Lectionary Sermon for 3 May 2015 , Easter 5 b (The True Vine ) John 15: 1-8

It is inevitable that we must encounter Jesus through the filters of the Gospel writers. With anywhere up to three years of the Jesus ministry to generate the original events and memories on which the gospels were based – and a few decades of telling and retelling the stories before they were recorded, we are fortunate that virtually all the material selected appears sufficiently fresh and vivid to stand the test of time.

John for example, has picked up on a number of metaphors Jesus is thought by tradition to have used. Each one of these is related to an aspect of human experience. I am the true vine, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the light etc. Today’s gospel picks up the striking image of Jesus as the true vine. If we go back a little we see that Jesus is addressing this to his disciples, those who had already chosen to follow him. Accordingly, as we consider what he is saying, we might wonder if John chose to record such words for those in the Church who intend to follow Jesus’ teaching.

The grapevine was an image well known to the Jews. The historian Josephus (who is the main non-Christian historian who provides independent evidence for Jesus) describes the Temple in Jerusalem as having golden decorations on its entrance archways with human sized depictions of grape clusters on a grape vine. The scriptures referred to the Jews as God’s vine-stock damaged by captivity in Babylon and brought to Israel. The prophets also captured this image and Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel and the Psalmists all used the same metaphors of the Jews as part of the vine and of God as the Vine dresser.

In John the image is expanded and the new branches on the vine are taken to mean the Gentiles who are now also part of the picture. The bit about the non-fruiting branches being destroyed may even have been partly John’s addition because he was writing at a time between 85 and 115 CE when the Temple had already been destroyed and the Jews driven from Jerusalem.

Certainly some of the reported comments about the Jews are problematic in that Jesus and the disciples were Jews and such passages were later used as an excuse for prejudice against the Jews.

It might be said by some that Jesus as the true vine is only a metaphor, yet metaphors can remind us of truth that we may prefer to overlook. For example, it may seem a minor point but a vine that is grown for fruit production is only cultivated for that one reason. If it does not produce the fruit it has no other purpose. Thus for those who believe that the purpose of Church is getting together for worship, this may be to miss Jesus’ point. It may even be worth reflecting on how those in the community might view the “fruit” being produced. A grocery or fast food shop has a discernible purpose for a community. If our local Church were to disappear tomorrow it is worth asking why it would be missed. What good fruit is produced there?

I want to suggest that the chosen metaphor of Jesus as the true vine is both helpful and thought provoking. It is true that any metaphor can be subject to unwise interpretation, but if nothing else using a true vine is good gardening practice. At worst, the lazy naive gardener might plant fruit trees and grape vines by the process best known as spitting the pips. That grape you have just tasted might well be the best you have encountered, but as any gardener would tell you, the chances of taking the seed from that grape and getting it to produce the same version of grape with the same characteristics is almost impossibly small.

The standard practice is to select the good fruiting vine with great care and having identified the one required, take cuttings and graft them onto separate root stock. Simply being in the same vicinity as the well grafted stock won’t do it. Joining a congregation where there are warm and active Christians doesn’t mean that all who are associated with that congregation will have those same characteristics. Each individual shoot must be considered separately

If we look back over the last two thousand years we see all too often it has not always been Jesus’ teaching with his central principles of compassion forgiveness, peace, justice and acceptance which have always been at centre of the expression of Church, but rather sometimes it is as if there is a graft to power, position, local custom, exclusivity and religiosity. The clue – as with viticulture – is to see what fruit has been produced.

Families are linked automatically by relationships put in place by happen-chance of birth. You may not always like your cousin or brother or aunt but there is a tie which is there as of right by birth. This is not so with a faith. In the case of the vine of Christianity we are not linked to the family tree as of right, because the sap of life for those attached to Christ is in effect the flow of love and compassion. Nor for that matter, are we linked to the vine by self- labels like being born again, like being evangelical, or liberal or conservative. The fruits of faith are seen in our attitudes to one another rather than in our statements of faith.

If the flow is interrupted, the relationship becomes suspect and the fruit will not be acceptable.

If the branch is not productive or if it begins to die, horticultural practice suggests it should be excised. Here it is not clear if Jesus was talking about the person or the characteristics of a person or even if his words should apply to whole communities. Most of us, if we are human, will have human failings as well as human gifts. Our faith communities are unlikely to be exempt. In this observation Jesus is saying no more than we know to be true. Not all parts of the vine produce good fruit – and not all dimensions of human behavior are acceptable.

What is more debatable and which even seems at odds with other things Jesus said, is his reported statements about destruction and burning of the parts which have been cut. The notion that the humans themselves might be cut off, rejected and burned does not fit in with other parts of Jesus actions and teachings. In other places for example, he accepted sinners and those who had no right to be accepted. However since he seems to acknowledge that even among the faithful we should expect there will be those who will have attitudes and behavior which are contrary to the principles he taught, it follows that such behavior and attitudes should be corrected.

In reality the identification of weakness is not automatically followed by instant improvement. The sad truth is that many succumb to a host of addictions and undesirable thinking and behaviour patterns. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for all their successes can also identify many failures. It is all very well to agree in principle to love enemies, to love the poor and fight for the disadvantaged – but in practice it is difficult to do alone. Perhaps we get a hint of how to at least start becoming a productive part of the vine in Jesus’ words of encouragement.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you bear much fruit. But apart from me you can do nothing.”

As with Paul’s words of encouragement in first Corinthians 13, the phrase “abide in me” is an instruction to engage in a series of deliberate acts rather than a feeling. Building Christian Community may start with the identification of the theory of Christ’s teaching but as long as it stays with reading and hearing about Jesus and his interaction with those who would follow, it will remain unrealized.
Jesus talks of those areas of the vine not producing fruit. This calls for honesty – and not, as many seem to think, only honesty about the lack of applied Christianity in others. The fruit of the Gospel in our lives should be apparent to strangers, to friends and neighbors and not least, to ourselves.

What is required is that we actually need to follow Jesus’ example of caring about those who are not necessarily deserving of our care. We need to be peacemakers – not just in theory or expressing peaceful sentiments in pulpit prayers– but in defusing actual disputes, we need to be identifying and meeting injustice, and above all we need to be serving others. In short we need to be abiding in Christ in a way that makes some difference to the life we live outside the artificial atmosphere of the Church building.

When it comes to identifying the useless parts of the vine, knowing that others are likely to have weaknesses may be a truth – but Jesus’ notion that the vine will have weaker parts reminds us that we too may have weaknesses and maybe what is required is not so much our judgment of others, as helping one another overcome our weaknesses. Jesus reminds us that we have to be ruthless in dealing with weaknesses that get in the way of producing fruit. Nowhere does he say only in other people.

Finally I want to suggest that whether or not the metaphors used by Jesus makes a difference in our e veryday lives will ultimately depend on whether or not we truly believe Jesus’ teaching is for the community we inhabit in the setting of a real world. If there was good news in Easter, it has to be good news for the everyday life we and others live. The true vine produces the fruit. May others find in us the evidence of that “true vine”.

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Is IS (Islamic State) aka ISIS, ISIL opposed to Islam?

IS (the self claimed Islamic State) appears in direct contradiction to teachings from the Qur’an. Because I am not an expert I am seeking help from scholars of the Muslim faith for an opinion. Although I only look at the Qur’an in translation, what I read there appears to make the followers of Islamic State (IS) opposed to rather than supportive of Islam.

I note IS have executed a reasonably large number of civilians on the grounds that they are Christian. Have I got it wrong that the Quran 5:69 appears to say: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Sabians and the Christians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness,- on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”

IS followers are filmed and on record for torturing and killing children and old people. They have also made a great show of mutilating the bodies of these civilians (eg removing their heads after execution). Again my understanding is that according to the Qur’an, Muhammad gave ten rules of combat to his military. Have I got the wrong translation when I read:

O people! I charge you with ten rules; learn them well…for your guidance in the battlefield! Do not commit treachery, or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.”

Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” (i.e. murder is forbidden but the death penalty imposed by the state for a crime is permitted). 5:53 says, “… who so kills a soul, unless it be for murder or for wreaking corruption in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”
2. If the motive for terrorism is religious, it is not permitted by Islamic law. It is forbidden to attempt to impose Islam on other people. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion. The right way has become distinct from error.” (-The Cow, 2:256). Note that this verse was revealed in Medina in 622 AD or after and was never abrogated by any other verse of the Quran. Islam’s holy book forbids coercing people into adopting any religion. They have to willingly choose it.

The horrible actions carried out by ISIS in the claimed name of God is therefore not in fact in the name of God at all. The killing of women and children and the elderly were condemned by the prophet Muhammad. When addressing his military before engaging with the enemy during the holy wars, Muhammad gave specific rules of war to his fighters that were as followed:

O people! I charge you with ten rules; learn them well…for your guidance in the battlefield! Do not commit treachery, or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.”

I would have thought that for those insisting that the reward for following the guidance of the prophet is eternity in Paradise, failing to follow that apparently clear guidance of the Prophet hardly qualifies for eternal reward.

It is true there are verses in the Quran permitting attacking an enemy but only for self defence, or for wrongfully committing any act which carries severe punishment. But in the process of testifying against a suspect must include witnesses and a trial. Sentences of any type without a correct trial or without the required number of witnesses are forbidden in the Islamic religion.

I note that last September more than one hundred and twenty prominent Islamic Scholars and reputable Muslim leaders and clergy from round the Muslim world produced a collective letter after they were invited to assess how IS fitted with Islam. In that letter they strongly objected to the way in which IS self-appointed itself to speak for all Muslims in saying:

“Who gave you authority over the ummah [Muslim people]?”the letter questions. “Was it your group? If this is the case, then a group of no more than several thousand has appointed itself the ruler of over a billion-and-a-half Muslims. This attitude is based upon a corrupt circular logic that says: ‘Only we are Muslims, and we decide who the caliph is, we have chosen one and so whoever does not accept our caliph is not a Muslim,’”

Their executive 24 point summary of their extensive report read as follows:
Here is the executive summary of their letter:
1. It is forbidden in Islam to issue fatwas without all the necessary learning requirements. Even then fatwas must follow Islamic legal theory as defined in the Classical texts. It is also forbidden to cite a portion of a verse from the Qur’an—or part of a verse—to derive a ruling without looking at everything that the Qur’an and Hadith teach related to that matter. In other words, there are strict subjective and objective prerequisites for fatwas, and one cannot ‘cherry-pick’ Qur’anic verses for legal arguments without considering the entire Qur’an and Hadith.
2. It is forbidden in Islam to issue legal rulings about anything without mastery of the Arabic language.
3. It is forbidden in Islam to oversimplify Shari’ah matters and ignore established Islamic sciences.
4. It is permissible in Islam [for scholars] to differ on any matter, except those fundamentals of religion that all Muslims must know.
5. It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings.
6. It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.
7. It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats; hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.
8. Jihad in Islam is defensive war. It is not permissible without the right cause, the right purpose and without the right rules of conduct.
9. It is forbidden in Islam to declare people non-Muslim unless he (or she) openly declares disbelief.
10. It is forbidden in Islam to harm or mistreat—in any way—Christians or any ‘People of the Scripture’.
11. It is obligatory to consider Yazidis as People of the Scripture.
12. The re-introduction of slavery is forbidden in Islam. It was abolished by universal consensus.
13. It is forbidden in Islam to force people to convert.
14. It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.
15. It is forbidden in Islam to deny children their rights.
16. It is forbidden in Islam to enact legal punishments (hudud) without following the correct
procedures that ensure justice and mercy.
17. It is forbidden in Islam to torture people.
18. It is forbidden in Islam to disfigure the dead.
19. It is forbidden in Islam to attribute evil acts to God.
20. It is forbidden in Islam to destroy the graves and shrines of Prophets and Companions.
21. Armed insurrection is forbidden in Islam for any reason other than clear disbelief by the ruler and not allowing people to pray.
22. It is forbidden in Islam to declare a caliphate without consensus from all Muslims.
23. Loyalty to one’s nation is permissible in Islam.
24. After the death of the Prophet, Islam does not require anyone to emigrate anywhere.

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Lectionary sermon for 26 April 2015 Easter 4 b (on the Good Shepherd John Ch 10: 11-18)

Some images stand the test of time, but alas, the image of the good shepherd is not one of them.

Inevitably our 21st century knowledge of what shepherds do today must distort our picture of what a shepherd would need to do to be a good shepherd. In comparison with first century shepherds in Palestine, most modern shepherds in this part of the world have it easy. All sorts of aids combine to make the job relatively straightforward. Most shepherds I have met have access to a farm bike, sheep dog assistants, not to mention the wonderful inventions of barbed wire and modern steel gates to keep the sheep safe when unattended. If it rains the shepherd is usually protected by waterproof gear and can always leave the sheep to it and seek shelter for himself. In the unlikely event of a rogue dog worrying the sheep there is always a rifle somewhere handy. The shepherd often returns to the farmhouse for a comfortable night’s sleep and now-days is often paid above the minimum rate for unskilled workers.

While Jesus is clear enough in likening himself to the good shepherd, religious art of the sort deemed appropriate for Sunday schools has not helped much with the image. At the Sunday school I attended all those years ago I remember a picture of a man clearly of European descent with a beard and a kind expression, wearing a shining white cloak carrying a dear little lamb in his arms while other lambs gamboled at his feet.

From what I have since learned, this image could not be more misleading.

For those first Century listeners, the image Jesus uses would have had far more impact. Not for the shepherd in those days to have the luxury of fenced paddocks. The Judean central plateau stretches from Hebron to Bethel – something like 35 miles long and in most places about 15 miles across. This area was not lush grass – more like stubble on the low hills and without a shepherd keeping a constant watch the sheep would wander far and wide with disastrous consequences.
Sheep have notoriously poor vision which is why of course they simply follow the sheep ahead of them. Without the advantage of sheep dogs the shepherd would need to be so familiar to the sheep that they would follow where he led, otherwise they would most certainly starve for the grass was sparse.

While there were no farm fences, if you walked across this area, every so often you might come across a sheep fold built for communal use, a roughly circular stone wall with a gap to let in the sheep for the night. To stop the sheep wandering out, the shepherd would simply lie across the gap – becoming the gate. If the shepherd was any good the sheep would know his voice, which would be very handy if more than one shepherd had two or more flocks in the enclosure. In the morning, the shepherd would call and those sheep who knew his voice would respond and follow him back to the hills where the pastures lay.
But although the shepherd would need to be caring with his own animals – gentle he most certainly was not. There were animals prepared to attack the sheep including wild dogs, hyenas, wolves, and in Jesus day, even the occasional lion. There were also those prepared to use force to steal sheep. Food could be scarce. Perhaps rather than thinking of those saccharine sweet pictures of shepherds deemed suitable for the Sunday school, we should instead be thinking rather of the shepherd boy David, with his accuracy with a sling sufficient to bring down the giant Goliath, and who would presumably have had his skills honed firing stones to drive off the wild animals.

Shepherds had a constant fascination for the Jews and although most were cordially despised (more than one modern commentator likening them to used car salesmen or thieving gypsies) yet the notion of the shepherd was a constant theme particularly in the Old Testament. God himself was sometimes pictured as a shepherd – from where for example we find the Psalm 23 “the Lord is my shepherd” or Psalm 95 where we see: “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture”. In the New Testament we encounter the word Pastor – which in Latin means shepherd.(see for example Ephesians 4:11)

The Jews saw particular value in the shepherd who would seek out the lost sheep. They have a legend which claims that when Moses was a young man tending his father- in –law’s flock, a young kid suddenly took off from the other animals in the flock. It ran down a ravine where it found a natural spring where it began to drink. Moses followed it and when he came across the kid drinking he is supposed to have said: “I didn’t realise you ran away because you are thirsty. Now you must be weary”. He lifted the kid and took it back to the other animals on his shoulder. Then says the story: “God said ‘because you have shown pity in leading back one of a flock belonging to a man, you shall lead my flock Israel’ ”

Where the good shepherd bit comes, is not so much in the loving carrying of the defenceless kid or lamb, but rather in the reaction to genuine danger. The good shepherd then had to be prepared to put his life on the line to protect his sheep. Literally when danger came there would presumably be the choice either to beat a strategic retreat or to stay to fight off those who would steal his sheep. Whether they be robbers or wild animals, the real question would be whether the shepherd would stand his ground. Not all shepherds would be good in the sense that they would put their lives on the line. From the fact that shepherds were considered amongst the lowest class in Jesus day also suggests that bad shepherds rather than good shepherd were probably the norm.

That Jesus would be numbered amongst the good in terms of personal bravery would certainly follow from the gospel accounts. One who was prepared to speak up against powerful authority figures, one who cleared the Temple, one who faced an angry crowd in Judea who made to stone Jesus – then a short time later one who returned to that same unfriendly Judea, does not suggest a timid leader. That Jesus set his face to Jerusalem knowing that death was likely to be his lot suggests one prepared to sacrifice his own life rather than his principles. Jesus was also one prepared to be seen caring about the untouchables in his society, the lepers, the tax-collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan woman, and in the expression of his compassion, that he understood healing was more than healing the body is clear from a number of his interactions.

So much for the straightforward part of Jesus’ intended image. What is less straightforward is when we transfer the image to the present. Very clearly Jesus is no longer physically present, no matter where you are on the theological spectrum when it comes to the resurrection. When people are in danger, Jesus does not appear from the nearest phone box as a transformed Clark Kent or come swooping down on an elastic thread like Spider Man. So if he is really a protective shepherd we might well ask what Jesus means for us today when he is recorded as claiming to be the good shepherd for those who follow.

We can get something of a clue from what happened in the aftermath of the crucifixion. Remember it was Thomas, disappointed and extremely doubtful about stories of the resurrection. Yet it was that same Thomas who found his faith sufficiently strengthened that he went off in his turn to be a shepherd to the people in South India. Paul came later to his faith, initially one who was suspicious of Christianity and prepared to persecute Christians. By his own account, something happened to Paul, transforming him into someone prepared to shepherd the young Church. Through his teachings, his actions and his letters, many had their faith strengthened.

There is something contagious in courage in the face of adversity and a courageous person with a message of compassion may also be seen as an expression of Christ. I am not a Catholic, yet in reading the stories of those who led the way I acknowledge I see many marks of the good shepherd in the recorded lives of many now called saints. Whether or not others will find in us some of the properties of a good shepherd is not a straightforward matter.

In the old days the shepherd was the last line of defense and the temptation for the bad shepherds was simply to avoid the problem by walking or even running away. In reality there is good and bad in most of us and if Peter, generally acknowledged to be the leader of the disciples, could deny his Lord at a crucial time, I guess for those of us who do not share his responsibilities, the temptation is not to be seen as the one who confronts the danger on behalf of others.

Although the dangers have changed, the need for the good shepherds is as real as ever. In many cases the danger comes from the wolves who try to blend in with the flock. The money lenders who prefer to be seen as providing essential social services or the politicians who would rather sacrifice their constituents than face genuine problems of injustice found in unpopular causes. Closer t0o home there are for example church leaders who willingly set up committees to deal with immediate issues rather than take the obvious action which might require inconvenience. There are also those who see the Church as a institution separate from the world, and as shown by the issues they embrace they have no genuine interest in the realities of the dangers faced outside the safety of the Church.

Claiming the role of shepherd, accepting the appropriate title of pastor, priest or even bishop complete with the bishop’s crook certainly symbolizes the intention to be a good shepherd, but in reality we should acknowledge that many dangers to the vulnerable are not faced by all of those so appointed.

Think of the scandals through the centuries not faced. Those shepherds who did nothing about slavery or its modern equivalent of sex slavery, the deliberately unnoticed Pacific victims of the bomb tests, those who not only turn a blind eye to the absolute scandal of the arms trade but condone investment in this area and, let’s admit it, those who for centuries who have been presiding over a building of Church wealth while the refugees are kept out of sight and out of mind in horrendous conditions. The current dangers to the environment, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the structures set in place to ensure the advantages of the wealthy suggest there is still much for the shepherd to do.

Yes, there have been outstanding brave men and women of faith who have turned to face the dangers. Think of Luther nailing his list of Church sins on a cathedral door, those who bravely took on slavery, and those who today are doing the same. . There are those who continue to look about them to see the dangers. Those who sacrifice a comfortable life in suburbia to work in the refugee camps, those who risk unpopularity or worse to expose corruption and those who speak out as modern day prophets should be identified and celebrated as good shepherds.

Something not often understood by townies, is that sheep are not unintelligent, although they most assuredly are short-sighted and vulnerable. The sheep in danger have the wit to recognize the voice of their shepherd because their shepherd has stayed with them and cared. With Jesus leaving the continuing tasks of the kingdom to those like us, the intriguing question will be to discover if those currently in danger will recognize in us those who deserve the title of good shepherds.

THE CALL OF THE SHEPHERD:

A Contemporary Hymn to a familiar tune

i
1 Vote

(tune: Aurelia )

Christ calls us as disciples
To speak and act with care
To show lives of compassion
Taking time to share
He does not come in grandeur
A simple message brings
That when we serve our neighbour
We serve the king of kings

Christ offers to be shepherd
But one who leads the way
Not one to force our friendship
Nor order us to stay
He leads us by example
He spoke and lived his call
His values are eternal
He showed he cared for all

If we accept his mission
And start to live it through
We also note his promise
That we might know love too
The walls of hate can crumble
Breathe life to hearts of stone
If we can share his spirit
We’ll never walk alone.

Bill Peddie

(You are welcome to use the hymn but not for profit.)

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The Challenge of Falling Church Membership

For followers of mainline religion there is a growing dark cloud on the horizon. In most modern Western communities there is a visible decline in support for the Church. Aging congregations, declining numbers who register as Christian in the census returns, and fewer regular attendees at Sunday worship send a clear message that organized religion has become increasing irrelevant for many in most Western populations. According to Wikipedia, Church attendance in advanced industrial societies is in gradual general decline with people shifting from weekly to monthly or spasmodic holiday attendance. Sociologists attribute this trend to several reasons, starting from a simple boredom during services and lack of motivation, to generational incompatibility of belief systems with the social changes attributed to modernity. Putting it bluntly, there is now more on offer on a Sunday. Again from Wikipedia, research across 65 different nations showed that out of 20 advanced industrial countries – 16 demonstrated a declining rate of monthly church attendance.

It would be tempting to expect the move away from Church is mirrored by a move towards atheism or agnosticism for those disenchanted by Church, yet for the most part, the surveys tend not to support that theory. For example although even if for many religion is simply being edged out by modern secular life styles and thought patterns, for a surprisingly large percentage of the population, spirituality is frequently cited as a modern alternative to organised religion. Embarrassingly, for Church leadership, those searching for spiritual meaning no longer see the Church as the only place to find answers.

One Churchman, Fr Ronald Rolheiser from the Oblate School of Theology in Texas claims that the Churches must face their fair share of the blame for this situation. In his article which he entitled ‘Fewer people are going to Church – who is to blame?’ Fr Ronald puts it this way: “Secularity is, no doubt, partly to blame, but so too are the churches. There’s an axiom that says: All atheism is a parasite off bad theism. That logic also holds regarding attitudes towards the Church: Bad attitudes towards the Church feed off bad Church practices.”

I would like to suggest that at least part of the problem is tied up with the age old conservative attitudes and beliefs. Two or three centuries back, few in society were highly educated. Typically separate communities were stable and relatively uniform and Church assumptions and attitudes were rarely challenged. In the eighteenth and in part the nineteenth century the educated clergy were able to fall back on traditions of unchallenged Church authority. Yet in recent times, as the stresses and strains of society have multiplied and diversified, standard Church practice and answers to problems seem designed for a previous age. Even the answers to the questions posed in the catechisms have become largely irrelevant because these aren’t seen as the most pressing questions faced in the real world.

We expect our children to learn critical thinking at school, testing claims against evidence. Making religious claims about miracles to modern students is a hard sell when they expect that the laws of nature will always be followed, that disease is caused by microorganisms, that biology still applies despite claims of Virgin Birth or resurrection and that atoms may rearrange but not mysteriously multiply even to make loaves and fishes. But there is a deeper issue. Assuming the Church authority has to be accepted without question is all very well but has no relevance if the Church is seen as no longer giving priority to the critical problems of the modern world and more importantly not seen to be radiating compassion in answer to the critical needs.

I know that we aren’t supposed to notice deficiencies in the teaching of Jesus or in the teaching of the gospels and letters of the New Testament but perhaps the irrelevance of some of the teaching is simply that many of the chosen illustrations were simply for a different society and a different age.

My own tentative part answer is that we should be more scientific about seeking to find what is working and what is not working. If the Church claims to be meeting fundamental needs for individuals and society as a whole, very well then, let us step back and ask ourselves how well we are doing.

The answers are likely to be very uneven. Some needs are well met by many Churches. Supportive companionship, a feeling of belonging to a community and even a belief of hope for the future are still encountered in many Churches.

When it comes to serious issues facing the wider community, the report card has some gaps.

Even where Christian ideals are clearly relevant: care for the underprivileged, forgiving the enemy, being peacemakers, working for justice and caring for God’s creation, these may be acknowledged but for the most part, these are issues where in most situations the Church takes a very secondary role. If we want to change this situation we only have ourselves to turn to. We are the Church. I can’t give a formula for meeting needs because it seems to me that each group of Christians have to make their own decisions because, after all, it is they who have to face the problems.

This morning I was told of a minister in a neighboring suburb who called a meeting yesterday to lament his falling Church roll and to call his people to the task of evangelism. Calling people to follow may well be the first step, but I could not help wonder whether more attention needs to go to the tasks of the kingdom.

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Thought Provoking Cartoons

tumblr_m1gx2mmSVZ1r915xro1_400rich-man-jpg_47372_20130921-269draft_lens18224537module151857887photo_1311780631jo-moulton-i-m-not-busyhillaryclosernatural medicine

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Lectionary Sermon for 19 April 2015, Easter 3 Year B on Luke 24: 36 – 48

A Selfie Wont Quite Do It
I guess we have all noted the current craze for selfie pictures. For the serious addict, the must-have accessory is the selfie stick, whereby the aspiring star of every photo can have themselves in every tourist snap. See the photo of Tower Bridge – look there it is as part of the insignificant background, Oh and look, who is that in the foreground? Or see the famous person. There I am right beside him. I’m the one in focus.

Yes I admit I have done it too. A doctored photo of me with the Royal family waving to the crowd from the balcony at Buckingham Palace, and the snap of my wife cuddling up to Hugh Grant (at Madame Tussauds) And no, apart from amusing us, no one mistakes us as genuinely part of the scene.

Selfies are not a new phenomenon. Way back in history some of the less important emperors had their statue placed as part of a collection of statues of famous Gods. Perhaps the most inappropriate statue was that tyrant Theodysius whose main memorable characteristic was forcing people to become Christian or face execution, even executing children who dared to play among the ruins of non Christian statues he had ordered to be destroyed. Theodysius’s selfie was the thirteen apostle statues he commissioned, twelve minor figures of the accepted twelve apostles with the large statue himself. Is it surprising that despite the statues these days nobody accepts Theodosyis as an apostle.

Which brings us to the set of readings laid down for the Sunday’s following Easter. My question to you is, because Jesus was recorded as being in the frame with the disciples…did that automatically make them disciples?

You may have noticed in a recent news item from Australia, that Prince Harry when meeting some of his admirers who wanted to take selfies with him, he declined saying that in his experience selfies are a bad thing. Being in the same room as Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean you will react in the right way, or notice the things you are meant to notice. A bit like going to Church perhaps…

Doubts about the resurrection as literal flesh and blood truth are not new. Mark is supposed to be the gospel for our current lectionary year but Mark couldn’t bring himself to write about Jesus appearing to the disciples so we have to use Luke instead – and in fact the Gospel Mark wrote originally finished with the women fleeing in panic and confusion from the empty tomb. ( In my NRSV version of the Bible it calls this “the shorter ending” ). Yes I know there are some verses at the end of Mark (Ch 16 which are post resurrection but there this was the early Church leaders who solved the problem on Mark’s behalf by adding a few more verses about a clearer form of evidence. That this addition happened sometime in the second century does at least bring Mark somewhat more in line with the other gospels even if it does raise serious questions about the status of apparent eye witness reporting.

We can only speculate why Mark appeared so reluctant to discuss details of what happened after the resurrection. Perhaps he didn’t quite believe the reports he must have heard, because remember by tradition he was writing his gospel in Rome and it is popularly thought with the help of Peter.

So this brings us to Luke and his post resurrection account. While Luke may well have believed what he recorded, he also is at pains to point out the confusion of the disciples. The disciples’ puzzlement is also even of help to remind us that there will always be questions and uncertainties, even for those closest to Jesus.

In an age when our Church services, originally grounded in the gritty realities of the day, have gradually absorbed layer upon layer of religious language and custom, it is good that Luke frequently reminds us that Jesus was discovered in the ordinary activities and day to day encounters with real people doing real things.

Think for example, of how Jesus uses the humble meal as a means of making genuine contact. In Luke 14 7-11 he even suggests that the right attitude to approach a meal is with humility rather than seeking to be honored in the meal. The Last Supper may well be the most famous of the meal encounters but there were also so many others that Jesus was accused of eating with sinners. Remember the tax collector seen up the tree called down to share a meal with Jesus, the meal shared with a prostitute, the feeding of the crowd – and then there were the parables Jesus told like those called to the wedding feast, the prodigal son welcomed home with the feast of the fatted calf, the Good Samaritan who rendered aid…so many meals reported that we cannot say that they were incidental to Jesus message. Food was even seen as part of healing as for example with the 12 year old Jairus who Jesus restores to life, then immediately insists she be given food (Luke 8.55). Indeed the story of the two disciples encountering Jesus on the road to Emmaus goes further and makes it plain that as long as the disciples were simply talking with Jesus they did not really recognise him – but when they invited him to a meal, it was at table they understood they were meeting the Christ.

This particular meeting of the disciples with Jesus in today’s reading has two features which have relevance for us today.

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

The ministry of hospitality has a good fit with our claim that caring about our neighbors is a central part of Christ’s ministry. It is shifting the focus from ourselves to others.

Let me illustrate with the story of a woman whose death was a great sadness for our district. If our minister ever gets to be promoted to be the first Methodist Pope I am going to ask him to consider a local woman for the first Methodist saint. Her name was Kay Wicks and she attended a small Church as a deacon in a small country town called Tuakau. Kay might seem at first sight to be anything but significant. She was not a prominent leader or great speaker. She was not a sophisticated theologian. On the other hand she had a great affection and concern for those who were facing difficulties in life.

She had adopted a Down’s syndrome girl, linked a number of unwed mothers with the Plunket baby care organisation, helped organize Sunday school work and ran a music and dance programme for preschoolers. She was a life-line counsellor and a great organizer of church hospitality. At her funeral (back in 2012) we heard about her hospitality. For example on Christmas day her family including grand children would turn up for the meal – but more than that. There were always some extra chairs at the table in case anyone she met at the Christmas morning Church service didn’t have anywhere to go for lunch – and there would be extra presents under the tree for the visitors. Shortly before she died she was visited at the hospice by a young man who had taken the trouble to come from the other end of the country – and why? – because when he had been a troubled young delinquent she had helped him turn his life around. It would have been no surprise to anyone who knew her that the large hall was absolutely packed for her funeral.

In the same way the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus and today’s story of the disciples about to eat when they were gathered together, unexpectedly encountered Christ at table, I want to suggest that something of Jesus was in those encounters with Kay.

But to return to Luke’s closing story of the encounter of Jesus with his disciples. The disciples found joy in the encounter but in part it was a joy rising from confusion. I can relate to the sort of disciples who, despite having met Jesus, and having lived with him and seen his actions in practice might still be confused about what such encounters might mean. This is of comfort because it means there might still be hope for us if we too find ourselves bewildered by what we encounter.

There is mystery in the story, perhaps even that deeper magic present at the beginning of time, but Luke reports Jesus as being insistent that the encounter with him is more with the ordinary, the flesh and blood, rather than the mystery of the Spirit. For me this is a metaphor to remind us that ultimately Jesus will be encountered at the deepest level not in the high blown mystical encounters even those engineered by the finest of liturgists but in the midst of real life. Because real life is not neatly packaged in convenient sections it is almost expected that the disciples, despite having met Jesus, lived with him and seen his actions in practice might still be left with questions about what such encounters might mean.

With lots of different denominations and views on the scriptures it is unlike we are all going to agree on how much of the resurrection story is literal truth. Where however we might find agreement, is to suggest that a tomb is no place to confine the spirit of Jesus.

There is much of metaphor in the New Testament accounts of resurrection and calls to mission. Yet the metaphor rarely directs us to focus on where custom suggests it should be focussed. Like it or not, Jesus is not recorded as focusing on what we might for want of a better term call Church activity.

We might well get our inspiration for action in the liturgy and sermons of our Church service but to lift Christianity from the banal selfie of turning up just to be in frame ultimately it is in the situations of urgent need we are called to feed the hungry, to bring justice to the persecuted, to show hospitality to the lonely – and in short – to live the gospel we claim we find in the place we call church.

And more than that, we have Jesus example and teaching to remind us that others will encounter him when those who seek to follow his words, minister in practical flesh and blood situations.

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

Resurrection means life, and remember, the tomb is a most inappropriate place to contain the spirit of life.

Christ is risen
He is risen indeed!

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FOR DISCUSSION: SOME THOUGHTS ON ADOPTING CHRISTIAN ETHICS

Despite the large number who readily describe themselves to be Christian, underlying cultural and denominational differences among followers of Christianity make it hard to detect common attitudes to Christian ethics. This should not surprise us. Each Christian community has to decide where to put its emphasis in choosing which behaviours and which attitudes are most important from a Christian perspective. Although many would agree that the Bible and Christian tradition is important in making moral choices, different backgrounds, different dominant settings and different pressures and perceived dangers, help us select which of the many religious ideas will be valued in practice. In addition our personal experiences in education and feelings about the history of our nation (and even of our local region) inevitably shapes our attitudes (and fears) directed to people who don’t share our particular strand of religion.   For those secure in their own denomination there is often the assumption that those in radically different Churches must therefore be in error.

Just because large numbers accept the Bible to be an important source document, there is far less agreement about how much of the Bible is intended to be followed in our modern world. Some fundamentalist Christians may not like the fact, but simple observation tells us traditions of the early Israelites and early Christian communities don’t resonate with all Christian communities. The Book of Leviticus might tell how a past tribe was instructed to eat, drink and dress, but few modern Christians feel constrained by the same traditions. Although there is plenty to admire in the Bible, it would take an obtuse or poorly informed Christian to fail to notice that along with the positive examples, there is much which is negative or archaic. Elijah’s murderous treatment of the Priests of Baal is hardly appropriate inspiration for modern interfaith dialogue any more than Moses or Joshua with their recorded acts of ethnic cleansing provide guidance as how best to treat those born into different faith communities.

While notions of love, justice for all and forgiveness for one enemies are supported in some scriptures, in other places, so too are harsh attitudes to wrong-doers, rejection of those born into different faiths, ultra-strict discipline for children (including an injunction to execute a child who curses his parent), harsh treatment of old women, support for owning slaves (including permission to sell one’s daughters into slavery).  In the Old Testament there is instruction for taking retribution against the descendents of those who were consider to have sinned, an injunction to stone to death adulterers, even laws requiring execution for those who work on the Sabbath, routine punishment of people for the sins of others, together with permission to rape females captured in battle.

Dominant views in separate faith communities inevitably influence how much freedom should be encouraged when it comes to new ideas. We might lament a resistance to scientific discoveries when at the time the new knowledge was thought to threaten Christian faith eg the very late Church acceptance of Galileo’s views of the Solar system, or the creationist dismissal of the theory of evolution, yet this can also be understood as a choice of which authority is preferred as part of a chosen world view. This spills over to our ethical choices. An assumption that Biblical injunctions are true for all time might give us a feeling of security but makes it more difficult to deal with modern ethical choices where new factors come into play. Mercy killing might be unacceptable to one who sets great store by the Ten Commandments, yet it becomes more problematic when a suffering patient is being kept alive artificially in a modern hospital. If our faith community valued a family structure modelled on Biblical tradition, it would be hardly surprising to find a pattern of male dominance and female submission in such a community.

There is irony in the way which conservative positions strongly defended in the past by Church leaders gradually morph into equally strong support for the opposite points of view as the mood of the majority evolves.   For example universal suffrage was once strongly opposed by leaders and spokesmen of many denominations yet is now almost universally supported.  I suspect few modern Presbyterians would now support the 19th Century prominent Southern US Presbyterian minister quoted as insisting: “The hope of civilization itself hangs on the defeat of Negro suffrage.”  Similar changes are noted in attitudes to dancing, the acceptance of divorce, attitudes to slavery and more recently some relaxation of attitudes towards homosexuality.

It is also possible to have a mismatch between the self image of the faith we claim to follow and our actual behaviour. A number of commentators have noted that the very States in the US where claims of faith are the most strident also have the highest crime rates. Not all murderers are atheist. By way of example, many would accept that Jesus’ inspiring teaching from the Sermon on the Mount was wise, yet in practice, influences of nationalism are sufficiently strong to ensure no shortage of those prepared to kill instead of forgive those designated as enemies by the State. To bring it closer to home, taking no thought for the morrow and not storing up treasures on Earth is not often the visible characteristic of today’s Christian in the first World.

Christian ethics have changed through the centuries. From the earliest Christian communities through to modern times various Christian community leaders have sought to reinterpret the essential Christian teaching for changing circumstances. Paul’s letters to the various Churches of his day provide advice to members of those congregations to meet specific ethical problems but later thinkers further developed these ideas. For example Augustine made a serious attempt to incorporate some of Plato’s ideals into a Christian framework.

Even where a Christian group will try its best to follow the Spirit of the Christian teachings in the New Testament, the simple truth is that many moral issues in the twenty first century have no Biblical precedent. Issues like genetic engineering, stem cell research,euthanasia, deforestation, air and water pollution, trade imbalances, mineral exploitation, sweat shop practices, debt forgiveness, the arms trade etc all take us into new and often uncharted territory. It is also difficult for a group which has chosen to accept one particular standard to accept that those with a different background and different set of accepted authorities can choose a different set of standards. This leads to some curious anomalies. For example most Western Christians are horrified at the willingness of Saudi Arabians to support the beheading of criminals accused of capital crimes like murder. Some Christians in the Bible Belt of the United States are on record as wishing their equivalent criminals to be executed by gas chamber or lethal injection. The degree to which this represents a difference in moral leadership is a moot point.

A further problem for individual Christian communities is that majority democratic views often run counter to the wishes of those attempting to be true to the ethics of a particular Christian group. As a consequence treating others as we might wish to be treated implies a much more generous treatment of refugees and third world nations than most democratically elected Governments could countenance.

Even within a Christian denomination there are competing ethical positions. Many Church congregations for example might claim to support notions of helping the most vulnerable in society, yet in practice spend the bulk of their income on Church buildings. Christians who adopt liberation theology with a consequent concern for injustice and concerns for freedom of the oppressed finish up with a radically different ethical emphasis to those who seek to conform to religious patterns of behaviour or those whose main concern is to expose the un-churched to the teachings of Christ.

QUESTIONS (Your thoughts please!!)
What are the observable ethical characteristics of your faith that are observable to an outsider or newcomer?
Does your faith community challenge any of the community norms – if so how?
Is the choice of Christian ethics influenced by rewards? (in this life or even the next?)
Which ethical standards are shared by most Christian denominations in practice.
Which ethical standards are obviously variable between denominations?

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