A Challenge for Auckland Churches

At the recent School of Theology at Vaughan Park, the assembled Methodist Church leaders heard Professor Paul Spoonley from Massey University describe the present and substantial changes heading our way. Many of these changes are already presenting real challenges for our communities and to those who have to grapple with radically different local situations. As I listened it occurred to me that since local Church parishes are among the potential providers it becomes important that the parishes are alert to these changing populations and if they wish to continue to be relevant to their communities, a rethink will be needed.

In the next 10 years it is already clear that two out of every five New Zealanders will live in Auckland, with Asian communities on the rise and overtaking the Maori population. There will also be more in the over 65 bracket than in the 0-15 range. Two thirds of New Zealand regions will decline and there will be more marked differences between Auckland values and behaviours and those found in the declining regions.

With many immigrants from India, China and the Philippines Professor Spoonley noted the emergence of “Ethno-burbs” and ethnic precincts with more marked differences. Auckland now evidently has 40% overseas born, while 56% are currently immigrants. With most groups having declining numbers of children the main increases are currently among Maori and Pacific Island children.

Some church challenges which might affect many Parishes will include the question of how to improve communication with immigrant groups. More emphasis on helping provide hospitality and assistance to various ethnic groups with advertising in appropriate languages and the sponsoring of more by way of English as a Second Language courses may be worth considering. International evenings, cooking demonstrations and the encouragement of ethnic foods as part of regular church social events would help foreign newcomers. Another consideration is how we support the catering for the different interests of such groups.

In Auckland we already note the problems facing traditional sports in that rugby, rugby league and cricket all report declining numbers. On the other hand, golf, basketball, soccer, table tennis and badminton all report a resurgence. Perhaps there is some indication here for how the church might better cater for current youth interests.

The other significant change is of course is that in many areas there is an aging population. Simple changes like improvements to audio systems, better winter heating, the provision of more by way of ramps and hand rails are worth reviewing. However perhaps more important is how those who are unable to attend church through declining mobility or worries with health issues will continue to experience support from the Parish. Do these challenges suggest topics for discussion for the Parish council?

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Lectionary Sermon for 28 May, 2017 (Easter 7 Year A) on John 17:1-11

On Being At One
In recent days the terrorist bombing at Manchester targeting a group including children is a stark reminder of just how nasty the terrorists can get. Two thousand years after Christ walked the dusty paths of Palestine, are we really much closer to becoming one in his name?

And don’t ever assume all the faults are on the other side. I was checking through last month’s casualty figures in Syria and noted to my surprise that the UN figures for civilians killed in Syria attributed more deaths to the US led coalition of nations bombing cities and towns in Syria than was attributed to either ISIL or to the combined Government and Russian bombing raids. Should we even need to point out civilian families are civilian families in any city and children killed or maimed are mourned just as keenly in Syria as in Manchester.

And so we turn to the words of Jesus – and this week we find the account of the ascension.

At first glance with all those words about achieving glory, today we seem to find John is making Jesus sound awfully other worldly and disconnected from real life problems, yet before we get to thinking about the implications of his words we need a quick reality check.

A number of scholars I follow, suggest that here John, or at least the author responsible, is almost certainly using a standard Jewish ploy of putting last words in a respected leader’s mouth in such a way as to pick up main themes in that person’s life. I find it quite reasonable to suspect at times the New Testament writers were creatively imagining the words Jesus might have spoken, and the sort of issues he would have needed to address, to give his life perspective.

I know this would worry some who have been brought up with a literalist acceptance of the Gospel yet there are three inescapable difficulties in assuming John simply reports accurately on what it is known that Jesus said. First when the text of John is examined, when it comes to the words of Jesus there are disagreements between the Gospel writers as to what was said in the same settings, (e.g. last words on the cross) and difference in the order and sequence of events including a basic disagreement as to whether it was a one or three year ministry.

Secondly the changes in style of Greek in the gospel of John suggest evidence that some parts were added later (different authors?).

Thirdly even if these words were recounted by John “the beloved disciple” since the majority of commentators put the date of writing at more than fifty years after Jesus was off the scene, it is a tall ask to expect even a disciple to have a total recall of words spoken so long ago.

However, what we can be absolutely certain is that this passage contains some sections that are most helpful as reminders to anyone prepared to follow the teaching of Christ in a modern setting.

When for example we find his saying of his disciples that “7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you”, it is clear that anyone following the Gospel accounts would be aware that what Christ taught was consistent with his actions. He taught compassion, servant-hood and forgiveness and demonstrated that these were practical possibilities.

Now we get to the key phrase that I find resonates with my impression of Christ is when he reminds current or aspiring disciples 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. In other words his gospel is definitely not claiming that Jesus is in a position to do our work on our behalf and nor should the required action be remembered or admired as another worldly action. Our required actions are something to be lived by us because we are still in the world.

Think about it. If Jesus is no longer in the world but we as his aspiring followers are in the world. In other words, an act of terrorism or even an act of bombing in retribution by our side can’t be passed off as something that Jesus will sort for us on our behalf.

Now there is a thought. How did the young man who saw himself as a terrorist doing the will of Allah know that the people of Manchester cared for him as a neighbour? Would it have been different here?

Following through John’s version of the words of inspiration we are reminded that Jesus came bring the gift and challenge of life in relationship. Because John consistently used the metaphor of God being love, we find ourselves recalling the challenge to relationship with our neighbours, and even with the concept of love itself representing our God.

Just as the Son challenged those he met into this form of duality of relationship, the implicit message is that disciple-hood means carrying the same attitudes, and the same challenges to those we meet.

Here we need to be very honest. While there is plenty of evidence that new converts are often prepared to throw themselves into the challenge of following Jesus example, his injunction to be one hasn’t worked out too well in practice. Forget for a moment our failure to accept refugees of different faith. We can talk blithely of the Ecumenical movement and of being one in Christ, but try to get mainstream Churches to accept one another’s communion, styles of worship or even the other’s ordination and it seems well nigh impossible. At low points in Church history Churches have even resorted to violence to try to force others to their particular version of what it means to be following Christ.

And what of individual Church congregations when it comes to being at one? Our local Methodist Synod asks two questions of each congregation at the start of process of matching presbyters with new parishes. Is your parish an inclusive parish. Almost invariably the answer is “yes”. Second question….. would your Parish accept a homosexual presbyter? The answer is often “no”… Not that inclusive?

Telling potential followers that they should be one as we are one deserves some inward reflection, particularly when some of our biggest denominations are traditionally reluctant to yield even a little authority. Issues like acceptance of women priests, acceptance of homosexual clergy, like recognition of authority models and even acceptance of different forms of baptism all happen to divide rather than unite, which when you think of it makes something of a nonsense of claiming to be extending love to one’s neighbour.

Perhaps reflection about how far the various branches of the Church have strayed from this part of the gospel would benefit if we were to reread such dark periods of Church history to send us back to this part of the gospel teaching with new understanding for its significance.

This is no new situation. As the early Church came into being, strong rivalries between different interpretations about what Jesus means, and which theologians to accept were common. Paul refers in several places between rifts between the rival groups and the date of John’s gospel places the writing in the very midst of these emerging struggles. It is easy to see that as the writer was recording that particular section of today’s passage that he was trying to bring his hearers back to the essence of Christ’s teaching. It is unfortunate that then – as now – there was no real understanding that the call to relationship actually matters, and its neglect risks making a nonsense of that which Christianity sets out to be.

Given that many of the troubles in a political sense occur because communities throughout the world focus on real or at times even imagined difference, if the Church has anything at all to offer, if it turns down the unity option at the very least it must be able to model how such differences can be recognised without endangering acceptance of the other.

We lose the right to offer assistance in matters of dispute if the ill-feeling between different groups merely mirrors our own inability to accept others, or for that matter when our ability to be peacemakers is hindered by our own vested interests. Arms deals do offer cash rewards to the nations involved.    One of the US coalition, Saudi Arabia have just signed up for a substantial arms deal that will make their bombing in Syria and Yemen much more effective.    Civilians will suffer.   Whether or not this is balanced by what President Trump calls “Job, Jobs, Jobs” is surely a question for US allies including our own government. It is difficult to be seen as legitimate peacemakers when our own inability to show peaceful intent to our neighbours is so often compromised.

Perhaps we should be bringing the lack of oneness even closer to home. Officially we welcome newcomers to this country. So how come new immigrants who struggle with the language are often left isolated and cut off from social contact in our neighbourhoods.

You may be uneasy about putting politics so overtly into a Bible reflection, yet surely the whole point of following Christ is that it should speak to real lives, political realities and actual relationships.

Let me quote you something from Bill Loader’s commentary on today’s passage. “Unity is not a strategy of convenience and economy here nor just a strategy for marketing …….It is not a cleverly ambiguous ecumenical declaration which papers over differences. It is rather an extension of John’s understanding of what eternal life (or salvation) means. It is not about a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal so much as about a relationship”.
If, as Jesus is reported saying, that we should be one, and when we look at how we are doing and find we are not one, I would assume that what we do from that point is up to us.

We come Sunday by Sunday to affirm that we follow our Jesus and his teaching. We presumably see ourselves as offering compassion and our willingness to be one with one another is measured in part by the way we treat fellow followers of the faith and our treatment of political and religious neighbours. If Jesus’ injunction for oneness is a legitimate and important part of his teaching, and if honest self evaluation of what we do concludes at least in part it is not being followed, in a democratic society I would suggest we have an obligation to insist that we treat this as a challenge.

Those hearing or reading these words may be able to suggest what the next step(s) should be.

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Lectionary Sermon for 14 May 2017 (Easter 5A) on John 14:1-14

It seems to me that there is always a danger that we risk turning our faith into something that sounds so spiritual and religious that it doesn’t have much to do with real life.

For those of us who are attracted to Christianity, perhaps it goes back to the way we choose to read the Bible.

I am guessing that this reading we have this morning will be at least partly familiar to many of us here this morning.

Certainly it starts off almost implying that religion doesn’t have much to do with the sorts of lives that most of us find ourselves living. And if you read it casually it sounds as if the only thing that matters is that Jesus wants us to focus on him and he will sort out everything for us.

Let not your hearts be troubled” That is good – except that I suspect in real life sooner or later troubles seem to loom very large in most peoples’ lives. It doesn’t matter how rich you are – how much exercise you do – or how nice the family house might be – or even how many times we attend Church – sickness does eventually come to visit, loved family members or friends can and do die and if your families are anything like there are worries with the family.

Well perhaps Jesus is a Talisman. After all when Thomas says

How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Unfortunately that bit is sometimes taken out of context and used to enlist Jesus into the gatekeeper of so called only true Church. By implication it is used to argue that the only way to be a Christian is to believe in exactly the same form of Christianity that the street evangelist of the moment happens to follow.

But did you notice Jesus is very clear that it isn’t a list of beliefs he is on about. What is it that John records:
“The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.”

Those works were anything but removed from the real world. Ministering to those in trouble – is not the same as withdrawing from the world.

Standing up to the hypocrites, spending time with the tax collectors and lepers, offering friendship and hospitality to those of little account – this doesn’t sound like avoiding reality and living a heavenly life disconnected from the world. And yet Jesus in effect says look at these works and recognise in them the nature of God.

This is actually why worship is only part of the story. Jesus’ works had much to do with the real issues of his day – and we don’t have to look too far to see that the real issues of our day also demand our attention – and not just our prayer.

What was it Jesus said: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these……
So when we encounter one of those more dreadful periods of history, what then should we do.

If we are merely cynical we might of course throw up our hands in horror and ask in a cross or despairing voice “where is Jesus today?”

There is on the other hand a rather more constructive approach. Let me illustrate with one man’s response to trouble. I wonder if there are any flag experts amongst us today. Where is this flag from? (hold up a white flag with a Red Cross in the middle – a cardboard replica would do). No not a country – …an organisation … the Red Cross.

Let’s go back in history. One day in 1859 in Northern Italy at a place called Solferino a vicious battle was fought for 16 hours between the French and Austro Hungarian Armies. Casualties were high on both sides and at the end of the day the armies had withdrawn to regroup as best they could.

A 31 year old Swiss businessman, Henry (Henri) Dunant, passing through on a business trip, unintentionally happened upon the aftermath of the slaughter and suffering. Because it was the first battlefield he had encountered he was understandably horrified. He said later it wasn’t so much the dead bodies everywhere, it was that there was no one to care for the wounded and the dying. He wrote: “With faces that were black with flies that swarmed around their wounds, men gazed about them, wild eyed and helpless

And where was Jesus that day? Well as it happened, straight away Dunant set about mobilising and organising the people of the town nearby. Churches were used as hospitals. Young children fetched water, while women washed and dressed the wounds, and the dead were given respectful burials.

Henry Dunant was surprised at how easily ordinary people could be organised to help and were so willing to make a difference. As a consequence he wrote a book about his experiences in which he suggested nations should organise such groups of volunteers to prepare in advance to help reduce the suffering in times of war.

With the assistance of some prominent citizens in Switzerland he set up an international organisation to do just that, and so that they might be readily recognised as neutral volunteers they wore the insignia of what we now know as the Red Cross which was of course the Swiss flag with the colours reversed.

The Red Cross has had a huge influence ever since and even the Muslim countries have taken up the idea, although of course their organisation had to avoid using the Cross which had been used as the symbol of their enemies in the crusades – so instead they called their version of the same organisation, the Red Crescent. Both organisations provide proactive assistance in times of disaster, assist those beyond the borders of the organisations, and their healing and humanitarian record is impressive indeed.

It is significant that when in 1864 the twelve nations who set up the idea of the Geneva Convention to limit the behaviour of nations at war, that each of the twelve also set up branches of the Red Cross.

I am not sure how great a deed needs to be before it is what Jesus might have had in mind when he talked of deeds greater than his own. What I do know is that in 1901 the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was one of two people to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and four times during its history the organisation itself has also received that same prize.

What however we can be rather more certain of is that when you think what Jesus stood for with his own healing ministry, with his encouragement that his followers should help those in need, and his insistence that his followers recognise even enemies as neighbours, surely Henry Dunant was enacting the Spirit of Jesus’ message.

Of course our works are most unlikely to match what Henry Dunant was able to achieve with the Red Cross. Nevertheless the ways we deal with the problems that come our way are also the way we reveal what drives us. We are the message. Perhaps John was onto something when he drew the attention of his readers to this aspect of Christ’s gospel.

Remember again Jesus’ words: 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.
Surely supporting or initiating such works is a significant part of the way we live our response to the challenge of living the gospel in the real world.

Worth thinking about surely.

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For a rich nation, I suspect the US appears to observers from most Western nations to have an in-built desire to provide a health service which caters for everyone except the sick or those at serious risk from illness.

If I have understood it correctly, prior to the Obama administration, the powerful insurance companies had been developing a system whereby the health insurers had been encouraging healthy people with few health risks into taking out insurance.    The reasoning appeared to be that this was because they would thereby increase the profits of the insurance companies.   While this had been good for the shareholders, prior to Obamacare the figures showed the premiums for the seriously ill and those most at risk had been steadily rising.

For the last few years it did appear President Obama had managed to smuggle an Affordable Care Act past the interests of at least some of those who placed profit ahead of genuine care. The Affordable Care Act in its simplest form put the sick and poor in the same pool as the healthy and wealthy – which meant the rich healthy would now be providing the subsidy safeguard for those who were most vulnerable.

It also occurs to me that even Obamacare was second best because many other nations circumvent most of the unfortunate side effects of an insurance driven  health system by providing a good proportion of the health costs from taxation.  This might well be why in nations such as my own, there are proportionately far fewer in the population depending on health insurance in the first place.

It is not at all clear that President Trump is served by advisors who are themselves informed on health care reform.   The most striking example of embarrassing ignorance was when after the recent visit of the Australian Prime Minister the President announced that the Australians had a better health system than the US.    The Australian health care system which provides heavily subsidized and almost universal coverage for its citizens just happens to be virtually the opposite of what the GOP health care proponents and Trump himself have been advocating over recent weeks.

While it is relatively easy to find advantages in the Australian system in terms of cover provided it also involves a substantial contribution from their taxation system to fund the system. This most certainly would not support the current Trump initiative to reduce taxation. That the GOP advisors have missed this obvious fact for the last seven years would not reflect well on their preparation for the current health care reform, and Bernie Sanders has seized upon the last minute change of Trump announced support for a totally different system.   Sanders is now promising to make sure the Senate is clear that Trump himself prefers an opposite scheme to the one he claims to support.

Now President Trump is officially still on course to get back to a scheme whereby a good percentage of the core supporters of the GOP (which just incidentally happens to favours the rich and healthy) would be insured separately from the pool of those at genuine risk of health issues. Because the sick and vulnerable ones would then need to be in a pool financed by their own contributions and because this is clearly much more expensive than the demands of the pool of healthy citizens, the net result is that for the pool of the health risk contributors to be able to provide sufficient funds to meet most of the health costs, their premiums would shoot up and be unaffordable for many.

By some curious jump of logic the Trump repeal version has the profits from the healthy and low risk pool providing the necessary subsidy backup – always assuming of course that shareholders and insurance company owners want to release the profits in this way!

This seems unlikely in the extreme since the impetus of the main present support for the Trump repeal comes from those who are stakeholders in the insurance schemes and therefore primarily concerned with profit. Mr Trump and his willing supporters seem oblivious to the fact that having everyone in the same pool as per the Obama Affordable Care Act would have already guaranteed that subsidy the GOP now hope will somehow eventually appear in the Trump version.  In any case, if profits from the  healthy group are transferred to the needy group sufficiently to reduce premiums to the present rates, then the repeal achieves nothing apart from an extra layer of bureaucracy which some cynics might not see as draining the swamp.

Instituting such a scheme at the same time as tax reductions would apparently remove any possibility of the Government stepping in to rescue any disadvantaged by the Trump scheme, some might think is a little unwise!

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Lectionary Sermon for 7 May 2017 (Easter 4 A) on John 10, 1 – 10

On Being the Sheep or the Gate
How are you on the realities of sheep? Looking back to my Sunday School days, I am not altogether convinced that my well-meaning teachers had the faintest idea what sheep and shepherds were really like, and still less idea of what they might have been like back in New Testament times. And who could blame the teachers? To the modern Westerner, with an increasingly urban, and I guess increasingly domesticated setting, the age old metaphors of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and Jesus as the gate are further and further removed from the farming realities which could only ever have been part of the day to day experiences of those who lived in first century Palestine.

The first lamb I saw close up in church was by courtesy of a rather unorthodox minister who wanted children to have vivid learning experiences in the slot set aside for children in the morning Church service. The Reverend John Watson’s version of emulating the good shepherd was to go out of the Vestry door and come back, acting the part of the caring shepherd in the Sunday School picture, complete with what was supposed to be an actual dear little living lamb enfolded in his arms.

Unfortunately, it was no longer Spring by the time he had got around to organising the demonstration with the help of a nearby farmer, and the lamb had grown somewhat. Neither dear nor little, the highly indignant animal also appeared to have taken the greatest offense to being held in such an undignified position. It bleated piteously and struggled ferociously. It kicked the minister so hard in the stomach he dropped the animal, and then, to the delight of the children, (and I suspect to the consternation of the more pious among the Sunday School teachers) it took off down the aisles with the Reverend John in hot pursuit.

That lamb was neither cuddly, nor easily handled! And the portrayal of the caring good shepherd wasn’t quite what I had anticipated either. However at the very least we should remember the images of Jesus the Good Shepherd caring for his sheep and Jesus the gate were clearly important to the early Christians and as a consequence at least deserve our continued contemplation. Such images might have a little more life breathed into them if we first checked that we who listen to such stories are ourselves familiar with the background.

The first point we might make is that modern sheep farming has virtually nothing in common to the lot of the first century Palestinian shepherds.

The stony and sparsely grassed hills of Palestine would not be recognised by modern farmers as farms because there would have been no fences around recognisable paddocks. Because the flocks had to range over vast areas to forage enough food, and in the absence of wire – let alone barbed wire, each small flock was accompanied day and night by a shepherd boy.

There were most certainly sheep folds, which were basically large pens with stone walls. But again to the modern farmer something would be missing. Without what to us are the familiar steel hinges, there were no gates, and the custom was for once the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lie across the gap. Those familiar with this practice would be able to relate to Jesus’ chosen image of being the gate.

With a shepherd as a gate, no sheep would escape during the night, and any wild animals which included feral dogs, wolves or even the occasional lion would first have to contend with the shepherd. In this context, a good shepherd would be expected to have genuine courage – if not to ward off the predatory animals – at the very least to keep the sheep safe from unscrupulous sheep thieves.

The other point, which is sometimes noted by the commentators, is that sheep with their notoriously poor eyesight and potential vulnerability needed to trust their shepherd. These days a modern shepherd or drover would no doubt keep the sheep in check with his dogs and more often than not would have a farm bike to take the drudgery out of the task.
In first century Palestine, the only recognition aid the shepherd could offer his sheep was his voice and since the sheep depended on him to stay close by they would have come to recognise that voice. When several shepherds combined their small flocks in the one pen for the night, the sheep would need to know which voice to respond to respond to so that they followed the right shepherd the next morning.

It may well have been that Jesus was intending his followers to have understood that since there would have been competing voices, it was up to them to keep following his voice or at least his wisdom, to have any chance at all of negotiating the dangers that beset them.
Mind you as with all parables or metaphorical allusions there remains a serious puzzle for today’s Christian.

In first century Palestine, those who had encountered Jesus face to face would have a reasonable chance to listen to his teaching and then to give his words priority in their lives. But even if we assume Jesus was somehow resurrected, the gospels teach that he is now no longer with us in person. Where then is our gate? Where then in the 21st Century is the good shepherd whose voice we must continue to follow?

One unfortunate truth to face is that when we consider the real dangers that have beset some communities over recent decades, for many victims Jesus’ promise appears to have rung hollow. There was no safe sheepfold – metaphorical or otherwise for the victims of the holocaust, no escape for the victims of religious persecution, no Jesus as a living gate to protect our predecessors when the wolves of famine, of armed aggression or of crippling disease were seeking their victims. Where then was the gate Jesus was claiming to be offering?

It is a reasonable question, because although genuine dangers may look very different to those in Jesus time, dangers are still present. In the same way that the sheep now have to contend with very different farm conditions and have a very different relationship with their shepherds, we too have had to come to terms with a different world. If Jesus had been teaching he would continue to be the gate we should be able to look back and find evidence in history that his protecting actions might continue to protect in the changed conditions when needed.

For the lucky ones amongst us, we might happen to have been born into happy circumstances, with loving mothers and supportive senior family members and it may even be that, at least for some of us, there are few immediate clouds on our horizon, yet no doubt even for the lucky, sooner or later problems will come our way. For that reason it seems to me that unless what Jesus was saying has a realistic part to play for the present generation we would find it hard to understand his words as continuing to have integrity .

Perhaps the problem is that traditionally the assumption has been that we are supposed to see ourselves as the equivalent of sheep in danger. Yet sheep seem a poor description for disciples. Don’t sheep follow the flock almost by instinct? Surely this is not what is expected of disciples. Sheep are not exactly a good model for disciples particularly if we see them as helpless victims in the game of life. If on the other hand we see ourselves as following the lead of our wisdom teacher in the person of Jesus, given that he is no longer physically present, perhaps, just perhaps, we are intended to take over where he left off. Parents and Church members alike need to accept the role of shepherds for the vulnerable.

If the danger is threatening, those who claim to represent Jesus should be looking to constructive ways of being the gate for those in danger.
In most modern communities the problems for those at risk are likely to be vastly different to those facing the first disciples. In many cities, certainly my home city, one of these dangers is that of the sale of marijuana substitutes to vulnerable young people.

It is a sad commentary that teenager addicts destroy their own lives and bring misery to their families. Don’t think with the recent law change the problem of drugs will go away when there is so much money to be made by selling drugs to mess up people’s lives. For those seeking to emulate Jesus what should their response to such a contemporary danger?

Another related danger is from those who seek to make money from selling alcohol to minors. If modern disciples are supposed to represent the gate, our mentioning such problems in passing as part of our intercessory prayers seems inadequate when something rather more concrete and direct seems called for. I guess disciples will be amongst those agitating for sensible law change.

For those of us living in the Pacific region, annual disasters in the form of hurricanes are common. Since we are hardly in the position to control the incidence of hurricanes, we can at least organise a prepared response. Wise church leadership advocates the preparation and distribution of carefully designed emergency boxes to areas vulnerable to natural disasters before the disasters strike. For me, this offers the opportunity to show the Church support for the type of wisdom Jesus advocated.

Individual problems are going to call upon very individual responses and there is no way of my telling you from the outside what situations are currently afflicting your community, nor what actions you will need to implement in your response. However, what I do know is that if no-one takes the task of protecting the vulnerable as a personal responsibility, the dangers will take their inevitable toll.

Jesus used the allusion of being the gate for the sheep to signify his willingness to put himself on the line for those at risk. Surely those who currently share that same willingness are his disciples for this generation. Our challenge is to find our own responses to share in such a mission.

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Donald Trump Sorts Canada – Well Sort of …..

Image result for Picture public Domain Trump

Well goodness gracious, President Trump has done it again, this time with a 20%plus  tariff slapped on some of the US imports of Timber from Canada. And once again, despite top info from the experts at Fox News and Twitter, not to mention listening as carefully as usual (!)to personally approved advisors, he managed to miss an important and very awkward detail.

I guess the Canadians probably saw it coming.

Despite overlooking such small details as owning luxury hotels and towers bearing his name in Canada Mr Trump was clear about how badly the US is being treated by the Canadians particularly in their trading relationships.

At a New York rally in April last year, he said he would change what he calls poorly-negotiated international trade deals, and mentioned Canada in the mix:

“I like free trade, but free trade is not free trade, it’s dump trade because we lose with China, we lose with Mexico, we lose with Japan and Vietnam and every single country that we deal with. We lose with Canada — big-league. Tremendous, tremendous trade deficits with Canada.” He added he last bit in verbal capitals.

It is a pity that despite his self-perceived perspicacity, not to mention his use of personally chosen family advisors, he has presumably been deliberately denied the Trade figures available to all other Americans.
Yes, President Trump. It is true the Canadians send more trade in terms of value of goods in the US direction than vice versa. The 2015 figures suggest a $15 billion disparity but surely someone in the White House might have heard that Trade includes Services as well as goods. The Services part is very heavily in the US favour.

The overall Trade picture is therefore in the US favour!!!  Don’t take my word for it …. look it up!

If it is fairness POTUS seeks, Canada will no doubt be happy to oblige with their own adjustments, but how that will advantage the US quite escapes me.

Now, why should someone like me from New Zealand care? Look again. Mr Trump says “we lose with …..every country we deal with“. Since we deal with the US we can only assume Trump directs his criticisms to include New Zealand. For the record, as with Canada, the US trade figures with my country are similarly in favour of the US????  What trade figures are Mr Trump using???

So the President insists on fairness. He has my support on that. Perhaps we should ask that when the US security reps visit this country for their highly secret assignations in our beautiful Queenstown Tourist resort (which are regularly reported in our daily newspapers!), that they pay sufficient tariffs to balance the books.

If I have missed something important please share it.

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Lectionary Sermon for Easter 3 Year A (April 30, 2017) on Luke 24; 13 -35

The Emmaus Road: A Parable about Jesus?
I have never counted them myself, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that on no fewer than 17 occasions Jesus has cause to reprimand one or more of his disciples for being slow in understanding. And if you wanted evidence for how thick they were, what about today’s anecdote? The Emmaus Road story, if intended as literal truth, would be one of the more confusing in the New Testament.

If we assume for the moment that all the post resurrection experiences happened exactly as Luke and the other gospel writers recounted, we ought to be puzzled. Hadn’t Jesus appeared to all the disciples except Thomas in the upper room and when Thomas finally caught up with Jesus, didn’t the account say he too set aside his doubts and was convinced? Didn’t the disciples also encounter Jesus on the lake shore where Jesus invited them to share in a meal of fresh cooked fish? So why then should these slow witted disciples be unable to recognize the familiar figure of their leader in yet another post resurrection appearance?

John Dominic Crossan, who to me is one the more interesting modern scholars of the Bible, reminds us that as well as the parables we remember Jesus telling, there are also parables about Jesus.

One of Crossan’s favorite examples is today’s story from Luke’s Gospel, Luke 24:13-35, about this strange meeting along the Road to Emmaus. Dom Crossan says that: regardless of whether we believe the story as fact or not, there is a way of discovering meaning in this story which makes it a parable.

Remember the scene as Luke tells it. Two people (not well known disciples – but disciples nevertheless) are walking to Emmaus and discussing the recent crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger approaches them and joins in their conversation. The stranger interprets Scripture to them as they walk, explaining to them that they should have expected Jesus to be killed, as had been foretold by the prophets in the Scriptures. When the disciples reach their house the stranger acts as if he is going to continue on, but they ask him in and once inside they offer some food. The stranger breaks the bread and in this action, strongly reminiscent of the last supper, they recognize him as Jesus.

Crossan suggests we might see the parable as follows. In our context today, meeting such a stranger in the unexpected setting means that you don’t know when you will be visited by Jesus. Reading Scripture is only preparatory and only finds meaning when we too are doing the equivalent of encountering a stranger on the road.

If it is history, it is merely curious. If parable, there is a teaching which speaks to our present. We are reminded it is only when we show kindness to the stranger, we may well recognize the unexpected significance the stranger represents.

So there is much to suggest that the story offers more than history. The experience of the two persons on the road to Emmaus is always going to be more than the story of an event.

By implication there are two things which might also be part of our experience. By all means let us respect the knowledge we can gain from Scripture, but let us remember that perhaps it is only when we go that one step further and do the equivalent of inviting the stranger in to share God’s food with us that we are going to have a chance of recognizing something more in the encounter with the stranger, the real meeting which in effect may be with Jesus.

The offering of food – or if you like – the act of friendly kindness to the stranger is more than an after-thought to the story. We would also have to admit it is not a characteristic of our age. Nor for that matter is it a given that we would be hospitable in practice even after reading this story. Many Churches set aside time for an enactment of the Emmaus walk, yet not all participants automatically become welcoming of strangers.

One of the unfortunate consequences of city living is that we build a deliberate shield around ourselves. It is possible to get through an entire day walking, eating and drinking in cafes, walking in the same direction along the pavement as others, sharing lifts, even park benches without even a single meaningful conversation.
Perhaps you, like me, have seen neighbourhoods where there is a culture of distrusting the stranger.

Neighbourhoods where the list of telephone numbers for legal assistance for taking legal action against all manner of neighbours and neighbourhood agencies far exceeds the list of helping agencies. Neighbourhoods where neighbours don’t know one another by name, where they do not help one another, where there are no street parties, and where the elderly remain lonely. I have even encountered Churches that will not offer communion to strangers unless they are already members of the appropriate denomination.

There is a sense in which the community ethos depends on a host of deliberate choices. When I was appointed to the congregations of Epsom and Mt Eden I was warned that the shift to that neighbourhood was unlikely to be a good experience. I was assured by someone who had had one such bad experience that I was likely to encounter snobbish people who insisted on keeping to themselves.

In point of fact, the experience turned out to be positive in the extreme. The neighbours in the street had a sheet of telephone numbers of everyone in the street. The residents had a regular street party and seem to know one another by name. They helped look after one another’s properties. My next door neighbour on one side trimmed my hedge, the one on the other side gave us fish and venison. Other neighbours fixed my computer.

I had also noticed that when one neighbour was away another neighbour took his dog for a regular walk. Oh, and one other thing. Did I remember to say that these friendly neighbours were not Church folk?

Yet on reflection such a neighbourhood would not exist unless someone first had chosen to visit the neighbours to invite them the share phone numbers, someone had to agree to host the first street party, and there was buy-in to the idea that residents had to welcome the newcomer to the street.

None of these actions depended on rocket science. Yet as a consequence of these simple actions, the benefits of comfort, security and sense of belonging were immense. Theologically, dare I suggest this might even be a glimpse of Christ.

So to return to this story of the road to Emmaus. We can certainly sympathize with Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple. They were clearly missing the one who they had been inspired to follow, yet did you notice that Jesus was in no hurry to make himself known?

Some commentators have suggested that because they were walking towards the sunset with the sun in their eyes they found it hard to recognize Jesus, but Jesus in his responses to them suggests that their lack of recognition might have had a more fundamental reason.
Indeed as they talked more with Jesus it became very apparent they did not understand exactly who they had been attempting to follow.

Jesus in the story of the Road to Emmaus, models a helpful way to conduct a conversation about the essentials of religion. Had he simply said –“ I am Jesus and I am back”, the two disciples would have been no further ahead in their understanding. In the same way a street evangelist telling me about Jesus and the meaning of salvation through his death sounds hollow unless I see the one talking to me is transformed by his or her belief.

Many statements and writings about Jesus illustrate misunderstanding in the sense that Jesus is portrayed as one who represents a form of action on our behalf that we are intended to stand back and admire. On the other hand Jesus himself treats his audience as those expected to live his teaching. Certainly such a shift in thinking cannot be hurried. After all Jesus disciples were with him for months and even years before they understood this fundamental distinction and there is no indication he insisted on instant acceptance.

The very last event in the story may also be significant as part of a parable teaching. Remember that just when the two disciples had worked out who the stranger was, he disappeared. Perhaps this might serve as a reminder that we should never expect to have the experience of Jesus in a form where all is absolutely clear.

I suggested at the outset that it may not even matter how we come out on the literal or metaphorical interpretation of the story. If the Gospels talk of even the closest disciples being puzzled by the resurrection claims, looking back at the same claims 2000 years later without the disciples’ experiences to ground our interpretation in reality the questions and uncertainties are not going to go away.

On the other hand Luke appears to be using the example of Jesus being found in an everyday encounter and not some esoteric religious experience. If we can accept that intended or not, this story has a parable like teaching, we too might be encouraged to look for experiences of Christ in our day to day encounters.
This particular meeting of the disciples with Jesus in today’s reading has two features which suggest relevance for us today.

The first is that the joy of meeting Jesus is sometimes discovered in the context of shared food. In a typical Sunday service the formal part of the service can easily take a form which precludes a genuine sharing and meeting with one another. Even the perfunctory hand shake at the door, the passing comments about the weather or even the complaints about the length of the sermon don’t exactly assist mutual communication. It is strange that all too often we come inspired by one whose practical ministry saw the shared meal as central to his means of sharing and accepting with others, yet we see the cup of tea after the service almost as an incidental extra.

The ministry of hospitality has a good fit with our claim that caring about our neighbours is a central part of Christ’s ministry.

Secondly there are so many Christian denominations (38,000 at one Wikipedia count) and within those, so many shades of interpretation about the meaning of resurrection, also means that we are unlikely to find statements about resurrection supported by an overwhelming majority. Where however we might find agreement, is to suggest that a tomb is no place to confine the spirit of Jesus.

We might well get our inspiration for action in the liturgy and sermons of our Church service but ultimately it is in the situations of urgent need we are called to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the persecuted, to show hospitality to the lonely – and in short – to live the gospel we claim we find in the place we call church.
And more than that, we have Jesus example and teaching to remind us that others will encounter him when those who seek to follow his words minister in practical flesh and blood situations.

So the question for each one of us….. In our encounters, will others see in us the warmth and welcome of the Love of God? Will we notice when others offer us the essence of Christ? In our encounters, will others find the same attention to the place of hospitality and acceptance that Jesus demonstrated? In our encounters, will others get that tantalizing and puzzling glimpse of the same Spirit that appeared to be so hard to kill – and yet which always seems a little beyond understanding even by his closest disciples?

Resurrection means life and the tomb is a most inappropriate place to contain the spirit of life.
Christ is risen……..

He is risen indeed! Yet will we recognise him when his presence is there?


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