Lectionary sermon 11 December 2016 (Advent 3 A) on Matthew 11:2-11

To me the biggest contrast between modern Christians and the earliest stories of followers of Jesus is that all too often these days the emphasis has become centred on what happens in acts of Church worship. This seems far removed from what was highlighted back in the gospel stories. Today’s singing and affirming religious words of admiration for God and Jesus may seem impressive but is very different from those earlier followers who apparently saw their main response to what Jesus meant coming in terms of action in the everyday world.

To take an early example, if I were looking for a single word to describe John the Baptist, the word would not be “religious”.

John was very much a straight talker – and from the Gospel record, sometimes almost inappropriately so. Last week we encountered John berating those who had come for baptism because he saw them as hypocrites. As background to today’s Gospel, we might need reminding the reason why John was now in prison was not so much that he was a religious prophet as it was that he believed in telling it as he saw it and in the process didn’t seem to soften his challenges just because in the process there might be those he offended.

John’s undoing in this instance was that he believed Herod Antipas the Tetrarch had done something quite immoral, and despite knowing Herod Antipas’ unpleasant reputation, told him so. Herod Antipas had been named as king by Caesar Augustus on the death of his father King Herod the Great, but the Romans had decided his power should be limited and only gave him a quarter share of his father’s territory.

Antipas set about trying to win back more power by building the city of Tiberius in honour of his current patron the Emperor Tiberius. The immoral action which had offended John was that Antipas also fancied his brother’s wife, Herodias, so he divorced his own wife and married Herodias. Well it is one thing to believe the king had done wrong, but telling him so was quite another. It is understatement to say upsetting a ruthless king from a ruthless family by calling him immoral was not a wise career move and it was probably no surprise to any of his contemporaries that John was now imprisoned, and, according to the historian Josephus, in the forbidding fortress Machaerus.

Remember now the reason why John had been offering Baptism in the first place was to prepare the faithful for the appearance of the Messiah. Now as the stories of Jesus teaching and healing in Galilee began to circulate, John appears to be a bit uncertain as to whether Jesus was in fact the expected Messiah. He somehow manages to send a message to Jesus from his cell. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus’ indirect answer, referring to deeds rather than any claim he might make, shows perfect sense. After all there were others at the same time apparently claiming to be the Messiah, and such claims can only be substantiated with evidence.

We should note in passing, that even today there are many claiming to be modern day prophets, and I understand most large psychiatric units have had at least one patient believing themselves to be Jesus reincarnated. Others are convinced that they are chosen by God to pass on a message, including those who have wrongly predicted the date for the end of the world. Almost invariably their behaviour is not consistent with their message and accordingly we would be wise to be extremely cautious about such claims. We would not for example be very much inclined to accept that Jim Jones was the prophet he claimed to be particularly after he is known to have made his followers commit mass suicide, any more than we would wish to follow a Church leader who absconded with Church funds or seek moral guidance from one who was known to interfere sexually with children.

When Jesus describes John as more than a prophet or says that he is not one who would bend with the wind like a reed, he is doing no more than relating what would be public knowledge. The Old Testament prophets were probably better known for their ability to stand up against kings and religious leaders than they were for their piety and John was certainly in that mould. John was a servant of the truth he had discovered and was going to speak that truth no matter how inconvenient this might have been for his personal welfare. Small wonder if some assumed that John was Elijah returned.

And yet this is where the commentary gets puzzling. Certainly we can admire John the Baptist, a man who gave everything – even ultimately his life – to express his understanding of truth and right and wrong. Regardless of his uncertainty about Jesus, we can also acknowledge him as a prophet – not so much in the modern sense of foretelling the future – but particularly in the Old Testament sense, when a prophet would describe the current state of affairs and the direction it appeared to be leading, regardless of who might be upset by the analysis.

But the tricky part comes in realising that this Sunday, when we remember this exchange between the imprisoned John the Baptist and Jesus, apart from being Advent 3, the third Sunday of the Advent season, is also known as Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word meaning “to rejoice”

The problem is really a question. Did John really have much to rejoice about given his impending execution? And the more serious question. What of the rest of us in the first part of the 21st Century?

Clearly we need to be honest. Jesus’ coming did not solve all problems. For example there are still those who live in grinding poverty, there are still areas of the world where personal safety is threatened, places where there are refugees facing a grim and pitiless future and cities where the air is acrid and poisonous, and the water polluted.

Remember $1.25 per person per day threshold for extreme poverty is currently the standard adopted by the World Bank and other international organizations to reflect the minimum consumption and income level needed to meet a person’s basic needs. That means people who fall under that poverty line can be identified — and according to the international surveys, that turns out to be about 1/6 of the world’s population, in other words 1.4 billion people who lack the ability to fulfil basic needs, whether it means eating only one bowl of rice a day or forgoing health care when it’s needed most. At the same time some of us live in great luxury. What does Gaudete Sunday mean in that context?

Perhaps it is just as well that John the Baptist now has his story associated with this Sunday because if the cause for rejoicing has any meaning at all it is that when times were grim someone cared enough to speak up. Since there is widespread agreement that Jesus’ coming brought thought provoking teaching and an attitude of compassion which is a source of hope, we may need reminding that there is an urgent need for those prepared to act in his name. The alternative of leaving this teaching and set of attitudes within the walls of the Church would hardly be good news for those on the outside.

I have heard it said that the real reason why Church attendance is now smaller than it was one hundred years ago, is that for many it is now the most boring hour of the week. Certainly if the only call for response is to expect us to drone fatuous words of praise without for one moment considering that the praise should affect any of our consequent decisions during the week, then it is both boring and irrelevant. If that was indeed the case, the sooner the Church closes its doors the better we might all be.

If on the other hand the call is to use the teachings of Jesus and example of the prophets like John the Baptist to seize on the injustices of our time and insist on a change of priorities, then there may be genuine cause for rejoicing.

I suggested at the outset that John the Baptist does not come across as being particularly religious. I even wonder if Jesus himself cared much for formalised religion. This does not mean that there is no purpose served by coming to Church. Where else might we be likely to encounter the stories of practical people of faith and reflect on the thought provoking teachings of Jesus.

But surely the real cause for rejoicing is that we too have the potential to respond to those teachings, not in history, but in the here and now. Perhaps then hopefully, inspired by those like John the Baptist, we can go out from our worship with the determination that what we learn as history will help reshape our future and the future of those like the folk for whom Jesus and John the Baptist first came.

It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who risked his very life for what he knew to be right in his speaking up against Hitler. He is quoted as writing “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Clearly we are unlikely to be called to speak up against evil as an everyday occurrence , yet as we move towards Christmas we still need to ask ourselves if Jesus coming, and perhaps if the example of John the Baptist or those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer should also challenge us to speak up for what we know to be true.

It seems to me that if we only find the gospel in the deeds of those in the past then we will never find the gospel of our present. Now that is a challenge, and a gospel discovered in the here and now may even be a real reason for rejoicing.

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Lectionary sermon for 4 December 2016 ( Advent 2 Year A ) on Matthew 3:1-12

Baptism, Then and Now
In the modern world, the rite of Baptism must seem strange and archaic to those with no familiarity with its history and meaning. Indeed, when we move from whatever form of baptism we are familiar with in our own tradition to look at what others do instead, the act of baptism must raise almost as many questions as it does answers.

The mental image of John the Baptist, wild eyed, unkempt and dressed in animal skins, berating members of the crowd before dunking them into the weedy, dirty water of the Jordan river could not be much further from the genteel image of a robed priest reciting a few carefully proscribed words from a standardized prayer book before gently sprinkling a few drops of pre-warmed water on the forehead of a tiny baby and baptizing him or her in the names from the fourth century formula of the Trinity. Can I suggest that at the very least it takes great leap in imagination before assuming that the words and actions the British royal family witnesses at the baptism services of its various princes and princesses are somehow the equivalent of the ranting and threats of John the Baptist in full voice.

While it may be somewhat embarrassing it is probably fair enough to ask what, if anything, is retained in modern versions of baptism when set against Matthew’s original gospel account.

We might start by noting that John was not the first to baptize in Palestine. The ritual of baptism back then, was usually the dramatic key event in the initiation for the gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. This wasn’t the case for those born into the Jewish faith. They would instead be presented to the Temple or Synagogue soon after birth and be expected to go through another ceremony at about age 12 before they could take their full place in Jewish society.

The understanding at that time was that baptism was unnecessary for Jews since being born into the Jewish family community was enough to begin as a member of the Chosen Race. On the other hand to join that Chosen Race from the outside meant setting aside one’s old faith, which was seen as needing evidence of total commitment. Thus the ceremony of baptism by full immersion in the river was considered to be the outward display of one prepared to renounce their previous beliefs and take on the new life and new direction.

At the time of Jesus, the emergence of small number of baptizers, including John the Baptist, wanting to baptize Jews, was part of a growing movement reflecting the desperation experienced by the Jews at the time of the Roman occupation. Their historical understanding had been that they were a special people – chosen by God – yet the promised Messiah who had been expected to appear like King David to lead them to their rightful restored place had not arrived and some, like John, were now teaching that this was really because the Jews had gone so far from the ways of God that they might not even have the right to be thought of as God’s people.

Jews they may have been be in name- yet as far as those like John the Baptist were concerned, what was required was for them to re-join the faithful and demonstrate their commitment by having themselves baptized. Only then would the Messiah appear.

Matthew’s version has John calling the Pharisees and Sadducees amongst the crowd “a brood of vipers”. In Mark’s earlier version of the same story, it is the crowd in general who are thus addressed, and although we would almost certainly be shocked if a modern preacher were to address those who arrive at a place of baptism in those terms, it may remind us that if baptism is to mean anything at all we should at least reflect on why it is needed.

My favourite Baptism story concerns that most impressive Russian leader from the fifteenth century, now best known as Ivan the Great. I concede that like many stories from history that in this case at least some of the details are likely to be apocryphal. Nevertheless I find the story interesting even if parts are more parable than verified fact.

Ivan’s main claim to fame was the way he reunited the regions of Russia by a mixture of judicious force and skilful diplomacy. Having achieved his immediate goals in Russia he then turned his attentions to nearby territories. In those days organizing marriages between ruling families was a way of cementing relationships and accordingly Ivan sent his envoys out to find him a suitable bride.

The story has it that he envoys returned with a portrait of the daughter of the king of Greece and Ivan was sufficiently impressed with her beauty to decide she was a most suitable match. The King of Greece, although no doubt happy with the thought of such a powerful ally on his doorstep, was inclined to agree, but there was a problem. According to Greek custom, only a baptized member of the Greek Orthodox Church was allowed to marry the King’s daughter. The wily Ivan, perhaps seeing this as a cosmetic arrangement, was happy to oblige. He let the Greek King know that not only would he accept the challenge to be baptized, to show his goodwill (and we might suspect his sense of theatre), he would also have members of his personal bodyguard similarly baptized.

But… Oh dear. ..another catch. The Greek Orthodox Church could not accept soldiers who were still serving soldiers as candidates for baptism, since a baptised Christian was not allowed to kill. An impatient Ivan directed his advisors to find a solution – and one was found.

On the day of the baptism, Ivan entered the water with a Bishop of the Church and each member of his guard accompanied by a separate priest also went into the water. On the given signal each soldier raised their sword arm in the air – and was baptised by immersion for all but the sword arm.
The soldier was baptized but the un-baptized arm could still kill in the service of the Emperor.

Baptized – yet not quite totally baptized.
Is there not a parallel with what we find today? Most of us – (and I include myself here), can probably identify activities where our religious beliefs take a back seat to more immediate concerns. Quite apart from the continued attraction of the so called deadly sins, Church goers can be noticed demonstrating characteristics that put them in opposition to Jesus’ teaching.

There they are, storing up riches, taking thought for the morrow and holding grudges instead of forgiving those who wrong them, suggesting by their actions that baptism is insufficient to guarantee a consistent following of the way of Christ. Perhaps as a consequence most modern societies treat Baptism in a far more cavalier fashion. For example, these days all soldiers are expected to be allowed to kill the designated enemy – and I suspect if you were to approach their commander and explain that those under his command were unable to go into combat because as infants they had been baptized, the commander would refer you to the Army psychiatrist.

Very well then, if not for soldiers, what other context is expected to matter for baptism? Remember that baptism is also a public display of an intention not only not to kill but also to live in a different way, associated with a whole new way of life. As we reflect on our own lives it is fair to ask what changed or different characteristics an independent observer would notice about us as a result.

When it comes to baptizing a small child I don’t think it is being unnecessarily cynical to admit, at least in a typical worst case scenario, the action of baptism or christening is typically seen as a desirable custom rather than a genuine declaration of intent.

I have on occasion put it to a congregation that where the child is baptized and is subsequently brought up as a virtual stranger to the Church, this is roughly equivalent to going along to a sports muster day, signing the child up for a football or basketball team, and perhaps even paying the club fee, then never encouraging the child to turn up as a participant for the sport. If we find that silly – why do we not find encouraging baptism to be equally silly in the case where no difference in behaviour, or action, is intended.

No doubt what happens after infant Baptism is largely a parental responsibility yet if the words of a typical service are to mean anything, the responsibility goes rather wider than that. When the congregation is invited to vow that they will support the child being brought up in the faith but then do nothing to ensure that happens it also seems to me that the words of the service become empty and that the public vow is vacuous.

John the Baptist enjoined those he baptized “to bear fruit worthy of repentance”. This is a helpful reminder that Matthew’s use of the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, does not simply mean to be filled with penitent remorse – but actually suggests something closer to the Jewish equivalent word teshuva – meaning turn about face – or at least to undergo a change of mind or change of direction. We may well claim that has happened, but should still at least wonder if others might notice that the change is enough for others to see. If we can’t think of at least some evidence, honest reflection might encourage us to ask why not?

Although probably a majority of denominations still use the ceremony of baptism at least as a preliminary to the induction into the Christian faith, we might also pause to ask ourselves why some denominations teach it is not necessary. The Unitarians and Salvation Army for example do not practise the rite and before we, who do practice Baptism, insist that our customs are more correct, we must also be honest with ourselves in checking that we are the better Christians in the life expression of our faith as a consequence of our chosen belief.

Since some can start to live their Christianity without recourse to baptism we might also wonder whether baptism is critical in practice and may even need to be more relaxed about which form of baptism is absolutely essential, no matter what tradition might teach us. At the same time if we become aware that our course in life is not leading us in the direction our consciences tell us we ought to be heading, I wonder if we can just make out the words of John the Baptist echoing faintly down through the centuries, reminding us to bear the fruit of repentance …what was it again…. metanoia, the change of direction.

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Lectionary Sermon for 27 November 2016 , (Advent 1 A) based on Matthew 24: 36-44

If you want to encounter some seriously nutty responses to today’s gospel simply recall the dire warnings in the false and failed predictions by the host of self appointed doomsayers over the centuries since the time of Christ.

Because today’s passage is so commonly seriously misrepresented, I want to start with some intentionally pointed observations.

Admittedly there are issues first with the copyists and editors of Matthew’s text. By the time we get to encounter the text it has been copied many times and differences in the versions suggest it has been extensively edited. Yet, even assuming we are reading the relatively unedited text of what Jesus originally said, we should at least look at the whole text. The lectionary allows for a certain amount of wriggle room and it is perhaps unfortunate that some denominations (and that includes my own!) start by often simply avoiding parts of the chosen readings that don’t have a good fit with their particular favoured theology.

For example if you compare the Roman Catholic reading for today’s gospel with those of the other Churches’ readings you may have noted that this time it is the Catholic version which starts one verse later. I don’t happen to know the official reason but I cannot help but wonder that, since in the dropped verse Jesus states that “no-one knows the hour and for emphasis adds, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son – but only the Father”, to some this would be an awkward admission. We might also note that some copyists or editors were so discomfited by the three words “nor the Son” that a number of versions of the gospel quietly leave those words out altogether.

I guess we can at least understand their motivation. If Jesus admits he doesn’t have total knowledge about what is being predicted, he comes across as being more human than the God like figure who is all knowing in what is commonly thought to be traditional Church theology.

Next we consider the setting. When Jesus uses the analogy “Just as in the days of Noah” – he is saying figuratively that this applies to those caught up in cataclysm. The Greek word, translated in NRSV as “flood” in verses 38 and 39 is kataklusmou—which we can equally translate indeed as cataclysm. This should give us a clue, namely that here Jesus is talking to those who are shortly to be caught in a maelstrom which of course is exactly what the early Christian Church was facing.

The early Christian church at the time of Matthew’s gospel numbered a few thousand at best. Those who were struggling to help their tiny church survive, lived in frightening times, and were for the most part experiencing being rejected by the Jewish community while at the same time being harassed by the Romans offended by the Christians’ reluctance to acknowledge the Emperor as a God.

The early Christians, like the other Jews, also experienced abject poverty at the hands of the Romans As if this wasn’t enough, the scholars’ date for Gospel of Matthew, set at about 80AD, tells that the sacking of the Temple and destruction of most of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans had already happened since the Jewish war was from AD 66 to 70. For all these reasons cataclysm was already upon the first readers of Matthew’s gospel.

This should offer the opportunity for us to draw parallels with our own lives. Do we really need to wait for end times to encounter cataclysm? Part of the human condition means that virtually everyone born, sooner or later will experience at the very least a “quiet apocalypse” in their own lives. For example, sooner or later there will be a health crisis, and cancer is depressingly common especially with the elderly. Even in the best ordered family death will need to be faced, whether it is one’s own death or a death of some figure absolutely critical to the well being of the family.

In this nation at least, there are other issues which may resonate with some. Sooner or later, most families experience severe financial pressures, perhaps in the form of unexpected redundancy, and it is common that one or more family members may get caught up with addiction or depression. If it comes to that, even nice houses and quiet neighbourhoods are no protection against marriage breakdown which is an ever present feature of modern society.

We must also be honest, at least if only with ourselves, and admit frankly that even if Jesus had been predicting his second coming in the near future, and if the second coming was intended to mean what the rapture predictors claimed to be the truth, Jesus was simply wrong. It didn’t happen in the lifetime of his listeners and it didn’t happen in that form for the almost two thousand years which have since passed. At the same time we might also note that there are some clues to suggest Jesus may have been on about something rather different.

This coming is certainly portrayed as unexpected. The thief in the night is unexpected just as each crisis is often unexpected. Yet encountering the experience of Jesus may not be separate from the cataclysm. Parousia—the Greek for “coming”–is formed from para and ousia. Literally, the term means “being alongside.” The scholars remind us the verb translated as “coming(erxetai) is in the present tense, not future.

OK we cannot be certain of his words because even if he is accurately reported, Jesus was presumably not speaking Greek, but this simultaneous coming and being experienced alongside implies that Jesus is found in each apocalypse whatever form it might take. At the same time we should reflect on the fact that nowhere in the Bible do we find the words “second coming”. It is certainly reasonable to suggest Matthew was recording an suggested event intended to remind his listeners of the Apocalyptic Book of Daniel where in Daniel 7:13, Daniel saw “one like a son of humanity, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

The notion that Jesus doesn’t come for all may be a picturesque way of suggesting that those unprepared will simply fail to recognise his presence because they cannot recognise his presence in the familiar. It should be emphasised that as far as we know, particularly from other things Jesus is thought to have said, being prepared for Jesus coming has absolutely nothing to do with rushing to the top of some mountain to sing hymns and say Amen to the loud prayers of some self appointed Holy man.

It is for example interesting to read today’s text alongside that other famous passage on the final judgment from Matthew Chapter 25.where the confused chosen ones asked “37 …… ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Recognizing Jesus may seem an easy task, but even the thought that everyone starting with King Herod, to the religious leaders, to Pilate and even the soldiers at the foot of the Cross reportedly had the greatest difficulty in understanding who Jesus was, even when they had met him in the flesh, and this should be enough to remind us that this task may not be straightforward. Jesus specifically claimed that it is rather in our understanding that he is present in those who need our help, so perhaps we need to start by reflecting on how we approach those who are the least among us.

In short – if Jesus is right in his parables of his coming again, staying awake and being prepared to recognise the coming of the Son of Man, is not and never has been a so called religious event. Perhaps it is rather, nothing more nor less than a sincere attempt to recognize opportunities to live the Christian ethic.

It is probably uncomfortable to many Church members to allow in Jesus’ terms that sponsoring the installation of a well for poverty stricken villagers in the third world, providing a food bank for the destitute in our own city, or even volunteering for a peacekeeping force may be closer to getting ready for whatever is meant by the coming of the son of man than lustily singing a few verses of Onward Christian Soldiers and quietly sleeping through the preacher’s well intentioned sermon.

Cataclysms can still come as they always have come, and for each of us the ultimate cataclysm may seem more dreadful in our future.

Far from impending cataclysm our Advent candles seem to offer a gentle and even ordered approach to Christmas. Today the first Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of Prophecy or Hope for what the coming of Jesus might mean. Next week we light the candle of Love, then it will be the candle of Joy and finally the candle of Peace. Only then according to this ordered tradition will we be ready to light the Christ candle on Christmas day.

I like this tradition, but if we really are to celebrate the coming of Christ to the real world, perhaps we need to be more keenly aware that for many of the least of our brothers and sisters, caught in their own genuine cataclysm of poverty, pain and despair, words like Hope, Love, Joy and Peace will mean little until those who claim to share Christ’s vision for the future reach out to the despairing with genuine compassion. I wonder if we will be found numbered among those who care. Jesus of the Parousia may be noticed alongside as we light our candles. How we prepare ourselves to recognize his coming is the challenge now before us.

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Sermon for Christ the King (Year C) Sunday, 20 November 2016 on Luke 23: 33-43

A King Follower or a King Noticer?
By any measure the last two weeks have centred round some fairly dramatic events. We now note a new and very different President of the United States which is either very good or very bad news depending on what you would expect to see such a President do in his new role. Although some of the protestors against Trump’s electoral victory are now chanting and waving placards to proclaim “Not our President” I want to change the argument around and start by asking what it might mean to have a President who is indeed the one the people not only would follow but who they actually do follow.

Think by analogy of all those who for example claim to identify Jesus as their Saviour and King. Didn’t that same King ask his followers to forgive their enemies, to offer kindness to those who persecute them, to be a Good Samaritan to those in danger? If we merely petition the King to do these things on our behalf (which is sometime done in prayers), surely this is rather missing the point.

Do you think it odd that in this day of celebrities no matter how deep the crisis the spotlight always goes on the leaders and the rest of us act as judges on the efforts of our leaders and not on ourselves who are supposed to follow and represent their way of life?

Although we expect action from our leaders, all too often we don’t see ourselves as part of the equation. Since it is Christ the King Sunday today, would you like to speculate as to how many of the drivers who have passed by an accident victim without stopping should be confident in ticking a box which says “Jesus is King?”

Just as we in New Zealand are facing a major disaster in the form of an Earthquake which has devastated the upper East Coast of the South Island of New Zealand others too face their own problems. Those claiming a faith which answers problems might well reflect on how these disasters have made us different from others who respond to the victims.

The question of affirmation of the status of Jesus may seem to you to be a side issue, and I will get to that. First let’s step back a little into rather more familiar territory.

When it comes to any famous leader from history, for those interested in that leader, the natural question that seems to be foremost in everyone’s mind is: what sort of character was that person? However when it comes to Jesus, since the consensus already appears that he was worthy of being called a king, and what’s more a significant proportion of human kind claim that at least in some sense of the word, that to them he is still a king, there are two further questions that have to be asked. The first of these questions is what do we mean when we think of Jesus being the king? The second question is rather more important. Assuming that Jesus is entitled to be thought of as king, how should that affect those who claim he is their king? In other words, how should it affect those calling themselves Christian?

Since much of Christ’s teaching was related to the coming of the Kingdom, it is hardly surprising that the compilers of the lectionary should set aside one Sunday in the Church Year to focus on the notion of Christ the King. At first glance, what is more surprising is that the organisers of the lectionary for this particular Sunday should include a reading about the crucifixion (normally associated with Easter ) and also place this reading just before the season of Advent, when the Church focuses on the significance of the coming of Jesus.

Even if we only had that one incident to go by, the crucifixion with the ironic crown of thorns is a vivid reminder of that Jesus’ kingship was very different from what we usually mean we talk of someone being a king. The gospel stories portray one who placed great store on humility, a Jesus who focused on offering service to others and on seeking justice and fair dealing for those often rejected by society.

In our age where everyone appears certain of whose faith is heretical, it is worth remembering that according to the gospels Jesus was actually in favour of tolerance. He didn’t seem to care who he ate with or in whose company he was found. He ate with tax collectors and known sinners and talked with prostitutes. He appears to have had women in his inner circle despite the social conventions of a male-dominated society; and where no one was allowed within about five feet of lepers he apparently would touch such outcasts in his acts of healing.

A king, Jesus may have been, but as John Dominic Crossan pointed out, Jesus was a king of nuisances and nobodies.

We would also find it hard to associate what we read of Jesus the king with one who might equally have called for armed rebellion. Not only did he seem uninterested in recruiting troops for physical battle but instead chose to enter Jerusalem on a donkey. Kings seeking recognition would be expected to surround themselves with the trappings of office, a significant bodyguard and the usual symbols of power. This king was not one in this mold and reportedly had no servants to cater to his every need. Jesus allegedly only had a single cloak and far from living in a sumptuous palace is said to have had nowhere to lay his head.

It makes little sense to describe a king without looking at the nature of their kingdom. And here we are not talking of geographical boundaries. We are really talking about those who accept the king-ship described in the gospels, wherever they may live – and regardless of what formal association for census purposes or denomination they might theoretically claim.

Perhaps there is a parallel in knowing that Elizabeth is Queen of England is an item of knowledge shared by a good part of the population of the World. That does not mean for example that therefore the citizens of Saudi Arabia, knowing Elizabeth is Queen of the British Empire, also believe she rules over the citizens of Saudi Arabia. By the same token, those agitating for New Zealand to become a republic, despite living in a Commonwealth nation do not in fact see Queen Elizabeth as their acceptable head of State, nor as an advisor worth listening to. Technically they may be citizens of the Commonwealth, yet like some who describe themselves as Christian on the census papers, there is no genuine feeling of association.

If he were a king with characteristics mentioned, how then should Jesus be remembered and celebrated? I can’t help wondering if he might have been appalled by what happened in the few hundred years following his crucifixion as some of his followers set about portraying him as precisely the opposite of what his actions and words proclaimed him to be. He had sought no significant building in his lifetime – yet his followers decided he needed something really significant and built a series of wonderful Churches and Cathedrals in his memory.

The crosses became ornate and encrusted with jewels. Artists first painted Jesus with a simple halo which grew in size as the years passed. Some placed a crown on his head. As far as we can tell from the gospel stories Jesus ate simply, yet his followers organised feasts in his name. The art historians a few years ago showed how with the passing centuries the splendour of the last supper – portrayed by the religious artists of the day at first with simple bread and wine – grew with successive portrayals.

At the same time this reimaging of Christ was emerging, there was an accompanying theological rethink .

Perhaps the most significant of the re-statements occurred when the first Roman Emperor considered sympathetic to Christianity, Constantine, encouraged Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor to preside over the Council of Nicaea and have the council come up with a statement about Jesus that took his status way beyond that of King and instead awarded him the title of “Very God of Very God, co-equally and co eternally with God”, which of course is how many supporters of the Trinity still see Jesus today. Without re-entering the apparently unending debate as to whether this is still a meaningful statement, particularly given what we now know about the Universe, and while acknowledging that many Christians of a more liberal persuasion simply reject that proposition, it is clear that different groups of Christians have come to very different decisions about the status of Christ. On the other hand I wonder if the theological status of Jesus is where we should place our attention..

Presumably whatever Jesus was in reality, whether it be a humble teacher, Son of God, or even one coequal with God, we are still left with the question as to what we should do with the description we want. To know for instance that Jesus is king as many hymns are prepared to state, is not the same as thinking of him as a king to be followed in his teaching.

Indeed when some time ago, when Brian Wren analysed many mainstream Christian hymns for the images of the king he discovered that something like 80% of the masculine images of the king implied power over others and something like 60% references to Jesus as king were images of power whereas very few hymns talking of the king used concepts of humility and servant-hood, which would be required if the hymns were to be focused on following Jesus teaching.

The gospels are clear enough. Jesus selects metaphors like the king is the good shepherd, the one caring for the lost, and we are left with the impression that the king is also the personification of the Sermon on the Mount, and the best king is the servant of all. Surely that suggests something of the nature of what might be expected of the follower of the king.

Jesus taught by parable and by example that an ethical response is expected from those who wished to be associated with his way. To take our opening example of the injured man seeking help from the passing motorists, choosing to drive by on the other side, is not living in the spirit of the kingdom. The truck driver who does eventually stop is surely the one who acts in accordance with the golden rule, no matter what his Church affiliation or lack of Church affiliation may turn out to be.

Conversely those who sing words of praise to one they refer to as king are hardly being consistent with their claimed faith if, when tested, they prefer to look the other way.

As we enter Advent, it is an appropriate time to ask ourselves if the King we celebrate and claim to worship is genuinely one we see ourselves to be following not just in our words but in our attitudes and actions. Perhaps for now we should set aside his title and the abstruse theology surrounding the Trinity and instead give our attention to our response to the simple message he brings. Then perhaps instead of affirming “Jesus the King” we might be entitled to venture the words “Jesus our King”.

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Lectionary Sermon for 13 November 2016 on Luke 21: 5-19

Walls to Enclose, Walls to Exclude
Looking back over the last two or three months of the US elections, of all the issues that most symbolized the division and perhaps even most told us about what really mattered in the hearts and minds of the voters – was the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States. I know it was probably only ever symbolic – yet through history – right down through history walls have always mattered. Walls set boundaries. Sometimes they have been used to exclude. Sometimes to provide safety – keep foreigners and those of different faiths at bay. The walls raise an interesting question. What do they say about ourselves – and our relationships?

To the Jews and also I guess to the early Christians, watching the Romans destroy the walls of the Jews’ precious Temple and exact terrible vengeance on the Jews for rising in revolt, must have seemed an unmitigated disaster.

There are numerous references to the Temple in Jewish history and religious writing. We might remember Jesus himself, (not to mention virtually all his first followers), was a Jew with feelings of identification with the Temple. Luke appeared from his record, to have had an even greater respect for the Temple than the other New Testament writers and for example, unlike the other gospel writers he places virtually all of Jesus final teaching in and around the precincts of the Temple. In Acts Ch 6, Luke shows the Apostles were not criticising either the Temple or the Law and in the following Chapter he is careful to tell the story of the stoning of Stephen in such a way that Stephen is not thought to be attacking the Temple, but rather draws attention to the misuse and abuse of the temple.

Certainly the Temple building was a magnificent structure. The pillars of the porches were some 40 feet high columns of white marble, each allegedly made of a single block of stone. According to the contemporary historian Josephus, the front of the temple was encrusted with gold plate and from a distance the body of the temple appeared to onlookers as if covered in snow. One of the most significant of the offerings (which presumably were the ones talked of by Jesus in this passage) was a gold relief model of a grape vine described as having clusters of grapes, each cluster standing as tall as a man.

As the religious centre for the Jews, the Temple had additional significance and although a cynic would no doubt say that it had been rebuilt principally to glorify Herod, it was clear that as far as the early followers were concerned, they considered it first and foremost to be a Holy place. Jesus’ reported indignation in clearing the temple of the money lenders and his apparently single minded intention to return to the Temple to complete his mission were indicative of how the gospel writers interpreted the Temple’s importance.

Luke tells us that Jesus had prophesied that the entire temple would shortly be pulled down with “Not one stone left upon another” and by the time Luke recorded his gospel, this had already happened. Yet there is a strange anomaly. The destruction of the walls and the consequent dispersal of Jews and Christians from Jerusalem was in all likelihood the key to the spread of the gospel.

Although in one sense the Temple was a celebration of the way to approach God, the walls themselves were designed to put visitors in their place. Certainly Gentiles were encouraged to visit the outside courtyard, but the archaeologists have discovered the sign on the gentiles’ wall which could hardly be more direct. The gist of the translation: “If you are a gentile, and if you go beyond this wall, it will be your own fault when we kill you!”

The next courtyard was as far as Jewish women were allowed to go, then it was the courtyard for the Jewish men, then an area for the Priests and finally that veiled place of mystery, the Holy of Holies, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter – and then only one day a year.

Walls to confine, to exclude and to obscure and ultimately walls that would not and perhaps should not last.

We humans do so love our significant structures. The immense effort which has gone into building great walls and huge buildings throughout the ancient world is an indicator and even a barometer of the fortunes of history. Think of the Great Wall of China which the contemporary historians of the day claimed cost more than a million lives, the great cathedrals of Europe – many of which took more than one hundred years to build – and the great mosques, palaces and lavish tombs of the mighty rulers of the day. Yet for outsiders, and even for insiders, the walls and buildings also serve as symbols which may obscure true understanding of the spirit they are supposed to represent.

At its most basic the problem is if you can’t see in, by the same token you can’t see out. Here we might think of our modern Churches as well as the Temple. And if you listen to the language inside the Church and the language used by the same people outside the Church you might be excused for thinking that there are two separate worlds and even separate existences…. I even sometimes wonder if we should we think of ourselves as bipolar Christians!

Let me illustrate. Inside the walls of the Church we use our religious vocabulary to give thanks for salvation, seek forgiveness of sins and talk of meeting not for a mere cup of tea but for fellowship. In church you will hear those familiar phrases, the bread of life and the blood of the lamb …The fellowship of the Holy Spirit… and they all said AMEN. Comforting words of the initiated….

Outside much more commonly it is talk of what most would think as the real world. Not time for “fellowship” but meeting up for coffee at the town centre. Not time for prayers of confession. Rather: What have our politicians been up to behind our backs? Are the contractors offering a fair price? Did you watch the final? What’s for dinner?

This raises a question. If we can create this religious enclave in Church, having “done Church” on Sunday is there really any need to have anything to do with those awkward people we don’t really want to get to know outside the Church during the week? Or do you think what we should be asking about why we seem not to notice the difference? Having prayed for healing for Aunty Dolly on Sunday, all too often we seem to think: why would we need to visit Aunty Dolly in the hospital? Surely the more pertinent question is: if we prayed for Aunt Dolly in Church, what were we doing if we didn’t intend to follow it up with the hospital visit? Yet how different might it be if we return from Church to the world transformed, taking what we learn on one side of the wall to the other.

I don’t often get to see the Simpsons on TV these days but when I do I am intrigued how many of the apparently fatuous remarks of Homer Simpson seem a fair representation of what in our more honest moments we suspect many people think.

Let’s hear from Bart:
‘Dad, what religion are we?‘ —
Homer replies ‘You know… the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work out in real life… Christianity!‘ …….. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if that is the way it is meant to be, and from there, how the myriad of modern versions of the Temple contribute to this Homer type attitude.

True a building can increase the pride and feelings of security and place for those who are privileged to use the building, but there is always a cost. Because outsiders cannot see in they feel excluded and of course those inside, while they are there they cannot notice what goes on beyond the walls.

I am not against the idea of Churches. I have always been struck by the atmosphere inside, the architecture and furniture and wall hangings which help us centre our thoughts and provide a place of contemplation and even wonder. Yet surely we must remain keenly aware of what our building does to the way we interact with those beyond the walls.

In Robert Frost’s work entitled Walls I was struck by a thought in the poem
“….Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence”.

As far as the religious community was concerned he destruction of the Temple was tragic and in all likelihood totally traumatic. The Jews who were not tortured or killed were driven out of Jerusalem and forced to interact with the world outside the city gates. And in truth it must have seemed to them like the end of the world. Yet like so many apocalyptic events through the centuries it was not the end of the world. The Christian missionaries, like so many since, were forced away from their protective Church enclaves into a world where they lived and shared their faith as best they could, and we inherit their efforts.

In choosing which of Jesus’ words to recount, Luke is not pulling any punches. Not only will the Temple have to go but genuine problems and even anguish is ahead. And that is of course the nature of the real world. Some will have it worse than others. Some have always had it worse than others. Some might be lucky enough to live tranquil lives and die peaceful deaths but when you are prepared to put faith and life on the line – in the real world, even life itself can be required. Luke finishes this section of his gospel with Jesus having just said some will be put to death, yet then Jesus comes out with this curious enigmatic statement. “But not one hair of your heads will perish. By your endurance you will win your souls”.

For the survival and spread of the faith, in the last analysis the temple is not needed. If anything, by its misuse the temple had simply got in the way of the next step of faith, just as our Church will get in the way if we allow its walls to become part of the problem. Yet outside the security of those walls, even if the sacrifice of life itself is called for – that which Jesus calls the soul – or if you prefer – that which is most important because it is the very essence of life – is somehow won. It is frankly beyond my knowledge and level of faith to talk confidently of exactly what it means to win our souls, yet it does seem to me that in restoring our priorities, we regain the dignity of the human condition, which at the very least is a prize worth winning.

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A Memo to Hillary’s Speech Writer….

I guess I am not alone in saying that for the last few months I have been mesmerized by the increasingly bizarre antics of the Donald Trump circus as this singularly unqualified and totally self –centred rich property tycoon and media star boasts, promises, blusters and directs a tirade of hate and bigotry to any who question his attitudes or experience.

When he first came on to the scene, Trump had an extraordinarily appeal to the large number who felt their concerns were being overlooked. The media moved in behind him supplying an incredible volume of free publicity. Certainly analysts and students of the American Political process were only too well aware that Trump’s claims were frequently wrong and his shaky grasp of economics and politics quite inappropriate for one wishing to control a nation, but the frequent uncovering of scandal, the lurid accusations and the unpredictability of his outbursts tapped into the need of the media outlets to capture market share. The basic premise that an individual free from past baggage of flawed political process could simply burst onto the scene and enact all the necessary corrections by edict might have been totally odds with what anyone with knowledge of recent political process would say, but as entertainment, the fact is that people have tuned in.

The control system in practice is probably about as far removed from the ideals of democracy as it is possible to be.   The biggest barrier facing the disenfranchised is the one that neither of the major parties is anxious to expose, namely the curious art of gerrymandering.  Electoral boundaries are redrawn state by state to place all the negative votes in confined areas (often with convoluted boundaries) with those in favour of the map drawing party assigned more electoral districts.    The consequent result means that total votes State by State often turns out to be less significant than the total of representatives.   The Republican party used gerrymandering to great effect in 2010 in gaining control of both the Senate and the Congress and then using the consequent veto power to block every substantive effort of the President to introduce major legislation.

There is a degree of irony in the fact that some of the very same factors that make people suspicious of Government in the US are the very factors that have made it possible for an outsider with no practical experience seem a viable contender for the highest political post in the land. A system that has built in safeguards for affording individuals or groups from gaining too much power means that establishment power bases cannot easily wrest control of key positions in favour of their own.

Similarly the American political process has evolved through the years to give hidden power to those with access to money. A 2014 study from Princeton and North-western Universities concluded that the US Government is measurably able to be shown to be controlled by the rich and powerful. Oligarchy is the technical name for the form of Government in which power is vested in a dominant class to enable a small group exercise control over the general population. The study entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” analysed how something like 1,800 US policies enacted between 1981 and 2002 showing that the general pattern was that the resulting legislation followed the wishes and influences of the economic elite.

While Trump arrived fulminating about the loss of control on the part of the people, the thrust of his campaign is totally ironic in that his main message appears to be that if we look after the rich and the powerful, and if we agree with the need to give more power to the energy lobby eg the Koch Brothers, the NRA, and remove power from those groups who are seeking to assist minorities ie the Democrats then all will benefit.

Trump’s message was designed to appeal. Hearing messages like there is too much big Government, too many taxes, not enough jobs, too little reward for the middle classes clearly resonated with those who had been losing hope. He certainly exuded confidence with his authoritative sounding: “Jobs – We’re going to fix that!” “ISIS – they’re gone…” “Those dangerous refugees and illegal immigrants will be sent back” The more tricky issue of precisely of how change is expected to translate to action is still awaiting resolution.

The Trump promises seem unlikely to survive the realities of budget and trade-offs between the interests of powerful lobbies.   Regardless of the rhetoric, very real vestiges of pork-barrel politics are still a defining characteristic of US political processes. And yet sooner or later policies need to be explained and examined.  Once his policies were more carefully checked, Trump found the sympathies of mainstream media beginning to desert him. It was all very well to drip-feed the detail of his policies for the media analysts to examine and fact check, but unfortunately it turned out his facts were frequently wrong and sometime seriously so. His frequent authoritative sounding policy statements flatly contradicted his previous policy positions and were often at odds with statements by others in his team. Trump’s grasp of detail, particularly in his analysis of what was happening in the economy and in the Middle East had become steadily more embarrassing.

On paper he offers total action. On reflection he offers empty promises. As recently as 28 September he finally released his policy on roads. It sounded good. The central feature was immediate release of 1 trillion dollars for roads through the US. The only problem was that by following his promises for cutting back on taxes for the rich and promising to increase the salaries of lower paid federal workers, this roads policy would merely place further pressure on debt.

The other aspect of the policy which is likely to be unworkable is that each change to the budget has to work its way through the entire political and financial system whereby the current system of satisfying competing interest groups eg defence, NRA, the energy sector etc etc has to be balanced against the individual needs of the various States which traditionally have only agreed to support any new measure on a quid pro quo basis. As even President Obama discovered to his cost, the simplest of policies providing the most obvious solutions cannot be achieved by edict.

At the outset Trump’s main election technique appeared to be to identify and pander to deep seated worries and even prejudice as revealed by mainstream polls while he made vacuous and often contradictory fact free promises about his assumed solutions to genuine complex problems. That many of his shifting policies are now signalled first on Twitter, given that a huge proportion of US election feed comments on Twitter are now generated by Bots, it makes it difficult to see his policies as serious. It might even be argued that the most worrying aspect of his campaign is the way he seeks to turn his claim to the most powerful position in world Politics into a personal and unpredictable reality show starring – guess who?

It is undeniable he knows how to go about setting up a pageant of beautiful girls to smile at the cameras and follow the expected script – to declare their undying wish to conquer hunger, poverty, their heartfelt need work for world peace and of course their love for orphans and small animals. No doubt some of these contestants would eventually follow genuine ideals later in life but surely no one ever seriously believes that one who’s recent life experience has been of necessity dominated with cosmetics, clothes, diet and personal grooming is the automatic sensible first choice for the leader of the peace-keeping mission. In the same way, why would we assume a seventy year old who has spent his entire life to date focussed on trying – and apparently successfully -to make his fortune without paying his share of tax is likely to have developed the skills and knowledge to deliver on what he promises to deliver..

If the POTUS job description only required experience in Casino construction using Chinese steel instead of supporting local US steel industry, or success in avoiding tax, then Donald would be a plausible front runner. The tricky bit is to reconcile his new found ideals with his practice to date. It is all very well boasting of a large secret bank balance, but if his real values actually included seeing to the needs of the most vulnerable in society, why did he not use some of this vast surplus to pay off his debtors in his highly publicised failed projects instead of ruining many of his workers. Is the new untried POTUS Donald Trump now somehow entirely different?

So what should Hillary say?

Perhaps one obvious problem with Donald’s policies is that they appear to change from day to day on the very same issues. A vote for Donald will not give any indication of the policies which will be implemented. . Google the changes in Donald Trump’s policies and there you will find an extraordinary mish-mash of contradictory statements (sometimes issued on the same day) and in many cases demonstrating a total lack of comprehension of the key factors for each policy.

Just to take one simple example, he said in the third debate he was strongly opposed to the woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. Here he was presenting a typical standard conservative view which would resonate with many in the Bible belt. No problem… well …. apart from that those who have tried to follow his policy shifts would note that this is his fifth contradictory statement on abortion, and that is just this year. He further said that Hillary’s position continues freely allows termination anywhere up to the last day of pregnancy. Someone ought to teach him how to begin to research if only on the Net. 43 states forbidding termination past the twenty-second week AND nation-wide State policies which only resulted in about 1.8% of terminations past the 23rd week doesn’t sound like wholesale slaughter of the final term foetus to me. Leaving aside his previous statements in favour of termination justified on medical or religious grounds, his views on abortion which have obviously shifted significantly from the beginning of the year and we are left with the uncomfortable conclusion that he shifts policy on a whim to appeal to different conservative groups.

A good question for a Trump supporter is which of his different policies on the same issue do you think you are voting for?

Perhaps Hillary might reflect carefully on the Trump themes that are revisited time after time and the way leaving onlookers with some serious puzzles. Donald keeps insisting that Hillary should be locked up for using her private Email for State sensitive issues. As is now clear after the FBI investigation, at the time she was probably at least guilty of continuing the out-dated practice of her predecessors as Secretary of State in an age where hacking was only just becoming a serious and credible issue.

We note that Donald Trump had similarly not raised the issue earlier – and certainly did nothing to identify which Republican appointed Secretaries of State had been guilty of the same carelessness. Hillary along with virtually all her contemporaries, with the wisdom of hindsight, now realises that we now live in more dangerous times, and she has clearly stated that she regretted her past actions even although she says that to the best of her knowledge there were no serious of breaches of security in what was stored on her computer. The Atlantic City Casino builder Donald Trump and student of the female body is convinced from his vast knowledge in computer hacking that despite her subjecting herself to that one year FBI investigation whose expert investigators had concluded the case should be closed, at every election meeting he still insists she should be locked up. Perhaps he sees no need for procedures of justice to be used, but there is a much more serious issue.

It is not just that he is slow on the uptake. After all it took Trump years to finally accept Obama was born in the USA despite Obama providing a long form birth certificate back in 2011. No the point is this. For whatever reason Donald is certain Hillary’s computer files do indeed contain sensitive files…… but get this…. he wants her to make them public knowledge!

Have I missed something? Even if he were right, and I would have to say his hazy grasp of issues and past track record makes him a less than credible judge, if there were even one file that might cause a problem for international relationships surely the last thing any serious contender for high office would want it that the file be made public.

Trump’s next most common criticism of Hillary’s campaign is that Bill Clinton made moral mistakes that eclipsed Trump’s failings – therefore Hillary can’t be trusted. Evidently despite the fact that Bill repaired the failing economic system of the American nation, in Donald’s eyes, Bill Clinton’s past moral failings means that somehow this disqualifies Hillary from the top job.

Well it seems to me this is indeed hazy logic. Unlike the women in Donald’s life surely she should be allowed to make her own decisions. In the second debate Trump said we should not even be talking about things like his attitudes to women. This surprised us because we thought that only second to his fixation on “Crooked Hillary”, based on the frequency of the times he mentions it in his speeches, Donald’s attitude to women was a key focus of his campaign.

Adultery on the part of one’s husband (even if with a woman who initiated the relationship) would and does endanger any marriage. In the real world this happens from time to time. Donald Trump’s reluctantly acknowledged affairs certainly endangered at least one marriage. How many is that now? But why would someone who has had very public marriage breakdowns and many accusers of inappropriate behaviour outside marriage think that this qualifies him to criticise the Clintons’ restoring a marriage when contrasted with his own stalking off in a rage. Is a hissy fit really evidence of more mature behaviour. If it comes to that, is it mature to boast in excruciating detail about how celebrities like him are entitled do revolting things to women because of one’s status, and then, despite a host of witnesses agreeing that this indeed was his behaviour, later say that it was just all talk? It’s strange but I would have thought even if the witnesses were unable to prove their case, his frank admission of what might only be interpreted as frequent lying may not be the best qualification for future trustworthiness.

Perhaps Hillary might wonder why a man like Donald would claim deep respect for women and in the next breath call his wife a liar. He initially claimed he had apologized to his wife and had been forgiven. Donald presumably encouraged Melania to go public with her support. She also stated to the National media that Donald had apologised to her about his so called locker room boasting and said she had forgiven him. Then a few days later, knowing this had been splashed over the national and international media he walks into the third debate and calls his wife a liar in front of the world. He had not apologised to Melania he claimed, because there was nothing to forgive!!!!

So what then are the attributes of someone who is marked for high leadership? Contrary to popular opinion, with literally hundreds of issues confronting the politicians, Donald’s fixation on Hillary’s occasional failure in the fraught area of Middle Eastern politics is missing the point. He ignores all basic research. What’s Aleppo? Hasn’t it already fallen?? Would you take on even the most junior Intern into foreign affairs if he or she had missed what virtually every educated person in the West has been reading for months?

He says Hillary is to be condemned for voting for entering Iraq? Terrible judgement he called it. Leaving aside his now faulty memory on his own public statements at the time, if he genuinely believes that someone should be rejected to high office on the basis of bad judgement about entering Iraq then why choose a deputy for himself who is on record as doing the same?

Surely a much better indication of effectiveness is whether or not the candidate has a track record of convincing one’s colleagues on the basis of past performance that she should be chosen for the right committees . As it transpired she had a part in solving some of the more intractable issues. And yes, there are some extraordinary non political figures who were also called in to help from time to time, yet it is funny that for all his talk now I never encountered Donald’s name in any of the significant decisions. He was apparently never consulted on the Committee of which Hillary was a part that authorized the taking out of Osama bin Laden. He made no significant contribution to the response to the fall of the Twin Towers, although to be fair he was recorded as being the only person who witnessed the hundreds of Muslim celebrations which he alone remembered in vague detail years after the event. The way I remember it is that his main public response was to strut about pointing out that Trump Tower was now the biggest apartment building in a US city.

If he does indeed win the Presidency, Donald is highly unlikely to be a team player. I am guessing if we read his past school reports the comment “Does not play well with others” would be a constant feature. Think for a moment about who he has fired from his team. Which number campaign manager are we on at the moment? Why does he ignore his advisors and make unworkable policy on the hoof. How many experienced Republican leaders has he rubbished or trash talked? How many have now made it abundantly clear they will not vote for him?

Richard Branson has been quoted as saying the most worrying feature of allowing Donald Trump into the White House is that he is so self obsessed that he focuses on revenge on those who failed to support him rather than the issues. Branson’s evidence for this comes from a meeting when he met Donald who, after one of his bankruptcies had been unsuccessfully seeking financial support from five wealthy potential backers. According to Branson Trump spent most of the evening explaining how he was going to spend the rest of his life destroying the lives of those who had stood in his way.
His public reaction to Republican critics suggests that

What Donald said at the second debate is that, rather than focussing on his attitudes, what we should be talking about were the things like ISIS and Syria. It turns out that not only did he have no coherent policy on either, when it came to those topics he insisted we should see as important he had not bothered to research his self identified key topics or even bother to consult with his Vice Presidential running mate.

Why did then did they have the opposite view on a policy as important as Syria? “We have never discussed the matter!!!!” His words not mine. Remember that when you think about voting for this man. I would have thought that someone who appears to have spent so much time in the locker room would have seen at least some slight advantage in being a team player. And what then might happen if for example apoplexy finally carries away the Donald. If he has not bothered to consult along the way surely it would mean the voters buying into a totally different set of policies from his deputy??

It is interesting to note from the demographics of those who claim to support Donald that the Ku Klux Klan think he is great. 90% of his male support comes from white, non college educated, European males. A majority of Latinos, Blacks and women evidently don’t like him. But in some ways the views of those living outside the States are even more informative. Evidently only 5% of the German public say they trust him and given his German background their views might be worth thinking about. His anti NATO statements presumably mean that he wants to do away with current treaties with Europe. It occurred to me that, after what he has been saying about Mexicans, that it is hardly surprising the Mexicans are retorting he is no longer welcome in their country. That may be a mite tricky when he insists that these neighbours should be responsible for building his multi-billion dollar border wall.

His central election clarion call of “Make America Great Again” conflates two contradictory notions.

Making America great for Americans might in the eyes of Trump’s support base seem to require making the US wealthy and powerful returning a time of prosperity for those now struggling to see hope for their personal prospects and future.  Changing allocation of resources helps some and disadvantages others from whom the resources are removed which is of course the basis of the famous economic Pareto Principle.

Given that the world’s resources are limited, in the eyes of those who live outside the US, the economic catch to having a rich and powerful US is that this may only be achieved in practice by disadvantaging those nations outside the US who currently enjoy a more stable and prosperous future precisely because the US is not currently becoming more rich and powerful by taking a greater share of those resources. Until Donald Trump makes it clear that he is aware of the Pareto Principle he should at least be asked to show why the apparent huge majority outside the US are wrong in what they are saying about the likely outcome of a Trump victory.

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Lectionary Sermon for October 30, 2016 on Luke 19:1-10(Proper 26C / Ordinary 31C / Pentecost +24)

Jesus and the Wee Little Man
Some of the stories about the events of Jesus’ life and teachings are easy to understand and applaud. The difficulties only arise when we take the next step and ask ourselves how the stories and teachings ought to affect us. So it is that today, the Lectionary brings us to one of the most well-known of all gospel stories. Simple yes, but in application almost mind altering, perhaps even life-changing.

Let’s go right back to the beginning. I don’t know about you, but one of the very few Sunday school songs I can remember goes something like:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

And when Jesus passed that way
He looked up in the tree.
And said, “Zaccheus, you come down!
For I’m going to your house you see!”

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
Now a happy man was he,
For he had seen the Lord that day
And a very happy man was he.

That story of Jesus’ meeting with Zacchaeus is of course one of the best known and possibly even one of the best loved in the gospels. I am guessing most of us remember Zacchaeus as that “wee little man” who came to see Jesus pass by when he visited Jericho. I guess the part of the story we prefer to ignore is not the question of how Jesus treated the social misfit – but rather the question of how we as the followers of Jesus are inspired by this story to make our own connection with serious rejects from society.

So to the story. Here we presume that as a tax collector – well actually a Chief Tax Collector, would most definitely qualify as a social pariah, and as a consequence for him to be mingling with the crowd to get closer to Jesus might not even have been an option.

You probably already know the tax collectors at that time were seen as collaborators in that they served the Roman invaders, and as a good number were also known to skim something off the top for their own gain, it is very likely Zacchaeus would have been greatly distrusted. This distrust was probably all the greater because in a Jewish society one known to handle money on behalf of gentiles was technically unclean in a religious sense.

Another reason why the tax collectors were deemed unclean was that they were expected to base their assessment on people’s possessions and this involved handling goods that were not owned by them – again forbidden by Jewish law. We might also note in passing that because Jericho was a prosperous centre of Balsam trade, it is also likely that Zacchaeus would have had ample opportunity to make himself very wealthy indeed from fleecing the rich merchants, which of course is not a good recipe for getting himself liked by those who were less well-off.

According to the story he was unable to see Jesus over the crowd and I guess the logical inference was that he was indeed a short man. We note in passing, that there is much evidence to show a good number of people from that time and region were often considerably shorter than they are today.

(Some commentators quite reasonably suggest that the same problem might have arisen if Jesus was the short person(!)) But regardless of his arithmetical height, Zacchaeus was looked down upon in every other possible way – perhaps this is what one commentator, tongue in cheek, called the Stature of limitations (!) In any event Zacchaeus climbs the sycamore tree to see Jesus and no doubt to everyone’s surprise, Jesus not only takes notice of him up there, even addresses him by name and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ place for a meal. Zacchaeus, apparently overcome with Jesus’ accepting attitude, is sufficiently contrite to offer to reform and not only promises to repay those he had cheated, but to give back more than he had taken.

In terms of our modern understanding of what traditionally used to be termed sin, this repayment plays an important psychological role. Jesus in effect nudging Zacchaeus towards this opportunity for redemption should not be underestimated. The famous Psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, in his book Whatever Became of Sin?(1973, New York: Hawthorn Books) suggests to us that feelings of past guilt can cripple unless an opportunity is given for some sort of act of restoration. He further suggests it is inappropriate to downplay the notion of sin or alternately try to pretend it doesn’t exist, because the individual needs to identify what it is that casts the shadows that distort the personality. While it is true that Jesus does not appear to have done anything particularly dramatic to bring Zacchaeus to his moment of redemption, Zacchaeus nevertheless chooses his own form of restorative justice as a result of Jesus’ intervention.

Although the Gospel account leaves the story at that point, just for the record, some early Christian writing takes the story further. For example Clement of Alexandria in his book Stromata claims Zacchaeus was surnamed Matthias by the apostles and took the place of Jesus’ betrayer Judas Iscariot. The later writing called the Apostolic Constitutions identifies the first Bishop of Caesarea as “Zacchaeus the Publican”.

Although we can readily see the compassionate wisdom shown by Jesus in the story, less obvious is the contrast with what most of us might have done in the circumstances. Pariahs are typically shunned – after all that is what the term normally means. When we spot someone in the crowd who is normally rejected by decent society, by convention, we are not expected to show them recognition or acceptance. I would go so far as to suggest this would be more unlikely on an occasion when we ourselves are surrounded by friends and even in this case by admirers.

And did you notice….. Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name. Again beggars and other forms of society rejects do not normally attract our personal consideration to the extent of discovering and using the names of the so-despised.

Furthermore it is one thing to show ourselves to be sufficiently generous to stop to talk to someone unworthy of our trust. It is quite a different matter to offer to dine with them.

Certainly we can see why this recognition and acceptance by Jesus may have been likely to have made such an impression on Zacchaeus – and with a little reflection we can also probably see that these actions were entirely consistent with the message Jesus represented.

The question then becomes: how may we represent this same message to others? It is reasonable to assume if we left it at following custom, we most certainly will not be conveying by our actions what we learn about Jesus in this story. So simply re-telling the story is not enough. Talking about it or reading about it to others won’t help either, particularly if others see us, the self-appointed messengers of the one who reached out to pariahs, rather as the sort of people who themselves prefer to join the crowd and identify and shun pariahs. If pushed, we are probably only too aware that there is a technical term for the sort of people who claim to represent a message in words yet contradict the message with their own actions, but the question each of us must answer for ourselves – is do we really want that term …. of hypocrite…. applied to us?

This applies to our Church and even our nation. All around us we hear talk of pariah religions and pariah states. Islam, some say, encourages terrorism yet despite the talk of inter-faith dialogue we stand by passively when we notice actions that are anything but accepting of many, who despite being Muslim, are clearly innocent of terrorism. Similarly in our society and in our Church congregations we occasionally hear talk of reform of prisoners, yet from the limited action we typically offer in support of this policy, the net result is that reform effort offers minimal assistance to released prisoners.

By way of example, I remember when in a nearby suburb, five counsellors who had been running anti-violence courses in a combined Churches establishment called Friendship house had to be dismissed because the Government as a cost cutting move decided to discourage the Courts sending those identified as violent to such courses.

I must have missed the expected widespread Church protest, despite the frequent reminders from the pulpit that we Christians must be leaders when it comes to social action.

It is unrealistic to assume we might ever reach a degree of perfection in our attitudes to the less fortunate. Nevertheless if our sense of direction is so muddled that we are uncertain what values we are attempting to stand for then it might be time for some self appraisal. And if our faith has anything at all to do with the world in which we live, our attitudes to others, including to the often un-loveable might be as good a place as any to start.

Fortunately, although I can find many examples of instances where we are reluctant to call the pariahs down from their metaphorical sycamore trees, I can also think of those among us who do care enough to offer a degree of acceptance and friendship. There are some among us who are the epitome of acceptance and who win the right to be messengers of Jesus by their living of his message. We can be grateful that not all servants of the Church are focused on personal advancement and respectability.

As a non-Catholic looking at the present Pope, Pope Francis, I have to admit what I see is a humble man who truly attempts to live the gospel he has encountered. I cannot truthfully say that I see the same consistency in all other religious leaders, or more to the point, if I were backed into a corner, nor can I claim with any certainty that others would come close to seeing that same consistency in me. Would they with you?

Karl Menninger reminds us that the first step in redemption is in first acknowledging what some would call our sins. But that is not enough. Having acknowledged our weakness, just as Zacchaeus showed by his actions, next is to make the first tentative steps towards restorative justice. If we can only step back a little to reflect on how we individually reach out to whomever our church and society appear to treat as pariahs, perhaps we too may be in a better position to acknowledge we too may need some acts of redemption.

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