An alternative sermon for Peace Sunday 9 August 2015 based on Matthew 5: 38,39

A minister friend once told me that he was puzzled as to why although one the one hand humankind has made tremendous progress in terms of knowledge and ability to sustain and support population, yet although there have been vast improvements and safety with transport and even much improved understanding in what makes us tick, there has been almost zero corresponding improvement in morality. Our wars are more violent and kill a greater percentage of civilians. Further, wealthy nations will callously exploit vulnerable nations for resources and only intervene for peace if there is a clear advantage in self interest. Financial fraud is virtually out of control and whole nations as well as local economies have been threatened in the process. The number of refugees is horrendously high and the gap between rich and poor mounts daily.

His analysis is probably fair comment. Towards the end of World War 2 the fire storms over the cities of Coventry, Dresden and Tokyo certain showed what total war might mean and we can take small comfort that at least thus far there haven’t been more nuclear weapons used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki – but as Christians we should feel very uncomfortable that whereas wars in previous centuries typically had of the order of 10% civilian casualty and 90% military casualty, yet for many of the modern wars our nation has since supported, those percentages are now approximately reversed and it has been the civilian component of the local population who have suffered the most.

Today is Peace Sunday, the Sunday closest to Hiroshima Day, when on the 6 August 1945, at 8.15 am a bomber crew on the Enola Gay, after having had the success of their mission blessed by a chaplain, dropped a bomb on the city of Hiroshima – immediately killing an estimated 70,000 men women and children – and leaving many more to die slowly and painfully over the next few weeks and months. Tactically yes, it may well have shortened the war and the fact that few were military casualties was certainly no worse than what had happened in the firestorms over Tokyo – yet the real question is why the war needed to have taken place in the first place? And then the consequent question, what in practice would help bring about peace lest it happen again?

Perhaps we should start by admitting to ourselves that the potential for violence is probably part of the human condition. Biologically, the scientists tell us that the brain is organised in layers with the most primitive part – the brain stem (sometimes called colloquially the lizard brain) in common with many higher animals. Certainly this structure is associated with instinctive behaviours including flight and fight particularly when we feel threatened, and assuming the mainstream scientists are correct, over the centuries these functions are part of the basic biology that has helped us survive as a species.

Unfortunately for our basic biological reactions, over recent millennia as a species we have evolved higher intelligence and the human inventive brain has evolved progressively more sophisticated methods of inflicting serious damage to those who we see as enemies. This has developed to the point where anyone with reasonable access to information (ie internet access) can readily find the means for killing very many of our fellows. If the target is a group or even a population that are not only seen as enemies, but for which our leaders have sanctioned the violence, there are few practical restraints to stop us employing our weapons with deadly effect.

Curiously we operate on a series of double standards. For example if we are officially at war we delegate our forces to drop high explosives on whole societies of anonymous people and reward them for so doing – yet should an individual deliberately and knowingly kill even one baby when war is not declared it is deemed a serious crime. Hundreds of thousands of children died as a result of sanctioned policy at the beginning of the Iraq war, yet a suicide bomber who kills a handful on the London underground is quite reasonably regarded as a mass murderer. The distinction between one who suffers burns from fire from 20 000 feet and the one who suffers the same sort of burns by being physically thrown on the fire is subtle but whether or not the victim cares about the difference is a moot point.

They used to ask a standard question of all conscientious objectors when they were called up and were trying to avoid military service. The question was, “ Would you take a weapon to stop someone attacking your wife and child?” When the conflict is one of those nasty modern conflicts where the civilians are the main casualties, I wonder if the most appropriate answer might be – “since civilians are the main ones who will be killed by our soldiers, who will be doing the threatening?”

Although the weapon development has made it urgently imperative to find new ways of making peace there is little sign that many appreciate that such a change in thinking is on the horizon. In the US in particular history conspires to add to the problems. Dating back to the American war against Britain and the need to mobilize a militia when the community is threatened, the right to bear arms is now seen as an essential part of their Constitution. As weapons have become steadily more lethal and the accessibility has increased, the problem they now have is that weapons can be and are purchased not only to protect a community – but in the hands of the antisocial, actually become the means to threaten the community. In the US, total gun crime may have come down a little from the appallingly figure of a few years ago, but incidents of mass shootings have remained at unacceptably high levels, and far higher than most civilized countries. We are in no position to advise the US on their gun laws, but we must also decide for ourselves which direction our gun laws should be heading if we are to have a safe community.

At the heart of all armed violence – sanctioned or not – lie the attitudes we have towards one another. As a people who claim to live in an essentially Christian nation, and one with a proud history of military involvement with conflict, we are probably a little uncomfortable to note that Jesus gave very clear direction about peace making. Because he also lived his message in a society which was no stranger to violence, he is justifiably reported as being opposed to violence at every level.

Turn the other cheek” he taught. “Keep no score of wrongs……” Where does that sit in our foreign policy? “ You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say don’t use violence to resist evil”. (Matthew 5: 38-39) “Love your neighbour as yourself” Then he explained that one with the story of the good Samaritan, which in view of the religious differences between the Jews and the Samaritans seems remarkably contemporary as a pointer to best action in Middle East politics. Don’t forget he entered Jerusalem on a donkey as if to underline his commitment to peace.

To be truthful only a small minority of Christians have maintained Jesus’ uncompromising insistence on rejecting violence. Even St Paul acknowledged the practical difficulty of achieving total pacifism and instead in chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans came out with: “If it is possible, as far as you can, live at peace with all men” We seem to have drifted further than Paul from Jesus’ determination to insist violence must never be the best answer. Are you aware, for example, that for something like 300 years the early Church did take this message seriously. For example they adopted non violent methods of resistance, and what is more their list of who should not be baptized included soldiers along with gladiators, idol- worshippers, brothel keepers, and magistrates who exercised the power of the sword.

Unfortunately for Jesus’ message, once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its approved state religion, the arming of Christians in defence of the empire became standard practice – and although the uneasy relationship between State and Church eventually led to such distortions of Jesus’ teaching as the crusades, some of the orthodox Churches reinstated the insistence that soldiers could not be baptized and continue to fight.

You may remember that years later Ivan the Terrible compromised on this and insisted that since his personal guard should be baptised, their sword arms should be held high during the ceremony and not immersed so that the un-baptized part of their bodies could still be used in his defence.

Few branches of the Church currently insist on total pacifism. The Quakers and Jehovah’s witnesses are probably among the most opposed to war – and there are of course those individuals within the mainline churches who have either been total pacifist or who have chosen to make a stand against specific wars they believed to be unjust.

Regardless of individual attitudes, honesty requires that we choose wisely for ourselves and that we understand that some areas of conflict are complex and offer shades of grey rather than issues which are black and white. Should the occasion arise it may well be totally reprehensible to turn a blind eye to some actions initiated by our own government and our own armed forces. Genocide is always unacceptable and it is hard to imagine any situation where torture would be OK. Some weapons like cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, land mines, nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons are also inconsistent with Jesus teaching and it would be difficult for a mainline church to justify an investment policy with companies producing such weapons. Yet shades of grey include deciding what actions should be taken for example against a dictator who appears to be perpetrating atrocities.

In an imperfect world it is also clear that historically some conflicts have been avoided by the efforts of peacekeeping forces. Christians are by no means agreed about whether or not a just war can be fought and it would be a great pity to legislate against those who are genuinely following their conscience. Unless our own consciences are clear that we have genuinely done everything possible to avoid conflict, there would be a moral problem if we were to insist we had the right to tell others who were going to join up – what they must or must not do.

But ultimately the real problem is with our individual and collective treatment of those we chose to call our enemies. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been known to say “enemies are friends I am yet to make”, and it does appear to be a fact that it is difficult to choose to fight someone who is being nice to you. Perhaps there is a message here for all of us.
Mark Twain pointed out long ago that the most durable, dangerous, all-encompassing and cowardly lie of all is “the lie of silent assertion”—the maintenance by the mass of people that all is well even when obvious facts make it clear that all is not well.

Perhaps it is not too late to return to Jesus’ advice about peace-making and see for ourselves if the one we claim to follow might have had it right all along.

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The Serco Circus

Every now and again a public issue appears to unite community concern to the point where the Government is forced to make some hasty adjustment to policy. Despite the international Serco group being granted oversight of Auckland’s Mt Eden Remand Prison which was then heralded as an example of best practice privatisation of our prisons a much publicised series of failures at the prison has forced a re-evaluation. In a recent series of revelations of video evidence of drug taking and fight club activity compounded by news of a meth ring organised from within the prison and medical evidence of serious injury and death , on 24 July 2015, Serco was revoked the right of running the prison and Mt Eden prison was given back to the New Zealand Department of Corrections to resume control.

Although it is blindingly obvious that Serco’s oversight of the Mt Eden Remand prison has failed to deliver on the Government expectations, what is less clear is that the Government or the Corrections department is entirely to blame. However since the more embarrassing aspects suggest unwise initial decision making, let’s review those aspects first.

I admit the public has a perfect right to be puzzled as to why the New Zealand Government continued to assure the New Zealand public that Serco should be trusted to run private prisons, particularly when Serco’s failures in a variety of international ventures over the last few years are so well documented and in the public arena. For example in September 2013, Serco was accused of extensive sexual abuse cover-ups involving immigrants at Yarls Wood Immigration Removal Centre prison in Bedfordshire in England. This clearly upset Natasha Walter, a spokesperson for the organisation Women for Refugee Women, was quoted as saying “Serco is clearly unfit to manage a centre where vulnerable women are held and it is unacceptable the government continues to entrust Serco with the safety of women who are survivors of sexual violence”.

Australia gave a contract to Serco to manage their refugee centre on Christmas Island which holds many refugees and anywhere up to 1000 children. The Union of Christmas Island Workers drew attention to the systemic failure by Serco to manage the centre. Under Serco, there were examples of Children photographed in cages, of Serco staff beating prisoners as well as an increase of deaths in custody and instances of self-harm. When the Australian Ombudsman finally checked out the situation for himself by visiting the site, he confirmed to the Australian radio programme that “In the first week of June …. more than 30 incidents of self-harm by detainees held there were reported”. Serco, according to a staged memo leaked to the Australian was reported as trying to set up a “bargaining tool” by blaming the detainees for “creating a culture of self-harm”. The former manager of the Serco run detention centre stated the centre was grossly understaffed whereby it was “typically 15 staff members short every day”.

Apart from the examples of Serco being found to be negligent and even fraudulent in its control of a number of UK contracts for Justice Department contracts, eg grossly over charging for electronic monitoring, understaffing a number of establishments. In its involvement with the NHS, health services Serco was discovered making fundamental errors in NHS laboratory services , pathology lab mistakes, (some of which resulted in death) and even the deliberate falsification of 252 patient records for the Cornwall NHS. These examples should have raised real concerns. The only real advantage Serco seem to offer for government departments was offering cheap alternatives in its particular brand of privatization.

I find it hard to accept that the Minister of Corrections was unable to access such information as is already mentioned when as I a private citizen could gather such information simply by checking on the internet and asking friends with appropriate connections. An experienced ex prison guard with current friends in the Prison service assured me some weeks ago that the number of guards at Mt Eden prison was reduced to a dangerous level when Serco took over(stated in Parliament on 29 July as from the recommended 50 down to 15!). But this is where the issue is clouded. I have heard via prison staff that there are four Government officials providing full-time independent monitoring at the prison and that Serco independently monitors its own procedures. Further there is a permanent phone connection with the Corrections department for the use of prisoners so that prisoner concerns can be passed on if required. Prison Chaplains also visit the prisoners regularly and these should also have noted if and when the situation was getting out of control.

If the media are to believed, the Corrections Department had been largely unaware of the recent issues like having insufficient prison guards on duty on each floor to notice the existence of fight clubs and the video evidence of drug taking at Mt Eden. Allowing Serco to do much of its own monitoring would naturally have appeared unwise particularly as there was extensive evidence of Serco losing control of a number of its facilities in the UK over recent years. On the other hand four permanent staff independent monitors and the chaplains should have noted anything substantially untoward – unless of course they were derelict in their duties.

While the current media focus is on a minister of Corrections apparently asleep at the wheel there is also the issue of why none of the apparently independent observers employed for the express purpose of monitoring the situation also failed to report concerns, not to mention the host of others including those concerned with prisoner welfare and who come into relatively frequent contact with the prisoners. Prison visitors, lawyers, chaplains, cleaners, were all presumably failing to report concerns and even more surprisingly, the prisoners themselves apparently made little attempt to use the confidential phone proved for the purpose. It seems highly unlikely that all the guards, visitors and other staff members were unable to smell and identify the distinctive traces of smoke from the drugs the videos showed being used in the prisons, and even more curious, it is hard to explain the presumed lack of interest in following up the likely physical harm from beatings and gang fights.

What is still to be determined is how the current problems affecting Serco will now feed into the National Party policy of shifting much of the social development policy into private control.

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Lectionary Sermon for 2 August 2015 on John 6: 24 -35

Although each of the gospel writers deals with some common material, each has their own style and each has somewhat different intentions in telling their story. John for example is strongly attracted to metaphor and seems to delight in poetic expression. Unlike the other gospel writers, he is attracted to the more obscure miracles, spending far less time on Jesus’ direct teaching and more on conveying the important truths by relating Jesus’ enigmatic answers to simplistic questions.

The passage for today is vintage John. The scene finds Jesus almost literally pursued by a crowd who simply can’t seem to get enough of him, yet this same crowd is portrayed as including those who seem strangely naive in their questions. The crowd may or may not have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand but according to John apparently have heard about it and we might guess have probably at least also heard the rumours of Jesus calming the sea and walking on water, but their questions suggest they are simply baffled by his actions and words.

For example the crowd cannot believe how he is now on the other side of the lake, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” they ask. Jesus tells them in effect they are missing the signs because as far as he could tell all they have really cared about is that he recently organized to feed them. This, Jesus says, is not the sort of food they should really be after, since ordinary food doesn’t last. Rather, he says, the focus for their quest should really be “for the food that endures for eternal life.” Again the crowd appears to misunderstand and instead wonder what they might do to achieve the same results as Jesus with his strange and wonderful acts.

Again Jesus is anything but direct. “Believe in the one God has sent” is in effect his answer. “Can you show signs like our ancestors received?” they persist. “Like for instance Moses giving them manna in the desert.” “That wasn’t Moses” says Jesus, “that was God acting. Anyway, the true bread from heaven is the bread that gives life.” “And how do we get that?” comes the inevitable question.

Then comes Jesus’ extraordinary and memorable answer.
“I am the bread of life”, says Jesus “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry”.

It might be a mistake to rush too quickly to assume those questions John says came from the crowd are necessarily the questions of the stupid or slow witted. Think about it. Questions like “Who is this man really?” and “Can we have a share in his same gifts?” are actually standard typical questions that still appear to puzzle many, even today. The standard answers to these questions that we often hear like: Jesus is the son of God – and – we will be saved by our faith and/or perhaps – known by our works – may well have scriptural verses to support them and may indeed sound good in Church but those same answers can become curiously irrelevant when we are at work or down at the shopping centre.

Which brings us to Jesus and the statement: “I am the bread of life”
Although it may sound at first hearing that Jesus is deliberately evading the questions with his obscure answers, there is another way of thinking of his words. The crowd has after all discerned that Jesus has something in his actions that sets him apart. If he says he does not so much bring bread but rather is the bread what I suspect he is really saying is that he doesn’t so much bring the message as he is the message. There is a ring of authenticity about that.

A televangelist who thunders about sin but has an affair with his secretary or siphons off the donations of the faithful into his own bank account, may in fact be using direct quotations from the Jesus and the writers of the Bible in his public address, yet despite using exactly the same words as Jesus, he is rightly dismissed as a hypocrite because he is not the same as his message. The quiet little old lady who is thoughtful, kind and loving to her neighbours may not have a hope of getting all her Bible quotes word perfect, and may well be unable to use a microphone at all, let alone address a TV audience with confidence, yet her witness will be seen as authentic because she is her message.

Living in what for much of the rest of the world sees as luxury, we in the wealthy West probably don’t really grasp what bread meant to those in Jesus’ audience. In a typical Western supermarket, the shelves are stacked with a huge variety of food. Yet in many places of the world there is only one staple food. In much of Asia the food for necessity is rice – usually brown, unpolished rice. In first century Palestine it was mainly unleavened bread. In New Guinea it is often yams, or for the lucky, pork, coconut and fish. But whatever the staple food – it is the food that keeps starvation at bay.

There is of course one part of Jesus message which can be and often is misinterpreted. When Jesus says don’t work for the food which is perishable, in context he is almost certainly not saying, therefore forget about perishable food. After all a little earlier in John’s gospel he is recorded as feeding the five thousand. Fish and bread are indeed perishable food. On another occasion he was recorded as cooking fish on the seashore for his disciples.

What however he seems to be reminding us, is that food – particularly basic food in a physical sense – may be fine in its place but like other things we might seek, when the merely physical becomes our main focus and we see it as the main or even the only purpose of our effort we are in danger of losing our perspective. Whatever takes our main focus and attention becomes our life.

You may be familiar with the old Danish folktale of the greedy spider. The spider in the barn spun this magnificent web. First he dropped a thread from the ceiling and from there set out to weave the most magnificent web. Initially the web trapped only a few flies so the spider made the web a little bigger – and as more insects were trapped the spider got fatter and fatter. The food gathering became an obsession and every day the greedy spider would figure out new ways of making the web more efficient and larger. He would remove any ineffective parts that were not working as food gatherers and place new threads where they were most likely to succeed. Finally one day the spider looked up at the thread hanging from the ceiling. Never once has this caught an insect, he said to himself. Reaching up he cut the thread. The web collapsed along with the spider who fell to the floor where he died, crushed under the hoof of the farmer’s horse.

I am sure we can all think of a human equivalent. Perhaps the most obvious equivalent of that hungry spider are simply those who forget the direction of the most important source of life, of action and of support, and instead focus on feeding their appetites with whatever comes to hand.

Traditionally politicians who wish to stay in power exploit this greed. Back in the times of the early Christian Church the Roman Emperors distracted the attention of the crowds with bread and circuses. Today the more subtle version is to woo and distract the electorate with visions of improved amenities, offer tax breaks for the rich and set up trade barriers and immigration barriers to prevent third world countries from sharing our wealth.

Jesus appears to be inviting us to change the direction of our attention, and instead put our main search into everything he stands for as our principal goal and purpose. To work for the food that offers eternal life may be metaphor but in no way can it be interpreted as passive. When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and tells us that we should work for that bread, it then becomes a call to action.

In one sense, attention to the bread of life or for that matter directing our focus to the heaven directed supportive thread should also help attend to some day-to-day realities. Working towards a goal does not in practice mean that we should expect to reach that goal completely. The real world is a little short on those fully deserving the title of saint. Yet short of shutting ourselves away from the world as a hermit saint, in practice it seems that without being fanatical it should be possible at least settle on attempting to live with a positive direction rather than chasing the illusion of rainbows of self gratification.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be taking a good hard look at areas of real life where a re-orientation is sorely needed. It is simply a fact that more than enough food is able to be produced to sustain the world’s population yet it is also true that many starve.
And why? Simply I guess it is that too many of us are focused on our own appetites rather than on the needs of others, or for that matter, seriously working for the other principles that Jesus lived. To partake of what Jesus called heavenly food is to take Jesus and all he stands for into our thinking and living and that includes accepting his attitudes to others. The challenge is to make that thinking our thinking. I have seen that same message in the lives of some others and I guess you have too, but the real question for my conscience is what others will see in me. For whatever I am is my message, just as whatever you are will speak more convincingly than any words.

Jesus called himself the bread of life and when we seek communion we seek to partake of that same bread. Jesus is the bread of life, and looking at his example and the example of those who have taken him at his word we can see it is a form of sustenance worth working for. How we now react to his offer to seek this bread and to the extent we allow it to become part of our lives will be our offer to others.

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Lectionary Sermon for July 26 2015 on John 6: 1 – 21

When I think of a story about Jesus doing a miracle I guess I will probably annoy some people when I say that to me the part which appears mystical or miraculous is rarely the real point.

In this morning’s reading for example, Jesus organizes for some hungry people to be fed. From a purely personal point of view, I have to confess I don’t actually care how he did it – or how it was subsequently remembered and reported. As it happens, because I believe that that the working of the natural world and principles of nature are trustworthy, I strongly suspect that whatever Jesus did would not have required some kind of magical or mystical intervention. Nevertheless there is something that is reported here that sets Jesus aside from how many important people would be expected to act in the same situation.
In one of Rex Hunt’s commentaries and sermons on this particular miracle he tells a story which seems so appropriate to introduce this topic that I want to borrow it.

It seems a small girl called Kathy went with her parents and some of their friends to a restaurant. Because the others were all adults and the conversation was about things concerning the adults, Kathy sat largely ignored. When it was time for the waiter to take orders he took all the other orders first – then he came to Kathy.
“And what would you like?” asked the waiter
“A hamburger and a large Coke”, said Kathy.
“Oh no she won’t” said her mother. She will have the fried chicken and some boiled vegetables.
“And some milk!” added her father.
As the waiter walked away he turned and I suspect to the horror and consternation of the parents he called out, “What sort of sauce do you want on the hamburger?”
“Look at that. He thinks I’m real!” said Kathy.

Waiters aren’t expected to consider the real wishes of children ahead of their parents any more than Jesus might have been expected to alter his plans to take into account the feelings of the disciples, or for that matter, that a crowd of hungry people should expect to have their hunger noticed by someone as important as Jesus.

Living in the cyber age is changing society in new and strange ways. For possibly the first time in history the problem is no longer a shortage of information. Given our ready access to the web via Google and a host of other impressive search engines we are inundated with knowledge. Faced with this avalanche of facts and understandings our real dilemma comes in the selection of life enhancing observations and principles. This includes what we do with the information from the countless sermons and commentaries on the feeding of the five thousand. No doubt the new Christian might well be content to hand responsibility for this selection to those who go before them on the faith journey, but sooner or later many of us come to the realisation that we too must get to the point of making our own judgement and selection.

There is of course a problem in holding to closely to the literal truth of the loaves and fishes story quite apart from the multiplication of loaves and fishes mechanism. For a start there are other versions of the story in the other gospels and the detail varies in the retelling. There are actually six accounts given in the gospels of feeding the multitudes. Matthew chapters 14 and 15, Mark 6 and 8, Luke 9 and today’s version in John 6.

In one account, we read of 5,000 men and another 4,000 men; once with five loaves and two fish, and again with seven loaves and a few fish; once with twelve baskets of remaining bread gathered and in another five baskets. Perhaps it was the accounts of different incidents, but I suspect not.

That I should choose to see the story as showing how the actions of the least of us, even the actions of a small child, might inspire an open handed sharing is obviously not the only way to look at the event. Yet even if you are one of those who consider that Jesus would not have been constrained by the laws of nature, for me the real issue for the rest of us, who most certainly are constrained by physical realities, is more focussed on how the story might inspire us to relax our attitudes to minister to the needs of others.

When the disciples came to Jesus to ask him to encourage the crowd to leave so that they might find food and shelter, did you notice that Jesus in some way might have almost been reminding them that they had not first shared what they had? ….And Jesus replied, “They don’t have to leave. Why don’t you give them something to eat?” Now note how the disciples replied: “We have only five small loaves of bread and two fish.” The passage doesn’t say so but I wonder if Jesus answered that by raising his eyebrows and spreading his hands in question.

John Churcher has written a thoughtful commentary and sermon on this event and I would like to share one short paragraph:

“Which is more powerful and of greater compassion, for me to sit back and to look on this incident of the feeding of the 5000 in terms of a heavenly conjuring trick for which I sing self-indulgent songs of praise to the interventionist God residing somewhere out there? Or is the power, the compassion and the miracle in this story for each one of us, as incomplete as we are, to realize that by living the values of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, the hungry are given something to eat; the thirsty are given something to drink; the strangers are truly welcomed; the naked are given clothes to wear; the sick are taken care of; the prisoners are visited?”

In these terms, this story is not primarily about multiplication of the loaves, it is more about generosity. A moment’s reflection might suggest for those of us who are not saint like, generosity ebbs and flows. A huge disaster for example can awaken our conscience. Wasn’t there an increase of giving for the Christchurch earthquakes, as there was for the more recent earthquake in Nepal. If we stop to think of the people affected, a hurricane on one of our nearby Pacific Islands, or for that matter a tornado or flood affecting a nearby neighbourhood we don’t have to remain selfish.

Suddenly the tightfisted can become openhanded … but because they, like many of us, are human with all the weaknesses that entails, dare I suggest that a few months later they may well be back to being tight-fisted. Just remember they could do worse.

Perhaps the sometimes generous are not as bad as those of us who use their religion to insulate themselves from need. It is only religion by proxy if we gather in Church each Sunday to pray for the sick and the lonely – and avoid the sick and the lonely for the rest of the week. It is also religion by proxy, if on one hand we talk in awed terms of Jesus feeding the five thousand yet on the other spend more on eating out than we would dream of putting in the offering plate or than giving as a gift to Christian World Service or Oxfam. If we have five loaves and two fish, and the plight of the hungry is set before us it is not Jesus’ way to ensure that those two fish and five loaves may be consumed exclusively by ourselves.

There is a well known saying with a number of variations. In one of the more popular versions it is: “Don’t tell me about your values. Show me what you do with your money”. This even raises some interesting questions about how whole congregations allocate the money they collect each week. In those budget planning exercises that most Church leaders grapple with each year it is always worth asking where the emphasis actually lies. Could it be that virtually the entire budget is consumed by building and administration. Admittedly there are tradesmen to be paid, salaries of Church workers to meet and buildings to maintain. Yet if the whole purpose of our chosen faith is to reflect and live the values Jesus proclaimed by word and action, it may just be some change in emphasis is required.

No doubt on this occasion the disciples would have been hoping for Jesus to give comforting direction to the tired and hungry – but religion as Jesus would have it – is more than just words, it is the living of one’s true values. For some they will see the miracle of the loaves and fishes as a convincing example of Jesus’ power, something perhaps to wonder at for being totally beyond our ability to emulate. On the other hand there may be those who find in this story an insight into the values Jesus lived and invites his followers to share.

Because we are at different stages of the faith journey there is no point of insisting that we should be similarly affected by this or any other story about Jesus. On the other hand the Christian journey will have much more relevance if we aim for a first hand rather than a second hand faith. At the very least this story of the loaves and fishes might give some reason to encourage us all to seek our own individual interpretation and application in our own living. Whatever Jesus might or might not have been able to accomplish, we are clearly unable to cause loaves of bread and fish to miraculously multiply in a physical sense, but the lesser miracle of seeing others for the first time as those whose needs we might begin to meet with our own limited resources, might be miracle enough for this day.

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Inviting Responses to Gospel Statements attributed to Jesus on Prayer

I would be interested from hearing from Christians who believe they have helpful responses to the following comments.

Mark 11:24-25 Jesus says: “Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it shall be done for him. Therefore I tell you, all that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours.” Is this accurate reporting or rather a statement which does not have correspondence with standard understanding of reality?

Matthew 21:21-22 Jesus is quoted as saying: “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, `Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. ““And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”

I haven’t seen religious faith moving mountains, but I have seen what modern technology can do to buildings. The Biblical view of God and Jesus seem more associated with the dark ages, but it was humans who seem to have brought us the space age. Common sense suggests that in practice you can’t move mountains by asking God, yet in Matthew 18:19-20, Jesus says this: “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.”

Then again what about John 14:13-14: “And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son (?) If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.” Again this does not appear to happen in any literal sense.

Jesus’ reported words suggest that if you pray to God, he will give you whatever you want, no exceptions. Never-mind having to get two Christians to pray for the same thing (Matthew 18:19) one will do fine! But Jesus’ claimed bold stories about prayer can clearly be debunked by looking about us at the evidence. It is a weak argument to claim that seeing as Jesus talks about needing enough ‘faith’ in a few of his speeches, the problem is that nobody has enough faith. The difficulty with this argument is that it means that NO-ONE has ever had sufficient faith, which leaves us with the puzzle of what use the claim is in the first place.

In Matthew 23:34 Jesus apparently said: “Verily I say unto you, this generation will not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”. Most commentators seem agreed that he was he was talking about the end of the world, yet it’s been nearly 2000 years since that generation died.

Here are some options.   Some modern commentators have argued that if Jesus was correctly reported he simply got it wrong.   I have for example seen it suggested that Jesus honestly thought that if he allowed himself to be martyred, God would somehow step in to make sure what Jesus was promising eg the end time prophecies would be fulfilled.

A second option is that in these gospel statements the authors or copyists were putting their own spin on what Jesus said.   After all we know that some editing was done in other places eg the whole of chapter 16 of Mark appeared to have been added many years after the gospel was produced.

A third option is that Jesus was simply talking in metaphors and hyperbole to make the point.

There may be other options.   What do you think?

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Lectionary Sermon for 12 July 2015 on Mark 6: 14 – 29

Henry Ford once said “you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do”. You have to do it. Since Churches are in the business of sorting out life priorities perhaps it is fair to reflect on whether we might learn something from what Henry Ford said. If our priorities are really sorted do the actions of our lives really reflect what we talk about.

John the Baptist might have been accused of lots of things but not of putting off direct action.

I remember reading an anecdote about a young police recruit being tested to see if he was up to the job. The test questions were basically a series of situations to see if he had the sort of character required for the job.

Let me share one of the situations. There is a tremendous crash – a car wreck in a city street, a crowd has gathered. You push through the crowd to see the two seriously injured occupants. You smell the fumes of alcohol. You glimpse their faces and recognize one as the wife of the senior officer in charge of your police station. Then you remember that her husband is away on a business trip. What should you do?

The recruit’s answer….. “I would change my clothes and try to blend with the crowd.”

This was very different from what John the Baptist actually chose to do in a situation with more than one parallel with the police recruit’s dilemma.

I suspect even today John’s actions would have been unusual and even a great embarrassment to his followers in terms of what we might consider a leader of the establishment to represent.

Leaders are meant to be respectable. In John’s day the leaders of Church and society were dressed appropriately like leaders in nice clothes. These days, for the most part leaders of the Church are typically respectably dressed – and for formal occasions very respectably dressed. In John’s day leaders of Church and society lived in nice houses. John seemed spurn such basic comfort and nicety.

Would it be any different today? I don’t think if John dressed in the skins of wild animals, and was living off what he could scrounge in the desert, food like wild honey and locusts, I don’t think he would blend in any better today than he did in the reign of King Herod.

The commentator William Hendrickson, suggests a picture of what the wilderness was at the time: This was “the wilderness of Judaea, the up and down wasteland country of Judaea to the West and in the East, the Dead Sea, and the lower Jordan, stretching northward about the point where the Jabbok flows into the Jordan. According to Henrickson this is indeed a desolation, a vast undulating expanse of barren chalky soil covered with pebbles, broken stones and rocks. Here and there a bit of brushwood appears with snakes crawling underneath’. Another commentator describes it as: ‘It shimmers in the haze of the heat, the limestone rock is hot and blistering, and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath’. In the Old Testament it is sometimes called ‘Jeshimon’, which means ‘the devastation”. Hendrickson finds parallel between his chosen setting and his message goes on: ‘It is evident from Isaiah and John’s preaching as recorded by Mark, that the wilderness through which a path must be made ready for the Lord is, in the final analysis, the people’s hearts that were inclined to all evil’. A man who can survive in such a place is no wimp.

He was not only uncompromising with his lifestyle, he was uncompromising with his words.

In John’s day church leaders, as is typically the case today, were not outspoken but rather were cautious and diplomatic. Certainly not challenging the top leaders and politicians directly as did John the Baptist. John, you may remember, told the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, he was illegally married to a close relative by marriage. To tell this man that he was wrong to his face was not only not diplomatic, given the king’s autocratic rights in those times, it would have been far more dangerous than it would be today.

Which brings us to the drama played out in today’s reading.

Perhaps first we need a little more background. Remember the setting of the castle of Machaerus is not the stuff of picture post-cards.

It was bleak and desolate, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. Like a number of such castles of the time it had most unpleasant dungeons where the ruler’s enemies or innocent victims might await their fate. Even today tourists can see the huge staples and iron hooks in the walls to which the prisoner like John the Baptist would be bound.

The Herods weren’t exactly a pleasant family either. Herod Antipas, the Herod of today’s story had a particularly malevolent Father who had murdered at least three of his other sons and a number other members of his family, including having one of his wives executed for high treason. A Jewish saying of the time was that it was “safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son” One of the sons Herod Philip, missed out on inheriting any of his father’s land but went instead to live as a wealthy man in Rome. While he was there, Herod Antipas turned up to visit him – and as one does when one is of that family, he seduced Herod Philip’s wife, Herodias, and to make matters worse he married her despite the Jewish law saying this was forbidden.

When John turned up saying the marriage was illegal, Herodias was outraged. Although Herod Antipas too was furious, perhaps because he respected John the Baptist for his brave honesty, he locked him up instead of killing him. Herodias was not satisfied with this level of punishment and cooked up the dancing girl plot with her daughter.

As far as Jewish morality was concerned, even this was an outrage. Dancing girls were almost always prostitutes and their dancing was seen to be highly immoral. That Salome, the daughter of the wife of the tetrarch, should turn up to Herod’s birthday to expose herself in such a demeaning way would have seemed almost beyond belief to most local people of the time. Perhaps in view of his previous track record it was not surprising that Herod Antipas was impressed and taken by her performance – and when he basically said in front of his guests she could name her own reward, he would have lost face if he had turned down her request for John’s head.

On one hand this is a story of deeply flawed characters. Perhaps it was true that Herod was secretly admiring John the Baptist, but his family background and his lusts caught him up to the extent he was unable to break free from his immoral relationships.

Herodias, his seduced conquest, must also have realised that John was simply speaking the truth, yet in effect organised his murder in a ruthless and calculated way rather than allow John to continue to speak out and cause her and her husband further embarrassment.

Her daughter Salome must similarly have realised that her actions – both in performing the seductive dance of a prostitute for her step father – and in demanding John’s execution, were highly immoral and cynical acts.

There is a curious postscript to the story. Herod Antipas eventually decided his position as Tetrach of Galilee was not quite the level of power he wanted – and a few years later he went to Rome to ask the Emperor to grant him the title of King. The Emperor was not impressed. Instead of granting the plea, the Emperor decided he was being insolent and had him banished to Gaul. Although the Emperor offered to spare Herodias the same banishment, perhaps it is to her credit that Herodias decided to stick by her husband and went with him.

For John the Baptist, both the unwelcome imprisonment in appalling conditions followed by an unwarranted execution was clearly an unpleasant end to a brave life. Yet as with Jesus, his steadfast holding to the truth regardless of the consequences continues to inspire through the centuries. John the Baptist, realizing the senior official, the Tetrarch of Galilee was engaged in totally unacceptable behaviour most certainly did not change his clothes and blend with the crowd. He spoke a truth that he believed needed to be spoken.

Today the faces have changed but the need for truth has not gone away. As we engage in our own tentative steps towards the truth it maybe that sooner or later we too have to make our own choices whether or not to act. Have we ever encountered immorality which is a direct contradiction of what you believe your faith encourages you to stand for?

Even if we have never had the opportunity to meet a king, what about the chance to meet a Member of Parliament whose party is doing something at variance with our beliefs? What about seeing the boss ill-treating someone at work? What do we actually do when we encounter discrimination? It is all very well to say we love our neighbours, yet if we do nothing to express our concern are we entitled to claim that belief. When such moments come we might do well to remember that observation of Henry Ford. “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do”

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A few Implications of the Greek “No” Vote

Although a good proportion of the Greek population appear relieved at the clear “no” vote in answer to the Euro requests for austerity conditions for the much needed bail-out, the result has dismayed its European partners.  The Prime minister’s obvious delight at the result might have been better moderated if someone had pointed out to him that the brief statements explaining the two options were highly loaded and did not address the issue of why the Euro Zone partners felt they needed the austerity conditions in the first place.   It should also worry the prime minister that a sizeable proportion of eligible voters either did not vote or voted for the yes option.

The Greek situation is now parlous indeed. Even with the requested multi-billion bail-out the Greek government can do little more than pay the interest on existing loans and without radical restructuring for its tottering economy, conditions were bound to degenerate further. Because the Greek banks are rapidly running out of cash it is true that they need external assistance for survival, but the European Central Bank and the IMF are reluctant to provide this assistance when the apparent past lack of ability to meet promises or even display evidence of a practical intention to reform the economy means that good money is thrown after bad.

Although the Managing Director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, says the IMF would be ready to assist Greece if requested to do so it is far from clear how much assistance would be forthcoming. Even more worrying for the Greeks, the European Central Bank said late on Monday that they will no longer extend existing credit to the Greek Banks and instead have raised the minimum level of securities on future loans before an arrangement can be contemplated.

The insults that the Greek Prime Minister and Minister of Finance heaped on their creditors in the days leading up to the referendum will not have encouraged the European politicians to return with serious intent to the negotiating table. As it is, Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, whose direct denunciations of creditors a few days ago had been upsetting many of his euro zone colleagues, has already had to resign, saying Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras believed it would help smooth the path to a new aid deal. That reason is hardly likely to surprise most commentators, but it does raise the question of whether earlier amateur and ham fisted outbursts showed a total lack of understanding of the situation at the highest level.

Varoufakis’ removal will not necessarily solve the main problems. Remember Angela Merkel now needs to seek permission from her German Government before she is able to support bail-out assistance – and what is more her politicians would be all too aware the all important German wishes have been ignored by the Greek government who held their referendum despite the German insistence that they had not met the required deadline and that a No vote in the referendum would thereby result in Greece having to withdraw from the European Union. Angela Merkel’s irritation is not going to help a speedy resolution.  Indeed she told waiting reporters at Tuesday’s meeting between the European representatives of the Eurozone and the Greek Prime minister Tsipras, that there was no new basis for negotiation.   After the first part of that meeting an exasperated delegate from Belgium said that there were eighteen present who acted as if the matter were urgent and one who did not.    Although the new Greek finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, was more courteous and conciliatory than his predecessor he was reportedly not offering any change to the Greek position which had already been rejected.  A BBC report stated at the same meeting that the Greek Finance minister had arrived at the meeting with no detailed intended policy but rather with his only notes scribbled on a sheet of hotel notepaper, an action which seems incomprehensible to outside observers given what was at stake.  One of the bullet points on the note read: “No triumphalism” presumably  in recognition that the crowing about the democratic mandate of the referendum had already raised the hackles of Euro zone partners.   A little more thought might have reminded the Greeks that the other eighteen Euro Zone Partners also have democratic worries of their own and nothing in the policies to date have even begun to make allowances for their probable feelings.

Mind you it is still a little precious of the now reformed Germans to forget so soon after the second World War that a good part of their current solid economic position is because a good part of their otherwise insurmountable post war debts were forgiven by the victors in than war.   It will be interesting to see if that particular memory leads to a more generous attitude in the present crisis.

Part of the now needed reform will be difficult in that one of the most serious internal problems for Greece is that there is a huge problem with unpaid taxes. The only group that are paying their taxes are those like the civil servants who have their income taxed at source. For example there are only a handful of self declared millionaires despite the visual evidence of a good number enjoying an extreme of luxury. Because the current coalition is an uneasy alliance between the small but vociferous extreme right wing (including some neo Nazis) who protect the interests of rich on one hand and the extreme left wing socialists who insist on State support even for workers on the other.  Without immediate and radical change it will be difficult to collect the necessary taxes or forcibly correct the shoddy accounting which has characterized Greek business right up to Government level.

One recent admission suggests a very low level of taxes were being collected but for the most part, the tax defaulters are not being brought to account.  The unmasking of consistent misreporting of levels of debt (eg losses associated with the Greek sponsorship of the Olympic Games) makes it difficult for potential creditors to trust the Greek government, particularly as, despite numerous promises over the last decade, no substantive reform has been forthcoming.

A further complication is that the European nations being asked for bail-out assistance have voting populations who take their personal financial responsibilities far more seriously than has been the case for the Greeks.    For example the German people have a very low level of debt default and their voters have been telling their politicians that since part of the Greek problem has been the lack of personal responsibility of tax payers there is less reason to use what in effect is largely German tax payer money to bail out the irresponsible.

While the banks are running out of money and local businesses in Greece are suffering from an extreme cash shortage, the powerful rich in Greece are unlikely to support the banks if those banks seek to raid large accounts to keep the economy afloat. The alternative option of setting up an internal monetary system like the Drachma, then devaluing the currency to make tourism more attractive for overseas holiday makers might well provide a short term boost for the economy but since Greece provides few exports and relies heavily on imported goods from abroad (eg most food and fuel), devaluation is more likely to worsen the balance of payments. Curiously, even if the introduction of the Drachma succeeded in restoring confidence in the economy, it would probably be unpalatable to the rest of the current Euro Zone in that it then opens the possibility that some of the other cash strapped partners might seek the same option.

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