Lectionary Sermon for 21 August 2016 (year c) on Luke 13: 10 – 17

The Modern Sceptic and the Miracles from Yesterday

From sermons I have heard I am coming to think the word “faith” is often unintentionally used to substitute for passive agreement with chunks of religious knowledge. As one trained in science it also seems to me that those concerned with religion might learn something from those who make breakthroughs in scientific research.

The research scientist takes commonly accepted beliefs, tests them as if they are true but notes truthfully when they fall short. Faith, in that sense to the scientist, means believing in an idea to the extent that it is deemed worth testing in practice. In science when the faith fails to deliver, the test results means the starting belief needs to be adjusted. This does not mean nothing useful is learned. The results tell us more about our realities than we knew before. The original belief is then either adjusted to fit this reality or changed to a new hypothesis to be tested. The changed belief will then be retested and the process continues. This to a scientist is the equivalent of a tested faith. Having enough faith to bring a belief to test is very different from insisting that we simply accept the original belief as a passive and untouchable truth.

Surely it should be the same for religious belief. In Jesus’ day, one standard belief was that no work should be done on the Sabbath, including the work of healing. Jesus apparently challenged this belief by healing in the Sabbath. The results spoke for themselves and Jesus argued that good had come from his actions.

There are two challenges to today’s gospel story that invite our thoughtful response.

The first is the dilemma we always have whenever we in the 21st century read of Jesus performing one of his jaw-dropping miracles in the first Century AD.

We live in a modern age where medical researchers bring us inexorably closer towards complete understanding of disease with each passing day, and as a consequence it is ever harder to believe in the miraculous as being outside nature. The philosophers like David Hume seem generally agreed that before we can agree that a miracle has occurred we should be certain there must be a violation of the laws of nature – yet such definitions can only remind us that we have no certainty that any specific miracle has happened. Even after all these years of discovery, the laws of nature are at best dimly and approximately understood, and to say that they have been violated presumes knowledge we may not have. Miracles reported by others are even harder to claim with certainty. Since observers’ records are usually how we get to hear about possible miracles we have to remain sceptical about whether or not such observers have objectively described what they later say happened.

What seems a miracle to one generation becomes nature at work when more facts come to light. For example, for several hundred years, monks in the Ural Mountains reported a sacred everlasting flame in the rock face. It is perhaps unfortunate that the monks expected payment from the pilgrims who came from afar to witness this sign from God. The sacred flame was later found to be a natural gas outlet that once lit had continued burning. We have no right to criticise the pilgrims or the monks for their naivety, particularly when it is remembered that Chemistry at that time was not sufficiently understood by the pilgrims to correctly interpret what they were seeing.

Back when the Bible was assembled even educated people had every excuse to believe that disease was often spiritual in its cause and to assume that mysterious miracles may have been the only hope for alleviation of suffering. These days when we have enough data to know that the human can recover spontaneously from some conditions, and particularly when we know even trained doctors can misdiagnose some medical conditions, we need to be particularly cautious before proclaiming a miracle.

In the case of the woman who was bent, while we should acknowledge the sincerity of those who reported the change in her condition after Jesus intervened, if we value honesty we should at least be careful before announcing this as a miracle, particularly when Luke himself makes no such claim. Curing cripples with a touch or a word is fine if they are not genuinely crippled in the first place. We might for example believe someone who is habitually bent over by habit may be persuaded – even dramatically – to good posture, although even here, without the advantages of modern diagnosis, we should be frank enough to say we have no way of knowing for sure that Luke is saying this is what is happening. Since we presume that Luke, a contemporary of Paul, never met Jesus this inevitably meant that the best Luke could do was to tell his stories of Jesus by using sources which were second hand. For example the gospel of Mark, considered the first of the gospels, had 661 verses and of these, 320 were reproduced in Luke.

In summary, since there is no way of using Luke description to be certain of the woman’s condition, nor the effectiveness and permanence of the subsequent cure, we simply don’t know how much of a miracle is being described. Nor should this particularly worry us. Regardless of how much of miracle worker Jesus was, our real task is to find how the stories speak to our situation today. Even if Jesus could perform miracles which challenge our understanding of nature, it does not follow that we too can perform those miracles. For most of us, these days at least, the serious medical condition is best met by state of the art best practice medicine. Common consensus of an educated majority would probably say cripples are best diagnosed by conventional systematic medical testing and ignoring the standard care available is unlikely to be in the sufferer’s best interest.

However if we really want to struggle though to find a meaning we also relate to, rather than getting too tied up with the woman’s physical condition it might also be argued it is probably better not to restrict ourselves to think of the crippling only in a physical sense. After all being held back by infirmity is not unique to physical cripples. The infirmity could be any of a variety of very common afflictions. Have we not all met those who cannot quite bring themselves to straighten up under their load of riches or feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps even self reflection might be in order. And if not others’ need for ever more possessions, perhaps it is our own need – if we cannot see such people around us perhaps we might even look in the mirror. Have we met those afraid to stand up to express an opinion lest if might disturb the collective conscience of those we are desperate not to offend? Can we ourselves straighten up to that extent? Perhaps we are sometimes simply crippled by a loss of confidence – perhaps a lack confidence to make serious decisions, a lack of confidence to do anything much beyond give assent to the opinions of the powerful.

When Jesus talked of the woman as a daughter of Abraham he was inviting her to recognise her own worth as an inheritor of the central faith. Just maybe we too need reminding we should see ourselves children of those who were our ancestors in faith.

The second part of the story of this story may be even more relevant in our day-to-day encounters with those in need.

When Jesus is challenged as to why he offered help on the Sabbath he responded by saying in effect that offering assistance on the Sabbath is a common-sense response such that even offering water to a tethered animal is expected and offered without question. He then draws a parallel with the woman who in effect is bound, not with a rope – but by her condition. And we read that his critics were silenced in shame and the crowd were pleased with Jesus’ response.

Since we are most unlikely to be faced with an identical dilemma, again we should look beyond the immediate situation to the underlying principle. Jesus is addressing a particular religious convention whereby scripture directs that no work should be done on the Sabbath. While it is true that few Christians today observe such a principle, each faith community has its own expected religious code of rules and conventions. For example we have a host of expected conventions related to worship.

One of these sets of religious conventions relates to typical practice for administering Communion, and what happens in a Roman Catholic setting does not necessarily conform to Anglican (or Episcopalian), Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal styles of offering the wine and bread. However the issue Jesus places before us with his healing on the Sabbath is that sometimes convention must give way in the face of genuine need. The cripple who cannot manage walking to the front to receive Communion should not be denied communion and I suspect (although I know some clergy would disagree) that choosing not to offer Communion to someone who has a different faith background is not true to the spirit of the Christian gospel. Similarly, regardless of the expected conventions,

I would imagine, that should for example an elderly person collapse during worship, first aid then takes precedence over ritual.

But prejudice sometimes requires a more direct intervention. It is all too easy to withhold aid to anyone we see as being outside our own circle. Again we are reminded that Jesus called the woman whose body was bent a “Daughter of Abraham”. By calling her a daughter of Abraham he was extending to her a tribute which was unlikely to be echoed by a good number of those present. While it is not explained in this particular passage, there was a popular assumption in Jesus’ day that victims of illness or infirmity were at least partly suffering as a result of their own or their family’s failings. By Jesus calling her a daughter of Abraham who has been under Satan’s influence he shifts the blame for her condition away from the woman, and in effect underlines her value to the others in the Synagogue.

Perhaps we need reminding that a blindness to noticing the ones crippled with needs as sons or daughters of Abraham is shorthand for not recognising value in the one who is different.

I said earlier that we can never be sure if a person has permanently recovered as a consequence of a miracle. If, in today’s story, the woman is viewed in a new light by those around her as a person of worth, it may be that this is a form of healing even more important than that which addresses physical infirmity. It is also significant that the permanence of this dimension of healing depends on the on-going choices of the woman’s faith community.

For we who are also members of faith communities, it maybe that we need to see ourselves as part of the miracles for which we hope. Finding and conveying a sense of worth in the ones who come to our community in the hope of help may not be complete miracle in the conventional sense of the word yet it may be miracle enough to takes us forward in our search for relevant faith in a modern world.

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Lectionary Sermon for 14 August 2016 (Year C) on Luke 12:49-56

An Unvarnished Truth
A Bible quiz question which seems to trip up typical church-goers is to ask: in terms of the total pages written, which author wrote the most? No not Paul. Luke as the only systematic historian of the emerging Christian Church with his detailed “Acts of the Apostles”, together with his gospel stories of Jesus, leaves Paul in the shade.

Just for the record from a sample volume of the RSV Luke is responsible a big chunk of the 552 pages for the New Testament. Luke’s Gospel is 78 pages and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles 71 pages 149 pages in all (over a quarter of the whole). Paul’s 121 pages is significant but more problematic in that some scholars claim some of his books may have been written by someone else.

To understand today’s passage we should remember Luke’s gospel was collected as a defence of this new Christian faith in a time when the followers were coming under attack. He addresses both books to the “most excellent Theophilus” and there is some reason to think of his writing as being assembled to give this high official of the Roman government reason to support this new faith. You also may remember Luke was a contemporary of Paul. Thus a number of Paul’s themes are echoed in Luke’s gospel and the early Church history contains many personal touches.

Paul describes Luke as a gentile and as a doctor eg Colossians 4, 10 – 14 and we also know that he alone accompanied Paul to prison in Rome, so he would have been very much attuned to the need for having the new Christians and their potential critics warned that Christianity could turn out to be divisive in practice.

When Luke was recalling Jesus describing the division that this form of faith would bring, even to family situations, recent memories of seeing families torn apart must already have been alive in Luke’s memory.

It doesn’t take very much self-reflection before we come across reasons for the discomfort that Jesus’ gospel can generate in practice.

You may happen to remember the line in a song by John Ylvisaker: “Jesus was sent to upset and annoy.” This would no doubt puzzle anyone who holds to the saccharine image of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, with many appearing to act as if Christianity is basically that which happens within the confines of a Church service.

Another group who would be equally puzzled would be those who assume that Christianity is best practiced in complete isolation to others. On the other hand anyone who has thought of attempting to apply Christian ethics to family, community and international decision making would soon have ample reason for agreeing that such application upset and annoy big-time.

Because families and communities have the power to force decisions by weight of numbers, and since Christian principles often challenge popular assumptions of nationalism, selfishness and self interest, we can assume anyone attempting to live by the sort of Christian principles championed by Christ would soon find themselves at odds with those whose preferred actions follow basic self focused instincts. Honesty should also encourage us to admit that the principles advocated by Jesus are not always characteristics which we associate with all branches of the Christian Church – or even principles we associate with all factions of an otherwise apparently Christian congregation.

It is not as if we are unfamiliar with the teachings we aspire to follow. Taking no thought for the morrow, putting acts of kindness and compassion ahead of rules, forgiving seventy times seven, recognizing good acts regardless of expectations associated with religion or position (cf the Good Samaritan) and not storing up treasures on Earth – all of these are clear enough. What is less clear is how we might engage in such acts without disturbing our own baser instincts or for that matter, antagonizing those around us.

At the most basic level, think for example how the family might react if one member decides to disburse material wealth to the needy, particularly when those who have expectations of inheritance see their share under potential threat. Even when we are not personally affected by such decisions we can probably understand that those who give generously to the needy make their colleagues and family whose actions are less generous feel uncomfortable.

Even formal association with particular faith communities can be a problem. In my wife’s family for example I know of a father with a nominal Baptist background who would not attend his daughter’s marriage to her chosen partner because he was a Catholic. As a science teacher some years ago I was instructed by my Principal not to teach evolution to some exclusive Brethren pupils because he considered their acceptance of such a view would result in them being cast out of the family. More recently when I was doing my five year stint as a lay minister I in one of my two congregations, I had a congregation member who some years previously had been cast out of his Muslim family for marrying a Christian woman.

When we read in today’s gospel: 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” we find a truth that continues into our present.

Thinking of divisions immediately draws attention to the human weaknesses connected with the idea of Church. Historically we find much evidence that members of various Church denominations have traditionally favoured those in their own denomination, sometimes to the point of rejection of members of other faiths or those with other shades of belief. I bet everyone here knows of the Protestant Catholic rift in Northern Ireland. I guess you would have heard some Christians condemn followers of the Muslim faith and Hinduism, and patterns of immigration laws past and present should remind us not to pretend a formal association with Christianity will ensure that Christian principles will always win out.

Where a majority accepts an exclusivist stance, those who work for peace are sometimes rejected to the point where they are victims of stand-over tactics or even violence. While it is easy to be scornful about populations in places like Egypt or Iraq where religious intolerance sometimes spills over into acts of uncontrolled vengeance and where peace keepers are targeted, it is less comfortable to remember our own history.

Those who insist on forgiving enemies are considered traitors in times of war, and anyone who doubts that need only look at the history of pacifism in the West.

Colin Morris in his God in the Shower (Macmillan 2002) recalled how his father talked of a comrade in World War One who had served with distinction in the great battles of Loos, Ypres and the Somme. “ One day they were throwing the bodies of dead Germans into a huge shell crater to be rid of the sight and smell of them. This man suddenly stood up and said “Enough! This butchery is madness.” This man, said Colin Morris’ father, was the bravest of us all. “When the officer’s whistle blew and we went over the top again, he stayed behind in the trench. In no-man’s land we had an even chance of survival, but when he disobeyed that order he was a dead man”.

Although Morris does not spell it out, we don’t need to look too far to see the irony in officers who expected the enlisted soldiers to attend Church parade, yet use a court martial to proscribe the firing squad to anyone who refuses to disobey the commandment not to kill.

There is always a temptation to compartmentalize our thinking, in effect thinking Church when we are at Church, and community when we are in the community. We then risk having our faith become irrelevant to our day to day life. It is, as Jesus is recorded as saying, fairly easy to notice the weather signs yet there are more important signs of our times which are always there for those of us who are prepared to look. Remember he asks: You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Jesus calls those who will not look hypocrites, and perhaps we should ask ourselves why.

For each generation the signs will no doubt vary, but the charge of hypocrisy for those reluctant to notice must surely stand, particularly if we claim to follow a faith that has something to offer in our respective life situations. Community-wise, there would be few communities where there are no disadvantaged people. Some Church communities are very aware of such needs and the pattern of giving to food banks and organizing support services is to be commended. A reality check for a local congregation would include looking at which needs are actually addressed each month and each year.

A similar self assessment on attitudes to international responsibilities is also part of any congregation’s claim to be relevant. For example most would be at least dimly aware of a present situation where powerful nations regularly exploit weaker nations for the strong nations’ benefit. As a nation we pay lip service to international justice yet do not always insist our decision makers adjust policies to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources.

According to our democratic practice, to passively accept our nation’s practice is tantamount to giving our rulers support to continue in their current policies. This becomes serious when for example a nation’s industrialists believe they have support for their rights to produce obscene numbers of weapons and sell them to vulnerable nations.

Similarly there are statistics available to show that the world’s producers grow enough food globally to feed the world’s population and yet many would rather not notice that approaching a billion people have insufficient food for their needs. Policies of fair trade can be supported at the local level, and politicians can be lobbied.

This is only a sample of current tensions and we might argue that none are new situations. We can also argue that such issues are too big for individual Christians or individual congregations to make a real difference. However the hypocrisy comes when we claim a faith that concentrates on righting injustice and on offering compassion and fail to notice when we are making no serious effort at all. When the signs of division are all around us, to talk and act as if there is only unity in our corner of the world and community may lead to a comfortable Church, but some would argue this would also be a church with little to offer its world.

I said at the outset that Luke was using his gospel and book of Acts of the Apostles to defend Christianity. Unlike many faith protagonists today, Luke mounts his defence simply by recounting what has happened. The actions of Jesus and his subsequent followers are their own defence. It is an approach from which we might be wise to learn.

Ultimately it is our individual histories rather than what we might say we believe that will either convince toward or alternately dissuade others from our faith. To show that we can read the signs of our time and choose to respond in a way that addresses the realities of our day as best we can according to our gospel insights is what is needed.  We have to admit this is unlikely to solve many problems but might at least lend our faith genuine credibility. To fail to notice the genuine problems, divisions and issues may allow us to pretend to offer a relevant faith, but unless others can see the relevance in what we stand for for themselves we should not be surprised if our claims are then seen as empty and of no real value.

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Lectionary Sermon for 7 August 2016 on Luke 12:32-48 (Year C, Pr 14)

On Looking Busy

(an edited version of my sermon on the same topic for 11 August 2013)

In the spoof spy film “Johnny English” there is one scene where the evil pretender to the British Crown is readying a look-alike Archbishop of Canterbury for the Coronation ceremony by having him fitted with an appropriate silicon mask. On the so-called Archbishop’s bottom, there is tattooed “Jesus is coming – Look busy”. In terms of today’s gospel reading, behind this schoolboy humour there may even be an unintended serious point to be made from the joke.

If there should ever happen to be a day of judgement, surely it would be our day-to-day attitudes and actions rather than our pious self claims that would reveal where our true allegiance lay.

Theologians and church leaders are by no means agreed as to what Jesus was referring to when he is reported as talking of a time of judge

ment. The metaphors Jesus uses certainly draw attention to a time when we are all called to account, yet it is far from clear whether this is referring to the physical death we must all face – or something else entirely.

However for this passage at least this is irrelevant. Jesus’ statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also“, seems to remind us that our actions and attitudes reveal where our priorities lie. Even if the judgement we face, is only that of our fellows, it really won’t matter which cause we say we embrace, our lives will make their own declaration.

This is not so much theology as common sense. For example I can (and do) wear two Rotary badges on my sports jacket, but even those badges would not be enough to convince my fellow Rotarians that I should be wearing them. Rotary is supposed to stand for Service above self, so it is only if I am prepared to try to live out this ideal that I would have any chance of being recognised as a genuine Rotarian.

Similarly we cannot assume that once we have signed up to Church membership, that we will be recognised as those who are committed to Christ and his principles. Ex US President Jimmy Carter was once quoted as saying: “If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then STOP saying you want a country based on Christian principles because you don’t”.

But of course this is only one of many dimensions to Church membership. For example the proposed modified statement in the law book of the New Zealand Methodist Church includes the following phrases:

“ The standards on which membership of the Church is based are set out in the Church’s Mission Statement and its accompanying principles, where, in particular, it is stated that `every member is a minister.’”

I would imagine most mainline Churches would be comfortable with accepting similar statements.

But just remember this. The law book is in effect a public declaration of what is intended. If the vast majority of Church members are not demonstrably behaving as ministers and embodying the Church’s mission statement, the declaration is null and void.

One of my favourite Church stories for young people (in one version) goes as follows. (I am sorry I do not know the author of the original version).

A young man once set out for a walk in the forest. Unaccustomed to the outdoors, and having no GPS he started to lose his sense of direction. As the minutes turned into hours, he began to feel the first pangs of hunger. As a city dweller he assumed that sooner or later he would happen upon a food store, perhaps, he hoped, even a McDonalds. And – would you believe it – (hmm!) – just when he was beginning to lose hope – a notice board on a stake in the bushes. “ Fresh bread, baked daily, follow the arrow”. Delighted and rather relieved, the young man lined up on the arrow and set off. And again, and I am rather hoping you won’t doubt what I am telling you, there in a small clearing was a house, with a big sign outside proclaiming “Fresh bread baked daily” – and then underneath in red letters “We never close” Feeling the saliva gathering in his mouth the young man knocked on the door.

Sure enough the door opened – and a rather severe looking woman stood there. “Well?” she said.
I saw your signs”’ started the young man.
The expression on the woman’s face changed to fleeting, and even smug smile of pride. “Yes, good signs aren’t they?”
Well, can I buy some bread?” The young man continued.
No!” said the woman firmly. “There is no bread!”.
But the sign?” he protested.
We don’t make bread,” said the woman, “we only make the signs”.
The young man was incredulous. “Never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life!” he said ,“A sign promising bread – then no bread!?”
“Nothing new in that”, said the woman. “Last week I went to a Church and it said “all welcome” on the notice board. I went in and I wasn’t”.

Only a story perhaps, yet we should remember that such a mismatch between what we claim to stand for, and what others see that our faith represents, becomes the public reality of our mission statement. Just as many in the West discount Islam as a faith worth following because of the actions of a few suicide bombers, those looking at our Church from the outside sometimes reject our faith because they are not attracted to the actions and attitudes of those they associate with Christianity.

After all Mahatma Gandhi once claimed that the tipping point for him in rejecting Christianity, despite all his admiration of Christ, was being turned away from entering a Church in South Africa on the grounds that no coloureds were allowed.

In one sense today’s gospel passage is an alternative answer to the age old question about how we might find a meaningful life. Last week’s passage was more directly about greed, but did you notice that Jesus there seemed more concerned about the effect greed has on the greedy one rather than the unfairness greed imposes on others. Here a parallel theme is developed further – this time questioning not the dangers of greed, but rather the dangers of inattention to the important faith response tasks of the day.

We might also note that reminding us about the need to give to the poor suggests Jesus is thinking here about our moral and ethical responses to need. Jesus suggests in his parable that we should not put off a response to such duties. I don’t know how you see the situation but I would contend we only have to look around us today to see that inattention to the challenges of the Church is still a typical characteristic – and if we follow today’s parable and accept the reported teaching of Jesus, we can only assume that this inattention can have consequences.

I confess I have serious problems with the bit in the gospel passage where Jesus says v33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. While it is true that a few saints of the Church have given up virtually everything to serve their fellows in the name of Jesus, and while I have the deepest admiration for those like Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, for myself, I can’t in all honesty ask others to take this step, because as long as I continue to enjoy a standard of living well above the poorest in the world, I have not won the right to do so.

I am only guessing, but I would like to suggest that I am not the only one who has come to the conclusion that following exactly in the footsteps of Christ seems well nigh impossible for real people who often appear to share characteristics of both the saint and the sinner.

For those discouraged by the apparent impossibility of getting anywhere near perfection, it may be of some comfort that Jesus was prepared to continue to work with those who showed signs of imperfection. Just think of some of his disciples. We can but hope he would have done the same for us. Most of us I suspect are too wedded to our possessions to give away our all to the poor, yet Jesus here in his parable is talking of a range of likely behaviour in response to the master’s absence. However this doesn’t quite let us off the hook. For example, we should forget that Jesus also said (in the last part of verse 48) that from whom much has been given, much will be expected.

If we choose to accept the positions of responsibility, or if we find ourselves blessed with talent or possessions, our responsibilities are correspondingly greater.

I suspect quite a few of us have a feeling of unease at the question ‘Is my life worthwhile?’ Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that moralising in reply won’t do it, or worse, offering what C T Studd once referred “neat little Bible confectionary” in the form of proof texts. Neither approach comes close to answering the genuine angst felt in such a question. Loader wisely suggests that ultimately the answer to this angst is an act of healing. People have genuine worries and ideally need support which identifies the pain very clearly – and gently – and offers healing.

Sometimes we hurry to put what we hope is wisdom into words. Maybe caring enough for someone is simply to be there for them in their time of worry. Maybe too, for ourselves, simply quietly reflecting on the words of Jesus may edge us closer to that moment when we can see meaning taking shape and form in our lives.

(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)

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Lectionary Sermon for 31 July 2016 on Luke 12:13-21

Image result for Rich and Poor cartoons

It’s odd isn’t it. We can claim to have the best set of beliefs, but our words and our actions give us away every time. Saying we are Christian for example might be a start but what if our words and actions don’t quite match what we say is important in our lives. We can certainly spot the fake in other people’s actions.

To use one extreme example: I understand Adolph Hitler claimed to be a Roman Catholic and had his storm troopers go into battle with “Gott mit uns” – in other words “God with us” engraved on their belt buckles, yet subsequent history with its story of hundreds of thousands Jews and gypsies murdered in concentration camps gave a lie to that claim.
Well, I would imagine not many of us are ever likely to be accused of setting up or operating a death-camp, yet there is a much more common and insidious way of misusing the way of Christ.

Each election for example we look at various policies and politicians and decide which ones fit with what matters to us. Had it ever occurred to you that even more important that whether our political parties are offering us policies which give us a better deal – or leave us a bit wealthier, surely if Church means anything perhaps we should be asking which policies fit with Christian ideals.

The least stressful way to start thinking about this sort of thing is to start with someone else’s election. Right now in the United States we have just witnessed the end of the Republican Convention. Donald Trump had been running a campaign in which he repeatedly highlighted his success in making money. He is for example quoted as saying: “The point is, you can never be too greedy” He wants Americans to get richer and he wants those who get in the way to move aside. He doesn’t even want them in the same country. He has talked of improving trade in favour of the US and to the disadvantage of potential rival trading partners.

Certainly you could argue Trump is not is not the same as the people. Surely the people have higher principles. Yet if they vote for Donald Trump, aren’t they really saying he’s nailed it, and what he promises represents what they really think. Don’t forget recent polls show that 38% of the US voting public say that they would vote for Trump – which presumably means there is a good portion of the public who share his values and I guess his prejudices. If, as Donald Trump keeps telling the public, being rich is the measure of success – there appear to be many who agree with him.

I simply don’t know if the same sort of thing would happen if we had a Donald Trump-like figure in this country. I know I have certainly heard some Christians here saying that they approve of the US Republican choice for President because Trump deserves the Christian vote. And the fact is that a recent poll shows that lots of Church goers in the US support Donald Trump. During the week I read of one nationwide poll that claimed Trump now has a 20 point lead for those who attend Church more than once a month.

Now it is easy to become judgemental at this safe distance. American values develop in an entirely different community to our own.
But what if what happens in the US is not just a sideshow for New Zealanders? What if we too are influenced by the same sorts of issues. I think at the very least we need to be thoughtful about how our political choices line up with our values particularly if we want to give some sort of priority to following what Jesus said was important.

Would Jesus agree with the notion that rich is good and very rich is really what it is all about? What did Jesus actually say? Luke Ch 12 verse 15 “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). You probably remember that Jesus once had a more colourful way of saying the same thing. Remember in that parable with the rich man ignoring poor Lazarus the beggar at his gate, it is the beggar who goes to heaven while the rich man suffers in hell (Luke 16:19-31).

Jesus also reminds his listeners of the dangers of wealth in his parable about the rich farmer who acquired sufficient wealth to secure a comfortable retirement. Jesus doesn’t muck about. He actually calls him a “fool” at his death. And in case anyone misses his point he says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21). Then he goes on with his call for his would-be disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him, What was his question again? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

On reflection I suspect we don’t come across the truly wise very often – so here is an interesting speculation. If we only once in our life had a chance to meet a truly wise person – someone up there with Jesus in the wisdom stakes…only one meeting … a question…what would we ask the wise person.

Since in real life most folk rarely make the most of their fleeting opportunities to learn from the wise, I guess there is a fair chance we would mess up.

Certainly the man in the crowd in today’s reading from Luke apparently messed up big time. Instead of using his once in a lifetime opportunity to ask Jesus some insightful and profound question, the man merely wants Jesus to take his side in an inheritance dispute. Perhaps the best that can be said is that his question revealed to Jesus what was uppermost in the questioner’s mind, just as what we put our focus on in our thoughts, our conversation and choice of activities during the week ultimately shows what we really count as important.

Certainly as far as Jesus would have been concerned, the man with the inheritance problem would not have been asking an unexpected question. At that time the local rabbi was expected to be the instant arbiter on practically every legal and moral dilemma. However Jesus shows almost no interest in giving a direct answer to the man’s question. As far as Jesus is concerned, an obsession with possessions is an irrelevance when it comes to the important things of life. His story of the rich man gathering more and more riches – building more and more barns for his wealth, and then at the very last, finding none of his wealth counts for anything against the real issues of life, certainly at the very least reminds us even today that nothing owned counts for much when facing one’s death.

The parable also suggests that whatever else Jesus might have been, he was a least an acute observer of the human condition. His parable of the rich man finds plenty of modern equivalents. It is intriguing that in the centuries since, although the trappings of wealth may have changed, the same self-serving and ultimately ill-fated desire to accumulate more than we need is almost built into our society.

The insidious effects of the wealth gathering personality have been well studied by the psychologists and sociologists. In experimental studies they are often more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behaviour. The underlying implication is that whatever good intentions we might believe ourselves to have, unfortunately the experience of being wealthy risks affecting us in ways we might not readily notice for ourselves. I guess we have all heard well off people explaining why the rich deserve their position which of course justifies behaviours that consolidate even more advantages, we should take note.

For example in most nations where there is a distinct difference between the incomes of the rich and the poor, the rich often use their influence to ensure tax structures make it possible for the richest to pay less tax than would be expected for the size of their incomes. Some achieve this by setting up family trusts which have the advantage of safeguarding the family fortunes for members of the family to inherit, thus putting them even further ahead from their poor neighbours from the date of their birth.

In this country (New Zealand), for example, the United Nations statisticians have noted that of the developed nations, New Zealand has one of the fastest growing gaps between the rich and the poor – and although I am not sure that the figures I have are the most recent available, New Zealand is now number 5 in the disparity between rich and poor where the bottom 10% have approximately a 2% share of income and expenditure while the richest 10% have 27.8%.

The Methodist Church in New Zealand at their last three conferences drew attention to the plight of poor children in the country but despite vague promises from the nation’s decision makers and some tinkering with social services, month by month and year by year the gap continues to grow wider.

Since wealth also brings more personal security we can hardly blame those who work hard to improve the well-being of the family. Nor can we do much about the fact that when one is born into a country with plenty of natural resources and a comparatively sparse population that there will be a disproportionate number of wealthy individuals. The problem rather is retaining our sense of care for others as our advantages accumulate and together finding ways to work towards a society where the key human values are safeguarded: like ensuring justice for all, like expressing compassion in a meaningful and tangible way, like not exploiting others within one’s own nation in order to increase one’s personal, and like caring that others at a distance are living in grinding poverty so that we can enjoy our advantages.
It is all too easy to get ourselves into the mind-set of the rich man in Jesus parable.

We are assured by those who are supposed to know these things that if the food of the world was shared on an equitable basis there would be more than enough food for everyone. As things stand there are still many who are very hungry indeed and as people who claim to accept, value and live the principles Jesus taught, this should matter to us. Prayers dissociated from action will hardly help the problem.

As a church we should continually check what we are asking our politicians to do. The advantage of living in a democracy is that the people can persuade their political masters to follow the will of the people. The disadvantage of living in a democracy is that if the will of the people is merely to improve their personal situation (if you like…. building more barns) then nothing in the ideals of religion we claim to follow will ever be accomplished.

As a church we should be looking to how our current policies reflect our ideals. What proportion of our church income to we allocate to helping others? What issues do our leaders publicize in our church sponsored letters to the editor? There is always Touchstone. Do we invite speakers from organisations dealing with the serious public and moral issues and have we got the balance right? Are we fund-raising first for ourselves and almost as an afterthought, merely pretending that we reflect Jesus’ principles because we give token amounts away and placate our consciences because we also pray for the refugees, the poor and the down trodden in our prayers of intercession?

I guess most of us would be anxious to say we are not like Donald Trump.

Very well then…In terms of following the teaching of Jesus, what are we like?

(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)

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Turkey – now the Purge

As the President of Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and his leading supporters work through the response to the failed coup, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the reprisals have anything to do with upholding the democratic process. When the most senior member of the 100 or so already accused of high treason, General Akin Ozturk, (General in charge of the Air-force until 2015) appeared in court he had visible signs of damage to his face and upper body. Since Turkey was already on Human Rights watch, that a senior respected officer should be treated in that way is unlikely to convince outside observers that Turkey under President Erdogan is moving in the right direction.  The sight of large flag waving groups of demonstrators with synchronized cries of “execute” is uncannily like German political rallies in the 1930s supporting another leader also apparently granted power by the political will of the people.

The huge number now under arrest or dismissed from key positions estimated at 45 000, gives the distinct impression that this is the President now using the coup as an excuse to get rid of potential opponents.  Visible evidence of torture simply encourages observers to conclude evidence obtained by such methods about any confession of coup collusion is invalid.

The officials so far sacked or detained include judges, generals, senior clerics, academics, governors and police officers. It is beyond credibility to believe that coup involvement was established for each of these in such a short time.  The suspicion of guilt by association with those influenced by Fethullah Gülen is similarly ironic – and all the more so when it is remembered that the Gulen movement was exploited by the President’s party when it was first elected.

The following I note from the BBC:
6,000 military personnel have been arrested, with more than one hundred generals now awaiting trial
Many teachers and University Deans are amongst the 15,000 education staff who have been stood down
Nearly 9,000 police officers have been sacked
Close to 3,000 judges have been suspended
Some 1,500 employees of Turkey’s finance ministry have been dismissed
492 have been fired from the Religious Affairs Directorate
More than 250 staff in Prime Minister Yildirim’s office have been removed

Rather more puzzling is that there is now some evidence that Generals in the military had reported that the coup was imminent several hours before the action began. This then raises the suspicion that the Government may have even allowed the coup attempt to begin to provide the excuse to crush future potential Government opposition. Rather than an example of democracy being defended, the purge in aftermath of the coup has more hallmarks of an authoritarian, nationalistic regime in action.  With the fact that almost certainly a large number of those targeted by the authorities will have friends, family and supporters, it is unlikely that the potential for future disruption is going away any time soon.

This judgment appears shared by many observers in that despite the coup’s obvious failure, virtually all the Western nations have placed travel warnings to Turkey in place.

The huge and rapid change to staff in so many key institutions will almost certainly provide many future log jams in bureaucratic services at the very time the people of Turkey had been hoping to move towards economic and political stability.

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Lectionary Sermon for 24 July 2016 (Year C) based on Luke 11:1-13

I remember once reading: “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things”. A fine sentiment, but perhaps it leaves out one factor. Prayer can only find its meaning for us if we too see ourselves as people available to help bring about that change.

If we were to pause for a moment and think of occasions of worship with the strange mixture of sublime and heart-felt prayer on one hand and on the otherthe repetitious and empty posturing that sometimes passes for prayer , perhaps at the very least there are times we should admit we are a little too casual in our approach.

It is not as if Jesus did not leave us with some good places to start.
When his disciples asked how they might go about prayer he answered with the prayer that in our decorated and extended form we now call the Lord’s Prayer.

In Luke Ch 11 we read Lord teach us to pray they said and he replied….from verse 2
2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Have you ever wondered why Luke’s version is much shorter than the version customarily used in most mainstream protestant Churches today?

Perhaps the problem is that: despite the sample prayer apparently being Jesus showing us how to approach prayer, yet straight away his followers want to add bits to make it more impressive. Then, if that wasn’t enough, we seem to be forgetting there was that other passage where he condemned the Pharisees for their repetitive showy prayers. Well then, why risk repeating our version of Jesus’ prayer so often that it can be said without thought or meaning?

Don’t forget it is not just what is in the prayer but also what is left out that gives the prayer its special character.

We might also note that in the original there is minimal asking, and perhaps more surprisingly to some, very few words of adulation.

Assuming we are following Jesus’ example and are addressing our prayer to our heavenly Father, we might remember while the term Father may well only be a metaphor for what we are trying to express, isn’t it also true it would be entirely inappropriate to address our actual human father with excessive words of praise? Even if it were only an earthly father would we be really so naïve to hope our father, thus flattered, will overlook our actions which after all are a much better guide to what is in our hearts. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” Jesus seems to have sympathy with that point of view.

The bit from the Lord’s Prayer that grounds it in action is the bit where we say the equivalent of “Forgive us our sins – and the kicker – as we forgive those who sin against us.” If we are not inclined to forgive others, that is the bit of the Lord’s Prayer we should hope never gets answered. Some of you may know the poet Robert Frost once suggested that the phrase might equally be, “Forgive me my nonsense as I also forgive the nonsense of those who think they talk sense.”

For what then should we pray? Following Jesus example suggests we should not focus too much on our own desires.

I have always been very much attracted to one who has captured the selfless nature of effective prayer in his own model prayer.

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
― Many here would have recognised this as the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

I guess it is hardly surprising that our own dilemmas are going to get some of our attention in our own praying. However please notice that in the Lord’s Prayer, the asking for daily bread seems very minimal – and perhaps in a world where many must go hungry we have no right to ask much more than this.

I think Mahatma Gandhi was on to something when he said “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” …… what was that last bit again?….It is better in prayer to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.

Once we accept the obligation to have our prayer reflect what is in our hearts, I wonder if this might give us a sense of caution for how we might phrase our prayers and for that matter the sorts of things we might ask in prayer.

It has always seemed to me that the most dubious prayers are what we might call petitionary prayers. If we behave as if God is a being who sits outside nature and who will provide a different outcome if asked to do so, it seems to me we are in danger of living in cloud cuckoo land.

It has also seemed to me that the natural world is entirely governed by what some would call the laws of nature. Gravity is a property of mass, the weather follows the principles of physics and earthquakes and storms once thought of as magic or the fury of the Gods could not have been more natural in their causes. Nor have I personally ever encountered anything that makes me suspect otherwise. Certainly I have seen Yogic flyers – in ecstatic trances bouncing up and down on spring mattresses – but their claim to be actually flying looks to my untutored eye as sheer delusion. They are certainly bouncing and appear to be making effective use of their rubber mattresses as substitute trampolines but when they bounce up, they promptly come down again no matter what they might claim or feel themselves to be doing.

When the Wizard of Christchurch infuriated the local fundamentalists by indulging in what they assumed to be black magic by doing a rain dance to break a drought it also seemed to me that it was not exactly magic that his rain dance should coincide with a local weather office prediction of imminent rain.

Praying for rain or perhaps more commonly praying for fine weather to coincide with some function such as a wedding of Church picnic is harmless enough but again – and only from brief personal experience – I have yet to see a consequent change of weather that does not follow from the weather conditions in the atmosphere.

There is also that age old conundrum – would a God of Love be kinder to a baby who had been prayed over than one who wasn’t? When it came to the plague, also known as the Black Death, despite copious prayers and chalking crosses on the doors to keep the black death at bay, the population of Europe and England died by the thousand – and continued to do so intermittently until some wise observer of nature decided to kill all the rats which we now know were carrying the fleas which in turn carried the disease.

Please note however I am not saying that we should not pray for the sick. It is not so much that I believe we will necessarily alter the course of nature in interceding on the sick person’s behalf, but on the other hand I do know that brain activity of specific types can alter our own state of physiology. Prayer and meditation have been studied with brain scans and with stress relief studies and both sets of studies appear to show that there are beneficial physiological effects of that sort of prayer including a return to the steady state (called homeostasis) and the accompanying feelings of calm. Perhaps this fits with that great Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when he said “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

But if we only pray because we want good health outcomes for those who suffer, there are no guarantees.

In all honesty having read numerous studies measuring the effects of targeted prayer on patients, such as groups of people praying for those having suffered heart disease or praying for those undergoing treatment for cancer, while some studies appear to show the health benefits for the patients, other studies are unable to show that the prayer helps, and I do not believe any good purpose is served by only noticing the studies that support the case for an interventionist God.

On the other hand I can see every reason for praying on the ground that it helps us focus our concern on those who need our care. If you like this is also self-benefit in that such thinking will shape our attitudes of compassion which seems to be the heart of Christianity. This does not of course therefore mean that we should limit our concerns to our prayers. Compassion needs expression in acts of care and kindness as well as in spoken sentiment.

I guess that like the Lord’s prayer, the Prayer of St Francis only becomes real when our lives start to reflect its intention. Prayers prayed in Church might sound impressive but they will not necessarily affect what happens outside the place of worship.

We only need to look to our newspapers. Lots of prayers in the USA – yet what do we read?… Shootings in the USA. Or in France a truck being driven at a crowd in Nice, despite lots of Churches in France. A failed coup, hundreds dead in Turkey, but remember they have prayers five times a day in Istanbul. And so it goes on. A ramping up of violence in Syria, bombs in Iraq – and then we say, Lord make me an instrument of your peace. There is nothing wrong with the prayer and every reason for praying it – but it also needs to start to find its meaning at ground level, in the way we encounter those we meet – and the way we talk about those described as enemies.

There may be nothing we can do about what happens in other countries but we can and indeed must start with our own attitudes. Remember the prayer: it is indeed in giving we receive. It is whether or not we pardon, forgive, and sow peace – and whether or not we are prepared to see enemies as genuine neighbours, to ask for our forgiveness as we forgive. Then perhaps that give us the right to make the Prayer of St Francis – and the Lord’s Prayer our own. AMEN.

(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)

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The current and now failed coup attempt causing initial disruption in Istanbul and Ankara may indeed be sending shockwaves through Turkey but no one who follows Turkish politics should be overly surprised. For a good few years now the Army has played a key role in the control of the country and four major coups and a number of failed coups have all centred around the army attempting to wrest away the control of the Government and give power to those who best represented the Coup plotters.

While the recently elected President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan had been attempting to lead his country away from Military control, although the Government portrayed this as allowing more space for democracy, some commentators claim it was simply to allow the President to displace possible opponents. In any event, some who preferred the previous form of government were concerned about the shift in power. Some of the established military leadership were showing distinct discomfit at their loss of political power. To gain control of the Army, President Erdoğan had been replacing much of the top leadership with officers who had shown more loyalty to his style of control. In particular more recently he had focussed on displacing officers who supported the ultra conservative Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who claims to support traditional secularism of the Ataturk variety and who lives in self-exile in the US, where from his Pennsylvania headquarters he apparently exerts surprising influence over his shadowy followers.

Those commentators with a memory will recall a few years back Erdoğan had actually used the Gülen network to gain political power but after the Gülen movement became involved in challenging the President with embarrassing charges of corruption directed to the President’s leadership, Erdoğan reacted by showing his total opposition to Gülen’s followers, declaring them to be an illegitimate parallel state.

Another group in the Army who have previously indicated strong disillusionment with the new regime were the secularists who resented the current President and his party on the grounds they have attempted to take Turkey back to an earlier form of Islamic control. Over the next few days we can expect to find which of the two disenchanted groups are likely to have led the attempted coup. The arrest of many judges and officers who were not visibly involved in the failed coup suggests there is still strong opposition to the government.

With the wisdom of hindsight, in the final analysis the coup would appear to have been unlikely to succeed if only because the President had established strong leadership apparently loyal to his form of control. In addition he appeared to have a good measure of popular support. The appearance of large numbers of his supporters on the streets does not of course mean that those currently keeping a low profile are an insignificant danger.  Even the support for the president from other world leaders does not mean they all approve of his style of leadership. Another interpretation is merely that those other leaders understand the need for some form of stability for a Nation that has such a key role to be played in re-establishing peace in the region.

It is true that a good percentage of the population clearly approved of the President and the last vote did return him to power.  However it is also well known there is a traditional enthusiasm in another large part of the population for the traditional secularism that distinguished Turkey from many of its neighbours. These like the more conservative Muslim total hardliners are still among the population and are unlikely to be satisfied with the current position. Sacking or standing down more than 2000 judges many of whom are highly respected in the community may help the President re-establish control but assuming these judges have supporters and followers, this is likely to produce further problems down the track.

 Another consideration is that since unlike some previous coups the Army and Police are deeply divided over judging if the President has performed well and although the President’s support base has given power to senior loyalists the initial reactions to the coup attempt are worrying in the unknown effect this will have on the dissatisfied groups. A real unknown is how much influence the Gülenists still retain in the critical Judicial and Security branches of the government.

Although the currentunderstanding is that the current Coup attempt is a total failure, if past reactions are anything to go by, the Coup plotters and instigators (who would at least have the support of the many disenchanted with the President), are likely to suffer extreme punishment which is hardly calculated to help long term stability. Stability was already threatened by the failure of the Government to keep a lid on ISIS and PKK attacks and there was concern being expressed by NATO about Turkey’s lack of willingness to take appropriate steps to meet its border issues. A failed spectacular coup attempt even if not successful is likely to add to the worries of Turkey’s neighbours and allies. One development which will concern the EU is the likely reinstatement of the death penalty to deal with the coup plotters. In 2004 the EU had pressured Turkey to remove the death penalty as part of the conditions of EU membership. The EU members have continued to hold back on accepting Turkey into membership because of signs of authoritarian control. One demonstration in support of the President called for death for the Coup leaders. The president responded by saying that since Turkey was a democracy, the people’s voice would be heard. The EU leadership will not be impressed.

A real additional worry is how current antagonistic groups such as ISIS and various Kurdish rebels eg the PKK, might take advantage of the current instability by launching various terrorist actions. The closure of military air space, the arrest of the general in-charge of the key air base used for launching US air attacks on ISIS and the temporary close down of all missions against ISIS indicates just how dependent Turkey has become on stability.

Apart from the current disruption to the all important Tourism sector of the economy, overseas investors are now likely to become very jumpy. President Erdoğan had what some commentators described as a surprisingly calming effect on the Turkish economy, encouraging plenty of investment and getting very positive growth underway.

The catch was that much of this growth has been achieved on the back of substantial loans which in the short term at least must be now seen as considerably at risk. If the tourists and investors are now frightened off and if the power which is currently split between considerable numbers of supporters and opponents of the Erdoğan Government cannot work towards a quick and peaceful end to hostilities there are likely to be serious long term repercussions.

The most worrying aspect of the President’s leadership is that although he might enjoy a current small majority, his authoritarian autocratic and conservative Islamic approach is very divisive and many are deeply worried about the direction he has chosen for Turkey. For example his government has recently done something of a U Turn and announced they are supporting the beleaguered Syrian Government.

Certainly the EU, Russia and the US as well as NATO have a particular interest in encouraging an immediate return to some form of stability. With something like 800 km border in common with Syria, and other borders with Iraq and Iran, Turkey has had considerable potential influence in Syria and Iraq(and not always in a positive sense) and what happens to the stability of the area is inevitably dependent on the good-will and focus of the Turkish government. It must be said that while Turkey has been able to accept some of the refugees some critics have been claiming that unwise responses from Turkey may have aggravated the situation.

I am quite happy to allow that President Erdoğan is in the process of reasserting control. I would also have to admit I am not currently planning a holiday to Turkey any time soon.

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