Sermon for 21 July 2019 on Luke 10:38-42 (48 C, Pentecost 6)

Mary and Martha Reconsidered
For such a fleeting encounter with Jesus, Mary and Martha get an incredible pulpit exposure. Last time I put “Mary and Martha” into Google I discovered that there were then more than 55,800,000 references including quite a few million sermons dedicated to featuring the pair. For such a small walk-on part in the Bible, all those words might well seem out of proportion. By way of disclaimer I freely admit that given millions of discussions about Mary and Martha on the Internet, anything I might add by way of commentary on today’s gospel is unlikely to break new ground in a much trampled small field.

At first sight, it isn’t even as if the story is particularly notable, so the real question is why the Gospel writer chooses to document the encounter at all. The key puzzle seems to be why Martha is wrong in insisting that Mary should be out back playing the part of the servant in the kitchen instead of having the temerity to place herself at the feet of Jesus? Given that Jesus was typically on about servant-hood, why does Jesus not simply agree with Martha and commend her for being humble?

Yes it is true we now live in a modern society in a part of the world where, at long last, women are gradually being accepted more for their abilities than their traditional subservient role in a male dominated society. In that context the pickings in the Bible are very slim indeed. And I am not even sure that we should be surprised. We ought to be able to admit that when the Bible was being assembled historians would have found it difficult to see beyond the deeds of society’s leadership of those times. Apart from the odd exception, in Bible days, most leaders were male – often selected in part for their role as military leaders, law makers, priests, rabbis, craftsmen and so on.
Of all the kings and queens, Roman leaders and even early Christian church leaders, the imbalance in favour of males simply reflected the way society in those days was expected to function.

True in those days, it was reasonable to guess Martha would be the one who was conforming. Remember the woman’s place at that time was to be the stay-at- home housekeeper. The woman was the one to do the cooking, the cleaning and the one to offer of hospitality to the honoured guest. Back then women were to be seen, preferably at a distance, but definitely not heard. It was not women but rather the men who were expected to sit with the guests.

But there was also something else. Remember Paul was recorded sitting at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22.3), so by sitting at Jesus feet, Mary was simply adopting the role of a student in the presence of a teacher.

Being merely present and listening in the background is to be a spectator. On the other hand, sitting at the feet of a rabbi was a natural position for one who wished eventually to emulate the teacher and even adopt his role.

Some men not women might be expected to be doing that. So in terms of cultural patterns it should be stressed it was Mary who was not conforming. Instead of sharing in the cooking, cleaning and offering hospitality she was apparently sitting at Jesus feet, and we might imagine she was there hanging on his every word.

What Martha did about this may be criticised in hindsight, but it was at least a predictable human response.

On re-reading this incident I am coming round to think that rather than objecting to Martha’s willingness to serve her household, Jesus might have been rather focussing on the bit where Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary she should be following Martha’s example in that she should be sharing in the background humble tasks of hospitality.

The phrase “tell my sister she should help me” might, after all, be interpreted as being shorthand for implying that “Since my way is best, others should do as I do”.

In the context of a Jewish village, Martha would no doubt assume that Mary like herself was almost morally obligated to service. Accepting the Jewish faith was also buying into the Jewish customs of the time. We still echo this in typical comments about new immigrants. “Well they chose to come here – so they should adopt our way of life.”

Traditionally religious followers often become convinced their personal religious insights are best for everyone. I’ll bet someone here has heard a local say that Islamic women shouldn’t wear the Burka in New Zealand.

At first glance, for our modern generation, it almost looks as if Jesus is taking sides in the progressive camp versus fundamentalist/conservative faction. Progressives are of course very much into equality and would presumably support Mary wanting to learn or even question as a man. If some of the older literature coming out of the conservative Christian camp is to be believed, the Martha like homebody, there to serve her man, would almost be the archetype Christian housewife.

As attractive as that side-taking might be to me (sometimes accused as being a liberal progressive), I suspect this interpretation would not bear up under scrutiny. Remember Jesus is presented in the context of one who has just finished telling the story of the Good Samaritan in which he praises the one who took the part of a good neighbour in offering tangible service, and in a number of other places, Jesus is clearly in favour of his followers adopting the role of servants.

On re-reading this incident I am coming round to think that rather than objecting to Martha’s willingness to serve her household, Jesus might have been rather focussing on the bit where Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary she should be following Martha’s example in that she should be sharing in the background humble tasks of hospitality.

The phrase “tell my sister she should help me” might, after all, be interpreted as being shorthand for implying that “Since my way is best, others should do as I do”.

Remember that all the gospel writers had to make choices from a host of anecdotal material about Jesus and his teaching. The fact that they were also writing at the time of the dispersion of Jews from Jerusalem made it imperative that some attention be given to Jesus teaching which suggests how the soon to be homeless Jews should cope with those with different attitudes to faith, and I would like to think that this in fact is one of those passages.

As Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem, the gospel writers use a number of examples to show Jesus’ teaching has the effect of opening those who encounter him to new attitudes to custom, to law and to those discovered in their day-to-day encounters. However we should not think that these glimpses necessarily replace one set of formulae – in other words the law – with another new set of formulae to cover every situation.

If Luke was recording this story to prepare Jews and new Christians for the unpredictable experiences they were likely to encounter, Martha’s implied “My way as the only way”, is hardly the most helpful to represent the new Christian faith. Jesus was presenting a new version of faith particularly one which also claims to give preference for a pattern of behaviour in which tolerance, forgiveness and what we would now call situational ethics being used to guide his followers’ choices. Nor for that matter is the insistence on our own preferred pattern of behaviour as a model for others appropriate for our own developing multi faith situations.

Jesus, in effect recognising Mary’s quest for wisdom as being more important for her current situation than her need to conform to custom, is at least suggesting a different way of valuing the choices of other people. Since few of us live in the equivalent of the Jewish village – but instead live in what has become an increasingly multi cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, perhaps there is a case for mulling over Jesus’ reply.

We are surrounded community-wise if not own household-wise by a wide range of responses to challenges of faith. We may not like it – and indeed may even resent others in their personal approaches to faith, but is it not possible that like Martha we can become excessively distracted by such matters?

In reality, for all of us, there are different times in our lives when we should be seeking guidance – and other occasions when it is time to act. In others words there is probably a little of Martha and Mary in all of us. Yet since each of us are going to be at different stages of the journey, to focus on someone else’s time of contemplation and insist instead that they join us in whatever activity of service we are currently engaged upon, risks turning us from a humble servant to a nagging Martha.

It is of course only the first part of the story. We can only guess what is likely to happen next. Jesus confirms Mary’s decision to listen to his teaching but the critical step that Mary may or may not take after she has heard his words is to decide whether or not the teaching is going to affect her life from that point. And I guess that is the part that we too need to consider. Week by week in Churches throughout the community parts of the gospel is presented – but I guess there is no guarantee that the hearers are going to use that gospel as the starting point for what happens in the days and weeks to come.

Ultimately, for faith to have meaning to those who look on, the marks of faith will shape our lives. If on reflection we note that we are becoming excessively worried about how realistic others are being about their faith, it is then just maybe, we might recall Luke’s story of Mary and Martha.

Furthermore, it is a characteristic of our age that we tend to associate ourselves with others who share our way of thinking. This means that our Churches often become examples of group-think and instead of being mildly judgemental as Martha-like individuals it is possible the group invests power of similar collective thinking to the point where its judgement is magnified in its effect. Even a relatively small group sharing a highly judgemental attitude to those who worship differently or who allow different standards of behaviour can derive enough internal agreement to condone or sponsor actions which would have been unlikely to have been generated if left to the good sense of individuals merely trying to be helpful to those they meet.

I have for example encountered attempted missionary work in some nations which is blocked by State authorities disgusted at judgemental attitudes of previous missionaries. For example parts of India and the Middle East are closed to Christian missionaries whose predecessors have taught that the local religion is evil. Since most religions teach concern for one another it simply may be that we should admit to ourselves the Martha focus on differences can become harmful if allowed to grow unchecked.

Since I suspect there is good and bad in all of us, it may be time for some self checking. We will no doubt on occasion all find ourselves irritated by those who express faith in actions of a form we currently disparage. Are we content to seek our own faith and express it in a way that does not denigrate fellow seekers, or do we too need someone to remind us that the Marys in our life may be doing just fine without the need of our judgement?

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Lectionary Sermon for 14th July 2019 on (Year C , Proper 10) on Luke 10: 25-37

The Good Samaritan Revisited
We often talk and act as if we are well and truly insulated from the New Testament version of Jesus, particularly when he is reported interacting with a first century Jewish community which could hardly be more different from our modern day setting. And let’s face it, with today’s story I suspect few of us know any Samaritans to distrust, let alone those we could rely on in an emergency, and in my home city at least, there is a remarkable shortage of Pharisees strolling past in robes with long tassels.

Yet before we consign today’s story to be filed as quaint and otherworldly there are clues in the story which give it some relevance to the current human condition. But first some background. The lawyer was checking out Jesus with a deceptively innocent question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? – and the gist of the answer Jesus challenged the lawyer to produce himself – was one backed by scripture going back to Leviticus. “Love God and Love your neighbour as yourself”…Nothing new there.

Because Jesus had escaped that one by affirming the standard agreed answer, he must now be pushed further, which the lawyer does with his next question. “Who is my neighbour?” This is the tricky one, because if he answers “other Jews” as tradition requires, his gospel becomes redundant in terms of what is already on offer from the Pharisees. If he answers “ everyone, regardless of faith, race or gender” he would in the eyes of his listeners become a self- convicted heretic .

In those uncertain times, the prerequisite of signing up to nationalism and faith tradition was understood as absolutely essential to show solidarity with others who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people.

We should also note that Jesus’ answer- his story of the man who fell among thieves and found his neighbour to be the one who helped him – is also a clear message to Church goers today. Love for God and neighbour is not achieved by simply declaring that love exists. The words of Eliza Doolittle in the musical “My fair Lady” may come to mind. “Don’t talk of love, show me!”

We are rather good at recognizing hypocrisy in other faiths. For example it is easy to pour scorn on ISIS terrorists who claim to support the Koran which states that killing the innocent is forbidden and yet there they are deliberately killing randomly-chosen victims in a Bangladesh place of worship, or getting people to blow themselves up on city streets to cause as much suffering as possible. Surely whatever they these particular followers of what they call is Islamic State are, it is not those who truly respect the Koran. Yet I wonder if we can similarly recognise hypocrisy in followers of Christ – especially if at times those followers are us. And think about this one: would we recognise a follower of ISIS as being the face of Christ if we catch one caring for his or her enemy?

I happen to think Bertrand Russell was right when he addressed a British readership just emerging from the Second World War claiming that most Christians of that day had not understood the parable of the Good Samaritan and would not begin to do so until they thought of the Samaritan as the equivalent of a German (Nazi) or Japanese. For our post war generation the Samaritan might now for example be the equivalent of any militant extremist, and preferably one of a religious persuasion we would utterly reject.
We also need to listen to Russell when he further suggested that such a substitution would probably offend modern Christians because it might remind them how far they had wandered from the principles of Christ.

Yet for the story to have its desired impact, those walking past on the other side must be our standard role models. If not Pharisees but at least ministers for our preferred denomination, and if not a Levite, at least a typical respected member of society or Church leaders’ meeting representative.

To listen to discussion about inferior alternatives to one’s own faith, there appears an unspoken assumption that people of our faith are the ones who habitually help their neighbours. A moment’s reflection should be enough to make us realise that this is often not the case.

There is also that phenomenon that behavioural psychologists call the bystander effect. I remember watching a documentary where this same expressed lack of concern for those in trouble was illustrated by an actor who lay down at rush hour in front of a very busy English railway station and in a most convincing manner simulated being in immense physical distress. Despite calling out “Please help me!” many times, it was twenty minutes before anyone stopped. I cannot believe that none of the many hurrying past would claim to respect the teaching of Jesus.

It is hard to believe that no ordinary law abiding citizen in Nazi Germany noticed what was happening to the Jews, yet clearly the majority preferred to be bystanders. Perhaps like me you may have seen the film “Mississippi Burning” portraying events in the deep South of the United States. In that film the Ku Klux Klan murders of a couple of black men and a couple of white Jewish men were portrayed. In 1964 the White Knights of the KKK very publically shot the victims dead and buried them at the site of an earthen dam. The outrage in the northern half of the United States was immediate and fierce, as it should have been.

The sad thing is that in the deep South of America despite a strong Church going population there was no public outcry of any kind. We might understand the silence of the blacks in Mississippi. Presumably they didn’t dare incur the wrath of the white authorities. You would have thought that the white Church leaders and congregations would have protested the pathetically light sentences imposed on the murderers when they were caught. Presumably they saw worshipping on Sunday having nothing to do with protest since they apparently either agreed with the crime, or just didn’t want to draw attention to the plight of blacks (and Jews, and anyone other than “WASPs”) in the South.

A few days ago there was a small item from the US reporting that a Church volunteer near the Southern border of the US had been arrested for offering some water to an illegal immigrant. If you had been a bystander there, what would you now do?

The bystander effect is a well-known phenomenon and I suppose it is also the case that situations requiring intervention are unpredictable in terms of likely outcome. For example several police officers have told me that when they have intervened in cases of domestic violence, occasionally, both the aggressor and the victim will turn on their rescuers. Nevertheless to claim to admire the Good Samaritan, and claim to love one’s neighbour yet to do nothing when we encounter need, suggests a degree of hypocrisy.
Jesus implied message is that love which is unrelated to action is not love, no matter how many correct answers we might know to the key religious questions. Nor, we discover in Jesus’ parable, is having neighbours the same as being a neighbour oneself.

Here in little New Zealand we have had a number of cases where people have died and their bodies not noticed, sometimes for weeks or even months. The international press carries similar stories virtually every month of the year. Surely in every case the failure to notice is because those who might have sounded the alarm have not shown pro-active care for their fellows. In one instance I remember a man died in his car and the body remained unnoticed (or at least unreported) at a busy intersection in South Auckland for, I think, six days. This was all the more remarkable because South Auckland has a high density of Church going Christians who might otherwise be expected to be very sensitive to such incidents in the community.

Walking past on the other side is probably at least partly understandable. For example some commentators have excused the Pharisee and the Levite born into an age where the public health requirement and associated religious justification was that association with a dead body risked defilement. However it might equally have been that the two religious figures might have had busy religious schedules and there is no doubt that dealing with a wounded man who may or may not have been dead would have interfered with such a schedule. Jesus does not discuss this aspect in this particular parable, but from elsewhere, we can imagine him asking if the religious schedule should be allowed to take precedence over unexpected and serious need.

Perhaps another problem for Christians and non-Christians alike is that there is always the suspicion that here it might be Karma in action. What goes around comes around. God promises through Moses that if the people do as God wants, they will prosper. In Deuteronomy Ch 28 there are the lists of good things that will come your way as a reward for obedience and a graphically specific list about the sorts of disasters due to you if you misbehave (including boils) – think Job.

But just as the story of Job moves us on past this view, Jesus does not teach that our misfortunes are our just deserts. Indeed he restores life and here appears to be asking others to do the same. I guess the first part of such a course of action depends on not walking by on the other side, perhaps even seeking out those who face misfortune.
Such an attitude requires forethought and even planning. If there are several in a group such as a congregation who believe that action as neighbours is important they might for example follow proactive planning as suggested by Marcus Borg. Tim Scorer in his book Experiencing the Heart of Christianity, where Borg’s suggestions for practicing compassion and justice summarised as:
• Having direct contact with the poor and disadvantaged.
• Being thoughtful about the positions of political leaders and being an informed participant in the public arena,
• Increasing (or redirect)giving until 50% goes to organisations whose purpose is to make change in the name of justice
• Initiating a group in your congregation on humanitarian organisations whose purpose is transformation and not simply aid.

This of course is only one possible way to go. However the alternative to pretend not to notice the problems for individuals that are present in every community is not an option for anyone who takes the Jesus’ teaching about neighbours seriously. At the very least we might reflect on how others might have noticed in the past as we express our concern for our neighbours and even wonder if they would have noticed if our expression of concern for neighbours moves beyond empty words.

I know that we almost expect people who come from other cultures to be cautious about intervention. For example I remember reading of a poll in China which was reported as finding 78.4% of people stating that they would not intervene to help a woman or child in trouble on the street. I don’t remember any surprise at the time. We have this in built expectation or at least hope that our faith will lead to better life outcomes than that. Very well then, our question must be, which actions in our own lives to date suggest we at least would not walk by on the other side?

Luke finishes with Jesus asking “Which of the three turned out to be a neighbour to the man who had fallen among thieves?” More to the point, which would describe us?

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Lectionary sermon for 7 July 2019 (Year C) on 2 Kings 5:1-17 and Luke 10: 1-11, 16 – 20

No Qualifications Required
Sometimes the Lectionary seems out of touch with modern reality. Here we are with our 21st Century future, worrying about climate change, trade and refugee issues not to mention the US eyeballing Iran, yet today the Church wants us to focus first on an Old Testament reading about problems of a man from the distant past with a disease that no longer matters for most people. Then in our Gospel, we hear of ordinary disciples being called to go out on a mission to a world which could hardly be more different to our world today.

When we dig a little deeper I want to suggest we find two very different stories with themes that say a good deal to our realities. The clear message in both accounts is that help is available in the ordinary, and it even turns out some of the key actors turn out to be the people of no obvious significance being required to step up and get involved with uncomfortable realities. If we can bring ourselves to the point where we allow what we read to affect our own attitudes, both stories might even become a little too close for comfort.

True, that is not a given. Every week, stories and hopefully inspirational messages are offered in the context of Church services, yet it is the truly exceptional congregation who acts as if the messages are expected to influence the recipients. Church members may indeed have been baptized at some stage in their Christian life, but if behaviour is our guide, we would have to say that for a majority it is expected that they will leave it to the full time professionals to do the significant works of faith. I have even heard some say, “well after all it is what we pay them to do”.

It has always struck me as a little odd that we talk of Christianity as being for all – but we often leave it to the Church leaders to choose and implement what needs saying and doing in the name of faith.

Certainly we live in an age of specialization. Managers manage, accountants keep the accounts, advertisers advertise and by the same token we appear to think the minister’s primary purpose is to cater for spiritual needs and personal worries or putting it more bluntly, all too often we may be thinking of the minister being a sales person with access to special gifts for what we think our faith has to offer.

Now we turn to our texts… In the Old Testament we have a distraught Naaman, the commander of the Aramean Army, out of the area we now know as Damascus, now facing what he believed to be an attenuated death sentence of leprosy and showing himself desperate for a cure.

Perhaps there we might remember that for the kingdoms in that part of the world of that time, anyone believed to have contracted leprosy would be rejected by their fearful local communities. Even for a military commander, learning of his leprosy would be the equivalent of a total disaster with extreme social consequences.

To get access to his cure he finds himself in the unexpected position of first being forced to accept advice from what to him is a foreign Israelite slave girl, and further, on her advice, having to go reluctantly cap in hand, first via his own king to a rather unhelpful unnamed Israelite King (who we might suspect to be King Johoram) and then to an Israelite prophet Elisha.

Expecting a high profile, gracious reception which befits someone of his status, Naaman is horrified when Elisha won’t even meet him and to add to the insult, even worse, and via Elisha’s servant, Elisha suggests a cure which for Naaman involves washing in a dirty river in a foreign country.

Since we must try to follow the text as the author intends it, we should at least be honest enough to allow that this healing may not have required what we might now describe as a miracle. The scholars tell us that in the absence of sophisticated diagnosis, he could in fact have been suffering any of a host of skin conditions which were collectively called leprosy. A note in the NRSV acknowledges that “leprosy” was “a term used for several skin diseases including the one now known as Hansen’s disease, and this footnote confirms the precise meaning (of the Hebrew word is) uncertain. Evidently, even household mould or mildew could be described by this word leprosy.

Perhaps it is only natural that the only two characters in the story to draw most readers’ attention are the significant leaders in their respective tribes, Naaman the Aramean commander and Elisha the Israelite prophet priest. In most commentaries the standard focus for this story is on Naaman himself, emphasizing he needed to humble himself totally before he could receive the help he most urgently needed. However if we have read the story thoughtfully, we might also have noticed that it is the insignificant figure of the slave girl who makes the real difference to the outcome. She was the one who suggested to Naaman that a prophet from her home country was believed to be able to offer help.

This is the one who should stir our conscience. Just as we ourselves are often in situations where we lack the courage to speak the truth which ought to be out in the open, and excuse ourselves on the grounds that we don’t have the status to speak up, the example of the slave girl reminds us that security of position is less important than what we hold dear as our values in life.

This reminder that status is not important for right action carries through to our story from Luke.

Jesus had already chosen his inner circle of disciples it is true. Presumably these were the ones who were with him over the most extended part of his ministry and might therefore have been considered most worthy to send out as his emissaries. In today’s story from the gospel of Luke we find him asking for a commitment from a wider range of followers.
When we hear of this particular occasion where Jesus is sending out a large number of presumably untrained lay folk to prepare them for his arrival, it should cause us to question our notions of specialization when it comes to faith.

Jesus sending out seventy of his followers to prepare the way is a story unique to Luke’s gospel yet it is also a key story to impart a helpful reminder that gospel is not the preserve of special people with special training. Jesus asked that those whom he sent should cure the sick. I am not convinced he was instructing them to be miracle workers. I know that healing in the New Testament is often portrayed as miracle yet I confess to a strong suspicion that miracles were no more common in those days than they are today.

Caring enough for those we encounter that they feel better, if not cured, does not require profound intellect so much as a profound expression of compassion. If it comes to that, it so happens I have encountered a sharing of compassion from those with intellectual disability, and I am quite convinced that any who adopt this attitude to his or her fellows is living the gospel.

Are we called to go out in faith? Maybe not if we want the call to come from a physical encounter with Jesus. On the other hand, what if the call is from those where we find the face of Christ in the form of those in trouble?

I know much recent attention in the media has been on watching the US President assemble his reasons for persuading the rest of us to understand why Iran is the enemy the free world. But if we are truly bearers of Christ’s message, what if the answer is not in directing overwhelming force to deserved pariahs, but rather in offering friendship and the lifting of sanctions? Yes I know the standard line of proving the justice and truth with threats and the promise of destruction. The main pariahs today are not the lepers, they are the suffering in pariah states denied embargoed drugs. If faith was merely dependent on listening to the Bible and singing hymns on Sunday it may not make sense to care. But given the present realities… and what Jesus taught, does intolerance directed to non Christians really give us the right to call ourselves Christian?

If faith is primarily about trusting ourselves to adopt a positive attitude to caring for the world of creation and reaching out to neighbours including those who dont share our faith, if the main task is reaching out to those who need our concern, and entrusting ourselves to such a spirit supported mission, then it might even be putting too much emphasis on what happens in Church on Sunday is of secondary importance to the living out of mission itself.

As a personal aside I would like to suggest that moving in to challenging situations without being certain of one’s resources may seem an unpleasant prospect, but from my brief and tentative experiences to do the same, I would have to say that the uncertain path often turns out to be energizing and even exciting rather than one of being defeated and depressed by the expected impossibilities.

I am all for continually probing the Bible text for more inspiration but don’t forget sooner or later we have to put aside gaining more insight and act on what we are now inspired to do. Our quest for the original text is far less important than deciding whether or not the messages we find there are significant for the way we must choose to live. If the faith is no longer speaking to our day to day realities we might even ask why have the faith in the first place?

The apocalyptic overtones of Luke’s story of the sending out of the seventy may possibly be interpreted as an argument against taking the safe path of a domesticated gospel. Luke, was writing at a time when the Jewish state was beginning to unravel and persecution of the Christians was beginning to mount, and Luke may have been wanting to prepare the new Christians for the task of living confidently in uncertain times. Even if Luke was in fact quoting the verbatim words of Jesus, he would still have had to choose which of Jesus’ many words he should quote. One of the reasons for taking this passage to consider is its implications is that we too are living in most uncertain times.

It goes without saying we are not Naaman – and nor is Jesus calling us to be one of his first century seventy. On the other hand our faith is not likely to be altogether safe and domesticated in its call on our future. For all the differences in our prospective journeys, it remains to be seen whether status, security and self preservation will prevent us from accepting the genuine challenges that come our way.

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Lectionary Sermon for 30 June 2019 on Luke 9:51 – 62 (Pentecost 3 C)

The Gospel challenge to “Church-ianity”
Have you ever wondered how it is that on occasion we, as groups of followers of Jesus, appear to pay so little attention to what Jesus actually taught?

I guess as individuals we can all respond to glimpses of understanding of the gospel. But the catch with combining with others – at community, at church, and even as a nation or with treaty partners is that somehow the gospel seems less important. Should we be relaxed about whole nations being treated as alien and unworthy of friendship even although as individuals we claim to follow a Jesus who calls for forgiveness, for tolerance, and for justice.

We behave as if our churches are considered successful as measured by the number of worshippers, as measured by the music, the quality of our buildings and as confirmed by being surrounded by those who think and act as we do. Perhaps not so easy for church members to be out there, struggling with the application of gospel in a sometimes uncertain world facing real life situations where because of our nation’s foreign policy neighbours and foreigners are getting a raw deal. So a question…are we as Church truly reflecting the message we claim to follow?

I am not arguing against getting together with fellow workers for the kingdom (kin-dom?) – but if we, and they, dont seem to be giving priority to the tasks of the kingdom, I wonder if this might be partly why outsiders see our worship as irrelevant. And further, if we cannot see past the like-minded in our castle to the stranger at the gate, we might then question what it is we are doing when we sing our songs of praise to Jesus who insisted that we care about our neighbours, whoever they might be.

According to the gospels, the Jesus we say we follow not only showed the intention to mix with those whose theology was different, but also seemed comfortable in meeting strangers away from centres of worship.

In today’s reading we find Jesus taking a short cut to Jerusalem through Samaria, directing his disciples to the Samaritan’s village. When the Samaritans found out he was heading to Jerusalem, they wanted nothing to do with him. Yet as if that was not enough, we find him refusing to condemn these heretics for declining to welcome his followers.

The reason why the Samaritans were at odds with the Jews in the first place probably seems strange to modern Western minds. You may already know that the Samaritans were descendants of two of the Southern tribes of the twelve tribes of Israel. Whether or not they could also justify their claim to be traced back to the priestly Levites was disputed by the Jews.

The schism is traced back to the time these tribes were jockeying for position, a little over 2,200 years ago. This included setting up different Holy places. It seems that one of the Samaritan early leaders, one Eli, son Hafni, saw himself as a rival for the position of high priest, who at the time was called Ozzi ( That is “O- Z –Z – I” just in case you were wondering and just in case there are any Australians present today!) When Eli spurned the previous holy mountain of Gerizim and set up his own altar in the hills of Shiloh to make his sacrifice to God on his own behalf and on behalf of his followers, he allegedly made the sacrifice carelessly leaving out the salt which was supposed to be part of the ceremony.

This was enough for Ozzi to accuse Eli of losing his right to be considered a legitimate high priest and a bitter civil war broke out between the two groups. Although there are only a few hundred Samaritans still around today (with a good number having converted to Islam over the centuries) we might also remember that in Jesus’ day there were still many thousand Samaritans living in the area called Samaria, and despite sharing many of the same scriptural traditions, there was still much bitterness between the Jews and Samaritans. For example, some years before Jesus was on the scene the Jews actually destroyed the Samaritan temple.

When we remember this act of temple destruction it is hardly surprising the Samaritans were nursing a grudge against anyone who had anything to do with Jerusalem.

Without identified Samaritans in our vicinity today, it is hard to see their dispute as any more than a pointless squabble, but don’t over look that Samaria was in effect a no-go area for any traditional Jews of the time and for Jesus and his disciples, as Jews, to go to Samaritan villages represented a tolerance that many of the day would have found hard to accept. It may also be a helpful reminder to us that many instances of intolerance in our society today – including intolerance based on sectarian, racial or political differences must seem to others just as silly as ever we now might think the dispute to have been between the Samaritans and the Jews.

What about that bit where James and John expecting Jesus call down fire from heaven on their non welcoming Samaritan hosts. This is probably best interpreted as the disciples’ understanding that in some way Jesus was Elijah returned. Since Elijah’s most memorable claimed act was calling down fire from heaven to ignite a sacrifice to teach the priests of Baal that Elijah’s power came from God (2 Kings 1:10-12), if James and John did believe Jesus was Elijah, for them what would be more appropriate as a way of convincing heretics than consuming them with fire.

Then Jesus shrugs off the apparent Samaritan rebuff. Perhaps this is Luke stressing for us that Jesus’ way has no place for revenge.

More to the point today’s passage confronts us with a challenge. The gospel can make some serious demands on the life of the one who is serious about following Jesus. Again the task is not to join in admiration of Jesus but rather to commit to the uncharted and possibly dangerous journey into the unknown. So here we find a man who wants to follow Jesus. “I will follow you wherever you go.” And what do we find? Instead of welcoming him as another disciple, Jesus appears to be putting him off. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

Certainly it is no longer a case for his followers to be asked to literally accompany Jesus into Jerusalem, but there are countless issues each with their own dangers that are on offer to those who accept his challenge in the contemporary setting.

59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Not all the commentators agree on this one. There are some who suggest that perhaps that man was avoiding the challenge by using the perfectly reasonable funeral excuse, yet it may equally be that Jesus had guessed the man’s father was still alive. The Jewish custom was that the son must remain living at home as long as his father is alive, and only after the funeral would he be free.

61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Since few modern urban dwellers would have any experience of walking behind a plough, for us looking back while ploughing a single furrow seems an archaic illustration. On the other hand many of us are keenly aware of the misdirection and even paralysis which occurs when we continually look back to the once familiar.

Perhaps this reminds you a little of the quaint story in Genesis about Lot’s wife which, at least to my way of thinking, also has a universal meaning. You may remember it. As the author of that part of Genesis told it, God had told Lot to take his wife and family and flee the city? They were instructed not to look back (Genesis 19:17). Lot’s wife turned and looked back, and… (believe it – or perhaps more likely – don’t believe it)….what happened?
We are told in verse 26 she was turned into a pillar of salt.

A fairy tale?, or perhaps you have spotted one deeper meaning . When we look back and focus on the past, we become paralyzed, immobilized, and are perpetually stuck where we once were.

Now fast forward to the present.

I don’t think there is any argument that we are living in a rapidly changing world. This means our challenges too are constantly changing. History records the futility of attempting to stare down the impending change by resorting to past answers and approaches. The major conflicts of the last hundred years should underline for us that the past answers have proved positively disastrous when carried forward into the future. The interdependence of economic systems means that we actually have to start worrying about the fate of those far removed in a geographical sense.

For a previous generation Lord Palmerston was fond of pointing out when it came to international politics that nations had no friends, only interests. What has changed is that the circles of influence have widened to the point where there is virtually one overlapping circle of influence.

The learning of how to treat our neighbours then has to move from a scriptural aphorism to attitudes which are essential for mutual survival.
The arms race has made military solutions to disputes increasingly unpalatable. The forces of globalization make it impossible to shut ourselves off from what happens elsewhere in the world. Increasing populations make it imperative that we find new and better ways to protect our environment and share resources. How else can we claim to love one another as he first loved us?

Even more significant are the raft of advances in biotechnology which for the first time in history enable us to redesign our future. Some of you may have heard of the notion of trans-humanism or TH. TH is linked to the idea that science and technology can be used to continually improve and reshape the human condition. For example we have already witnessed the use of rudimentary artificial intelligence, cloning, medical implants, enhancement of intelligence, defect elimination and so on.

Although we cannot pretend in Canute-like fashion that this new tide of progress can be held back on command, the Christian challenge is to ensure that the focus on the well being of our fellows continues at the forefront of our thinking. With its current momentum, whether we like it or not, within three decades virtually everyone is likely to be impacted by trans humanism in some form or other. We can hardly claim that Christianity is a good guide for life if we cannot find a place for it in what is already beginning to happen.

Given the complexity of our modern world, one person’s efforts are not going to meet more than a tiny fraction of what is now needed. The genius of Christ was that he was able to identify some general principles which shaped his life and when (and should we add if ?) thoughtfully applied, shaped the life for many of his followers for the better through the centuries.

If we see the Christian life circumscribed by a focus on what happens in Church on a Sunday it may be that we have missed the impact of Jesus’ message. His journey took him to Jerusalem. Ours should take us out to find new meaning for the gospel in the life opening before us.

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Lectionary sermon for 23 June 2019 Year C on Luke 8: 26 -39 (Pr 7 C, Ord 12C, Pentecost + 2)

Demons For Moderns
For the modern sceptical generation, this story of Jesus healing the man possessed with demons must seem troubling at several different levels.

First, and perhaps most obviously, aren’t we supposed to have moved past a belief in demons?

Mental illness is frequently associated with chemical imbalance in the brain, with causal factors that include environmental influences and even genetic faults. For example an epileptic seizure, which the Church used to interpret as an example of one form of demon possession, is now known to be the equivalent of an electrical storm in the cortex of the brain and those with scar tissue on the brain appear to be particularly susceptible to such episodes. Other “demons” such as becoming drug dependent or exhibiting the symptoms of bipolar disorder are again thought to be much better understood in terms of environmental influence and brain physiology and biochemistry.

Given this modern science based mind set, what then should we make of demons as a cause of psychotic episodes? And even more particularly, should we accept demons can be persuaded to leave a sufferer’s body, and be transferred into a herd of pigs who then rush down the slope and drown themselves? As a literal story this seems too bizarre to be believable, particularly when the modern scholars tell us that Gerasa was literally miles from the nearest lake…so what then Luke’s story about?

The trouble both with those supporting conservative forms of Bible based religion and those attracted to some forms of science based understanding is that often both assume the other has nothing to offer..

Many stories about Jesus, if not totally unbelievable, are at the very least unique in that they do not suggest abilities which have been witnessed since. Walking on water or sending demons out of a body to madden a herd of pigs are not abilities I would associate with a contemporary religious leader. But what if such accounts are intended as stories to teach a lesson rather than stories that depend on their literal detail. As a parable this story would at least offer thought provoking truth.

William of Occam was the one credited with that wonderful simple philosophical principle of choosing the most likely explanation ahead of the unlikely and the bizarre. If we applied “Occam’s Razor” to this situation one plausible explanation (assuming it was an actual event being reported) at best might be that the man would never have accepted that he was cured of his demons unless he had witnessed some dramatic and visible sign. William Barclay for example suggests that if a herd of swine might have been feeding on the hillside beside them then the man’s wild ravings could conceivably have spooked the pigs, who might then panicked and rushed down the hill into a nearby body of water.

The interpretation that Jesus had achieved this by causing the demons to leave the man and enter the swine may well be the way an onlooker interpreted the event, but this is also contrary to what we know of nature and therefore, following William of Occam, we might say is the less likely explanation.

Each of the four gospels talks of Jesus casting out demons but as it happens, this particular version is rather different. By casting the scene in Gerasa the swine are left with a rather long trot to the sea of Galilee some 60km away. Matthew chooses to set this same story at Gadara 15 Km away from the lake yet on reflection this would still be problem for spectators and reporters alike if they too kept pace with some rather energetic swine to confirm what happened. However even if we have difficulty with the “demons to pigs” feature of the story, we should at least see either setting plausible for a parable.

The demoniac condemned to be cast out from his community as a consequence of his fits and outbursts accurately reflected what was for that age, the community reaction to the tragedy of mental disturbance. In the absence of modern diagnosis and treatment, this man’s treatment of being chained and shackled – and when necessary, forcibly restrained by brutal means was not unheard of – and probably no worse than treatment found up to a few generations ago even in places like England.

No doubt compared with today, before tranquilisers and other mood controlling drugs there would have been more dramatic psychotic episodes in public among such people and from what we know of severe psychological disorders, we can well imagine that a victim might break free from his restraint and run naked around the countryside as Luke says this demoniac was want to do from time to time.

We might also remember for example that Bedlam, an asylum for the so called lunatics from 1377, and for a good part of the next 600 years, employed a variety of what we now think of as inhuman treatments and at one time even attracted sightseers much in the same way as a zoo does with animals for our communities today.

In some ways the notion of being possessed by controlling forces is very much part of the understanding of modern clinical psychologists. Some psychologists like to picture this in traditional religious language – even using the ancient Greek word daimon meaning guardian angel or guiding spirit.

Certainly the dry and complex field of genetics may give a more technical alternative explanation for what is happening, but the emotional impact makes the notion of demon possession curiously accessible by giving it the persona of a malevolent guiding spirit.

Psychologist, James Hillman in his book, The Soul’s Code puts it as follows. “The soul of each of us, is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth.” “This daimon, guides us here; in process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny.”

When the daimon takes us down unexpectedly dark paths we get an insight into why the concept of demon possession can become so frightening.

When Jesus encounters such a demon possessed man he asks his name. The reply “Legion” almost certainly conjures up an image of a Legion of Roman soldiers – typically a group of around 6000. For the Jews encountering the Luke version of the story, some of the audience may have been thinking this represented 6000 unwelcome Roman invaders and from the reported symptoms, we might well understand the man’s feeling that he had been taken over from within by many unwelcome invaders.

That a person might feel possessed by strange powers which are controlling rather than controlled I find perfectly plausible. Having seen indigenous people in New Guinea terrified by spirit experiences, including I might add, pastors who sincerely believed that fire flies were the souls of dead people, and having personally been entreated by frightened people to exorcise evil spirits and to lift curses, I can well believe that there are still those today for whom the Spirit world is still very much real.

I am equally sure that many who seem in effect possessed, are unaware of the fact. More worryingly, if others cannot recognise it in themselves, perhaps even we ourselves are similarly vulnerable. Having watched alcoholics and drug addicts apparently unable to control their addiction I can also see that even if the demons now have more scientific labels they are just as frightening to those afflicted as they ever were.

When I re-read today’s story I noticed something that somehow had escaped my attention on the first reading. Not all the demons had been dealt with by Jesus’ intervention.

The townspeople found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.
And then the four words which show everything was not now OK.
And they were afraid.

For most, aberrant behaviour is unwelcome because it makes folk uncomfortable. Violent people, the psychologically disturbed, those who cannot handle money, relationships, alcohol, sexual desires and so forth have probably never been welcome. And in practice no matter what assurances we might be given, that the afflicted one has now recovered, for most they remain unwelcome and their presence will continue to be disturbing. Even the one who appeared to have dealt supernaturally with such a state would not themselves be seen as safe or normal. Remember the man possessed had in effect previously been most satisfactorily dealt with as far as the Gerasenes were concerned. He no longer lived among them. Chained up among the tombs he was well away from the houses – and even when he had one of his violent fits he didn’t come back to the houses in town, he roamed the countryside, naked until again he was subdued.

Even if Luke is embellishing his story he is being extraordinarily perceptive as he does so.

The townspeople arrive and find the one who had been possessed, calm, clothed and in his right mind………And they were afraid. Of course they were afraid. They were sufficiently afraid to have Jesus leave town. The sex offender completes his course to rehabilitate him back into society and the psychologist says the offender is now ready to return to society. But we too have our demons of prejudice – or prejudging, and our demons then have us say an equivalent of – what is the word?…NIMBY! …not in my back yard. Perhaps we would do well to remember that those rejected by us for their behaviour or proclivities are probably equally rejected by others. Having identified and rejected the one we see as unacceptable we must then ask what that says about us.

So Jesus had apparently dealt with the demons inflicting the man – but even he was unable to deal with the more insidious demons of prejudice which stopped the townspeople from showing compassion to the one who had been afflicted.

And perhaps the story might help us to see our own situation in a new perspective.

Our generation is probably no better than Jesus generation in a desire to have awkward cases rejected by mainstream society for unacceptable behaviour. Jesus is recorded as caring enough about the demoniac to show transforming compassion but do we want to be among those who care our own rejects? If we reflect on those who society currently condemns, and acknowledge that in reality many of these are victims of conditions or situations beyond their control, as followers of Jesus is it fair to ask if we show by our actions that we are making good decisions about finding a place for our nation’s rejects.

If we can genuinely care for those whom society is determined to reject, is it too big a leap of imagination to hope that one day we too might be found, the equivalent of clothed, in our right minds, and sitting at the feet of Jesus?

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Lectionary Sermon for 16 June 2019 on John 16: 12-15

ADDRESS: ON BEING SHAPED BY OUR CLAIMED FAITH
Sometimes trying to sort out and pigeonhole the meaning of words and ideas somehow misses the point. Without careful thought, repeating words and ideas from the Bible or even from the pulpit might not help. But that shouldn’t surprise us. Words and ideas get their meaning from context – and in our real world that context continues to develop and change.

Let me give you an example. Like a number of you in this church I am a grandparent. The dictionary tells me that your grandparent means whoever is a parent of your father or mother. Clear enough? Well in my experience the dictionary misses the main point. When my then two year old grandchild Bianca came to visit and held up her arms to be picked up, then brushed our golden retriever with my toothbrush, ate the dog-food and tipped her cup of water into the dogs bowl before she drank it, I knew I had a grandchild. When she picked up a book then climbed onto Shirley’s knee to be read to, I am guessing that Shirley would have been reminded that she has a real grandchild. The dictionary doesn’t quite tell us what being a grandparent means.

Here is another word needing explanation. This Sunday is called Trinity Sunday, so a question. What is it about the idea of the Trinity that might make any practical difference to our real relationships…. or to the lives any of us here in this worship space?

When lay people hear serious theologians discussing the Trinity with its long history of disputes, esoteric vocabulary, and at worst, its apparent disconnect with the everyday world, perhaps we should have some sympathy for those who prefer to get on with life and leave the theologians to their discussion.

What do you make of the theologians’ astonishing assertion that the three persons of the Trinity are “consubstantial” – I hope you all know what that means because I can’t be certain that I do. But just reflect for a moment. But why did it take something like 300 years before the disputes about the emerging idea of the Trinity began to be settled at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Did you know Augustine made at least twenty separate attempts to make the idea plain and are you surprised that some are tempted to ask why it was worth it

But for those of us anxious to make sense of our sometimes dimly understood faith, perhaps the Trinity only matters if the idea encourages us into new relationships.

Trinity as Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is an idea familiar enough to most denominations of the Christian Church. We might for example encounter Jesus in today’s lesson saying the Spirit of truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you”. Further he says: “All that the Father has is mine”. But we also have those familiar words we use inspired from Paul writing in the second letter to the Corinthians where he offers the benediction:

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Cor 11:13).

Ah – but did you notice. Even here it doesn’t say “three in one” – or that even more apparently curious notion that somehow God the Father is somehow one with God in Jesus and one with the Holy Spirit.

It is true the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible but it is fair to say that some of the concepts and ideas on which it is based are at least being partially shaped, particularly in the writing of Matthew and Paul and by the time the early Church got around to its formulation a good number of the early Christians found it expressing what they wanted to say.

Perhaps we also need to be honest and admit that even at the Council of Nicaea where the Emperor Constantine had directed that Christians should stop arguing amongst themselves about how to talk about Jesus and come out with a common statement of position, not only were a number present unable to accept the suggested formula of the Trinity, but even some of those who accepted the subsequent wording of the Nicene Creed were far from agreed as to exactly what it should all mean. We should also note that some parts of the Church today steadfastly refuse to entertain the thought that Jesus and God are somehow equivalent and at the same time, despite that disagreement appear to be comfortable accepting Jesus’ teaching and the essence of his ethics in terms of the rest of their understanding.

Before we rush to insist that groups like the Unitarians have it all wrong, some humility is called for.

Almost every time God is encountered in the Bible (He?) is presented with an air of mystery leaving far more unknown than known. Even today, modern physicists who admit frankly they understand little of the workings of creation, would almost certainly caution anyone from making definitive statements about the nature of creation let alone any form of creator behind the process.

All we can know is that the Universe is now known to be infinitely bigger and more complex than anyone might have been able to begin to guess at the time of the compilation of the Bible. Saying the God of creation is God the Father may simply be reflecting one of Jesus’ several metaphors for God but the confusion deepens when we insist The Father is somehow another form of the Son. Nevertheless, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, the Trinity emerged because the early Christians were trying to explain that they experienced God in three different ways, ie God in a threefold way.

In Elizabeth Johnson’s words: “They still believed in one God, but they experienced this one God in at least three particular ways: beyond them, with them, and within them”. The Father part was the notion that not only was there mystery in creation, they felt that there were glimpses of a caring force which they and their religious leaders likened to and personified as a loving parent.

However, even if this force felt caring, it was also acknowledged as beyond them, in other words as being utterly transcendent, beyond comprehension and strictly beyond description. When they talked of Jesus being the Son of God they were trying to say Jesus had grounded this notion in his own person and they felt that his being with them (demonstrating what we might these days call “his empathy”) gave a human dimension to the mysterious God which they wanted to call the Father.

Once Jesus had left the scene, his followers had a strong sensation that somehow he was still with them – and was now in effect within. This they felt was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

The essence of what became the Trinity was then: beyond them, beside them and within them.

As a more modern generation we might argue we are now in a position to question aspects of the early Church view. Each part of the metaphor description of the Trinity should be checked against knowledge gained elsewhere. Creation not only unfolds large scale as our telescopes push back the frontiers into the depths of space, but also when we look down though our electron scanning microscopes. Every aspect of this changing creation, great and small, is gradually unfolding year by year. The biggest change for the Trinity is that this knowledge overwhelms our Father image with an impression of something much more unified and far less restricted to the human concerns of a single species on a relatively tiny speck floating in an unimaginably vast expanding universe populated by Galaxies of innumerable changing stars, planets and what is more, a Universe now suspected to be only one of many universes.

God the Son similarly changes as more facts come to light. It is not so much that Jesus himself must be radically different to his portrayal in the Gospels, but since we now know far more about other religious settings and far more about the history of his time than was revealed in the New Testament writing, we have to be more cautious about what we claim to know with certainty. A key question here is to ask how much of his reported wisdom is applicable today for our changed circumstances – and how much relevance we can expect Him to have for those born into vastly different cultures and religions. And lastly we need to acknowledge that those mysterious feelings we have about a guiding Spirit are a little harder to interpret when we now know that many of our feelings are partially shaped by the biochemistry of the brain. To take one small example, many behaviours that in Jesus day were classified as sins, are now known to be influenced by neurotransmitters in the brain, by heredity and by environment.

Please notice that the sense of mystery and transcendence if anything is increased by modern knowledge, and it still makes perfect sense to remind ourselves that “God” is still beyond us. If we know that we ourselves find it hard to grasp what we are trying to describe as creation, we should be reluctant to pretend that we know enough to dismiss others’ attempts to put it into words. We should also check out our own religious language to make sure we are not dumbing down our image of this God of transcendence until “He” becomes what the poet William Blake once called a “Nobodaddy” as a sort of a ventriloquist dummy, somewhere “up there” in the ether, fabricated by our imaginations for the express purpose of doing what we ask for our exclusive satisfaction.

When it comes to the metaphor of God the Son highlighting the importance Jesus for us, beside us, remembering him in particular as the wisdom teacher for the practical everyday situations, we can’t have it both ways. If the flesh and blood Jesus was prepared to reinterpret the law for situations of need in front of him, we cannot pretend that this same Jesus would have us stay unable to face the unfolding situations and issues in front of us because we are frozen in our religious past.

We might secretly think only Methodists have it right. But Jesus seemed to imply that the Spirit guides us to deal with those of different faiths as neighbours to be loved. If he was right, it is not just a matter of announcing to others that Jesus is the Son of God as part of the Trinity, it is more a matter of showing by our actions that this same Jesus is still beside us because we are attempting to follow the essence of his wisdom and reinterpret it for our generation.

In the last analysis, it is when we stop reading and cast within for the Spirit leading us on, that our faith might start to be transformed from something to be talked about to something that lives.

Yes, new knowledge will continue to bring new insights and the last word is far from being spoken. After all the notion of the Trinity continued to change long after the writers of the New Testament had struggled to express what they felt, simply because the situation facing the early Christians continued to change. Those changes are now accelerating. As life brings new challenges we will need to continue to adjust our thinking and no doubt the most meaningful creeds are still to be written.

Maybe the biggest adjustment in the time to come is when we realize that our biggest challenge is not to shape the right faith formula, Trinity or otherwise, but rather to seek the formula that will shape us, particularly in a way that we might be freed to offer something for our present and our successors future world.

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Lectionary Sermon for June 9, 2019, Pentecost Sunday, Year C, on Acts 2: 1-21

Two questions for you about Pentecost. First question… Is the Acts version of the story a factual account? – and the second: Does it set us up for our journey as followers of Christ? Perhaps only one of these questions matters. Can you guess which?

If we are honest we probably should admit that there are some parts of the story line that don’t quite add up. As the drama unfolds we meet a series of events totally unlike anything we would ever expect to see in real life. Along with the rushing wind, (and here we are talking about wind inside, not outside), we read those present saw divided tongues of fire, accompanied, not by the incoherent babbling of a modern Pentecostal-type service, but by the miraculous sudden ability to talk coherently in foreign languages.

Perhaps confusing real fire with metaphorical fire may not be wise.
In the 16th Century, one member of Florence’s famous Medici family, Lorenzo de Medici, fancied himself as a bit of a showman. Since as far as Lorenzo was concerned, real flames were part of the original Whitsun occasion, he felt the Church congregation was entitled to get a feel for what the experience would have been like.

The Florence Church gathering must have been impressed with his re-enactment of Pentecost, particularly with the spectacular roar of flames from the ceiling. And it was memorable. The actors’ clothes caught fire, the furniture caught fire, then the walls of the Church – not to mention some nearby buildings were destroyed. Do you think Lorenzo would have been invited to give a repeat performance the following year?

But let’s turn now to that even more remarkable magic, with humble followers of Jesus being transformed in an instant into expert linguists.

Peter the fisherman with his explanation was also mysterious. He said in effect that they were witnessing the beginning of the end. Reflect on this bit: “I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” !!?

Well sorry, the Sun is still there, and last time I looked the moon looked pretty much the same as the one visited by the astronauts. No, Peter’s interpretation on this occasion was not what the rest of the book of Acts described – and nor, well at least not in the almost two thousand years since, were these to be the literal experiences for the followers of Christ.

Pentecost may be the official birthday of the Christian church, but attempting to portray the original version as a simple factual record to be read in the comfortable setting of a modern church service hardly does it justice. And don’t forget many conservative Christians insist that must be how it happened. Yet by modern standards, the story itself is seriously weird so we find modern critics such as the members of the Jesus Seminar suggesting this appears to be more Luke, the author of Acts, trying to explain the main features of the birth of the Christian Church in a way that builds confidence as a way of teaching key understandings rather than by trying to give a simple factual account.

Today I want to suggest a more important often overlooked question. Regardless of how you may feel about the accuracy of Luke’s reporting, the real test, as with all scripture, what are the truths here that help us in our own real faith journey.

Pentecost itself is a borrowed festival – one of three significant pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish religious year. The word – derived from a word meaning fifty – is supposed to happen fifty days after the festival of Passover. To the Jews, Pentecost celebrates Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, in other words, God forming a Covenant with the Jews. Pentecost comes to have additional meaning as the birthday of the Christian Church because in the Acts version, a New Covenant is set up as the Spirit comes upon these early Church followers. As Peter explains it, these phenomena are like the last days when: “it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

The Pentecost version in Acts may not make sense as actual real world events, yet the wind, the tongues of fire, and the different languages are all better understood if we think of their special religious significance and meaning.

The Bible – and I should add that this works in both the Greek and the Hebrew – uses the same word for the wind and breath it does for the Spirit. The “wind” then tells us that this is a standard metaphor for Spirit, the presence of God. The other metaphor, “fire”, is another code for the presence of God. Remember God speaking through the burning bush, remember the pillar of fire guiding through the wilderness, and remember God igniting the wet wood for Elijah.

For me the Acts version referring to speaking in tongues is also intended to have an underlying meaning.

Those of you who have travelled will know that different languages can be something of a mixed blessing. In foreign lands, on hearing your own language spoken, there is relief – yet hearing an unfamiliar tongue, there can be confusion and a feeling of somehow being excluded. Some Bible writers agree. Remember the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel which presents the mixture of languages as a total breakdown in communication. Here with Pentecost, the variety of languages is the setting for total communication.

As anyone who has ever tried to learn a language will know, there is a quantum jump from having a school foreign vocabulary lesson to genuine communication in a foreign language. Successful crossing of language barriers means recognising different cultural patterns, understanding different figures of speech and even recognising and using appropriate non-verbal cues. Saying then that the tongues of fire gave the ability to communicate is talking then of the ability, not just of vocabulary recognition, but something closer to forming bonds of empathy.

Again this is a spiritual idea and follows from the tongues of fire representing the essence of the Holy Spirit. Luke seems to be saying that using the Spirit allows us to get close enough to allow true communication to take place.

But what then is the significance of the setting?

Luke’s version of Pentecost starts with the disciples and other followers meeting together in a house, or did he perhaps mean hiding together? Given the circumstances we may well suspect that, regardless of the form of the story, he was identifying with those first disciples who were likely to be timorous and frightened followers of Jesus hiding nervously away from the genuine dangers of an unwelcoming community. In the first few months and years this must have happened on a number of occasions. In all probability they had cause to be extremely worried.

Although we understand that by this stage there would have been stories circulating about Jesus resurrection, assuming people were subject to the same sorts of doubts as they are in this day and age, it is unlikely that the stories would have been universally believed. If the authorities had been prepared to crucify Jesus, his followers must have expected similar treatment for spreading the same gospel. By the time Luke began his record, stoning and beatings for those in the early Church were becoming more frequent.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we know that the concerns of such early followers were totally justified.

The Romans made no secret of the fact that any talk of a single Son of God was unacceptable unless people were talking of the Emperor. By the time the book of Acts was written, the author, now widely understood to be Luke, would have witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and consequently understood that the Romans would not tolerate any movement considered a threat.

The Jewish religious leadership had already decided that Jesus did not qualify as the Messiah.  The expected Messiah was thought to be recognised among other things for his powerful military leadership.  With his first expected task supposedly to get rid of the foreign Roman control of the Holy city of Jerusalem, there was no way this Jesus with his message of non violence and forgiveness would fit most Jews’ expectations.

Those in the Pentecost gathering must have been only too aware that the Jewish hierarchy, now at the point of desperation, was intolerant of their new movement. We can only presume that they would not have been surprised to learn that the orthodox leadership would shortly be using those like Saul (later known as St Paul) to suppress any move to support any identified as false claimants for the Messiah-ship.

The visiting of the Holy Spirit is recorded then to give the followers the confidence to come out from their place of hiding, to be the gospel in the world, confident that the presence of the Holy Spirit will bring them close enough to communicate.

As already mentioned, the most unexpected part of the story is the part where those present start to use the tongues of fire as a means of speaking in other languages – and notice it says that those who came from different nations and different foreign communities were all hearing voices that spoke to them in their own language.

For those of us comfortable in our own Church community, there is a special message here. The Rev Jim Burklo, a coordinator of the Jesus Seminar, in an interview reported by Rex Hunt, suggested that typically religious beliefs fall into three separate categories.

The first is exclusivism which is the idea that our own religion is the only one that is right and the rest are either wrong or even evil. Confining church activity essentially to what happens inside the Church would be one mark of an exclusive Church.

The second is inclusivism which is another way of saying that although my faith is the only truly correct faith, we can allow that yours is not without interest and accordingly we should tolerate one another’s religion, looking for ways to cooperate and communicate. Can you hear the echo of inter-church dialogue in this one?

Then of course we have the notion of pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and by the same token your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me.

To me, this last category of pluralism is what Pentecost demonstrates in the speaking of tongues. Pluralism is at the heart of true communication in religion, for to truly understand the other’s voice we must not only hear the words in form, but also understand their spirit.

So how should we best commemorate Pentecost? I certain don’t favour trying the notion of creating real flames in the body of the Church. Perhaps we could try working ourselves into a trance making the sorts of sounds we imagine were heard at that first gathering. Some congregations opt for that choice.

But surely the whole point of Luke recording this event for the Church was so that the Christians might know they would find sufficient power in the Holy Spirit to get out there in the world and start being the Church.

Maybe it calls for our honest inward reflection. Is our Church a shelter of withdrawal from the part of the world that threatens? Or do we accept that there is sufficient power of what we can only call the Holy Spirit, to take the principles taught by Jesus and live them in the community and world? Ultimately our lives will tell others which choice we have made.

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