unites us in mission – or are we thinking about other things as we go through the impressive actions? We sing those familiar hymns – yet are we thinking of what the words might mean – and more important are we prepared to act on the sentiments we sing? We expect familiar ritual and lay great store on keeping our Church setting as a familiar and worshipful surrounding. Yet surely this can only be good if we are using it as inspiration for our daily interactions with those neighbours we claim to love.

At my church we have a number of those who sleep on the streets who sometimes join us for communion. If we were to be happy to share communion with strangers, then treat them as strangers for the rest of the week– what else could we be doing but acting?

In a sermon on this text the Rev Roy T Lloyd once recounted the following story of a man who arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big moustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.””

Albert Schweitzer was indeed a walking sermon. A brilliant doctor, musician and scholar he could have had fame and fortune in Europe. Instead he went to minister to the sick in a forgotten corner of Africa.

Many of us can talk about Christianity. When we encounter it in action – we cannot help but be humbled by the experience. Contrast this with those who are entirely focused on themselves and their advancement. Corporate greed certainly creates millionaires but there is also something very uncomfortable about the way in which some big corporations exploit the poor and vulnerable.

These days when Church features less and less in everyday life, because most of us still like others to thinks well of us, hypocrisy can still be readily identified. We understand the contempt with which our community treats investment managers who cheat their clients. Surely any of us, who were to make a show of worship with no real concern for the vulnerable are just as reprehensible.

There is a line between the rich and irresponsible and the rich and responsible which is not always immediately obvious yet when you see the genuine benefactors in action, the contrast with those who steadfastly refuse to care about those they have cheated on the way to their millions are widely recognized for what they are.

Few, for example would question the ethics of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet where they show such a responsible attitude to philanthropy. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has been a genuine benefit to hundreds of thousands. On the other hand it is hardly surprising that when a large investment bank pays its managers obscenely large bonuses while refusing to care about those bankrupted by unwise bank advice eventually the observing public will protest in the strongest possible manner.

After the last stock market crash, that so many of the public, which included many with little or no church connection, could recognize that the investment bank practices were so bad that there was a world wide movement for reform, suggests a way we might look at home grown hypocrisy starting with our own.

Perhaps it even reminds us that if hypocrisy is recognizable beyond a Church setting how much easier it should be within a Church setting since we frequently hear of ideal standards. But there is one more thing. The danger of sitting listening to a reading, such as that we encounter today, is that we will pass it off as simply a story about what Jesus thought about Pharisees. We are more honest listeners when we acknowledge that hypocrisy can even extend to those present, those such as ourselves. Self-knowledge is a useful place from which to embark on the next stage of a journey.

(note to the reader:   Do add a comment below.   You do not have to agree!)

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An Urge For a Limerick

Having spent rather too many hours recently on serious topics I wonder if it might be time for something lighter. I submit the following in the hope that others might continue in similar vein. (obscene verse would not be welcome!!)

CANUTE IS A HOOT
The signs are the sea’s on the rise
Which Donald J Trump still denies
But despite all his bleats
And his confident tweets
He’s due for a damp wet surprise

Not that the strange man would care
Just wave his wee hands in the air
And then for a laugh
He’d blame his poor staff
Then off for a preen of his hair

But it may be too soon for a gloat
The hope is his Trumpness may float
True ideas may be rare
And he’s full of hot air…..
Puffed up he should bob like a boat

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Lectionary Sermon for 22 October 2017 (on Matthew 22: 15-22)

IN PRACTICE WHOSE IMAGE DOES OUR FAITH ENCOURAGE US TO SEE

A rich but miserable man once visited a rabbi seeking understanding of his life and how he might find peace. The rabbi led the man to a window looking out into the street and said “What do you see?”

“I see men, women, and children,” answered the rich man.

The rabbi then took the man and stood him in front of a mirror. “Now what do you see?” he asked.

“I see myself,” the rich man replied.

“Yes” said the rabbi. “It is a strange thing is it not? In the window there is a glass and in the mirror there is a glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, and you see only yourself.”

While many of the faces and the politicians change each time there is an election, when it comes to choosing between seeing the reflected interests of ourselves or noticing the needs our neighbours perhaps the silver in the glass still makes an unfortunate difference. Maybe the wise rabbi knew something we might all think about.

Which brings us to today’s reading.
There are some phrases which are so familiar in English that just about everyone knows them. And I am guessing most here would be familiar with that familiar “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. What we tend to forget is first why the phrase was probably said and why the second part – the one we usually miss out is actually more important for those who claim to be in Jesus’ camp..

The statement Jesus made was indeed clever and wise but I suspect it is also one which is often misinterpreted. I have heard it used to justify the need to pay taxes and I have also heard it used to justify paying a tithe to a Church… but I fear that both of these suggestions gloss over the main point Jesus was making.

If we wind the scene back it is probably worth remembering why Jesus’ enemies were out to get him in the first place. Remember there were in fact two main groups who were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the sorts of things Jesus stood for.

First we have the Pharisees who were clearly well respected and firmly in control as the educated religious leaders of the day. They were certainly not forgetting their religious duties and in fact there is good evidence that they tithed – not only with money but also with produce. However Jesus had an unfortunate habit of reminding them that it was not the slavish obedience of religious law that really counted, rather it was spirit of servant-hood behind the teaching that mattered. Jesus also took exception to the status the Pharisees accorded to themselves.

Jesus, time after time, both in his parables and in his actions showed that what he valued was compassion – not position. Religious people who placed themselves above others were frequently his target – and those who might normally be expected to seem of least value were the ones who most often attracted his time and concern. And let’s face it, just as the Pharisees were made to feel uncomfortable with Jesus it is possible that if we agree with Jesus there may be a need to look again at the way Church leadership is still exercised today in terms of accorded status and direction of leadership.

Religious leadership was only one part of the leadership of the community – the other part was of course the legal and civic leadership.

Which brings us to the other main group who were deeply offended by Jesus…. the Herodians. These were the in- group of leaders installed by Herod Antipas. According to the historians, the Herodians were only able to retain power by supporting the Romans who were the invading power and were therefore seen by many as traitors and collaborators. Because it was in their interests to do so, they were strong supporters for the severe taxes demanded by the Romans – and in this they were very different to the Pharisees who thought that the tithe paid to the Church of the day was the key to appropriate tax.

Although they used honeyed words to start their conversation with Jesus, his questioners must have realised that no matter which way Jesus answered he would be giving the greatest offence to one or other of the two groups – and in fact leaving himself open to charges which in those days carried the death penalty.

Listen to them: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” That is the flattery bit. And now the no-win trap question….. “Is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?”

If he says “no” – he is to be reported to the Romans. That would be incitement to disobedience to the Romans who held ultimate authority. The Romans would have no compunction in sentencing him to death.
If he says “yes it is legal” – those against the occupation would publicise his reply, treat him as a traitor and at best he would lose his main support. It is truly a lose-lose situation.

Jesus reportedly recognizes their trap immediately and challenges them. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” And why “hypocrites”? Perhaps it is that they have forgotten that there are more important and different values than those concerned with money. By talking taxes they are overlooking the higher values which they themselves offend against.

Jesus asks for a coin.

We remind ourselves what the coins meant in those days. New Zealand coins like the other coins of Commonwealth countries traditionally show on one side a portrait of the British sovereign Elizabeth II surrounded by an inscription. This design is a descendant of the coinage of imperial Rome when the symbolism mattered more. In those days the portrait then was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviated form, included the emperor’s name and his titles. The coins of the Roman Empire circulated over a vast area populated by people of many races and languages. The empire at the time of Jesus included Judea and Galilee and by the time Jesus came on the scene Rome had had just about enough from the fractious, fiercely patriotic Jews.

The coins were used as part of the Roman answer. The coins quickly replaced local currency and became the only accepted form of money exchange. In the days of imperial Rome, back before photography and television and modern travel, coins along with sculpture were also the only ways that most of the residents of the empire had to see what their emperor looked like. These coins were essential to trade and taxation. They were also designed for control. People became dependent on them – nothing else had commercial value.

Jesus then was actually asking to see the coin used to pay the tax. He is handed a denarius. A denarius was a silver coin, a day’s wages for an ordinary labourer. The denarius brought to Jesus almost certainly depicted the reigning emperor of the day, Tiberius. The Latin inscription on this coin would be translated as: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus and Augustus.” [John Yonge Akerman, “Numismatic Illustrations of the New Testament” (Chicago, Argonaut, Inc. Publishers, 1966), p.11.]

Notice that the Romans often claimed divinity for their emperors so the inscription would have been quite offensive to the Jews who recognised no other divinity but their God. So here, in the inscription the Jews would be reminded of the offence of Tiberius, portrayed as heir to his so-called divine predecessor.

Jesus now asks what seemed a simple question. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” There was only one possible answer, the emperor’s. No-one would want to be heard discussing the inscription.

Jesus then gives his famous response. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Sounds straightforward but note he didn’t say for example pay all taxes on demand. There is the hidden requirement of justice and fairness. It is hard to argue that we should pay what fairly belongs to the authorities – but if it were unfair – now there is a different issue. If unjust there might even been a case for non payment. Remember the second part. Again a hint of ambiguity: “And give to God the things that are God’s”
Sometimes, you see, these notions can be confused.

A few weeks ago I read of a congregation member from one Church who won Lotto and she offered a few thousand dollars from the prize to her pastor. The pastor decided this was not enough and decided to take the Lotto winner to court to give a more fitting amount. I would suggest the minister whatever his title, did not represent God in his actions.

What belongs to God? Consider! Does Lotto? – Well in practice it gets complicated because on one hand too much betting can destroy lives, yet if the Lottery Commission gives a proportion to worthy community programmes like Children’s hospitals and hospice nursing then surely it is not so clear.

If the emperor can make a claim for a coin that bears his image, then wouldn’t whatever we mean by God be entitled to claim what bears God’s image. But what bears the image of God? Here it may not be easy. I don’t for example think we should necessarily think of the Church as automatically representing God’s image. Maybe we should follow something more like Christ’s words when he said, “as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters you do it to me”. At the very least Jesus’ through his parables and actions portrays compassion and justice as key ideas. In the Old Testament we find God’s image in the poetry of Genesis …and I guess in creation. But if Christ’s face, and a response to a God of Love or God in Creation is to be seen in our words and actions this is not achieved by a simple label of “Methodist” or even “Christian”.

I am convinced that careful thought needs to be given to many of our choices if we want to leave room for a Christian expression in our actions. Using texts from the Bible might take us some of the way. Yet perhaps in practice it is inevitable that reluctance to share will play an unfortunate part in controlling our decisions. Remember Jesus points us to another set of values that he reminds us must also have a part in our lives. We ignore that at our peril.

Let us pray that we might begin to notice that the image on the Caesar side of the coin is only one part of life – and that Jesus provides a different way.

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Lectionary Sermon for 15 October 2017 (Matthew 22: 1-14)

Thoughts on Spitting Against Heaven

I have often puzzled about churches where the faith followed appears to have little to do with the reality of the world in which the followers find themselves. The temptation is to try to pursue one’s faith in such a way that it conforms to what the followers want in terms of their rewards and expected recognition of status.

I once heard of a Spanish proverb which roughly translated says: “he who spits against heaven, gets it in the eye”.

This morning’s story from Matthew seems a perfect illustration of that proverb.

Picture the setting. A king is having a wedding celebration for his son and anyone who has had the slightest connection with what goes on behind the scene at a wedding will immediately know the potential trouble ahead. Who should be invited – and who should be passed over. When the guests arrive, where shall they be seated? and what protocols should be followed? That the wedding is of the son of a king just makes these issues even more problematic.

Any wedding when made to conform to that myriad of human failings and perceptions of pecking order is bound to produce some problems. And this wedding in Matthew at least sounds plausible when the first set of problems about wedding invitations spurned begins to emerge. But then things turn nasty, and let’s be honest, much nastier than when Luke told the same story. Why?

This morning’s parable suggests that a story can or perhaps even should be altered to address current reality. The result may not seem an improvement if pleasant stories are your choice.

The outline of the story seems intended as a straight-forward retelling of approximately the same parable we encounter in Luke where reluctant wedding guests turned down their invitation and found their places taken by randomly chosen people from the highways and by-ways. Matthew’s retelling is somewhat unexpectedly rough round the edges and the changes made don’t leave us with much comfort.

Matthew is clearly dissatisfied with Luke’s version and embellishes the story – but unfortunately in the process paints a most unfortunate picture of the apparent nastiness of the master who in the parable appears to stand for God.  If Matthew’s idea of God appears to have evolved from Luke’s – perhaps we too should check our own image of God and wonder if it needs more work,

Remember the story from Luke is a favourite with preachers and it doesn’t take much examination to see why the Matthew version is often avoided altogether for a pulpit exposition.

Admittedly the story would be in keeping with the kings of the time who had to hold to their power with total force. This picture of God is far more Old Testament than New Testament. If this is the case since we now live in a different age perhaps we need to ask ourselves how we might rewrite and represent the story for our day and age.

Look again at the detail. Having been turned down by those originally expected to accept, the king probably correctly reasons that such wholesale rejection of his invitations is in fact a deliberate slight, and in all probability an indication of rebellion. How to respond? His answer is with a total display of power. He actually goes as far as to murder the messengers who return the rejected invitations. Next he orders the effective destruction of the entire city, butchers the rebellious inhabitants – and finally shows his contempt for the original ingrates by in effect organising a transfer of power to total new- comers – appointing if you like a new class of supporters.

Then as if the previous mayhem were not enough, he takes one poor guest, identifies him as improperly dressed, has him bound hand and foot then tossed out for the apparently minor crime of being improperly dressed.
So there are puzzles to solve. Why did the story need changing in the first place?

In the first place when the story first started to circulate there was a different setting in which it was probably heard.

Remember Matthew was probably assembling his version of the gospel at a time when the Romans had tired of trying to subdue the Jews who resented their invaders to the point that they had risen in revolt. To teach the rebellious Jews a lesson the Romans had had sacked Jerusalem and driven the survivors in effect out to the wilderness. Matthew then may simply have been putting a theological spin on the reason why this terrible event had occurred by adding a blood-thirsty bit of vengeance to the simple parable found in Luke’s gospel. Matthew appears to be using Jesus parable to remind us that those originally chosen – the Jews have not understood that the invitation to join the son’s party requires a response – and in the face of their inability to respond, others – presumably those we would now call the Christians – must seize the opportunity.

And there is plausibility in the choice. Turning down the invitation on the grounds that we might find a better offer would seem a relatively common response. Since we are not so much talking of Church attendance as participation in the good things of the kingdom, time after time history teaches us that to ignore those higher values of life can and does lead to crisis.

Shutting your eyes to the poor, only works for so long. The French revolution and the Russian revolution are not mere parables and it is hard to pretend that the Arab Spring or the current attempted Islamic State uprising had nothing to do with disenchantment with those leaders who had forgotten to care for their people.

Church leaders and even whole denominations lose their right to the seat at the feast if they do ignore the moral imperative of the real issues of the day. It is said for example that the same evening on the same Moscow Street at one address a group of revolutionaries gather to discuss overthrowing the Tsar – and at another address in the same street a group of Priests gathered to discuss the colours of their vestments. One of those meetings changed the history of the world.

In most nations there is a tendency to forget the embarrassment of the starving – and the growing gap between rich and poor. There is something sad about the way in which most wealthy nations refuse to take the growing world refugee problems seriously and although most large churches would claim to be concerned for the planet there is little evidence of concerted action. A few years ago in our universities there was a social theory explaining the lurches observed on group and individual behaviour called catastrophe theory.

Its main contention of catastrophe theory was that stresses would continue to build incrementally until there was a sudden switch in response and suddenly all was different. This is a lesson which has proved very difficult to learn at a national and even international level. A few years back, the partial collapse of the world banking system, and even today the insidious build-up of social pressures until rioting breaks out, the increase in world terrorism ….. all complex phenomena no doubt – yet in retrospect these were phenomena where the warning signs were present.

The notion then that those who might expect to have a seat at the top table suddenly finding themselves cast out to a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth may have more gritty reality than we might hope, particularly if we are more interested in preserving the goal of conventional symbols of wealth. William Barclay once put it that it is easy for a person to get so involved in the things of time that they have nothing left for the things of eternity.
This brings us to a part of the wedding feast parable which we find hard to comprehend unless we are aware of some local knowledge – namely why the guest who failed to put on the wedding robe got chucked out.

Don’t think for one moment this would have been a George Clooney type celebration. Several knowledgeable commentators have pointed out that in Jesus time when guests often didn’t have a large wardrobe, the wedding robes would have been ones provided by the host. In other words putting on the robe would be a natural courteous response to the hospitality offered. But in order to understand this for its full meaning we need to look a little deeper.

Some commentators have also noted the likely parallel with the imagery offered by one of the letters attributed to Paul. In Galatians Paul entreats us that on accepting the challenge to follow Christ we clothe ourselves not with ordinary clothes but rather clothe ourselves with Christ. This curious analogy (Galatians 3:27) draws attention to the difference of clothing yourself temporarily for the occasion (eg a business suit for a day in the office) and clothing yourself for what some have called eternity.

In the context of the parable, all but one of the guests understand that to take advantage of this opportunity which has unexpectedly come their way, they had better do rather more than turn up. In this feast they have a part to play.

The analogy with church is clear. Simply turning up is hardly the same as clothing yourself with Christ – in other words our challenge is to cloak ourselves with the persona in which the values and attitudes of Christ become part of our own persona. Jesus in a number of places portrays God as not allowing oppressive regimes or uncomfortable injustices to remain intact. While it is probably human nature to prefer routines and even ruts to chaos – when the chaos arrives as a result of neglect – as with the wedding feast there may still be new opportunities but not necessarily for the same people. Those opportunities may well be opportunities of service, of compassion, of ensuring justice,- opportunities in fact that come with clothing ourselves with Christ. The parable comes also with an awkward truth. Not all those invited for the feast will accept the challenge – and not all will accept the offered robe. The invitation is there – how will we respond?

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