Lectionary sermon for 23 July 2017 Matthew 13: 24-30,36-43

The Wheat and the Tares in a Modern Context

It is all very well to state the blindingly obvious that the times they are a changing.   What is not nearly so clear is to decide what the changing times mean for our way of thinking package which includes our faith, our customs and our attitudes to one another.

Let’s think for a moment about just one of the more dramatic changes.   I would suggest that one of the biggest shifts for many communities around the world is that a significant proportion of local populations are now increasingly confronted with those who do not share their background.    Gone are the myriad of isolated backwaters where generation upon generation may have lived in the same community untroubled by those over the horizon who spoke different languages, or those who had chosen to live with different political and religious systems.

I would have to admit that if my own observations of my own community are anything to go by, as the sense of equilibrium is threatened, all too often the response comes across as unwaranted judgment.   For example you are probabaly aware that a number of news sources have been running stories about the worsening attitude to Muslim immigrants in non Muslim nations.   Hot off the press last Monday are the results of the latest six month review of hate crimes by an advocacy group called CAIR which stands for the Council on American-Islamic relations. Evidently in the first six months of this year (2017) there was a 91% increase in reported hate crimes compared with the same period last year against Muslims in the US.  Although the Trump move to have Muslims from some nations banned from entering the country appears to have  been put on temporary hold, we might also remember and reflect that the polls claim President Trump’s immigration proposals appear to have the strong support of conservative Christians for this policy.

If today’s gospel reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares is still valid for the modern Christians, they would be hard put to square support for prejudging Muslim immigrants with what today’s parable seems to be teaching.

Of all Jesus’ parables, given the tensions there are to day with the number of refugees continuing to climb and the frequent expressions of discomfort as followers of different faiths find themselves in disagreement with those who have unfamiliar customs and beliefs, this parable seems curiously appropriate for a modern age.

Jesus chose a farming analogy to make his point. The Greek word translated from Mathhew is about “Zinzania” – the weed that fools you.  The commentators suggest he was talking about is better known as Darnel. Note that it is not the darnel itself which is poisonous. Darnel by itself is perfectly edible. The problem is that darnel is host to a fungus called the Ergot Smut fungus, which causes the ill-effects. Bread contaminated with this fungus is poisonous. Initially the sprouting darnel – the “zinzania” – looks superficially like wheat. Later on it does become more obvious – because the grain from the darnel is smaller and darker and the plant itself is shorter, yet in practice as any farmer would tell you, weeding a wheat paddock once growth is underway is damaging for the subsequent harvest time.
Back in Jesus’ time the standard solution was to reap above the height of the darnel –whereas these days, the wheat and weeds go through a thrasher that first removes the chaff from the wheat and run it over a sieve to allow the smaller Darnel to fall through and be cast off with the chaff. The deadly fungus goes away with the darnel.

Jesus’ main point was of course that, like the tares and the wheat, with people of claimed faith we cannot make an early judgment as to which are the real deal and which ones are the ones with the poison.

Although I suspect it is a well-known and widely shared story, there is always the temptation to assume that one’s own group are the ones with the real truth whereas the others are the poison (or in faith terms the hypocrites). For example for Protestants there is an assumption that the Protestant faith of the moment is the right one and infinitely better than for example, the faith of the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Jehovah’s Witness, The Catholic or the Mormon.

Yet serious reflection makes us remember that any religious label will be no real guide to what the follower has understood and is starting to live.   Catholic religious leaders who were accused a few days ago of historic charges of multiple cases of sexual assault on children in a world famous German choir were unlikely to be following Christian principles any more than an honest and caring Muslim should be confused with a suicide bomber.

Remember the parable teaches that it is not we who should  be the judges of precisely who the developing poisonous seeds are represented by in his story and he suggests that rather leave the judgement of this to the harvest of final outcomes.

It seems reasonable to suggest if more followed Jesus’ advice perhaps there would be more by way of religious tolerance – fewer examples of religious genocide and far fewer examples of unpleasant attitudes towards those of other faith shown in places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. etc.and in fact if we really want to get down to it, a neighbourhood near you.

If more people accepted their religion as one path to understanding, but at the same time recognized that there are other religions which offer other insights of spiritual truth, perhaps there might be more acceptance of other systems of morality, other religious practices, etc. As one example despite their presumed shortcomings most religions do have followers whose beliefs seem to motivate people to lead better lives. Look at the very low crime rate in Saudi Arabia for example.

While we may lack empathy for those with other faiths we ourselves should not make the ready assumption that it is we who are the true growing ones and it is the others who contain the poison. After all if the true growing plants can be confused with the harmful weeds in the initial stages then the assumption that our lives are the desired outcome should not be too readily assumed. For example I have often heard it said that Islam is a bad religion – and one that leads to ill-treatment of women and the existence if suicide bombers. Yet if you read what many Muslims are saying, they are claiming that it is the Christians who are dangerous. It is certainly true that soldiers who are Christian have killed many innocent civilians in places like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have the evidence from numerous surveys from such experts as George Barna telling us that those identifying as Christian are not markedly different in their behaviour from those who do not call themselves Christian. Almost the same marriage breakdown rates, similar crime statistics and so on. At the very least this should give us cause to pause before claiming that we alone have our lives as they should be.

You will also hear Church folk sling off at those they consider to be heretic – the conservative Christian view of Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons for example. The words the so-called heretics use are after all little different from the words we use – but those words are the easy part. The real test comes in what we do in response to the words we say that is important. For example we regularly get glimpses of the starving children in Africa in short segments of the TV news. If we are eating a nice dinner while we are watching – and doing nothing in response to what we are seeing – should we really be certain that it is only other hypocrites who need the judging. Should we therefore remain certain that it is the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Muslims who are in need of enlightenment?

Well who is right? Jesus is very clear in this allegory of the wheat and the tares. No-one, he seems to be saying is sufficiently wise to sort out the good from the bad in another person’s heart. Frankly we do not know what is in another’s heart. Some for example get a raw deal in life. You may be born with a brain defect….a chemical imbalance which gives you a bad temper. What you become is a product of many starting points and many influences. Whether or not the outcome is the best possible is not for others to judge. That may well be a question for final judgment yes – but it is not our final judgement. I am reminded of the opening words of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”.

I am sure for many Christianity seems to be simply measured by which group you are connected with. Are you a Methodist – or a Roman Catholic – a Muslim or a Hindu – but if we know that, is that sufficient? Well, according to Jesus – actually no. And there are some very good reasons why his parable is justified. For a start statistics show clearly that most people stay more or less with the faith they are born into. If you happen to be born in Saudi Arabia to Muslim parents – you would almost certainly be brought up Muslim – whereas in the US Bible belt it would be almost as certainly be a conservative Christian. It would seem manifestly unjust if you were to take the blame for where you were born.

In any case, if it were Christianity you were born into while you may well accept the label of Christian yet this is no guarantee you would be following the entire spirit of Christianity. You may for example greatly admire a Christian – perhaps it was the one who introduced you to the Gospel…your mother – or perhaps your Sunday School teacher – and of course there is a place for wise teaching. But you know – sooner or later you have to decide how to order your own life. That your mother – or Sunday School Teacher or Bible class leader or Minister or wise friend happens to be a good Christian won’t necessarily help you when it comes to your own situational choices in later life.

Yet the judgements made of others are all around us.

You don’t have to look far before you encounter those comforting discriminations that keep our society what it is today. Howick with its new Asian population is still called Chowick by those who don’t like Asians. Christians often see their version of religion as superior to that of the Muslims. If you believe Christians are mainly folk of good-will perhaps you should look sometime at the variety of vitriolic sites on the internet attacking the followers of Islam.

Yet sometimes we have blindness about ourselves.   Perhaps we should finish with the following from a work called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

If we insist on judging it could be that first we ought to start with ourselves.

 

 

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for 16 July 2017 on Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Today we encounter another well known parable. I guess in some ways, if instead of listening like bored children to familiar stories, if we were to try to relate the Gospel stories of Jesus not just to real lives but to our lives, the stories might not be merely just a bit strange, they might actually become worrying, embarrassing, or even at times infuriating. And when we remind ourselves that Jesus himself was subjected to a violent form of execution we ought to remember that his teaching – much of it in the form of apparently harmless parable – was likely to have been at least as disturbing in his day as I suspect it would be now if we took it seriously in our modern world.

Now why do I suggest such stories even have the potential to matter? After all stories like the sower going out to sow seeds in different soils are so removed from our world today they are not always seen as truly relevant. We might even be surprised they might be thought of as truly disturbing. Certainly as stories they are hardly surprising in that many are told and retold. I suspect most of us here today have all encountered them over and over again by the time we reach adulthood. And if it comes to that, for recent generations in the West, past telling of the Parable stories are not exactly known to have caused riots or have the crowds baying for blood.

So why did Jesus’ community turn on this teller of tales? I guess part of the answer is that most communities get on best with those who seem to share their community background and way of thinking. It is reasonable to suspect the first listeners of Jesus’ story about the seed and the different stories might have assumed that the bad soils represented those outside the mainstream culture and faith.

One of the historical characteristics of the Israelites was that they were fiercely nationalistic. Historically I guess this was partly understandable. Like in the case of modern day Syria, in most of the lands at that end of the Mediterranean down through the centuries, all the tribes depended on their survival by looking first to their own communities. The Israelites’ answer to the problems caused by their traditional neighbours was to treat all other tribes as potential or actual enemies – looking first after their own extended families and with little thought of caring about those born into different faiths. “Jews first” was the general rule while others from different tribes like the Samaritans were a very distant and deeply distrusted second. The way the world works means the thought of sharing their hard won faith was just not part of the Jews’ thinking. (Does that make you give a passing thought to the slogan “America First”?)

The parable of the sower and the seed implying that the message of Jesus should be shared with the symbols for those outside the faith – the bad soils – would not have gone down too well with some of his listeners.  But perhaps we need to remind ourselves of one important, even blindingly obvious point not often mentioned by the commentators.

If Jesus is indeed the sower in the story, he is no longer present in the flesh!   I wonder who has picked up the mantle….

OK now let’s start again, remembering the sort of religion we approve of – and the sort of people we would like to see in our faith community. Knowing what we know of our own Church and community settings would, or does our own community throw itself into spreading the seed of Jesus inspired actions in areas where the results are likely to be ambiguous at best.

First a true life story…. Last Sunday morning I happen to know there was a mainstream Methodist congregation worshipping at a Church (which I prefer not to identify) somewhere in South Auckland, New Zealand. One of the more vulnerable rough sleepers who is a frequent visitor to the Church and for whom the Church has offered much by way of practical assistance was a late arrival. Unfortunately the young man had some addiction problems and was clearly agitated in his seat as the service unfolded, and just as one part of the liturgy was moving to a dignified conclusion he suddenly stood up – cursed the minister very loudly and made a most dramatic exit, abusing those who attempted to calm him down. During the morning tea which followed, one of the congregation members asked why the Church was wasting time with losers like that.

Now that’s a very good question. So if we were the ones providing the answer to the man who asked his question on Sunday morning, do we agree that we in the Church should be concerned about “the losers”, particularly those who don’t respond with appropriate thanks or appropriate changes in behaviour? And for that matter would we be entirely honest if we were to reply that since we are quite comfortable with those who don’t share our background including new immigrants, we think the message and actions that Jesus put at the centre of his ministry must be offered to all regardless of social position, religion, or even personal history?

A typical Church in South Auckland might have at least one or two vulnerable people in the congregation but if we are really about putting the gospel into practice have the churches got the balance right? I don’t know if you saw the TV news on Monday night when it was reported there are now 41 000 known homeless in New Zealand which is evidently a new record. The government also say there is insufficient housing available for the number of homeless on their books. The Anglican city mission say they can no longer cope with the numbers and the Te Puea Marae is again being asked to take over some of the more serious cases of folk facing crisis as the winter descends. But here is the problem. If the churches are really responding to this issue with a whole-hearted gospel approach, why is the problem so big?

I suspect prayer without corresponding action is always inadequate. In the parable Jesus makes it abundantly clear he is talking of the seed as being the word, or by implication the essence of the kingdom. For his first hearers he talks in a way that strongly implies he is the sower. But in this generation, now Jesus is no longer with us as a physical presence, is it only Jesus who is the one who does the sowing?

Perhaps one way to read the parable is to see ourselves as the ones entrusted with sowing the seed – or if you like – we are those called to take on the task of being Jesus to the community. But here is the catch. Jesus doesn’t just say concentrate on telling, or even better being the word only for those most likely to respond and implying all will be well. In fact Jesus is brutally frank. He certainly says first that the seed is offered to all situations – stony soil as well as the soil rich with natural resources. Yet nowhere does he pretend that the seed will always be able to do its work.

Not all the recipients of the seed will respond in an ideal way. I guess if we are listening to the retelling of the parable we must be open to seeing ourselves as less than ideal soils.

Christian communities and Christian nations have typically long and chequered histories. There are few nations who have always treated neighbours as themselves. Think of religiously motivated wars, or what about the history of slavery and all too often its passive acceptance down through the centuries. Even today child slavery, sex slavery and sweat shops continue to exploit the vulnerable and for the most part the mainstream Churches are somewhat lukewarm about their protests.

Then of course there is the message that Christians should forgive our enemies.   Do you agree that this message has for the most part fallen on very stony ground when the so called Christian nations invest far more in military hardware than in paying for the repair of the towns they have blasted into oblivion – and in the recent case of the US, made it abundantly clear that civilian refugees fleeing the bombing are unwelcome in the West

Certainly it is true that offering the hand of friendship will not always be accepted. Perhaps in part Jesus is merely underlining that unfortunate truth when he offers his parable. But remember nowhere does he imply that the one who does the sowing is entitled to only offer love to the one who is certain to reform and love in return. Those who work with Alcoholics and Drug addicts tell me that not all who enter the programmes for recovery will instantly reform – in fact in the real world, in situation after situation,the majority (including many who claim church membership) will continue to act against the words and acts of the offered gospel.

In one way the parable is mirrored by what happens every Saturday night at the emergency department of any major Public Hospital in the country. I know for some of the inner city hospitals Accident and Emergency can resemble a casualty clearing station from a battle field. The injured, the drunken party goers, the raving druggies just keep coming and yet, although the doctors and nurses are saving lives, patching up the wounded, offering comfort to the dying – and in short-  being the Christian face of society, all too often their reward is not so much gratitude as it is likely to be a response of violence and abuse.

But think for a moment what the alternative would be if the assistance was only offered to the well behaved and politely grateful.

Certainly the traditional main point to the Parable of the sower and the seed is that the message – or if you like the gospel – can be offered to everyone regardless of how likely it is that they are worthy or ready for it. It is always been the case that not all will receive it.

The more interesting and often overlooked question is whether or not we can accept the implied challenge of accepting the role of the sower of the seed. If our current society is not living out the message perhaps someone here wants to step up in response to become the one – what was it Jesus said? Be “the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Posted in Progressive Sermons, Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for 9 July 2017 on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

(This was posted for last week by mistake!!! Apologies…..I’m getting old!)
Ours is not the first generation in history where people have displayed feelings of superiority when they involve themselves in conversations describing the shortcomings of those who have chosen different paths of enlightenment. It is an age old game where the followers of one faith or version of faith pour scorn on the followers of another. I suspect it is a phenomenon which crosses land and sea and goes way back into prehistory.

Early in my teaching career together with my wife who served as a school secretary I spent a year volunteer teaching in the territory of Papua and New Guinea. There such was the suspicion of neighbouring tribes at that time that for less than three million people there were more than 700 different languages and within these many dialects. Inter tribal fights were common and historical grudges were nursed over many years so that pay-back could be exacted. While, to outsiders like Shirley and I, the tribes had very obvious similarities of belief and custom, minor differences were magnified to the point where discrimination was the rule rather than the exception.

It is an embarrassing realisation that this is only different in scale to the tensions between modern nations, and which at times have spilled over into extremely nasty warfare. This should cause us to step back and wonder to ourselves how much of the principles of Jesus and other religious leaders are internalized by those who claim to be followers.

I guess we all play some social, economic and even religious games appropriate to our setting and to our generation. Given that we have made a set of choices about what constitutes appropriate customs and values for our lives, the unspoken expectations of others is that their choices should preferably fit ours and at the very least not place restrictions on our decisions.

Using rivalry between John the Baptist’s followers and his own as an example, Jesus portrays the silly consequences for adults as being the equivalent to children playing their version of adult customs for weddings and funerals, with the boys dancing like men at a Jewish wedding and sneering at the girls who are not dancing while the girls are wailing as they copy Jewish women mourning at a funeral. The girls in their turn sneer at the boys for not joining in their game. The needless quarrels about such matters Jesus identifies as similar to the irrelevant diversions from what really matters.

We don’t have to look too far before we can find modern equivalents. Think of the upset Muslim women cause with their traditional clothing for those who consider Western dress is the only appropriate custom, the distrust of orthodox Jews for their appearance, and for the difficulties the Sikhs experienced for wearing turbans in much of the West in the post 9-11 period.

Our assumption that our religious games are only be played by those as good as us moves far beyond church when it starts to affect socioeconomic outcomes. Most Christian nations don’t want to be burdened by the poverty stricken and despite the pretence of following Jesus teaching, actively block the arrival of refugees. At a more refined level, even in cities with few refugees, it is common that some high class neighbourhoods set up local arrangements to prevent poorer houses being built in their district. When the incoming group is recognizably different in terms of culture and religion, if we are honest with ourselves it is not helpful to shut our eyes to the antagonism that is often experienced.

Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about the contrasting styles of John the Baptist whose diet was Spartan in the extreme and on the other hand Jesus who was criticised for his feasting and drinking with inappropriate company. Jesus is discovered here acknowledging the criticism but saying “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”. In other words the style of ministry is not the ministry – the deeds done as a consequence of the ministry are their own justification.

In that sense both John and Jesus offered their own useful cautions. John refused to see himself as required to join in the equivalent of the wedding dance because, as he saw it, with unwise leadership, enough had become more than enough. His followers raised serious questions for the rulers of Jewish society. On the other hand Jesus was reluctant to force the grim reality of the equivalent of funeral on those who were currently excluded from the dance and festivities. Jesus’ followers became open to new concepts of what it is to be a neighbour. That both John the Baptist and Jesus had something different to offer did not mean that one or the other needed to be rejected.

Here perhaps we should step back to reflect, not so much asking the common questions about whether those from a different religious or cultural setting should be required to adopt our customs, but rather the more pointed question. Do our deeds vindicate our religious and cultural choices, and the corollary, do our actions justify condemning those who are not acting as we act?

In one sense part of the answer to this question is surprising. Jesus performed his deeds in a variety of settings because he was meeting needs – not because he was necessarily being appreciated. In a modern context we too are just as likely to be rejected for doing what we know to be right. Peacemakers can be and are often rejected. Those who challenge rampant capitalism are still distrusted. Those who challenge corruption are certainly following the lead of Jesus who cleared the Temple of those trying to profit from religion, but are unlikely to find favour with some of the rich and powerful.

In Jesus’ day followers of the Samaritan faith were the heretics of the day. His finding them to be worth bothering with was in keeping with his teaching, but no doubt deeply unpopular with self appointed keepers of the faith.

Notice that Jesus made these observations about those who did not learn from his deeds. As Matthew recorded it in the bit censored out of the lectionary: “20Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

As Jesus indicated on a number of occasions, it is not for us to judge, nor for that matter, to withhold doing what we know to be right because we believe it to be unappreciated. But this does not mean that in the end wilful inappropriate actions and bad attitudes will not reap their own reward. We only have to look at the destruction and desolation wrought by nations on their own cities when their greed and belligerence leads to all out war.

For those of us who choose to follow Jesus, it seems that there are two requirements. First we have an obligation to adjust our attitudes so that our own actions and deeds reflect the teachings we claim to follow. Secondly we need to be looking, not so much at the play acting customs which have become an inevitable part of our culture and religion, as we need to focus on our relationships. Are there aspects to our game playing which act as a barrier?

In my bookcase there is a small book entitled “Stirrings” where a number of modern theologians and thinkers questioned the mismatch between traditional Church thinking and the sort of theology needed for modern society.

One of the essayists Donald Tytler looked at some obstacles built into typical Church liturgy. For example he reminded the reader of the cultic setting, only home to the initiated, whereby specialised buildings are consecrated – deliberately set aside from secular use. These buildings he said contain abnormal furniture and in some settings, stylised antique clothing is worn. Again following Tytler, the liturgy in such places typically expresses ideas through images and concepts which are alienated from modern discoveries. A childish dependence on a great fixer of natural and historical events neither matches historical records nor scientific understanding let alone makes room for new cultural, economic or political developments.

Finally Tytler questions liturgy which encourages a pattern of submission rather than acting as a call to relevant action.

Religious games which draw attention to exclusion eg only offering communion to those who play the identical game, may help the initiated with their sense of belonging but surely that same game does little for those whose sense of alienation can only be heightened in knowing that they do not belong.

Perhaps in the last analysis we might ask ourselves how closely our practice of religion offers something resembling Jesus’ promise when he said:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is a key passage in the gospels. Perhaps more than any other verse it reminds us that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship.

Certainly there is mystery. Turning to Christ with heavy problems is often seen as more than just applied psychology because some who have been driven to despair by tragedy and overwhelming grief later attest to their feeling that in the midst of their despair they found their load to be lifted.

Modern burdens are diverse indeed. Some are burdened by poverty, and depression is a condition which is surprisingly common across all socioeconomic groups. The burden of alienation takes many forms and how we arrange to help may reflect the nature of our community.

I acknowledge that for some who follow Christ, their feeling of identification is such that they feel they can in effect approach Jesus – perhaps by heartfelt prayer, without an intermediary. My personal observation is however that for many, indeed I would even say for most, the approach is made in the first instance to those people whose manner suggests they will be open and sympathetic. Again the games we play show very clearly whether or not we are seen by others to be open to their approach.

If the Christ we follow could claim that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, then presumably it follows that as his representatives in his church we should be offering the same deal to those who come with their problems and burdens to ourselves.

If we have found relationship in faith, we can only hope that others will encounter this same relationship in us.

Posted in Progressive Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for 2 July 2017 on Matthew 10:37-42

The notion of acting as if our Church buildings are the only place to encounter religion may be partly inevitable, but that perception misses out on a most important dimension of what Jesus was attempting to convey. If nothing more was required of us than we should care about those who care about us, attend Church on a Sunday and drink tea or coffee with our friends after the service, then to portray ourselves as carrying the cross and claiming to be a messenger in his name would become something of a nonsense.

Please do not hear me saying I have it right and many have it wrong. I freely admit although I try at least part of the time to be a Christian, even at best I am still one who, more often than not, has a desire to lead the peaceful untroubled life, and what is more, with a faith so levelled that I am untroubled by difficult texts. To be honest I can’t help suspecting that sometimes I have made sacrifices for other dimensions of my life that I might not have made for my faith.

Unlike those early followers of Jesus having never witnessed a crucifixion it is unlikely we would ever feel the full impact of what Jesus is reported to have said.

To understand what Matthew’s first audience might have made about Jesus introducing the phrase about carrying the cross we need to remember that when it was first written it would have had real bite. “….whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Perhaps we even need reminding that those first encountering these words would not necessarily have been thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion.

To understand why, we might remember the date of Matthew’s gospel is generally accepted to be shortly after the abortive rebellion in Jerusalem (66-70 AD). The contemporary historians of the time tell us crucifixion was part of the wholesale punishment of the Jews who were reckoned to have had 1.1 million killed during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans with a further 97,000 captured and enslaved. As part of this punishment, at one stage something like approaching 500 per day were reportedly crucified as a warning to anyone else who might have been contemplating rebellion. Josephus states that as part of the punishment the Roman soldiers amused themselves trying to dream up new ways of crucifying their victims in different positions. I suspect this phrase about picking up your cross and following might even have caused an intake of breath to a people who had recently witnessed such acts and for whom crucifixion was a grim and very real possibility.

That setting of Roman punishment and forced exile guaranteed the early Christians turbulent times and a most uncertain reception when they took Christ’s message to the roads. With terrified refugees fleeing a devastated Jerusalem, offering a Christian alternative to take attention away from the now weakened but familiar and supportive Jewish community would not have seemed a viable option and as a consequence, the apostles would have been met with suspicion and at times downright opposition from the Jews.

For non Jews trying to keep a low profile in the presence of the angry and suspicious Romans and for those anxious to avoid being seen as potential rebels, there would have been antagonism offered to anyone even hinting that the new faith being promoted was talking of Jesus being a possible Son of God, a title then currently reserved for the Roman emperor. Small wonder then that Matthew chose to record how Jesus had once asked for practical support for what he called the “little ones” which was shorthand for the new and understandably nervous apostles.

Certainly as far as we are concerned today, crucifixion (or whatever its modern equivalent would be), is now virtually unknown. We live in very different times and the challenges of the faith must change. This does not mean there is no hard edge to encounter for those who carry the gospel. Perhaps such problems need stressing. As with this reading this morning, we don’t normally find Jesus putting the priority on attendance at worship. If he had, there would be no chance of likening our journey with Christ to carrying the cross.

On the other hand the ethical imperatives of how to treat the stranger, how to deal with enemies, (think ISIS),  how to act as a servant and how to discover Christ in the form of those who are normally rejected by society may well all be helpful to the wellbeing of society, but are also all likely to encounter serious opposition. For example those who follow the sermon on the Mount and oppose nationalism or insist tax dollars be spent in third world countries.  Don’t forget those who are advocating pacifism are much closer to the teachings of Jesus than those dropping the bombs on cities.  Pacifists are no more popular than those who insist on welcoming those who come as immigrants from places that do not share our culture and religion.   Those who protest the wholesale destruction of tropical forests and get in the way of Western industrialists – these all will soon learn that not everything that Jesus taught is likely to have the support of the community.

Like it or not, giving attention to the poor, not reducing taxes for the rich is at the heart of much of Jesus’ teaching, but for those these days who insist that local and national government move priorities in line with the Gospel imperatives soon start to encounter resistance …. as those advocating such moves have always done.

Notice too, Jesus is not asking his disciples to simply stay on home territory mouthing the right words to those who are already friends, or even that we should only welcome those who come in his name with the customary platitudes. If there is a message worth sharing, Jesus’ thinking was apparently that we shouldn’t wait until the intended recipient of the message comes to us – we should go to that person. And what is more he seemed to be asking for practical hospitality of the sort anyone might offer, even as simple as offering a glass of water, rather than going through the charade of some religious dogma, when we welcome those who come in his name.

In today’s passage from Matthew we get a glimpse of a world now virtually unknown. This was an age where letters were often used as a means of communication, but there was no postal system. If the author of the letter was unable to personally deliver the message, an envoy would be appointed, and welcoming the proxy was considered the equivalent of welcoming the author of the letter.

The “sent ones” tradition was part of many cultures of the time and the Jews used the term shaliach to refer to such an envoy or “sent one”.

Similarly the word “Apostle” also meant “sent one” and the intention for the early Church was to have many who were prepared to take on such a task. Because of the natural tendency for those receiving the messenger to see the apostle as a proxy for the author of the message, there was of course a danger that the status of the Son of God would be associated with the one who comes in the Son’s place. Think for a moment about those religious leaders who throughout history claimed personal power – and even some of the more self centred religious teachers today who seek personal wealth and demand something close to worship from their followers. I guess Jesus was pre-empting this danger when he reminded his followers of the essential need to remember the cross that was to be carried.

For those of us caught up in Church leadership, we might check our own actions to see if we are still true to the intentions we brought as new Christians to our faith. Remember these days we go out into a very different world than the first disciples.

Clearly there are some through the ages who have forgotten this reminder. Those anxious to preserve their mystique as important people in a hierarchical Church have clearly missed Jesus’ teaching about servant-hood and we would be wise to remember that we ourselves risk a similar mistake each time we use the Church to reinforce our personal status.   Can you think of any Churches where clergy enjoy special status

I suggested at the outset this was a demanding reading. In reality, with the best will in the world we cannot be certain in advance that when the chips are down we will be found amongst those who put Jesus’ teaching ahead of our personal relationships and inclinations. Nor can we know how welcoming we will be to those who challenge our consciences. What is more likely is that when we encounter those whose lives already reflect these principles we are likely to find there an integrity there that can inspire us in our own personal journey.

Because for most of us the serious challenges are uncommon we may still be unaware of how we will react when we too are asked to do the modern equivalent of carrying a cross.

If we need a reminder that Christianity is no protection against some grim realities, reflect for a moment on the recent disastrous fire in that apartment tower in London. Signing up for the faith is not a Talisman against future horrors in life. Those who risked life and limb to save neighbours in that fire would have included those who were not members of any Church, but at the same time have demonstrated Jesus injunction with their courage.

Perhaps it is human to look for compromises and comforts, but with the memory of that fire and the words of today’s text, at the very least, we should listen to what it says and ask the question of ourselves, to wonder if there might not be something there that might help shape our lives?

It probably sounds like the recent Americas Cup but perhaps the best we might do is to change the analogy and remember a wise comment attributed to Jimmy Dean when he said:

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” (he forgot to say foils)

If we take the gospel seriously we have no way of predicting the difficulties ahead. Perhaps like those invited by Jesus to welcome the Apostles our task will be limited by circumstances and opportunity to supporting those who carry the hard edge of the gospel. Whatever is our lot, all we can do is have the determination to hold to the course, and trust that in some, perhaps mysterious way, that good might be served, if not for ourselves, then for others.

Posted in Christianity, Progressive Sermons | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lectionary Sermon for 2 July 2017 on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Ours is not the first generation in history where people have displayed feelings of superiority when they involve themselves in conversations describing the shortcomings of those who have chosen different paths of enlightenment. It is an age old game where the followers of one faith or version of faith pour scorn on the followers of another. I suspect it is a phenomenon which crosses land and sea and goes way back into prehistory.

Early in my teaching career together with my wife who served as a school secretary I spent a year volunteer teaching in the territory of Papua and New Guinea. There such was the suspicion of neighbouring tribes at that time that for less than three million people there were more than 700 different languages and within these many dialects. Inter tribal fights were common and historical grudges were nursed over many years so that pay-back could be exacted. While, to outsiders like Shirley and I, the tribes had very obvious similarities of belief and custom, minor differences were magnified to the point where discrimination was the rule rather than the exception.

It is an embarrassing realisation that this is only different in scale to the tensions between modern nations, and which at times have spilled over into extremely nasty warfare. This should cause us to step back and wonder to ourselves how much of the principles of Jesus and other religious leaders are internalized by those who claim to be followers.

I guess we all play some social, economic and even religious games appropriate to our setting and to our generation. Given that we have made a set of choices about what constitutes appropriate customs and values for our lives, the unspoken expectations of others is that their choices should preferably fit ours and at the very least not place restrictions on our decisions.

Using rivalry between John the Baptist’s followers and his own as an example, Jesus portrays the silly consequences for adults as being the equivalent to children playing their version of adult customs for weddings and funerals, with the boys dancing like men at a Jewish wedding and sneering at the girls who are not dancing while the girls are wailing as they copy Jewish women mourning at a funeral. The girls in their turn sneer at the boys for not joining in their game. The needless quarrels about such matters Jesus identifies as similar to the irrelevant diversions from what really matters.

We don’t have to look too far before we can find modern equivalents. Think of the upset Muslim women cause with their traditional clothing for those who consider Western dress is the only appropriate custom, the distrust of orthodox Jews for their appearance, and for the difficulties the Sikhs’ experienced for wearing turbans in much of the West in the post 9-11 period.

Our assumption that our religious games are only be played by those as good as us moves far beyond church when it starts to affect socioeconomic outcomes. Most Christian nations don’t want to be burdened by the poverty stricken and despite the pretence of following Jesus teaching, actively block the arrival of refugees. At a more refined level, even in cities with few refugees, it is common that some high class neighbourhoods set up local arrangements to prevent poorer houses being built in their district. When the incoming group is recognizably different in terms of culture and religion, if we are honest with ourselves it is not helpful to shut our eyes to the antagonism that is often experienced.

Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about the contrasting styles of John the Baptist whose diet was Spartan in the extreme and on the other hand Jesus who was criticised for his feasting and drinking with inappropriate company. Jesus is discovered here acknowledging the criticism but saying “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”. In other words the style of ministry is not the ministry – the deeds done as a consequence of the ministry are their own justification.

In that sense both John and Jesus offered their own useful cautions. John refused to see himself as required to join in the equivalent of the wedding dance because, as he saw it, with unwise leadership, enough had become more than enough. His followers raised serious questions for the rulers of Jewish society. On the other hand Jesus was reluctant to force the grim reality of the equivalent of funeral on those who were currently excluded from the dance and festivities. Jesus’ followers became open to new concepts of what it is to be a neighbour. That both John the Baptist and Jesus had something different to offer did not mean that one or the other needed to be rejected.

Here perhaps we should step back to reflect, not so much asking the common questions about whether those from a different religious or cultural setting should be required to adopt our customs, but rather the more pointed question. Do our deeds vindicate our religious and cultural choices, and the corollary, do our actions justify condemning those who are not acting as we act?

In one sense part of the answer to this question is surprising. Jesus performed his deeds in a variety of settings because he was meeting needs – not because he was necessarily being appreciated. In a modern context we too are just as likely to be rejected for doing what we know to be right. Peacemakers can be and are often rejected. Those who challenge rampant capitalism are still distrusted. Those who challenge corruption are certainly following the lead of Jesus who cleared the Temple of those trying to profit from religion, but are unlikely to find favour with some of the rich and powerful.

In Jesus’ day followers of the Samaritan faith were the heretics of the day. His finding them to be worth bothering with was in keeping with his teaching, but no doubt deeply unpopular with self appointed keepers of the faith.

Notice that Jesus made these observations about those who did not learn from his deeds. As Matthew recorded it in the bit censored out of the lectionary: “20Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

As Jesus indicated on a number of occasions, it is not for us to judge, nor for that matter, to withhold doing what we know to be right because we believe it to be unappreciated. But this does not mean that in the end wilful inappropriate actions and bad attitudes will not reap their own reward. We only have to look at the destruction and desolation wrought by nations on their own cities when their greed and belligerence leads to all out war.

For those of us who choose to follow Jesus, it seems that there are two requirements. First we have an obligation to adjust our attitudes so that our own actions and deeds reflect the teachings we claim to follow. Secondly we need to be looking, not so much at the play acting customs which have become an inevitable part of our culture and religion, as we need to focus on our relationships. Are there aspects to our game playing which act as a barrier?

In my bookcase there is a small book entitled “Stirrings” where a number of modern theologians and thinkers questioned the mismatch between traditional Church thinking and the sort of theology needed for modern society.

One of the essayists Donald Tytler looked at some obstacles built into typical Church liturgy. For example he reminded the reader of the cultic setting, only home to the initiated, whereby specialised buildings are consecrated – deliberately set aside from secular use. These buildings he said contain abnormal furniture and in some settings, stylised antique clothing is worn. Again following Tytler, the liturgy in such places typically expresses ideas through images and concepts which are alienated from modern discoveries. A childish dependence on a great fixer of natural and historical events neither matches historical records nor scientific understanding let alone makes room for new cultural, economic or political developments.

Finally Tytler questions liturgy which encourages a pattern of submission rather than acting as a call to relevant action.

Religious games which draw attention to exclusion eg only offering communion to those who play the identical game, may help the initiated with their sense of belonging but surely that same game does little for those whose sense of alienation can only be heightened in knowing that they do not belong.

Perhaps in the last analysis we might ask ourselves how closely our practice of religion offers something resembling Jesus’ promise when he said:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This is a key passage in the gospels. Perhaps more than any other verse it reminds us that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship. Certainly there is mystery. Turning to Christ with heavy problems is often seen as more than just applied psychology because some who have been driven to despair by tragedy and overwhelming grief later attest to their feeling that in the midst of their despair they found their load to be lifted.
Modern burdens are diverse indeed. Some are burdened by poverty, and depression is a condition which is surprisingly common across all socioeconomic groups. The burden of alienation takes many forms and how we arrange to help may reflect the nature of our community.

I acknowledge that for some who follow Christ, their feeling of identification is such that they feel they can in effect approach Jesus – perhaps by heartfelt prayer, without an intermediary. My personal observation is however that for many, indeed I would even say for most, the approach is made in the first instance to those people whose manner suggests they will be open and sympathetic. Again the games we play show very clearly whether or not we are seen by others to be open to their approach.

If the Christ we follow could claim that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, then presumably it follows that as his representatives in his church we should be offering the same deal to those who come with their problems and burdens to ourselves.

If we have found relationship in faith, we can only hope that others will encounter this same relationship in us.

Posted in Christianity, Progressive Sermons, Religion, Sermons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

TRUMP’S SOLAR WALL: POWER TO THE PEOPLE?

Having watched a number of alternative energy projects fail through naive misunderstanding of practicalities I am wondering if the President of the United States is well served by his advisers. Mr Trump claims he is looking at building his wall with Mexico in a way that might incorporate solar panels.  The panels, in his mind at least, would subsidize the wall.

In this instance his lack of scientific knowledge or even perhaps an inability to listen to qualified advisors is making his prognostications sound silly.

It is true that in general terms electrical generation by solar panels is becoming more attractive with advances in technology. Unfortunately for the President, if anyone bothered to look at any of the recently established photovoltaic farms they would notice that the current arrays of solar panels are placed as close as possible to centres of population and more importantly that the panels are not arranged in a single long line. It is inefficient to place them in a single line primarily because one of the main expenses in this form of generation of large solar farms is the cost of the multimillion dollar power lines taking the electricity to the consumers.

While there is indeed plenty of sunshine in the area of the projected wall, if the US expects to be a beneficiary of the generation scheme, the current sparse US population near the wall will add tremendously to any costs of distributing the generated power on the US side of the border.

Most solar arrays already take some years before they pay for themselves.    If the solar panels are intended to subsidize the wall simple logic suggests separate installations clustered away from the wall in the most advantageous positions would be the way to go.

If on the other hand Mr Trump secretly anticipates that the panels are intended primarily to electrify the wall to keep all those illegal farm workers out of the Mid West perhaps he doesn’t care that his proposal is clearly uneconomic.   The rapturous Mid Western crowd who listened to his announcement may be slightly less enthusiastic in the cold light of the next day when it turns out that a consequence of the electrified wall is that the Mid Western farmers will then have to pay more for their previously cheap labour.

It may take some time for news of his proposed scheme to reach the coal miners who voted for Mr Trump, but the President has apparently forgotten one of his main election promises was to get the coal miners back to work at the very time in history when alternative power was putting them out of work

Posted in Donald Trump, In the news, The wall | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Donald Trump and Human Rights

While I sympathize with those concerned about the treatment of Otto Warmbier at the hands of the North Korean authorities I am also disturbed at the lack of balance in the US response.

If I have understood it correctly, this US University of Virginia student, a visitor to North Korea, stole a propaganda poster, was given an outrageously severe prison sentence and in all probability was treated harshly in the seventeen months he was held in captivity.

I am sure I am not the only one who has noticed that this apparent disregard for human rights is not unique to North Korea.  The Saudis have been known to chop off the hands of common criminals and the US turns a blind eye. A cynic might think Saudi Arabia is only supported by the US for its oil production and as a contributor to the massive US arms industry. Turkey, another ally, is currently holding thousands of potential opponents to their President in somewhat uncomfortable conditions Eg administering frequent torture and beatings. At least Otto Warmbier was returned with all his limbs intact. Is the Armada on its way to Turkey?

Have no US prisoners been given absurdly long sentences without trial, been held on flimsy evidence, been treated badly, or been deprived of sleep and water boarded? Have no US prisoners died in captivity? Doesn’t Donald Trump read his Intelligence briefings? Guantanamo Bay springs to mind.

I understand that the “recently discovered” prison in Syria where prisoners had been tortured and or executed was one of the destinations for US suspects under the Bush rendition programme. It is pushing our gullibility to expect us to pretend that the US State Department was unaware that this prison was anything other than a well-run humane institution.

Surely Donald Trump has caught up with the fact that the whole point of extraordinary rendition was so that the US could send their suspects to places like Syria, Turkey and Egypt to be tortured or simply to disappear without trace. Donald Trump is on record as approving of this torture, actually stating that even the families of terror suspects should be harshly treated. Given his own enthusiasm for torture it is a little odd that he now says that North Korea had no right to employ such techniques.

Posted in Donald Trump, Moral Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment