Lectionary Sermon for August 20 2017 (Genesis 45: 1-15)

Forgiving the Unforgivable
Not all funerals are sad, not all weddings are glad, and not all family parties are welcoming affairs – but on the other hand, funerals, weddings and family get-togethers can sometimes tell far more about family relationships most families would prefer the outsider to know. And let’s face it sometimes there is plenty of reason for tension.

Second marriages with all the attendant comparisons with the first partner, children exchanging the certainty of family affection with a birth parent for the uncertainty of step son or step daughter relationship, difficulties with new sets of competitors for family assets as wills get redrafted, children partially or completely dispossessed – I guess most of us are familiar with the real life potential script.

Sometimes too the bitterness that erupts at the family get together is totally understandable. The parents of the bride may have been deeply hurt by the haste of marriage of their daughter to someone they genuinely believed would not offer their daughter the love and security they believed she needed. The family can be devastated by the nature and consequences of a death. If it was death by accident, there may be someone considered to blame – a driver, a family member, even a doctor or nurse.

I have been to funerals where tensions have boiled over. At one the teenage driver of the stolen car which had killed the teenage passenger arrived at his friend’s funeral on crutches. An uncle took the microphone and castigated the hapless youth, until too upset to stay, he limped out in tears to stunned silence. At another funeral, some angry members of the family disgusted with the now bereaved second husband, actually heckled and swore at the distraught man from the back of the Church as he tried to say some kind words about his much loved and deeply missed wife. I have also been to weddings and funerals where furious relatives have boycotted the proceedings. Forgiveness is not an automatic response.

Yet forgiveness is important because anger can fester and boil over in socially unacceptable ways destroying lives of perpetrators as well as victims. For my country, New Zealand every year there are several thousand reported serious assaults on children. And because typically only 500 or so result in prosecution there are presumably more assaults in many of those families just waiting to happen. In some ways crimes against family members don’t generate public horror in the same way as public reaction to attack by a national enemy. Some commentators for example have noted that the 2000 or so deaths at Pearl Harbour launched the US into war with the Japanese while the 12,000 or so gun deaths each year in the US pass with weary and barely perceptible public reaction.

For the families affected by the violence there is still a price to pay. Unresolved anger will bring damage. . Specialists in stress related illnesses claim that many common illnesses including, higher blood pressure or simply catching the common cold – right through to angina and stroke can be laid at the feet of unresolved anger.

For those caught up in such situations, whether it be as the instigators, or the victim of the hurt, it can be immensely damaging to the ability to maintain friendships and circle of support.

To return to the funeral setting again, I have attended one funeral of an aunt who had frequently feuded with family and friends and who was known in the family as a hard and unforgiving woman. Although she was well known – and possibly for the wrong reasons – eight people attended her funeral and that included the minister and the organist.

This then raises the question of what to do about it. The story of Joseph and his brothers suggests some useful hints. And yes I am aware that many scholars claim this is not so much a true story as a story with a deliberate theological message to help the Jews see that God’s hand was part of their story. If you like an arranged story not so much about an event which just happened to take place, but rather a God ordained event. But for now we can put this aside. Like most of the stories in the Bible this set of circumstances being portrayed can be understood at many levels and this time I want us to look at the part of the story that portrays the characters as very real and very human, facing a dilemma.

Certainly both Joseph and his brothers come across as flawed characters. Remember there was a sense in which Joseph brought his initial problems on himself. He tormented his brothers with his show-off behaviour. He boasted and told them in no uncertain ways how much more important he was than them. He was not a good person in his boastful self promotion.

The brothers were not only resentful – they too were absolutely morally wrong when they had plotted to kill their brother. That they had sold him to the Egyptians instead hardly justifies their actions. These days we would call such an action human trafficking. The years of slavery and prison they left Joseph facing as a consequence would have been enough to fuel Joseph’s resentment and impotent rage to the limit.

There are many layers of meaning in this story. When we take up today’s story we find Joseph has been promoted for giving wise advice to the Pharaoh based on what we would probably claim these days to be the strange and superstitious advice of someone claiming to be a medium who can interpret dreams. The writer implies the story is to be treated as literally true – actually saving the Pharaoh’s people and kingdom. The grateful Pharaoh has shown his gratitude and Joseph is unsurprisingly elevated to the position of trusted advisor. He is in effect now sitting pretty and no longer has any need of those family members who had turned against him. Nevertheless when his brothers unexpectedly turn up and he recognises them, regardless whether this was a coincidence because famine had struck their home – or whether God was considered to have arranged the whole thing – rightfully they should have expected no mercy.

That he did not immediately reveal himself to his brothers almost suggests he is initially playing with them as a cat might play with a mouse. The elaborate trick to plant valuables on one of the brothers – then let them go so that he can have them arrested is at best something of a mixed message – and when he eventually shows himself as their long lost brother, under those circumstances we can well imagine that the brothers, far from being delighted, they would have been horrified and extremely fearful. They had done the unforgivable – and now the tables were well and truly turned.

Then the true surprise. Not just forgiven they are rewarded. Joseph has taken his anger and transferred it to anger about their plight. We sometime pretend that anger has no place as a human emotion for those with a faith. Yet anger can be a great motivator. However the resolution of that anger often needs creative thought. Instead of being sent back to Canaan empty handed which would have been far more than they deserved, they find themselves being offered sanctuary land for pasture, a place for the Father as well as the brothers and the freedom to live relatively close to Joseph but sufficiently far from the Egyptian population, who as their natural enemies, might have made life difficult.

I guess in a way this discovery of the creative act is the real test of forgiveness. The words “I forgive you” are what most of us consider to equate to forgiveness, but they can still mask long term unease. When you have been genuinely wronged by another, shallow words may in fact not be enough to re-establish real relationships. On the other hand if the words are an integral part of action they might be seen as far more significant. But there is something else you may have noticed. When Joseph says “Now you must tell my father of all my splendour in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here.” There is still the basic weakness he had from the beginning. The pride and insistence if you like that the brothers should really notice he was someone of significance.

This is one of the things that many of the Old Testament characters display. They are in part flawed characters. Moses starts his leading the Israelites of Egypt with an act of murder. David rapes the wife of a friend then arranges to have her husband done away with, a number of the prophets show great signs of reluctance to do that which they know God calls them to do. They are real in the sense that like us they have flaws in their character. Their faith then has no prerequisite of perfection, nor the demand that their actions are only effective if they are perfect.

The New Testament characters are little better. Some of the disciples squabble about who is the greatest among them, Peter is boastful and weak, they desert Jesus in his hour of need, Paul’s followers fall out among themselves. It is almost as if we are getting the message that the actions we call God’s will have to be accomplished by people who have weaknesses in their character – perhaps even like you and me! That Joseph’s great act of forgiveness with his brothers is performed by a Joseph who is a flawed character in no way suggests he didn’t eventually do the right thing in his act of forgiveness. His actions were after all, right in line with Jesus teaching of “Forgive your enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour, and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-45)”.

Nor if we are ruthlessly honest would we say it was a solution which was perfect. Nevertheless the forgiveness was real and recognisable. Tensions which had been building could so easily have been resolved with a violent act. Joseph could have finished off the family and in that context brought the story of the people who later became the nation of Israel to a premature end.

A common error is to believe that the sort of love mentioned in the Bible – that which the Greeks called Agape – is merely a feeling. I am sure that some who come to Church share that misconception in believing that somehow having good feelings about people and situations is a complete virtue in itself. Why else would we sometimes feel good that in our prayers we had listed all our concerns, for the sick, for the poor, and for the victims of disaster. One learning from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that there is also not only a time for action, there are occasions where action is actually essential if a situation is to get any closer to resolution.

There is a postscript to this story. The story doesn’t just end with Joseph and Benjamin embracing in an emotion scene of reconciliation. I don’t know if you noticed but the other brothers hadn’t said anything to that point. The story finishes by saying “and Joseph and his brothers talked”. An act of forgiveness and reconciliation is only ever one stage of a journey. The significant act had indeed happened, but now as for us, the implications and continuing story must be played out for the forgiveness to find meaning.

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A SERMON FOR AUGUST 13 2017 on GENESIS 37: 1-28

Some stories in the Old Testament seem disconnected with today’s world because our lives are just too different. This is not the case today’s story of Joseph which continues to have a sort of timeless appeal because it reflects some familiar human flaws. You will no doubt be familiar with the general gist of the beginning of Joseph’s story. A bright, favoured son with a massive ego, flaunts his new coat in front of his brothers in effect rubbing their noses in the fact that he is the favoured one. As the one with the special cloak he can now demonstrate his father’s special blessing – and presumably demonstrate he is the one destined for the inheritance. So would it be surprising to learn that the brothers hated him for it.

The brothers are out together with Joseph one day, absolutely fed up with their brother’s show-boating and his insistence that his brothers acknowledge his importance. He has pushed them too far and they decide to kill him. Fortunately for Joseph, there was one brother who made all the difference and without that brother, Joseph’s whole significant future history would have ended right there.

Today, instead of rehearsing yet again all the details of the story – and it is a truly great story – I want us to stop to think for a moment about the situation this young brother was facing. The brother’s name was Reuben. While Reuben understood their anger Reuben’s problem was that he knew what they were proposing was wrong.

In terms of modern counselling technique, Reuben was right up there with the best. I once worked with an experienced counsellor who had a great reputation for calming down teenagers full of pent-up rage. The secret he told me was simple. First you don’t stand in front of the angry one. That is confrontation. You stand beside them looking in the same direction as them. Rather than assume you already know where they are coming from, you next seek to get them to explain why they are angry. When they feel they are being heard then they are more able to entertain reasonable alternatives.

Reuben was not particularly moral in his solution, but given the alternative of certain murder he didn’t do too badly. He didn’t wait until the stones and knives came out and the killing began. He showed in effect he was looking in the same direction as his brothers when he correctly identified that Joseph was no longer welcome in the family and that his father would be unlikely to get off his case until be believed Joseph was dead. Reuben’s alternative of putting Joseph in a hole and pretending to the father that he died as a result of attack by wild animals is reported as Reuben’s attempt to play for time… but whatever else it is, it does set the stage for Joseph’s eventual reuniting with his brothers, years later in Egypt. And I guess the key thing to notice is that Reuben was prepared to take action, no matter how difficult, to reduce the possibility for violence.

I wonder if the real issue is that all too often when the bad action is about to be demonstrated there are so few prepared to step up and encourage a more ethical alternative. For the last seven years an independent United Nations appointed panel under the leadership of Carla del Ponte has documented a litany of war atrocities in Syria that have grown increasingly brazen. These included the torture of prisoners, chemical weapon use, attacks on hospitals and even sexual slavery.

Last Sunday Carla del Ponte, a Swiss prosecutor announced her resignation because after thousands of confirmed reports to her panel, the UN security Council had steadfastly blocked any attempts to take action.

It will be interesting to watch now and see if the Security Council will respond to Carla del Ponte’s bold and selfless action. But the real issue will be whether or not those who claim to live by Christian principles will be prepared to allow their UN representatives to stand by default and say nothing.

One of the stories behind what we might call the mythology surrounding the story of the Buddha is the story of what happened when he met a notorious, murderous bandit in the woods. The Buddha was reportedly aware of the man’s past violent history but invited the man to meet him in the hope that he might find a way to turn the bandit from violence to peace. There are several versions of the story yet in all variants, the Buddha does not behave like most of us probably would and remains very calm, centred and serene as he faces this sword-wielding, crazed killer.

In one of the versions of the story, just as the bandit lifts his sword to attack the Buddha, the Buddha says to him:
“If I must die then be good enough to fulfil my dying wish: The first part of my wish is :cut off the branch of the tree.”
One slash of the sword, and it was done!
“What now?” asks the bandit.
“Put it back again,” says the Buddha.
The bandit laughs. “You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.”
“On the contrary, it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. Even children can do that. The mighty know how to create and heal.”

And the story says the crazed robber was so taken by this, he turned from his violent ways – a completely reformed man.

Whether or not this story was of an actual event seems to me to be beside the point. The story points to one of those things we call an eternal truth – and resonates for me because it seems to me that it speaks to the human condition. Creating and healing are far more significant acts than wounding and destroying.

Unfortunately when violence actually does occur it rarely corresponds with how the fantasy is supposed to turn out. On the movies in the action films the hero dispatches all the clearly bad baddies each with a well aimed bullet and we don’t get to see what happens to the often very long suffering of the wounded. Nor do we see the despair of the killed person’s family and the years of anguish that follow. For this reason it can never be the right thing to do to wait until the violent action occurs before we take action. When a highly respected international legal expert fails to get the support the UN Security Council it is a measure of our faith to see if any of our number is prepared to speak out.

While for most of us deliberately violent means of dealing with the dangerous person would be unthinkable there is of course the dilemma about what to do when you see the first warning signs of violence beginning to build. Yet I would suggest there is probably no adult present in a typical Church congregation who hasn’t seen examples of unjustified violence or hate sometime in their life. While we are probably all agreed that Jesus gives us clear direction for lives lived as disciples the Reubens in real life are not always forthcoming.

And I guess if it comes to that the reality is that we are often faced with less than perfect alternatives when it comes to reducing violence. It can quite legitimately be argued that pacifism has no place as long as there are genuine enemies to deal with. If the mass killer has already started a killing spree or a terrorist is about to crash a plane into a skyscraper it may well be too late to do anything but take him out by any means you have at your disposal. But I guess I would like to argue that perhaps we have to start our peace-making sooner rather than later when the crisis is upon us.

Perhaps this might even mean putting better alternatives to those talking of violence. It might also mean speaking up when we hear others fulminating about new immigrants, about Muslims in the community, or about the need to close our borders to foreigners. I would not like to leave the impression I know what to say to people who fear and even hate. On my internet site I am frequently crossing verbal swords with those who are intolerant – and frequently I fail. Yet I still think it is worth trying.

When it is obvious that the motivations for violence are distorted I believe it is necessary to speak up.

When we see children introduced to violent video-games there is reason for challenging the games values. We should be seeking to have the young meet those of other cultures and teach far more about values in others’ societies. When we encounter intolerance whether it be in our neighbourhoods or through media such as the internet it is worth putting an alternative point of view. And yes I can confirm from personal experience that there will be those whose form of bigotry is so firmly set that nothing we say will make any apparent difference.

Neil H Swanson tells of the Russian youth who had become a conscientious objector to war through the reading of both Tolstoy and the New Testament, and was brought before a magistrate. With all the strength of sincere conviction he told the Judge of the life which loves its enemies, which does good to those who despitefully use it, which overcomes evil with good, and which refuses war.

“Yes” said the Judge, “I understand. But you must be realistic. These laws you are talking about are the laws of the kingdom of God; and it has not yet come.”

The young man straightened, and said, “Sir I recognise that it has not come for you, nor yet for Russia or the world. But the kingdom of God has come for me! I cannot go on hating and killing as though it has not come”.

I cannot be sure I would have the courage of that young man, or even the courage of Reuben speaking up against a small majority group for the less violent alternative. Nor can I say with any certainty that I would know how to work towards a world in which there were fewer who hate. What however I can be more certain about is that there are many contributing causes of violence. If we claim the kingdom of God has come for us we must at least see it has something to do with the realities of the world in which we find ourselves.

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Lectionary Sermon for 6 August 2017 on Matthew 14: 13 – 21 (The Loaves and the Fishes)

This morning’s gospel of the loaves and the fishes is often presented in tones of wonder portraying a Harry Potter-type image of a magic God-filled figure in the form of Jesus, waving his hand like a stage magician and causing the mysterious multiplication of physical entities like loaves of bread and actual fishes.

If this indeed is what we think happened, I would suggest it is not helpful to us as an image for two reasons. First of all it leaves the story entirely without the need for personal commitment to a situation. If meeting such a need – in this case, feeding the hungry was only to be accomplished by a level of deep God-like knowledge and even then only if it is applied at what a visitor to this site once termed as operating beyond the job description of one’s personal pay grade, then we can only wonder and have no reason to expect any possibility that we too might be called upon for similar tasks.
The second reason it is not helpful, is that the total suspension of the laws of nature implies that since we cannot suspend the laws of nature, Jesus’ interpreted form of magic action has nothing to do with our actions in the sort of world we currently inhabit.

To most educated listeners the magic version appears unbelievable to anyone who has a grasp on reality. Loaves and fishes taken from a boy’s lunch don’t just multiply by themselves – at least not outside fairy tales. But if we forget ourselves for a moment and start to look a little further I wonder what we might see.

So let’s look again.

So here we meet Jesus out for a walk …and all those curious people coming along too, to gawp….people….lots of people.

In a city we are regularly surrounded by people –go to a football match….wall to wall people. Go down town – those thronged foot paths. To see them as a crowd that is the easy bit. To notice their eyes, their aches and pains – to see them as persons – now that is unusual.

Yet with this particular crowd Jesus does something totally unexpected – and I am not talking about multiplying loaves and fishes. No what Jesus does is every bit as strange – he notices that they are hungry. If you look at Jesus’ encounters with different people this is his standard trick – the approach that sets him apart. The people see a mean tax collector – Jesus looks closer and sees someone worthy of a name, Zaccheus, and what is more an unhappy person. In another place the people see an untouchable leper – yet Jesus sees a person who suffers and wants the touch of human hand to heal. Again the disciples see a prostitute getting into Jesus personal space – Jesus sees her as Mary – again an individual with a name – a woman who can be welcomed.

Remember when the disciples see little children bothering Jesus most of us can empathise with those bothered by children. Yet there is a difference. Jesus sees these children, who the disciples considered to be children getting in the way, rather as real live people deserving his full attention.
Let me stress that this is not a common practice. Remember it is all too easy to walk unseeing past the beggar on the street, the Muslim woman shrouded in a veil, see the refugees as part of the passing flickering images on TV but not see them as people.

According to new figures just published by Yale Global Online magazine (published by the prestigious Yale university) my home country New Zealand has the worst homelessness in the OECD. In the report we read “more than 40,000 people live on the streets or in emergency housing or substandard shelters” – almost 1 percent of the entire population. This happens to place us well ahead of second-placed Czech Republic, and close to double the rate in Australia, which placed third. “Homelessness is often considered embarrassing, a taboo subject, and governments tend to understate the problem,” writes Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division. Can I suggest our citizens do their best to avoid dealing with this issue. While homelessness is usually higher in developing countries and failed states such as Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, Mr Chamie also notes there are still hundreds of thousands going without in the world’s most stable and wealthiest countries.

Strangely it is as if we sleepwalk into crisis. It is true we sometimes stumble across the homeless. I guess we all have a quick glimpse of a hooded figure sleeping in a shop doorway, or more embarrassing, perhaps we heard the news a few weeks back of a man dying apparently of exposure in the grounds of a Methodist Church in neighbouring suburb of Manurewa. Or what about those tourists who wander off the main tourist track in Los Angeles and discover they are walking past Tent City? Several city blocks of the tents of the homeless is hard to miss.

We read in the headlines about the latest additions to the obscene numbers of armaments now owned by the richest nations and yet for some reason feel no particular responsibility for the refugees fleeing from the bombs used in our name.

For those of us who claim commitment to Christian compassion can I suggest it matters when in the midst of plenty, there are visible and serious cases of food shortages. This is why we should be concerned when there is any form of support for the new found policy of selfishness in Trump’s USA where the expressed aim is to reduce funding for aid projects.

Perhaps in these days when we have formalized and tamed the gospel to the point where we are no longer noticing, we don’t expect to encounter prophets these days, especially in the United nations.

Can I suggest that rather than argue over how Jesus achieved the feeding of the crowds that day it might be rather more relevant to glance in the direction of today’s crowds of hungry and desperate and ask the question about how we might respond. The modern day prophets in the UNHCR ( the UN refugee agency) tell us it is a crisis that must be addressed. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.

Remember our world where nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution.

Such figures year might seem so big they are capable of only eliciting dim incomprehension. Our miracle observed this morning might at least remind us that if we were to apply Jesus’ technique of noticing the individual –we might find ourselves looking at families as having individual people like you or me, facing despair and feeling exactly as we ourselves would feel if visited by the same tragedy.

So to return to the loaves and the fishes…..

The second part of this miracle is that Jesus doesn’t see himself, the one many have called Son of God, as the only one to whom the responsibility for the act of kindness should be left. In another gospel version of the same story He calls a boy to him to start the sharing process. In this Matthew version, it is the disciples he turns to. And this works in an unexpected way. It is a sad commentary that these days we not only prefer not to notice too much by way of needs, but that when such situations are forced upon us we don’t see ourselves as part of the answer to need.

I am sure that many of us are unconsciously drawn to the easy option of praying for God to fix all. I have heard the most sincere prayers in Church or in Bible study groups for God to address the needs of the hungry. But what is that worth without the genuine intention to get involved in meals on wheels or food parcel collection and distribution or bothering the local politician to raise questions about overseas aid? It is an interesting question as to how many things would remain on the prayer list if only the situations where we showed ourselves to be part of the solution were allowed to be mentioned. But whereas it is easy to ask a vague conception of God to deal with these issues like famine, war, injustice and loneliness by praying his blessing, if we believe that Jesus would have been concerned with our present context of contemporary need – perhaps he too would still be looking for the non-entity child …or for that matter someone as ordinary as us to join with him in sharing.

To return to those interesting discussions about the validity of the loaves and fishes story as genuine magic type miracle. My personal short answer as to whether or not there was super-natural magic actually involved is that in fact we can never know. An experiment is only a true experiment if it can be repeated and since we cannot know about the accuracy of Matthew’s reporting and since Jesus himself is not on hand to organize the repeat performance with all conditions the same, we cannot organize the repeat for more objective recording.

My personal preference – I guess partly a result of my science background is to say that as far as I can see there is no reason to invoke magic where none is required. As far as I know atoms do not reproduce themselves in bulk such that fishes and loaves appear as if by magic.

For me, I think it quite reasonable to say that the reason why the sharing miracle worked was that those present who did have food were moved by the disciples’ or the boy’s example to share. In this real world of ours even if multiplication of loaves by itself could occur the evidence is that this would simply mean that the few well fed would have taken an even bigger share.

As we model large scale what actually happens when some are born into lucky situations in this unjust world of nations we see the hungry have remained hungry. The real miracle then came not with multiplication but with division. Division of bread gets more into the hand of few. Division (especially willing division) is actually what builds community. Turning a selfish crowd into community is indeed the best part of Jesus’ miracle

There were reportedly many hungry people that day – and any other day if their society was anything like ours, they would not have been fed. However that particular hungry crowd was what Jesus chose as his context calling for action. Whatever Jesus in fact did – by all accounts the people got fed and what is more – what to us might have been a crowd of the unthinking has been transformed (if only temporarily) into caring community – so Jesus has successfully addressed his context.

Our current setting is August 2017. Our context challenge is the still unequal distribution of resources and plenty who are hungry. Simple hand-outs may not even best the best long term answer because our sharing may need to include sharing the know-how and resources to grow and share the food so that at the end there will in fact be something left to gather. Can we lift our vision and start seeing from a new perspective?

Monday may be the test of Sunday!

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Lectionary Sermon for 30 July 2017 on Matthew 13:31-52 The Parable of the Mustard Seed

If there had been a single parable that might qualify Jesus for inevitable execution by crucifixion I suspect this story of the mustard seed would provide all the evidence the Jews or the Romans might need.   We might also have to suspect that it is also a story that might leave a modern Western audience somewhat bewildered until the context is explained.

Furthermore, once explained, I can’t help wondering if it might discomfort or even infuriate some sitting in a typical Christian congregation today. Listen, then decide for yourselves.

First there was a section which might start to antagonize some of the Bible literalists. Remember the mustard seed which Jesus said is the smallest of all seeds that grows into a mighty tree. Well, actually no! … at least not literally. The mustard seed is indeed small and I suspect you could get a few hundred on a teaspoon, but the smallest, no way. Many seeds are much smaller, for example orchid seeds – and anyway the mustard plant is a shrub not a mighty tree and can only grow a few feet tall. Jesus is telling a story for effect not demonstrating scientific omniscience. Live with it!

Well, is he at least accepting Bible truth? In the book of Leviticus there are some farming rules and one of them is that, on pain of death, you must not sow more than one type of seed in a paddock. Listen to the excerpt from Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus
…you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed….

I guess in those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, without today’s supermarkets, and convenience stores, what you grew was your very means of survival. So to give the grain the absolutely best chance of survival, weeds or competing crops were an absolute no-no. Remember too, the mustard seed was actually the seed of a shrub that was considered a weed and next to useless.

The thought that the farmer would have allowed it first to grow and then to actually continue to allow to grow until it reached the size of a tree would have been absolutely unheard of – and in fact could have got the farmer into a huge amount of trouble.

But there was something else. Since the time of Leviticus something else had happened. The Romans had invaded – and conquered. The Romans knew what they were doing. They were ruthless. The crops were a source of tax and at least fifty percent of everything that grew was taken from the farmer for the benefit of the Roman Rulers. To deliberately allow something to grow instead – especially a useless weed like growth from the mustard seed was an act of sedition – stealing from the tax gatherers – an act, if you like, of silent rebellion.

The Greek word for empire as in the Roman Empire is basileia. The word Jesus is reported as using recorded in the Greek translation of the parable, is that very same word for kingdom, basileia, in the phrase the kingdom of God. Jesus was using a phrase that invited the listeners to think of two alternative empires, the Roman Empire and God’s Empire. His words then conjured up the mustard growing as big as trees in the garden as God’s empire rising up in the midst of Rome’s. True, it is a ridiculous image – but more than that, it was making a clear and unwelcome statement to the authorities.

And how to we feel about that? Turning to the mustard weed kingdom where Jesus would have us find our place is one choice – but what about the more popular practical choice of giving priority to the kingdom of the current civil authority. Because you see sometimes we do have to choose. When we see our Government treating the vulnerable badly or treating other rival nations with contempt, is this the same as expressing we are nesting in a welcoming tree?

Because we live outside Jesus home territory, and outside the Jewish society of that time, there is something else that we might easily miss. When Jesus talks about the birds of the air finding their shelter in the branches of the mustard tree the surprise for the audience would not have been that the tree provided shelter – after all birds will nest wherever they feel safe and trees are usually the place. No, the surprise would have been that Jesus talked of the birds of the air because this was the standard Rabbinaical code phrase for the Gentile nations.

To say that the “birds of the air” in other words, the Gentile nations, could find their shelter in the kingdom of God would have been something of a shock for the Jews of that time because the Jews saw themselves as separate – to the point of thinking that their God was theirs alone and had little to do with any other people.

So that alone would have guaranteed Jesus losing the support of the ultra religious of his day. But I wonder how some of his followers today feel about the kingdom as a sheltering weed for the birds of the air. Well, wasn’t he teaching that this kingdom wasn’t particularly fussy having a place for the Gentile nations. Who are the Gentile nations today? Rome? Saudi Arabia? Pakistan? India? – those Sikhs, Hindu untouchables, Sunni and Shia and Palestinians .. and don’t forget the Buddhists, all part of the Kingdom?

I guess we should at least be honest and say that even Christian denominations sometimes find it hard to accept one another – let alone be comfortable with those who don’t even call themselves Christian. Should we encourage rank outsiders to find shelter in a ragtag weed of a kingdom, or would only acceptance of impressive Church authority in a carefully regulated church – perhaps the Church of Rome or the Anglican Communion – find you a proper resting place?

Jesus, ever the good observer, found potential in the mustard seed. He finds potential in the least promising and I guess if we claim to follow his ways we should be trying to do the same for those around us. If we see what we are sure are weaknesses in others, let us at least acknowledge that to cast such folk aside is not the way of the kingdom. Better yet, if we can see our own hidden weaknesses we are not identifying anything that would ever disqualify us from following the one who always had time for the least…….. because to Jesus, that teller of parables, of such is the Kingdom of God.

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

The Wheat and the Tares in a Modern Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet the judgements made of others are all around us.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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