Lectionary Sermon for Lent 3 C, 24 March 2019 on Luke 13: 1-9

ON ENCOUNTERING ROT
The great thing about parables is that they appear to shake you out of your conventional thought patterns and give you a chance to see the familiar in a different light. However, at the same time the catch with the parables is, to quote Louis Pasteur in a different context, “chance only favours the prepared mind”.

And here we are firstly with this horrible multiple murder in Christchurch, a pleasant if battered city which turned out to have an unexpectedly rotten part to it and secondly the much worse disaster in Southern Africa particularly in Mozamique and Zimbabwe. This storm has brought more flooding and damage than that part of the world has experienced in the last few hundred years and victims on a huge scale and international assistance is urgently required. So we turn to this weeks lectionary and we find Jesus telling a strange story about the fig tree which seems to suggest a way…a conditional way of dealing to rot and disaster, not so much by pretending the problem isn’t there – but rather calling for urgent action. This action needed while there is yet time.

The story is deceptively simple.

The landowner comes across the fig tree which is failing to produce.
He tells the gardener – get rid of it. The gardener says in effect. “Not just yet. We will give it one more opportunity. We will loosen the soil around it – add some fertilizer then after a year if it still fails to produce, then we will get rid of it, for if it still fails to produce the fruit it is designed to produce, it has no purpose for continued life”.

So what is that all about? I guess we might wonder if his listeners are expected to cast Jesus himself as the gardener. Is Jesus saying he comes and finds the fig tree which is not being the fruit tree it was intended to be. At least the analogy appears straightforward enough.

Many of us have talents atrophied through disuse. Sometimes these talents are the critical talents that might give perspective and meaning to our lives. Even if we are not great speakers or musicians, perhaps we have the talent for thinking and caring. Just as different fruit trees produce different fruit we don’t expect a fig tree to produce peaches – but just as if the potential to produce figs is there in the genetic makeup of the fig tree – our value to the community and world will be in developing what we have as our potential.
So at one level Jesus is just saying, if we look at our lives and see the wholesome fruits of our lives are not evident, we may still have another chance to put things right before we run out of chances…. BUT if we are hearing Jesus right we only have limited time. If we do nothing, the axe will fall.

Well that is fine as far as it goes, but if we read the story with care we start to notice a few clues that suggest Jesus was not talking about judgment in a heaven or hell context – and nor was he teaching that our lives would be longer and happy as long as we did the right things religion wise.

It seems quite likely that here in part Jesus may have been trying to remind his listeners – that sooner or later we need to be able to face up to what our lives and communities have really become. Or if you like reflecting on what is needed by a reordering of life’s values, which if attended to is a way of being ready.

Remember also how Jesus came to be telling the story in the first place.
In one sense he is dealing with an age-old game. Disaster has paid a visit. And here comes the first standard question. Were the victims partly responsible for their own misfortune? And the paraphrase of Jesus’ answer?…..
“Absolutely not but if you don’t repent, you won’t cope with the next disaster”. And in case we too want to be part of the blame game, remember in Christchurch it wasn’t the victims but rather the general population who allowed the skin heads and white supremacists to share their messages of hate and propaganda about undesirable Muslims. More to the point it didn’t help if the sort of people who heard others talking prejudice decided to do nothing.

At this distance of time and space, in the parable we cannot be certain that those bring the news of Pilate’s latest outrage might have been deliberately trying to wind Jesus up to get him to commit himself to a political response. Certainly two of his disciples, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot were known to have zealot and Nationalistic sympathies. I can imagine them being surprised and even a little disturbed by Jesus’ odd little parable told in response.

The Temple scene certainly points to an uncomfortable situation developing between the Jews and their Roman conquerors. Some Galileans had been in the Temple and Pontius Pilate had apparently deliberately interfered with their temple ceremonies by having his soldiers burst in and slaughter them, and as if this was not enough he then mixes their blood with the blood of the sacrificed animals, thereby trampling the sensibilities of the general populace by showing his contempt for their religion.

The contemporary historian Josephus has recorded a number of Pilate’s actions which show this was quite in keeping with the sorts of ways he used to subjugate the population. Josephus reminds us for example that Pilate once stole the Temple money to pay for an aqueduct, then, dealt with the ensuing riot by having his soldiers use torture and public execution to crush the inevitable local uprising.

Jesus’ example of the tower collapse has a contemporary ring to it. Buildings, even today do fail, and just as the case whenever there is a substantial disaster, there will always be those who claim that it must have God’s will – perhaps punishing wrong doers. Remember back to the Christchurch Earthquakes when there were letters to the paper claiming that it was God’s punishment as a consequence of the poor morality of the people of Christchurch – blaming as I remember, the prostitutes in Manchester Street being allowed to ply their trade – not to mention an apparently liberal dean of Christchurch cathedral!

Jesus is ahead of this situation. He reminded his hearers that they should not think for one moment that the victims in Siloam were responsible for their fate… any more today that Muslims at worship in Christchurch were responsible for a deranged man bursting in with a semi-automatic. Or any more than flood or Tsunami victims have somehow offended God. Remember the disaster might simply follow the laws of nature, but the freedom part comes when a comparatively wealthy population like that in New Zealand has to decide if their politicians should be encouraged to offer aid to disaster victims overseas.

Prejudice is not simply a matter of a right wing nationalist wanting to gun down a three year old boy and other innocent people in a mosque– it is also ordinary people failing to notice those who arrive in our community without friends. Surely it is up to us to be making the first moves for friendship.

So what did you think when Jesus was saying that everybody needed to look at themselves as being in need of repentance. All, he said – which presumably means the Roman tyrants, the terrorists and the common people caught up in situations not of their making…..all – need repentance – and what it more – repentance before it is too late.

Jesus of course has a well deserved reputation of making astute observations. He clearly understood that people putting their faith in traditions and even the ancient stones of their most sacred buildings would not be enough to protect them from the gathering storm. But for all of us, sooner or later, the dark clouds will gather.

Lent is upon us once more. Although I am not Anglican, I note the Anglicans have a litany for Lent which seems particularly appropriate as the disaster toll mounts for the New Year. A cyclone makes land in Southern Africa, weapons continue to be sold to areas where there is civil war, bombs fall on hospitals, elsewhere car bombs destroy markets and places of worship, refugees set out on inadequate boats and elsewhere there are crop failures, floods, massive storms ….and there are some distinctly un-Christian reactions to those who arrive on our doorsteps as refugees. So the Litany goes:

‘From famine and disaster, from violence, murder and dying unprepared, good Lord, deliver us.’

Although I agree we should be reminded of the ever-present threats of disaster, I do have one problem with the wording of the litany…especially when it says “Good Lord deliver us” Storms, fires, wars and famine are not new.” That is why peace making matters. That is why water supplies are critical. That is why the hurricane shelters must be built. And frankly if we know these things – why ask God to deliver us from the danger.

Now I know it is traditional to pray and expect God will answer, but I am coming to believe that at the very least, as with all intercessory prayers, this prayer should awaken our conscience to do something as part of the answer.

If we do not wish for famine, we must plan our food store – and of course food stores for those less able to fend for themselves. Disasters happen throughout the world as they have done through history and as they will continue to do. Our Rotary club for example helps in a small way by preparing disaster kits called shelter boxes which are deployed when hurricanes and Tsunamis hit the low lying Pacific Islands. Is this not part of the answer to such prayers? Notice at least the litany does not, and indeed cannot ask, that we be delivered from death, but notice the prayer does ask to be delivered from dying unprepared.

For me, prayer has little meaning unless I am prepared to allow myself to become involved in its answer. So in terms of avoiding dying unprepared, some of this preparation is simply planning. Will I have “donor” recorded on my driver’s licence? Will I organize for money to be set aside for my funeral? Is my will clear and easily accessible? And I guess from Jesus words this morning – part of the preparation for death must involve repentance of our own short-comings.

So given that life is finite, and often unexpectedly fragile, as we start to realise Lent is not simply a religious exercise but includes our preparation for Easter, why not look again at the way we have chosen to live?

The story of the fig tree contains some basic truths. Many of us do not bear the fruit in our lives we would like to bear. Check! Negative perhaps, but true nevertheless. But don’t forget another of these truths is positive. There may still be time to turn our lives around. Why not make this a feature of our season of Lent?

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Lectionary Sermon for 17 March 2019 (Lent 2) on Luke 13: 31 – 35

THE ARMS OF CHRIST

For those of us living in New Zealand this season of Lent will be now be remembered as a time when we were brought back to Earth with an unpleasant jolt. Prior to Friday the 15th of March we appeared to have a perhaps overstated reputation for a reasonable level of tolerance. Certainly at the very least we might have assumed we were living in a country more or less at peace. While our reputation for accepting refugees seem low compared with many other nations, at least the place we offered for refugees seemed safe and care was taken to prepare the refugees for life in New Zealand.

I think prior to last Friday we might also say with some pride that terrorism was virtually unknown here, and that even if some faiths had been made aware of some intolerance, there had been virtually none of the interfaith violence seen in many countries. Interfaith relationships were good and even if there was misunderstanding of some of the newer religions, perhaps it might even be argued that since only 11% of the population goes to Church, most in the population are able to adopt an attitude of live and let live. Why then should there be some who reject the good and set out to declare war on a Muslim mosque and a Muslim centre in a peaceful city like Christchurch? Who could possibly take offence at a Muslim community which in this case had something of a reputation for a group of people characterised by charity and peaceful living?

Well someone did – and perhaps more worrying, even if the apparently deranged right wing Nationalists who did the damage were few in number, even more worrying was that several hundred supporters, including some New Zealanders, were cheering the shooter on via the social media sites even as the news of the massacre started to spread. No doubt many would have seen the news that even one Australian senator is on record as putting the blame not on those doing the shooting, but on those letting the refugees into our country.

You would think that everyone – not just those in New Zealand – would welcome an island of relative peace, and a set of values that taught that everyone should be valued and respected. Yet the very ones who promote peace, harmony and helpful values themselves become targets of anger and derision.

The season of Lent presents us with a similar puzzle. Here we have the living example of wisdom and kindness, Jesus, going around helping the poor and the rejected and sick and the lame and the blind. Why should this annoy the establishment of the day? Despite his good deeds, we are being in effect told that, far from being impressed, Herod and the Religious establishment of the day and even the Romans don’t want him around.

Surely Jesus has done nothing wrong. He draws attention to eternal truths and helps people sort out their values. His parables awaken people’s consciences and towards the end of his ministry, an increasing number of those who meet him are even starting to see him as the promised one, the Messiah. He is making his way gradually towards Jerusalem, the Holy City, the home of the Temple, the home of the Chief Priests and those wise Religious leaders who know their scriptures so well that they will know the right signs to look for in the Messiah, whoever he may be. Where better or more appropriate for the Messiah to go?

Being honest with our faith actually matters. To assume all or even any of the above mentioned factors would give Jesus good prospects in Jerusalem turns out to be mistaken and by the same token, I fear, it is unlikely to have an immediate payoff for us if we are active supporters of his message even today. A concern for justice, forgiveness and peace-making has never found universal favour no matter how helpful these characteristics might be to the community as a whole – and even the demonstration of sheer goodness and compassion is sometimes uncomfortable to those motivated by baser instincts.

It is almost as if the light of goodness in others breaks through to reveal characteristics we might prefer remain in the shadows. Think for a moment how a company will discourage whistle-blowers, how a nation at war will treat its pacifists and just how many wills are contested when the targeted generosity of a benefactor is disputed.

At the same time, in Jesus’ case it would be unwise to gloss over the threat that his teaching brought either to some of those wanting to preserve traditional Judaic teaching or those with more selfish ambitions. Nor for that matter is it likely to appeal to any who wanted to rule by force or to those who were seeking to keep in with the Roman invaders. To someone trying to support rule by force, notions of the need for forgiveness would not have been welcome.

In any event for the financial barons of the time, the thought of not storing up treasures on Earth would be incomprehensible. To those who were proud of their status – which I guess would include Herod as well as some of the scribes and the Pharisees and leaders at the Temple, the notion of becoming a servant to all would be anathema, and to a large number who would have been proud of their status as God’s chosen people, and even fierce in their nationalism, the thought of treating neighbours from other cultures or religions as oneself would probably have been angrily dismissed out of hand.

I suspect that Jesus was seen as a danger to the Romans, who for the most part were remarkably accommodating of those with other religions, but had a bottom line the for any religion which did not allow its members to swear their first allegiance to the Emperor. Jesus, in teaching that only God is worthy of praise, would have been seen to be passing on a dangerous message incompatible with the Roman edict that before any other worship was given, praise first be offered to the Emperor.

The Roman Empire at its best offered peace to those who accepted their authority, yet it was a peace enforced by totally ruthless suppression of the slightest sign of rebellion. Shortly before Jesus was born, the Romans had crucified some 2000 Palestinian Jews who had risen in revolt. Having read the arguments put forward by John Dominic Crossan, I can at least see why a number of modern Bible scholars are agreed that Jesus’ eventual crucifixion was because his words and actions were seen as a form of potential political rebellion by the Romans.

The intriguing imagery used by Jesus to describe Herod (Herod Antipas, that is) as the fox and himself as a mother hen wanting to gather chicks under his wings for their protection probably meant more to his hearers than it would to today’s urban dwellers. In terms of the helpless chicks the image of Herod as the fox, a sly, devious killer, certainly fits with the comments from contemporary historians of the day.

Like his father Herod the Great, before him, Herod known by his nickname Antipas had a reputation for being obsessed with power and his treatment of John the Baptist and others who crossed him make it easy to understand why the Romans would find in Herod a useful, bullying, front man.

Herod Antipas the Tetrarch of Galilee divorced his first wife and instead took his brother’s wife Herodias. You may remember that it was this act which was said to have caused John the Baptist to incur Herod’s wrath by telling him marrying his brother’s wife was wrong.

Because Herod Antipas only makes brief appearances in the New Testament we cannot be sure of his exact role in the plotting against Jesus, but certainly Jesus is portrayed as having him summed up rather well by calling him –“ that fox”.

Jesus likening himself to a mother hen may seem a little more obscure. To those brought up in cities it may seem curious that such an apparently feminine and soft image be chosen. Certainly hens don’t strike most people as strongly protective birds. For those who have had something to do with hens in a rural setting, the image would have more meaning. In earlier years when fire was more common as a disaster a number of commentators have recounted how a mother hen in a burning hen house would spread her wings over her chicks and literally die protecting them.

Presumably in retrospect, the continuing disasters that have since befallen Jerusalem – and for that matter, disasters that show every signs of being likely to happen again, Jesus’ words fore-tell something of the approaching dangers. For example, for Luke’s first readers, it must have seen that Jesus was speaking of the fall of Jerusalem when the unsuccessful revolution against the Romans finished with the destruction of the Temple, wholesale torture and killing of many of the citizens and the driving out of the remaining population.

While the critics can reasonably ask how far with the advantage of hindsight Luke had edited his story, what we might also note is that although Jesus has been recorded as wanting to take the vulnerable under his wings to protect them, from what happened, we know that he was unable to do so. Nor do we have to look too far before we encounter other disasters in the making where somebody – many some-bodies – are going to be called upon once more to take the chicks under their wings.

Many Western nations are encountering a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. On an international scale the contrasts are even more painfully obvious. New Zealand has one of the highest per capita ratios of natural resources in the world. Others less fortunate can only look forward to despair.

If however we do accept the thrust of Jesus’ teaching, the vulnerable should hopefully find his face in the faces of his followers. I wonder if that would include us? How often do we hear Christians insisting on the rights of refugees? And how popular does that make us? Just as Jesus in his day had Herod and other jealous or even fearful enemies with which to contend, there will be no guarantees that those engaged in Jesus’ continued mission will find universal support or popularity.

That Jesus himself was unable to protect all whose problems were ahead for them in Jerusalem we should not be too discouraged that there are many we are likely to fail to protect. But the question should really be, if Jesus wanted to act as a protector, should we who claim to follow his way, ignore those whose problems are directly in front of us if we will but look.
Remember it is more than just Jerusalem that is the focus of Jesus’ lament, it is the human condition. But who should address the problems of the threatened, the abused, the rejected and the powerless?

There is a statue in Rome of Jesus, which has a curious feature. The statue has no arms. If you ask you will be told that Jesus now has no arms to reach out to help others. He is now dependent on the arms, the hands, the eyes and ears and voice of his present followers. If not us – who will be there as a living presence to achieve the tasks set before us?

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CHRISTCHURCH SHOOTINGS, PERHAPS WE HELP THE ENEMY BY DEFAULT

The recent terror attack on two Christchurch Mosques, resulting in fifty deaths and multiple victims with gunshot wounds was the work of what appears to be a single assailant apparently deriving motivation from what most of us would term an internet based white supremacist hate group.  This is a most unwelcome wake-up call to a nation unused to such extreme acts of violence. In the immediate aftermath the commentators all seemed to agree that such an event seemed totally out of character in a country where such terrorism is virtually unknown.

What perhaps we should have been noticing is that the chances of such an event have been increasing, even in New Zealand.    New Zealand communities have probably always included the disenchanted and even the despairing.   The new factor is that now these groups gain support and a feeling of belonging in the internet chat-rooms. The very high rates of youth suicide should have alerted us that all is not well, and with the wisdom of hindsight we should have expected that given overseas patterns, new differences in race and culture in our community might have been expected to give birth to groups where members can feel bonded by common grievances.

A relatively new international phenomenon has been a swing towards right wing extremism whereby movements build around those determined to return to a dimly remembered past.  It this new environment where those who feel they are longer part of a majority group in their neighbourhood are instead turning to messages about retrenchment, putting up barriers to new-comers and looking after one’s own.  Some might even recognise in this a call to Trump type politics whereby those who come with different religion, different language or different customs must be kept from weakening what would otherwise be a great nation.

Terrorist type attacks on newcomer minorities are mercifully uncommon in much of the Western world, but such events generate their own publicity perhaps reminding the disenchanted minority that actions born of fear or anger produce tremendous reactions.    I found it interesting that the assailant in this case released what he termed a manifesto, a 74 page rant bearing strong similarity to the Manifesto by Anders Breivik, the White Supremacist who murdered seventy severn innocent victims in Norway a few years back.   In the explanation for the Christchurch tragedy the shooter  acknowledged Mr Trump as a symbol of what he stood for.  While he didn’t formally claim Mr Trump as his leader he used many of the same words and phrases that echoed Mr Trump’s main themes.

The New Zealand people can be justifiably proud of a nation where despite uncomfortable past times of dispute between Maori and Pakeha and of course various forays into conflict regions round the world, for the most part prejudice is not particularly marked and New Zealand shows every sign of being one of the more accepting communities of the world.    More recently the rather uniform pattern of immigration from British speaking parts of the world has diversified and after a period in which many newcomers were treated with some suspicion, it is my impression that increasingly, most in the community showed good acceptance of the new immigrants and even some pride in the diversity in the population.

However perhaps we should note the recently retired security consultant Dr Paul Buchanan, in his commentary on the Christchurch event, took exception to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s further claiming that such bloodthirsty actions did not represent the true New Zealand attitudes. In particular he was challenging the Prime Minister’s assertion the instigators were not part of us. As Dr Buchanan pointed out, both during and after the attack, hundreds were cheering on the actions of the perpetrators via various social media platforms as the murderers set about their bloody task. That a proportion of those signalling approval included those with New Zealand media addresses showed that this appalling level of prejudice was indeed present amongst others in our community and I guess the best we might hope for is that it represents the beliefs of a relatively small portion of the population.

Confronted by such horror it is tempting to assume it is the uninvited arrival of someone else’s problem.  Yes, it was a recently arrived Australian national who is placed at the centre of the tragedy as the main shooter and it is even conceivable that his attitudes were shaped by teachings gleaned from in part from his own nation’s radical minority’s popularist rants, like the public statements of  the Australian Senator (Senator Anning) who responded to the shootings by placing the blame for the Christchurch shooting on those who allowed the victim immigrants into the country.  Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison promptly took the errant Australian Senator to task, those of us with longer memories might recall a certain Scott Morrison warning his electorate of the dangers of allowing immigrants into Australia and even talking of the disease and crime Australia would be bringing in.   Where have we heard that message before?

By having the leading suspect shooter place White nationalist symbols on his shooter weapons and noting that he acknowledged Mr Trump and in particular, Anders Breivik, instigator of the massacre in Norway in 2011, in his “Manifesto” perhaps there is small comfort that some of his influences come from outside.   Yet it can just as easily be argued that the consequence of allowing White nationalist groups to develop, apparently unhindered, is the responsibility of the host community.

While I know crimes against immigrants including expressions of hate surface from time to time in this country, the uncomfortable truth is that the priorities of the community also shape how the police respond to such events. In the hours after the two sets of shootings it turned out that the police had previously to deal with several years of incidents in the Christchurch area and these in the main instigated by skinheads and white supremacists as they threatened and even physically attacked non-whites . If we needed further reminding, on Friday evening the nation watched as a TV reporter outlined the terrible unfolding story while a grinning adult who fitted the popular image of a skin head capered behind her, gesturing with what I supposed to be his gang salute in full view of camera and the police in the background. That he was allowed to continue this performance for several minutes may have been good television, but to me it was a sobering reminder of what image of Christchurch was being portrayed to a wondering world.

I would imagine many of the local readers would have shared my experience of hearing other New Zealanders express prejudice about Muslims. I have for example on several occasions been told that Muslims have no place in our country and that if they do come they had better conform to our expected standard of dress and behaviour. As it happens I have never personally encountered anyone calling for an actual attack on Muslims, let alone any at worship, but I can well believe such attitudes do exist. Like others in New Zealand, we are probably also aware that social media provides a platform for the hate-mongers. But here is a small question. What accountability will now be directed at those who cheered on this last outrage? Are their rights to continue to use those social platforms now at risk? If not, why not? Does their joy at the mass murder qualify them to be stripped of gun licences or put on some sort of watch list.

We can take heart that the Prime Minister appears to have handled the tragedy with wisdom and care.  She conveyed a strong message that she did care for the victims and moved rapidly to ensure the disaster didn’t get worse.   I presume I am not alone in noting that when Mr Trump rang to ask what she wanted him to do to help, Ms Ardern asked him to express love to all Muslims.   On the phone he agreed, but several days later we note he has not yet done so.

Again given the contrast with what has happened elsewhere I took heart that Ms Ardern has called for an explanation as to why social media were able to keep replaying clips of the shooting in the hour after the massacre.    Given that a friend told me this morning how an acquaintance had asked one of main social media sites to take down the video clips but was told that the violence fell within the allowable content of the site, new sanctions will be welcome.

New Zealand has relatively conservative gun laws yet here again it is good that the Government is reacting by attempting to block some of the exposed loop holes.   The standard allowed semi automatic able to be sold, the AR15, is currently sold with a small magazine, but it turns out it is easily modified to take a much larger magazine, and an ex-soldier friend tells be that not only can you buy a much larger magazine, but that with a piece of wire it can be modified to become fully automatic.    Although we don’t have huge proportion of gun deaths or for that matter the large number of gun clubs that seem to bedevil parts of the US, given that the accused shooter apparently attended a rifle club in Dunedin, the horrendous crime in Christchurch mean that we can also hope rifle clubs come under increased surveillance.

There is some irony in that until this massacre occurred, the majority security concern about potential terrorism in New Zealand was that the threat would more likely come from Muslims terrorists infiltrating New Zealand society. As long as the checks concentrated on identifying those radicalised by potentially militant Muslim groups it is understandable that other groupings such as those with White Supremacist attitudes should get less attention. Even once identified and listed as a likely danger I need to add that for obvious reasons, that listing a person as a potential danger is unlikely to provide sufficient reason for detaining the suspect. My own very limited experience in attempting to encourage those with strong prejudice to soften their attitudes is that such changes are very difficult to achieve.

Although we don’t have huge proportion of gun deaths or for that matter the large number of gun clubs that seem to bedevil parts of the US, given that the accused shooter apparently attended a rifle club in Dunedin, the horrendous crime in Christchurch mean that we can expect rifle clubs come under increased surveillance.

Since various organizations in our wider community including churches already have aims which include community building and assisting tolerance and compassion, perhaps the best we can do is insist that more attention be given to integrating minority groups in our community. We can hardly claim to be welcoming if we can’t count Muslims amongst our friends. A church or an organization which talks of tolerance without developing lines of communication with those at risk of being marginalized is unlikely to make a difference. The challenge then becomes to look at our own organizations and institutions and to ask if any changes in programme would assist us develop a safer and more integrated community.

Perhaps we might finish by reflecting on the message sent to me this morning from a mate in Florida.

Ron Gambolati’s note read:

Anyone who believes that one ethnic group is superior to another has only to take a DNA test to be sadly disappointed.  There is no pure race.  We are all mongrels of humanity – and better for it.”

 

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OH DEAR, MR TRUMP MIGHT NEED TO FIRE YET ANOTHER ADVISOR

From time to time, since leaders are human, the US public might expect their politicians to make mistakes, but after reading some of the President’s latest claims the best we might hope is that the current batch of tweets were not deliberately intended to deceive.

Perhaps someone among Mr Trump’s strongest supporters could help me.
I have just read one of President Trump’s more recent tweets which said:
“More people are working today in the United States, 158,000,000 than in any time in the countries history. That is a Big Deal”

Well if true, it would indeed be a Big Deal, but as far as I can see,  based on publically available statistics it’s wrong! For what it’s worth, I reckon the advisor who gave this information to his leader should resign before he or she follows the ignominious and ever growing list of advisors personally chosen by a self declared great mind who have been fired for not delivering.

Of course I could have it wrong. I might be reading the statistics incorrectly, so here is my problem Mr Trump. Last night I checked the official figures from the US Debt Clock which I invite your followers to look at themselves.

It is true that as of yesterday the official figure for those in the US workforce now is 156,921,426 which is only just over a million short of the Trump tweeted figure of 158, 000,000, and it is true that the official unemployed is only 6,524,101. But surely Mr Trump, with the help of your statistics advisor, you might have noticed the line on the same set of statistics that in the year 2000 there were more than this month’s figure of 156,921,426 then in the workforce ( ie 157,359,075 for the year 2000)

But that is only the beginning of the bad news for the President. As at yesterday, (according to the US Debt Clock data, the actual unemployed is 13,222,525 which looks a tad different to the officially unemployed. A small question… Are the recently fired workers from the Trump golf courses (fired because they were undocumented) now officially unemployed??

In the last few days we have been invited by Mr Trump to check out the wonderful economic figures. So I did. Mr Trump has helped the Soybean farmers by reducing the US Soybean sold to China. That will teach China! Mr Trump (assisted by his advisors) has worked his tariff magic on the Trade deficit and increased it. He has dealt to Huawei and is now puzzled why the Chinese don’t want to purchase so much electronics from the US. Mr Trump has failed to deliver on his 2016 promise to make the US Debt disappear from its alarming $19 Trillion and instead, increased the debt to over $22 Trillion dollars.  With minimal effort you can find the graph of the increase in Federal debt since Mr Trump took over as President so see if you can guess which advisor told him that reducing tax on the rich was going to help.

Obviously someone he relies on (surely not himself) has told him that it is OK to put another 8.6 billion dollars of debt on the wall in his upcoming budget while increasing military expenditure and cutting back on stuff like aid, welfare and education. And here was me thinking that aid, welfare and education employed people!

We live in interesting times. Whoops, sorry, that is a Chinese saying.

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Lectionary sermon for 10 March 2019 (Lent 1C) on Luke 4: 1 – 13

A MESSIAH WITH HUMAN WEAK POINTS?
“Shalom. This is Luke from Radio Palestine, on site in the wilderness, about to interview a very hungry man, Jesus, otherwise known by some of his admirers as the Messiah. So tell me Jesus, what have you been up to for the last forty days and forty nights?”

Except it wasn’t like that. And what is more it could never have been like that, not thirty years after the event.

For those of us used to reading newspapers checking out interviews, documentaries or news feeds on the Net or TV we should remind ourselves that for some communities particularly those in the distant past, there were very different methods of information gathering and dissemination.

In those days truths were conveyed via a mixture of reporting, hearsay commentary and storytelling, and in particular it would be very hard from close to 30 gospels (only four of which eventually found their way into our Bible) to know exactly how much was first hand fact, how much was rumour or folk law and how much was parable or intended symbolism….sort of like social media today?

We note in passing that, unlike Mark’s brief version of the same event, from the strong similarity of Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the temptations, at the very least the same source material was used for this part…which the expert scholars tell us was part of the mysterious Quelle or “Q” source. What we don’t know is how many prior versions might have existed and how many retellings had shaped its form.

Despite all that, the temptations of Christ ring true in the sense that the temptations facing Jesus resonate with our own temptations.

It is of course true that Jesus appears to have taken on a role far beyond anything we might imagine for ourselves and accordingly a good part of his temptations are different in degree if not in nature. Nevertheless it is hard to find one of the temptations in this passage that would not in some way relate to typical human ambitions and dilemmas.

Luke’s (and Matthew’s) chosen examples highlight the humanness of Christ. This part of Luke reminds us that Jesus was not somehow magic or for that matter above being tempted. In the Book of Hebrews Ch 4 verse 15 we find an echo in the statement that: Jesus is one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are.

There is the understandable wish of generations of followers wanting Jesus remembered as having God-like powers aka Superman (?), but dont forget that if he did have such powers there should have been no genuine temptation in the first place. Furthermore, discovering that Jesus could be tempted as we are reminded us his dilemmas might even foreshadow something of our own.

In Luke’s account of the temptations starts with Jesus first at his weakest. Forty days and forty nights is a long time to go without food – and right when he is the weakest, Satan offers him a chance for food.

There is of course a parallel with possessions. For most of us in the West we are surrounded by advertising encouraging us to believe we need consumer goods.

Our weakness comes when we develop a mind-set that others are getting ahead of us and that we lack the resources to keep up. That gleaming car which is not a car – but a status symbol is typically filmed with desirable people, admired because they have this particular car….maybe electric or even better self drive. Treat yourself ….The latest make-up…..You’re worth it…. Of course you’re worth it. The latest flat screen TV not just high definition but….. 3 D enabled,….and so on through the ever expanding list. Given that many of us develop an insatiable hunger for such possessions, accumulating more and more until the total goes far beyond any relation to what might reasonably be associated with basic needs, it seems somehow appropriate that today when we reflect on temptations, this should be the beginning of Lent.

[The poet] W.H. Auden defines prayer in this way. “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself.” As he goes on to say, “whenever we so concentrate our attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God—that we completely forget our own ego and desires, we are praying.” In short we forget our own egos most easily when we turn our attention outside ourselves which is the recurring underlying theme of Jesus teaching.

In general terms I guess the recurring stark choice with which Jesus was faced was the ego-focused temptation of using power to achieve domination, fame and status as opposed to the self-sacrificing path which he eventually chose to walk. The Luke reading outlines the seductive alternatives of the sort that must have been before Jesus at the start of his mission and everything that the gospels tell us about his subsequent words and actions show very clearly that they are alternatives Jesus rejected. It also incidentally conveys a general truth that sooner or later we will all encounter for ourselves….namely that the best choices for life’s key decisions in the long run are often not the ones that pander to the promise of immediate reward.

It is true that the internal evidence of the temptations suggest that this story is more like a parable than a factual account. To take just one example William Barclay observed that given an approximately round world, no mountain would be sufficiently high for Jesus to see all the kingdoms of the world – no matter how high the devil was said to take Jesus.

It is also intriguing, but have you noticed the very temptations that Jesus is recorded as rejecting are often those very characteristics which some of his modern followers insist characterize what his life has come to mean.

At one extreme, I once heard of an amputee in New Zealand who was told by her Church friends that if she had enough faith her missing leg would start to re-grow. Similarly a friend who teaches blind pupils told me how on an outing with her pupils, one totally blind girl was approached by two tract-carrying young people who insisted their prayers would restore sight to the girl. The blind girl was initially very excited, then desolated when she remained blind.

Specifically, Luke tells of Jesus rejecting the path of attempting to work outside the laws of nature and for example refusing to attempt to turn stones into bread. This then raises the question of why so many insist that, despite what he is supposed to have said to the devil, Jesus was all about Nature defying miracle and that, instead of seeing Jesus multiplying bread and fish as a symbolic way of meeting needs, we must see it as actual magic, along with walking on water and fixing the storm with a word. Whether or not the belligerently credulous have thought it through to ask – well if Jesus could do and still does all these things – then how come the word to stop the disasters is deliberately withheld?

It has been another year of weather extremes, bush fires still rage in Australia, elsewhere blizzards, flood waters still rise, cancers still destroy lives, along with the happiness of the families of the afflicted, unexpected earthquakes and volcanoes still characterize the shifting plate boundaries of the Earth, and gravity still works when the sky-diver’s parachute fails to open.

For me, the Jesus way is what Jesus lived and taught – the way of costly sacrifice for others. The miracle in disaster then comes – not in magic prayers to avert the disaster – but in the miracle of ordinary people offering compassion to strangers.

More to the point if we accept that Jesus insists that stones-to-bread is not the path of his ministry why would anyone who claims to follow him, claim that using the name of Jesus to do the equivalent of turning stones to bread and using prayer to demonstrate the defiance of nature is what Jesus is all about.

But the more serious temptation for the many who are clearly not the Messiah, yet who claim the title of Christian leader, is not to so much to impress the wondering crowds with seriously strange rituals like getting in touch with the dead, driving out demons or laying ghosts to rest in haunted houses. Rather the real temptation is the age old siren whisper to use the Church to exercise power and to seek prestige. All too often, there is something about the deference shown to church titles which leads more readily to a seat at the top table than the notion of genuine servant-hood.

Because there is something in the human condition that likes to impress, I guess we would all prefer other to notice our successes rather than our failures. This is why so many CVs give a distorted view of a potential employee. Unfortunately it also makes it possible to fool even ourselves when it comes to demonstrating how well we are doing with our faith. For example if we are always tempted to remember those who have apparently miraculously recovered from a medical condition and relate that to the success of religious intervention. Honesty matters in faith and I would argue that we should also remember the many whose condition worsened despite prayer or faith healing. If we don’t remember the failures we are fooling ourselves as well as others about the nature of our faith.

At the end of the reading we find the devil leaving Jesus, but it is by no means clear that Jesus would have been able to put the temptations behind him in practice. John Howard Yoder in his book, The Politics of Jesus, is one, for example, who suggests that the temptations actually foreshadow key events in Jesus’ ministry where political temptations must have returned.

For example the loaves to fishes story in one of its different forms has the impressed crowds wanting to crown Jesus king. That Jesus was able to leave the scene unscathed after the cleansing the Temple, suggests that he may have had sufficient popular and moral support to organize a political movement. And the version of Gethsemane when he played with the notion of calling upon legions of angels suggests at least a passing mind-set for a Holy War.

So the awkward thing about such temptations is that they keep returning. In so far as we try to follow Jesus to some extent they are our recurring temptations also.

This season of Lent, we might remember that Jesus steadfastly resisted the easy desirable path to fame and fortune, preferring to walk the less trodden path. Would that we who follow, might gain the courage to do the same.

P.S.
NOTE TO THE READER This sermon borrows heavily one from an earlier year on my web site site. Remember that I am trying to shape a complete three year set of Lectionary sermons to share as additional resource for busy preachers or perhaps those merely those who want to think about different facets of their own journey. In practice I often find myself unable to complete my research for totally new thoughts and this time personal circumstances have got in the way…again!
Remember too that if you have other points you think should have been made, can offer better illustrations or would like to challenge my interpretations please do share your thoughts or resources in the box below.

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Lectionary Sermon for March 3 2019(Transfiguration Year C) Luke 9 28-36 (+ 37-43)

COMING DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN-TOP
Many churches today are not full. To the modern way of most people’s thinking, some parts of the Bible seem decidedly ill-suited for our secular age. Think for example of those accounts of a naked Adam and Eve wandering the Garden of Eden and meeting with a talking serpent, then Moses parting the waters, or the New Testament accounts having Jesus walking on water or being whisked up to heaven. This is just a very small sample of the accounts so otherworldly to be unacceptable as truthful reporting in the face of even the most basic scrutiny. And yet here we are in 2019 at the Sunday set aside to contemplate the so called Transfiguration.

Today’s gospel story is another that seems made for the derision of the skeptics. Weird apparitions of dead figures from the past, strange lights, a non human-like transformation of Jesus and suitably bewildered disciples…all rather more Psychic News than Time or the Washington Post.

One of the modern scholars who have help us grapple with such issues is the journalist and religious writer, Ian Harris. Harris in his book New World and New God points out that although the Biblical myths may not meet what we see to be the standards of modern objective reporting, in any case, the real purpose of such myths is that they contain stories that tell us, through symbols, how life is and how best we should make a response.

Harris also quotes the American Catholic Theologian and Church historian, John Dominic Crossan, as saying: “It is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”.

So what should we make of today’s gospel passage? Luke (who presumably wasn’t there and writing some years after the event) is describing a Jesus, transfigured in shining splendour, watched by three of his disciples, John, James and Peter as he chats with Elijah and Moses, two great religious leaders of the past, who have just mysteriously materialized on the mountain top apparently to share some thoughts about with the upcoming climax to Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem.

Perhaps I need to state that I, for one, don’t feel any compunction in admitting that if indeed the entire story was intended to be taken literally, even at best, some parts do not sound plausible. On the other hand, if it is some sort of parable, the reality the myth seeks to describe, turned out to be grounded in total reality.

Perhaps it is significant that all three of the other gospel writers all follow their varying versions of this same ethereal account with the same difficult and down to earth challenge. And we might also wonder why in most forms of the lectionary, none of the three years of selected readings include that down to earth end to the story.

Let me summarize the “out of Lectionary” postscript for you. Jesus, no doubt buoyed up by what has happened up on the mountain, descends to find a scene of unhappy chaos and disruption. His disciples have failed to deal with a local tragedy. A small boy, who we conclude was subject to fits, has fallen in the fire. Jesus now must step up to affect a cure for the burnt child who we would now probably surmise to be an epileptic, and who we gather is in the grip of a seems to the observers to be a particularly unpleasant shrieking demon.

In short Jesus and his three disciples on the mountain have to make a forced return to the reality of a world very different to the ephemeral and temporary splendour of the mountain top experience. Tom Wright in his commentary of this passage (in his book “Luke for Everyone”) in an aside reminds us that many would be unlikely or even unwilling to make room for either the mountain-top type event or the unpleasant subsequent down-to-earth situation of the suffering boy down on the plains.

As I wonder with how best to make sense of both the mountain top experience and then the post-script of the return to reality, I find myself wondering if a life influenced by Jesus would make any sense for us as self-declared Christians if we tried to live such a life making no room for either type of experience.

While those strange and inexplicable encounters with the touch of miracle may be rare, I suspect most people have had thought provoking equivalents of the mountain top experience. At the very least I would not be surprised if most adults have ay least met a situation which left them feeling that they have been struck by unexpected wonder, perhaps even the realization that they are in the presence of something greater and more challenging than the mundane familiarity of the so-called “ normal life”. Well then, what should they do if the new perspective offers a change of direction – particularly if it seems to be a call to a journey with uncertain prospects and even perhaps glimpses of glory. Would such an experience be best quietly forgotten?

Or conversely should aspiring Christians then try to live their lives, too busy and too concerned with safety and with the familiar to even notice an unfolding tragedy.

Those seeking tranquility are certainly unlikely to be numbered among those who would first notice, then reach out to those whose lives figuratively found at the bottom of the mountain who are facing tragedy or danger. I suspect that there is a parable underlining the lesson in today’s gospel that should remind us the unexpected new ways of seeing only find meaning if they can also be applied, even in the grim or challenging aspects of life.

So what might we expect of our own equivalent of mountain top experiences – those life changing events – both good and disturbing? Our readiness for such encounters might need to allow that such an event might alter our world view and even transform our lives. Those who may well encounter the thought provoking or challenging have in the past come to include those as a consequence who reach out to the desperate and destitute, those who tackle the major scandals in the community, or those who seek very different experiences in life. Sometimes too the trigger experience is mysterious, even troubling and may be almost impossible to put into words, and not all who have such experiences allow themselves to be transformed.

So having the potential life changing experience is not enough by itself. Jesus came down from the mountain helped the epileptic child and then set out for Jerusalem. But don’t forget Peter came down from that same mountain but followed only later to deny his arrested Lord three times. Some tourists have been known to return from their trip to exotic places and sign up for child sponsorship programmes. Others see it merely as a chance to put five hundred cell phone photos together for a relentless data-show.

We may well derive our inspiration from our special experiences, including the highlights of Church experiences, but ultimately no matter how much we might like to keep the realities of the world at bay ultimately we have to decide between real and artificial religion.

In a world where obscene amounts are spent on arms, praying for peace while buying shares in the armament factories, is not taking Jesus’ teaching seriously. Praising God for creation on Sundays and turning a blind eye to the multinationals as they lay waste to tropical forests for the rest of the week in order to satisfy economic needs with vast plantings of palm oil is a curious way of showing responsibility for the natural world. In a world where the survival and well-being of the poor and elderly is dependent on health assistance, for the wealthy to be arguing for tax reduction may well be meeting the needs of self interest but it is hardly consistent with the injunction to love our neighbour, especially in a nation that prides itself on its wealth and prestige.

The mountain top is a wonderful place to gain a sense of perspective but it is rather inappropriate as a place to live. Jesus appeared to need periods of meditation and even the mountain-top experience, but we should be under no illusion that his life was all about these mystical experiences because he showed his work was where the people who needed him could be found.

We should perhaps acknowledge that prior to the mountain top Jesus was recorded as being busy with the realities of life beneath the mountain. To be a voice for the voiceless, a soother and healer of the hurting, a challenge to the hypocrites, those who put prestige first in the name of their religion – these must surely be the tasks of the valley. They were certainly the tasks to which he returned.

It is of course tempting to try repeatedly for the mountain top experiences and forget how they are related to relationships and living. Mountain climbing, hot air balloon flying, even dramatic experiences as part of church worship can all be immensely satisfying as a means to enhance a sense of wonder. Yet the high purpose of Church cannot be used as an excuse to keep ourselves above the world of the valley and the plain.

Nor does an incident of transfiguration witnessed mean that we ourselves no longer have a personal need to be transformed. That, even those close to Jesus might have simply got it wrong and misinterpreted what they were experiencing when they at least were supposed to be present gives us reason for reflection. We were not present and as a consequence may need to pause in thought before rushing to announce what it all means.

Which leaves us with the important question…When others look at the life we are living will they too see the imprint of our own personal mountain top experiences.

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Lectionary Sermon 24 February 2019 Epiphany 7C Luke 6 27-38

JESUS’ WORDS – OUR RESPONSE

I wonder what those in the non Church community would make of the typical modern Church setting for young people where a good part of the expression of worship appears to be the singing of songs of praise. The act of worship of Jesus is hardly unexpected particularly since Jesus is at the heart of everything Christian. Am I alone in noticing that the act of worship is maybe a little out of balance with the everyday following of the gospel message? Could it be that since the practice of following the message is much rarer than the acts of communal worship, perhaps we don’t notice the disjunction. Yet, how would we respond to someone if they said they were going to worship Jesus –then added: “BUT I have no intention of actually following the teachings of Jesus?”

I accept that many (particularly in Western nations) are proud to associate themselves with their Christian faith, but when we read today’s excerpt from Jesus’ teaching – this time from the Sermon on the Plain….when we contrast Luke’s version of what Jesus said with the characteristics of most modern societies is it any wonder that some would prefer to restrict their worship to the praise of their leader rather than following the teachings of their leader So what is the nature of teaching that seems to have so few practitioners?
Here we go: “But this is my word” said Jesus – (and then his aside)… “for those of you who are listening”….Here , should we be truly surprised. If assumed we were to have problems with carrying out Jesus’ advice, we might be tempted not to listen to his words too carefully either. I guess if the people in his day were like some of us today, in Jesus’ day there would also be many who preferred not to listen.

Then there was some more of the same message: “Do good to the people who hate you. Bless people who curse you. Pray for people who treat you badly.”

Then he continues: “If someone hits you on the cheek, offer him the other one. If someone takes away your coat, offer them your shirt”.
Now.. a moment of careful reflection – and can we be honest? Is Jesus’ recommended set of actions what we expect to be a typical responses from those who call themselves Christians?

Even if we leave aside the thought that ingrained biological survival instincts mean that we probably all have an automatic reflex to want to stick up for ourselves when threatened, the patterns of accepted social behaviour all too often combine to shape our preferred responses. While it is true that there are Christian pacifists, history suggests that many avowed followers of Christ will actively defend family, community and nation. Even if we ourselves are not armed, the assumption is that the police will act on our behalf and take whatever action is necessary to deal with threats of violence. Passive acceptance seems far from practical.

But if you look carefully you may notice that some of the examples Jesus uses are far from passive, and are indeed designed to change the behaviour of those who attack the weak. We may miss the significance of some of his more subtle points because we live in a different age.

For example there is the bit: “ if someone hits you on the cheek”. In Jesus day slaves were common and with Roman soldiers in the area and a variety of armed groups representing invaders like the Romans, one or more of the brutal rulers of Palestine with their keepers of control – or even the religious police keeping order – there would be plenty of examples of authority figures slapping people around, or even arbitrarily taking their possessions.

Some of the Bible scholars and historians explain that there was even an accepted means of striking the victim. The one in authority would stand facing the slave or miscreant and slap them with the back of the right hand on their victim’s right cheek. Jesus says if you are struck in this way you should in effect turn your head to offer the other cheek. The catch for the one doing the striking is that the standard formal accepted method of using the back of the right hand won’t work when the other cheek is offered and the one offering the punishment could only carry out the blow in an undignified fashion, in effect losing face with any onlookers.

Then too Jesus talks about the bully who demands your coat. In Jesus time the standard dress was a long tunic like shirt and the coat or cloak covered the shirt. Jesus says give up your coat, but go the next step and take off your shirt, which in most cases would actually leave the victim naked. As we visualise the scene we can probably imagine that the sight of someone stripping off to give up their remaining cover would be deeply embarrassing to the aggressor and might well make them much less likely to repeat the stand-over action.

The real point of Jesus’ suggestions then is not so much to passively accept wrong actions from those who bully and threaten, but rather the more subtle suggestion that at all times we should be trying to help change the behaviour for the better.

When Jesus talks of love for enemies we might remind ourselves that the word Luke records him as saying is not the standard Western word for love. The Greeks had six words for different shades of love and Luke as a Greek scholar here says Jesus was using a form of Agapan – (Agape). When we love someone in that sense of the word it means that no matter what that person does to us we will always desire nothing more for that person than his or her ultimate good. This love we strive to express to our enemies is not only something of the “heart” It is also something of the will because we need to strive to work for bringing our enemy to a place where in changed attitudes they too can find a sense of peace.

The common assumption is that what Jesus teaches about enemies is impractical in the real world. And unfortunately following this line of thought simply makes real live situations worse.

To hear some politicians talk we might come to believe that battering the enemy is the time honoured way of bringing them around to your way of thinking. One statement I have heard time and time again is that “there is only one way to stop a bad person with a gun and that is a good person with a gun”. But here is another thought… If we are going to encourage bad people to stop using guns, why not follow the lead of the Australian government a few years ago when they did a massive buy back of guns, drastically cut the gun licences and in the process, dramatically reduced the gun deaths from violent crime and mass shootings.

Unfortunately at present I suspect that solution is not acceptable to a majority in some nations. The most noticeable trend over the last few years is to encourage governments to pour weapons into unstable areas such as the Middle East and parts of Africa and Central and South America.

Unfortunately as a world community, because the majority appear to have no sense of empathy for those seen as enemies, most populations fail to notice that even terrorists have families. In practice battering their houses and villages with the hideous modern weapons may indeed turn their towns into rubble, destroy all their possessions, their schools, their hospitals and their places of worship but because even terrorist families have children and aged relatives they care about, new enemies continually take their place.

My intention is not to bring about world peace with a sermon! But I wonder if I can leave you with a thought. We can say that being kind to our enemies and people who hate us is not a sensible suggestion and instead return to the tried and true and adopt the standard historical solution. The driving philosophy appears to be, forget the soft, kind approach. Do what we have always done. Invade, crush, punish. But there is a catch for those who claim to be in the Christian camp. Don’t forget if we have come to think that offering kind action and attitudes is not a viable solution, this is also in effect saying we should set aside the teaching attributed to the man who clarified it in his sermons and stories. But wait a minute. Isn’t that the same person we attempt to honour in our songs of praise?

Ultimately what we truly believe will out, because as Marcus Borg once said, “whatever we centre our lives on, is our God“. And which God will that be for us?

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