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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Sermon for 17 July 2016 on Luke 10:38-42 (Year C, Proper 11)

A Fresh look at Mary and Martha
For such a fleeting encounter with Jesus, Mary and Martha get an incredible pulpit exposure. On Monday last I put “Mary and Martha” into Google and discovered near enough to 55,800,000 references including quite a few million sermons dedicated to featuring the pair. For such a small walk-on part in the Bible, all those words might well seem out of proportion. By way of disclaimer perhaps I also need to admit that given millions of discussions about Mary and Martha on the Internet, I am not confident that anything I might add by way of commentary on today’s gospel will break new ground in a much trampled small field.

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

A cynic might start by pointing out we now live in a modern society where, at long last, women are gradually being accepted more for their abilities than their traditional subservient role in a male dominated society. In that context the pickings in the Bible are very slim indeed. And I am not even sure that we should be surprised. After all in the days when the Bible was being assembled historians found it difficult to see beyond the deeds of society’s leadership of those times. Certainly there are the occasional exceptions, but in Bible days, most leaders were male – often selected in part for their role as military leaders, law makers, priests, rabbis, craftsmen and so on. Of all the kings and queens, the Roman leaders and even the Christian Church leaders, there is an imbalance in favour of males that simply reflected the way society in those days was expected to function.

In terms of society expectations of those days, we might suppose Martha would be the one who should be acknowledged. Remember the woman’s place at that time was to be the stay-at- home housekeeper. The woman was the one to do the cooking, the cleaning and the offering of hospitality to the honoured guest. Seen – and preferably at a distance, and definitely not heard. It was not women but rather the men who were expected to sit with the guests. In this sense, in the same way that Paul was recorded sitting at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22.3), by sitting at Jesus feet, Mary was simply adopting the role of a student in the presence of a teacher.

Being merely present and listening in the background is to be a spectator. On the other hand, sitting at the feet of a rabbi was a natural position for one who wished eventually to emulate the teacher and even adopt his role. Men not women might be expected to be doing that. So in terms of cultural patterns it should be stressed it was Mary who was not conforming. Instead of sharing in the cooking, cleaning and offering hospitality she was apparently sitting at Jesus feet, and we might imagine she was there hanging on his every word.

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

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

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

In the context of a Jewish village, Martha would no doubt assume that Mary like herself was almost morally obligated to service, in that accepting the Jewish faith was also buying into the Jewish customs of the time. I would also wonder if that statement she makes to Jesus is very different from a phrase we commonly hear in many societies about new immigrants. “Well they chose to come here – so they should adopt our way of life.”

Traditionally religious followers often become convinced that their personal religious insights are best for everyone. I’ll bet someone here has heard a local say that Islamic women shouldn’t wear the Burka in New Zealand. There are different journeys with some degree of validity – and even on our own individual journey there will be many different twists and turns – and different rates of progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WELL, GOODNESS, GRACIOUS ME        by Bill Peddie (the Elder)

“Er, doctor I have troubles”,
He smiled, “you’re telling me!
Your file is getting really thick
And I wont work for free.”

“Well Doc, I think I need to know –
Have I got long to live?”
“Well that depends on worn out parts.
Something’s sure to give.

I guess there was a time”, he said
“When you were young and fit.
But face it man, you’ve now become
A worn clapped out old git.

Falling arches, drooping drawers,
You are a sight to see.
Your tummy now has gone to pot,
Leg aches… ’tis housemaid’s knee.

Your teeth are loose, and breath is short,
Your heart is almost beat.
And underneath that aching frame
Are really smelly feet

Your hearing aid doth whistle
What ain’t dried up now leaks
And I see that you’ve been shaving
From the nicks upon your cheeks

Your hair is thin, a double chin,
Your vision’s gone to fog.
And if I can be very frank –
You  scratch like my  old dog.

But cheer up man – keep smiling
Don’t complain or curse.
Remember in a week or two
You’re bound to feel worse


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Lectionary Sermon for 10 July 2016 on (Year C , Proper 10) on Luke 10: 25-37

The Good Samaritan Revisited
There are some stories which are so familiar they lose their impact. Surely the story of the Good Samaritan has become one of these stories. And let’s face it. I personally know of no Samaritans to distrust, let alone those I could rely on in an emergency, and in my home city at least there is a remarkable shortage of Pharisees strolling past in robes with long tassels.

But before we turn to the often told story we might just recall why Jesus was being called on to answer the question in the first place. The lawyer was testing Jesus with a standard question, for which there was an agreed answer which was required for theological correctness. What must I do to inherit eternal life? – and the gist of the answer Jesus challenged the lawyer to produce himself – was one backed by scripture going back to Leviticus. “Love God and Love your neighbour as yourself”.

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

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

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

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

I happen to think Bertrand Russell was right when he addressed a British readership just emerging from the Second World War claiming that Christians had not understood the parable of the Good Samaritan and could not begin to do so until they thought of the Samaritan as the equivalent of a German (Nazi) or Japanese. For our post war generation the Samaritan might now for example be the equivalent of some militant extremist, and preferably one of a religious persuasion we would utterly reject.

We also need to listen to Russell when he further suggested that such a substitution would probably offend modern Christians because it might remind them how far they had wandered from the principles of Christ.
Again for the story to have its desired impact, those walking past on the other side must be our standard role models. Not Pharisees but perhaps at least ministers for our preferred denomination, and if not a Levite, at least a typical respected member of society or Church leaders’ meeting representative.

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

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

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

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

The KKK has evidently just been reformed in the Southern United States – and say that they are supporting Donald Trump. It will be interesting to see if this time around those who claim to follow Christ will be prepared to speak up.

The bystander effect is a well-known phenomenon and I suppose it is also the case that situations requiring intervention are unpredictable in terms of likely outcome. For example several police officers have told me that when they have intervened in cases of domestic violence, occasionally, both the aggressor and the victim will turn on their rescuers. Nevertheless to claim to admire the Good Samaritan, and claim to love one’s neighbour yet to do nothing when they are in need, suggests a degree of hypocrisy.

Jesus implied message is that love which is unrelated to action is not love, no matter how many correct answers we might know to the key religious questions. Nor, we discover in Jesus’ parable, is having neighbours the same as being a neighbour oneself.

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

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

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

But just as the story of Job moves us on past this view, Jesus does not teach that our misfortunes are our just deserts. Indeed he restores life and here appears to be asking others to do the same. I guess the first part of such a course of action depends on not walking by on the other side, perhaps even seeking out those who face misfortune.

Such an attitude requires forethought and even planning. If there are several in a group such as a congregation who believe that action as neighbours is important they might for example follow proactive planning as suggested by Marcus Borg. Tim Scorer in his book Experiencing the Heart of Christianity, suggests following Borg’s suggestions for practicing compassion and justice summarised as:
• Having direct contact with the poor and disadvantaged.
• Being thoughtful about the positions of political leaders and being an informed participant in the public arena,
• Increasing (or redirect)giving until 50% goes to organisations whose purpose is to make change in the name of justice
• Initiating a group in your congregation on humanitarian organisations whose purpose is transformation and not simply aid.

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

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

Luke finishes with Jesus asking “Which of the three turned out to be a neighbour to the man who had fallen among thieves?”

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