Lectionary Sermon for March 8, 2015 Lent 3 B (on John Ch 2 : 13-22 Clearing the Temple)

STRIPPING OUR TRAPPINGS
How much of our religion really matters and how much are what the philosopher A.N. Whitehead dismissed as trappings?

Perhaps we could reflect on his list: Whitehead said and I quote: “Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, Bibles, codes of behaviour are the trappings of religion, in passing forms.”

I guess I would like to suggest a few more. How about denominationalism, Church hierarchies, vestments, archaic superstitions, formalized ceremonies and heresy hunts?

Notice that none of these has to be particularly harmful by itself if kept in strict moderation and indeed we might even argue that the trappings help us gain a degree of perspective and focus on our faith. Where however there may be a problem is when these trappings take over to the extent they cause us to forget what the gospel is supposed to be about.

One of the key turning points of the gospels is Jesus’ attack on one aspect of these trappings, the event of the clearing of the Temple.

Because the Lectionary cycle tend to focus a little more on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke it almost comes as a surprise that John places the clearing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – whereas Matthew Mark and Luke see this as towards the end during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. There is good argument for both. In John’s record of the significant events in Jesus’ ministry, by placing it at the start of his mission, it underlines his uncompromising honesty and courage and sets the scene for his eventual collision course with the establishment. For Matthew Mark and Luke it is no less significant yet is presented as an important part of the climax of his ministry and as with John, explains perfectly why the temple leadership would have been unable to tolerate his challenge.

Some say the apparent contradiction in the record is because it must have happened twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. For what it’s worth I don’t find this plausible because in my view it would extremely unlikely that Jesus might have got away with clearing the temple twice, in that the first time such a dramatic event happened would have identified Jesus as a trouble maker who should not be allowed anywhere near the Temple after such an act. From that point he would have been a marked man.

I can also well believe that as such a story is handed down over the years it is more than likely that details such as the date might easily become secondary to the story itself.
Of far more importance is why Jesus might have come into conflict with the temple authorities in the first place. I suggested at the start Jesus had taken offense at what had become an obsession with a particular aspect of the trappings of religion. In this case it was what had happened to the custom of sacrifice and specifically what was occurring in the Temple courtyard in the area reserved as the closest a gentile might enter the Temple grounds.
Remember the Temple was constructed to reflect the Jews cultural pecking order. In the centre was a small room – the Holy of Holies. God was in that space. Even the High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year.

Next came the courtyard of the priests.

Outside that was the courtyard for male adult Jews….

Then outside that the courtyard for Jewish women….

then finally the courtyard for the gentiles. It was in this courtyard that the money changers and animal traders were to be found.

As with the way modern Muslims require sheep to be killed, the custom of sacrifice had been laid down in the ancient scriptures and had gradually become formalized and ritualized until it was almost an obsession. That there were money changers in the Temple was hardly surprising. Because travelers and pilgrims would come from afar for the Passover festival, it would have been most impractical for all of them to carry their own animals for sacrifice. Accordingly the temple officials would supply a number of the animals for sacrifice but there was a catch. Because the animals had been chosen for sacrifice, the custom had developed that ordinary non Jewish money was considered too base for the purchase of the animals for religious purpose. Accordingly, the pilgrims were required to exchange their non Jewish money for the required coins to pay for the sacrifice. If they were paying at the standard rate of half a shekel per person as laid down by the Talmud, this was expensive enough since half a shekel was the equivalent of two days wage.

There was even a bit of a problem even exchanging shekels for half shekels because the money changers were expected to take some profit. Where the real problem came was when non Jewish coins were brought to exchange for the Jewish shekels. The exorbitant exchange rate had grown over the years until it had become open profiteering.

The other way in which corruption had taken over was that only perfect animals could be sacrificed. For those choosing to bring their own animals for sacrifice, there were special inspectors called mumcheh, who for an appropriate amount would inspect your animal – but alas the custom had changed over the years so that virtually no animal from the outside would pass this inspection and the pilgrim would be required to buy a temple animal for sacrifice. Are you surprised this turned out to be expensive? A pair of doves sold at the Temple cost the equivalent of 24 days work.

That the Temple had become excessively wealthy through this sacrifice money and money exchange was not in dispute. Even some years previously when Crassus captured Jerusalem in 54 BC the historians said that he took the equivalent of something like 5 million dollars in today’s money from the Temple without anywhere near exhausting the wealth.

Jesus’ fury at what was before him probably had several causes.

Exploiting the poor was of course an extreme and glaring injustice, and to do it in the name of God must have seemed particularly upsetting.
Jesus may too have shared the revulsion of a number of the prophets who had pointed out time after time that it wasn’t sacrifices but rather changed hearts which were required. To give two of many possible examples: Isaiah with his: To what purpose are your numerous sacrifices to me? Said the Lord …..bring no more your vain oblations. (Isaiah 1: 11-17) or They sacrifice flesh for offerings and eat it: but the Lord does not accept. Hosea 8: 13.

The version of this story in the gospel of Mark includes an intriguing phrase “My house shall be called of all nations, the house of prayer”. The all nations part suggests Jesus may have been referring to the gentiles’ position in the Temple. Gentiles were allowed and even expected to get as close as possible to the Temple to offer their prayer – but it was in the gentiles’ courtyard that the cacophony of sound, with the bleating of sheep – bellowing of frightened calves – the shouts of the bargainers and no doubt the raised voices of those disputing their treatment at the hands of the money lenders would all combine. This in effect made a mockery of any attempt of the gentiles to offer prayer. Given Jesus’ reported sympathies for gentiles, this may have given further reason for his indignation.

I am reminded of the old story about the man who died and went to the gates of heaven. There he met St Peter and asked to be shown around. St Peter showed him the many courtyards. “This one he said is for the good Buddhists, this one is for the Muslims, over there is the courtyard for the Hindus” – and so on.
“What about that very high walled courtyard over there where I can hear singing and organ music coming from?”, the man asked. “Well that’s where the Christians are,” said St Peter – “but I wonder if I might ask you to be very quiet outside their wall. You see they think they are the only ones here”.
To know with certainty about heaven is beyond my pay grade yet I suspect that story fairly describes many people’s attitude not only towards Christianity, and even towards their particular version of Christian faith. At the last high school where I taught I once had some exclusive Brethren pupils whose parents would not allow them to eat lunch with the other children. I might have been able to feel superior towards them for their prejudice except that at primary school I can remember chanting a rhyme aimed at the Catholic children required to go to a separate Catholic school.

If we keep the story of Jesus driving the money lenders from the Gentiles’ courtyard at a comfortable distance by forgetting what our modern equivalents might be we might miss part of the significance of this incident. It is true that in most versions of Christianity sacrifice at the temple has no place. However if we are honest with ourselves we can allow other trappings of religion to grow in significance until they make a mockery of our faith.

Take the trapping of religious art. Placing the occasional icon – or even stained glass window in a place of worship as a focus for thoughtful religious response is another way of reminding ourselves that events remembered in the history of the faith matter significantly. To continue to collect such items until the place of worship is groaning with opulence is bordering on the obscene particularly when the Church acts as if it is blind to poverty in the community and in the world. I remember being shown a small section of the Vatican museum in Rome by a guide and being told that if a visitor was to spend ten seconds in front of each priceless work of art it would take something like ten years to see all the works of art owned by the Vatican.
Perhaps by some mental gymnastics this can be reconciled with Jesus injunction to take no thought for the morrow – and the bit about not storing up treasures on Earth … but we might ask ourselves if Jesus would really have been pleased at such a display of opulence.

Religious clothing for Church leaders is another area which might cause us to stumble. I certainly can follow that there is significance in the stole, a simple strip of material intended as the mark of ordination and intended as the symbolic version of the yoke of servant hood. Somehow however this has morphed through the centuries. The stole has become more elegantly embroidered and the simple gown into gowns of jeweled and brocaded splendor to the point where the notion of the humble servant somehow becomes lost in the visual trappings of power and significance.
It is odd isn’t it that it is hard to imagine Jesus arrayed like an archbishop in a Cathedral.

Dare I suggest that even Church ceremonies like communion need a time of re-evaluation. This simple shared meal by which Jesus disciples were ask to remember him so often can become formalized so that the leaders become the star turn. For some churches only the initiated may partake and so the simple act of remembrance evolves to a highly formalized and stylized marathon of liturgy where the notion of a shared meal is submerged with high sounding religious jargon. More to the point, if we think of communion as a stand-alone ceremony yet never get round to offering hospitality to strangers, have we really grasped what Jesus was on about? Remember that Jesus was often accused of eating with the undesirables. If we truly want to be reminded of what he stood for, can we act as if some are not worthy to share real meals?

I don’t think for one moment that there was a particular instant when the Jews in their efforts to please God would have been aware that their customs had gone too far. The Temple ceremonies became corrupt gradually over a period of some hundreds of years. In the same way, oh so gradually, an obsession with buildings and with the minutiae of Church administration can take over our meetings until the day perhaps we finally realize that mission and issues of justice and Christian responsibility have become tacked on the end of our agenda merely as a token, and it is then that there comes a need to clear our own temple.

Lent is the traditional time for self-examination. Today on this third Sunday of Lent we might do well to pause to wonder if we too are in danger of losing our sense of focus. Perhaps, even here, there is a need to check the practices of what for us passes as today’s Temple. AMEN

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Lectionary Sermon for March 1, 2015 Lent 2 Year B based on Mark 8: 31-38

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me“. Mark 8:34
What did that mean….“Take up your cross and follow”?

Unfortunately those words are often distorted in our minds by a fragmentary grasp of Church history. Well is that fair criticism? For most of us I suspect, the only cross we now think of is Jesus’ cross, not our own. Many times until it became part of our thinking we have been told that for some hours on the cross Jesus suffered and died – then wasn’t there some magic and somehow everything was put right? The New Testament, perhaps understandably, made such a feature of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ that it is hard to think ourselves back into the minds and experiences of those to whom Jesus’ words were addressed.

So what might those listeners have been thinking? Crucifixion was of course a barbarous punishment that the Romans had designed for trouble makers. What we tend to forget in thinking about Jesus’ death is that his was only one of very many. In 4 B.C. for example, (around the suggested time for the birth of Christ), a good number of nationalistic Jews used the death of Herod the Great as an excuse to rise in revolt against the Romans with the idea of driving them out for once and for all. The Romans predictably struck back with venom. When the thousands rebels fled into the country, the Roman general Varus hunted them down. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells it this way:
Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand. (Antiquities 17.10.10)”

Two thousand of your fellow countrymen crucified at one time! Now that would provide a vivid set of memories. Remember too that the Romans used crucifixion as a means of quelling rebellion in advance and made a great show of the public humiliation and pre-crucifixion torture – it is only in religious art that those on the Cross were allowed the dignity of clothing. The crosses of potential or actual rebels would be placed alongside public roads where the naked bodies would continue to hang for some time as a visual warning.

Sometimes the number crucified was considerably more. Remember Mark was writing shortly after the total disaster of another failed rebellion. Something like 70 years after the first post-Herod rebellion, in Jerusalem and nearby Judea, thousands upon thousands rose in revolt against the occupying Romans. Initially with numbers on their side it looked as if the rebels would prevail. Rome sent an army, beat them back and then besieged Jerusalem. Hundreds attempted to escape and were shown no mercy. The historian Josephus claimed that 500 a day were first whipped then tortured in the most public fashion and finally crucified outside the walls of the city. The Roman general Titus, perhaps sickened by the systematic cruelty continuing day after day, at least expressed pity, yet clearly believing that only an extreme example would totally extinguish the rebellion, he allowed it to continue to its inevitable conclusion. (Jewish War 5.11.1)

Put yourself in the position of those to whom this was still a vivid memory and ask yourself what they might then have been thinking when asked to take your cross and follow. We should not pretend the metaphor would awaken the same feeling for us today. At times the Church has even taught a theology that says that since Jesus has suffered on our behalf all we have to do is to accept what he offers. Because potential suffering is not part of the easy deal we can almost hear the echoes of what Peter was saying in today’s evangelism. Yet Jesus would not let Peter get away with the easy option.

I suspect many would have great empathy with Peter on his response to Jesus. I even wonder if many of us would have made exactly the same mistake. Jesus’ earlier question to Peter had been very direct. Who do you say I am? With the wisdom of all our Church teaching I wonder how many of us in reply to that question would like Peter have said something like: –“ Well Lord you are the Messiah…. we can see that”.  But instead of wondering with the wisdom of hindsight why Peter couldn’t see the obvious, how then might we have answered Jesus if he had followed up with the equivalent of “Now I have to suffer – even die for what I teach”? I wonder how many of us would have been tempted like Peter to try to talk him out of that bit. Even today asking those who support him to be prepared to pick up their cross is at variance with what is all too often offered in the name of the Church – namely the easy realization of the dream of a better life. Indeed at first glance it almost appears that the Church has watered down the part of the gospel to avoid credible challenges on issues of justice and morality and so downplayed the sacrifice attitude that what now passes for Sunday observance would scarcely raise an eyebrow from the authorities, still less raise fully fledged religious persecution.

Jesus insistence on taking up of the cross is probably the opposite of good marketing but it still represents a truth which has played out many times in the history of his followers.

What Jesus was calling for showed deep understanding of the human psyche. Surely what traditionally motivates all of us in a biological sense is regardless of our public exterior, we have a clear intention to put ourselves first along with the social group we relate most closely along with the interests of those on whose support we depend. Jesus was in effect by his example, insisting that to follow him meant widening this circle, putting those seen as traditional rivals and even enemies as legitimate priority for our concern. Think about it. No wonder so many get angry when someone tries to change what people believe to be their right.

We have the perfect example right now with ISIS. Yes of course we object violently to the belligerence of the ISIS followers beheading innocent kidnap victims. But reacting by cheering the West for destroying them along with innocent bystanders with all those bombing raids is not Christianity – particularly if we are not then prepared to go in and restore the towns whose bombing we supported. Is it surprising that few are insisting we help the victims? It would not be popular.

Following conscience issues which interfere with entrenched views is seen as undermining existing authority and status. We are pre-programmed to hold on to our nations hard won riches and not share them with the needy… which is why our government gives such a small percentage of GDP to International Aid programs.

And despite its many worthwhile features, even the Church is not exempt. Should this surprise us? A modern day Martin Luther saying the Church is no longer following Christ in its actions – or a Bible scholar showing why current theological teaching is based on a lack of understanding of what careful scholarship reveals, these may no longer result in public torture and burning – but that only because there are now more civilized ways of achieving the gagging of the trail blazer.

Think for instance of David Fredriech Strauss who in 1835 published a ground breaking book The Life of Jesus Critically Reviewed. His discoveries about the Bible would seem commonplace today but because in his day he threatened tradition, he was simply removed from his university position and blocked from ever teaching again. Closer to our time this was very similar to the fate that awaited the Bishop of Woolwich, John A T Robinson who explored some doubts in 1963 with a small book Honest to God. He clearly offended the established Church and was in effect publicly pilloried, blocked from promotion and given a very minor teaching post until his death in 1983 without even the status of University lecturer at his previous University of Cambridge.

Clearly there are few scholars whose work is significant enough to enrage the church but we all live in a world where privilege and discrimination are enshrined in policy – and where nations construct policy with personal advantage very much in mind. Speaking up or focusing on the needs of the disadvantaged is not a formula for personal advancement but it is hard to see how we can pretend that such a course of action has nothing to do with following Christ.

As long as we take what Bonheoffer used to call the cheap grace option where we leave it at a few token prayers for our enemies and the patronizing prayers for the less well off we inflame no passions. But start insisting on genuine action – altering immigration policies to let more of those of other cultures and races in to share our advantages, raising overseas aid quotas to match UN recommendations, raising minimum wage packets, putting environmental concerns ahead of the wealth of multinational shareholders and then watch the anger levels rise. In the Church the cheap grace option is to put peace for our local congregation ahead of the need to get down and dirty where the real problems of the community confront our preferences.

Paul Tillich understood the heart of the problem when he said that when the Divine appears in its depth it cannot be endured…. It must be pushed away by the political powers, the religious authorities, and the bearers of cultural tradition. In the picture of the Crucified, we look at the rejection of the Divine by humanity.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonheoffer spelt out what he meant by cheap grace. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”(p 47)
And then real or costly grace
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”(P. 47)

The original meaning of the word Lent was that Northern hemisphere time between winter and spring when the thaw began. Its religious meaning suggests it is also a time of self examination … the 40 days of wilderness reflection when we prepare ourselves for Easter. It is true that we can avoid the pain of self examination but to do so is evading Christ’s challenge to shoulder our cross. It may just be that the analogy of melting that which is frozen has something to teach us for this time of Lent.

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Lectionary Sermon for February 22 2015, Lent 1, Year B (on Mark 1: 9-15)

Hard-wired for Temptation
The writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus who we now talk of as the Son of God, started out by spending more than a month in the wilderness struggling with his temptations.   In the well ordered atmosphere of a Church service I wonder if we sometimes forget that Jesus must have had to deal with some real life problems  in his own life – and for that matter our church attendance wont count for much unless it has something to do with the way we have faced up to our real life problems .

The author of the Gospel of Mark has been sometimes criticised that, like some other authors of other parts of the Bible, he was inclined to provide an apparent observer’s detail for events where he could not conceivably have been present as a witness. Talking about Jesus dealing with the temptations of Satan is a case in point. Yet I would argue in Mark’s defence that, here and elsewhere, he draws attention to some absolutely critical ideas, without which our theology would be much the poorer.   It is also interesting to note that some of his observations fit rather nicely with what today’s scientists tell us about the nature of the human.

The first is the left-field idea is that even someone as good as Jesus should face genuine temptation. This may not quite fit the way we often use high sounding religious expressions of praise in our worship but it fits very nicely the modern finding in psychology that all humans are “hard-wired” for “temptation”.  I want to step outside todays gospel reading and think for a moment about this  so called hard wiring because it might remind us that it isnt just about Jesus if we too have to face inevitable temptations.   The hard wiring idea comes because the scientists tell us that at one stage the time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Skills for survival in those days would be anything but gentle living.

Science now tells us which parts of the brain fire electrically and chemically with such responses. We now know that much of this activity is deep down in the primitive parts of the brain (sometimes called colloquially the “lizard brain” because it is shared with more primitive creatures). Biologically then, for whatever complicated reason, the brain is effectively “hard-wired” for these activities. Without such wiring, humans would presumably have been history long ago.

Take the willingness to resort to action including violence when threats emerge.  In those early days violence would have removed the competition.   We dont have have to look far to notice that many of us still organise our lives to deal with competition. Enemy recognition in a primitive setting included recognizing who looked and behaved differently, so that we know who is with us and who isnt.  Isnt it true that prejudice appears to be built into society with deep suspicions shown to neighbours who are different.   Again a universal human temptation – and unfortunately one which has played out every time people we dont like gaining power.  At present there are serious hotspots in the Ukraine, in Nigeria, Libya, Iraq and many more besides. Think ISIS, think the rejection of homosexuals, think prejudice against the Jews or new immigrants.

Remember there is a catch. Genetics being what it is, the chemical and biological tendencies to switch into these forms of behaviour are now ingrained, but are rarely helpful in a changed world. It maybe biology, but when a pupil from a well known high school lashes out and king-hits a bus driver (the Herald said his eye socket was fractured) you can see why it doesnt always do to follow instinct.   Yet many do. At its worst we see out of control drunken students rioting in Dunedin.  We see blind rage unleashed in football and race riots, domestic violence and squalid wars. In New Zealand typically the police record more than 30,000 call outs to domestic violence incidents each year where children are present – and more worryingly they have calculated they are only called to about 18% of the offences.    I also understand that in the USA  social scientist have calculated on average somewhere in America there is an incident of domestic violence once every 9 seconds.  Humans are a violent species.

Back in history for a small and genuinely threatened population, the aggressive responses may have a place – but as the population increases to the point where the only rational choice is to hope to coexist in national and even international communities, such responses are rightly seen as anti social and must be restrained. As investment into warfare has continued virtually unabated, the dangers in following one’s biological instincts become more and more marked. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is great for the survival of a tiny threatened sub-group (particularly where the weapons of choice were tooth and claw) but is distinctly inappropriate for a modern city – particularly one in which there are a variety of cultures and a real need to lessen the dangers which cannot be avoided because of the number of potential rivals in the same area.

Unfortunately some temptations we all face can’t be easily disregarded because of these inbuilt biological triggers.   However we have to be alert to those biological triggers and the part they play in our many temptations.   Because we all live different lives I cannot – and indeed I shouldnt tell you what temptations impact on your lives.    Thats the sort of thing we each have to work out for ourselves.   I would simply suggest as a species many simply dont bother to examine their own situation and as a consequence and and at regular intervals people behave in shocking ways towards each other.

When it comes to naked violence, a good number of self-claimed inheritors of Christ’s tradition through history, including the crusaders and their modern equivalents, act as if they interpret their claim to follow the Christ as deliberately choosing to go with the very option rejected by Christ, and instead, acting as if their hard wiring of the brain leads them to embrace the very temptations offered by “Satan”. When trying to convey the gospel as appropriate for life lived this sends a very mixed message. Attempting to beat and frighten terrorists into submission may be a natural biological reaction but as an effective method of conveying a message of peace and instilling love it is an absolute disaster from every angle. As D A Rosenberg pointed out in 1971, “levelling large cities has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants”.

Curiously, we are so horrified by the callous disregard for suffering inflicted by suicide bombers – and public be-headers, we call upon our side to respond to ensure that our enemies are punished with much worse. The innocent bystanders can be overlooked because what we support is government sanctioned violence…which is of course claimed to be righteous!!

How many here remember a move to compensate those amongst our troops exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam – while nothing was done about the innocent civilians whose suffering was infinitely worse.

Temptations are not really temptations unless they are genuinely likely to persuade, so it is as well to remind ourselves that displays of power of the sort we note in others have an insidious similarity to what we ourselves might excuse to be acceptable behaviour in ourselves. As a consequence we need to be ruthlessly objective with ourselves to be confident such actions and attitudes are not already part of our standard response pattern.

One very common temptation is of course to notice the faults of others with a steadfast deliberate blindness to one’s own faults and sins. One of the intriguing asides of Mark about Jesus time in the wilderness is that he was comforted by wild animals. We are left to speculate exactly which wild animals these might be – but one mentioned by the Bible elsewhere (and suggested by the poet and writer Robert Graves) is the scapegoat.

In the times of the temple we read of a ceremony which happened each year on the day of Atonement in which a goat was led into the Temple where the High Priest would read out the sins of the people over the last year, ceremonially load them onto to the goat – then drive the goat out into the desert taking the sins with him….the origin of our word scapegoat. There is something curiously appropriate about Robert Graves’ suggestion that a goat whose only crime was to be thought of as a scapegoat be among those keeping company with Jesus in the wilderness.

Perhaps our modern equivalent of the scapegoat would be the political leader who is caught falling for that Oh so basic hard-wired temptation of responding to sexual urges outside the formal limits of marriage. Some months ago the huge response to a well known local mayor as consequence of a public fall from grace, suggests the scapegoat mentality is alive and well.

Scapegoats are also found in the ranks of the Church. Remember way back to the famous dynamic Televangelist duo, Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker. Did you ever read the mischievous response in doggerel by the irrepressible Allen Johnson Jr? This is a lightly edited version. (You will find the author’s original version in his book, a Box of Trinkets published by Premium Press)

Two TV great preachers called Jim
Claimed special connection with Him
But when push came to shove
The light from above
Turned out to be frightfully dim

To return to the temptation of the biological need to display. This is of particular interest to those of us in the Church because its lure brings us in direct confrontation with some of the most basic teachings of Christ. To return for a moment, to the sometimes acerbic pen of Allen Johnson Jr……  He said and I quote:
“There are some astounding contradictions between Christ’s teachings and Christian religious services. In Matthew 6:1-6, we are admonished not to give or pray publicly. If you consider the taking up the collection as public giving (which it surely is) and hymns as musical prayer (which most of them are), then – taking into account all the long-winded prayers from the pulpit – two thirds of your average church service is directly contrary to Christ’s admonitions

If we must use public prayer we must at the very least choose our words carefully.

There is also great irony that the one we follow had deliberately turned his back on the temptation to display to achieve recognition and in the process Jesus rejected the normal trappings of prestige with possessions and finery – and yet somehow we often behave as if he should best be honoured by ostentatious display. The peacock finery of many of those who lead worship, the magnificence of great Churches and cathedrals is indeed awe inspiring, but because Jesus has clearly shown that this is not in line with his message we may need to think again on how our obsession with such trappings impacts on the way we share his message with others.

This is not to imply we are going to find simple answers. We all have to work within the constraints of our own setting which includes the deeply embedded historical traditions over which we may well find we have little control. We also have to work with others who themselves are hardwired and have their own range of preferred responses to problems and situations as they arise. Knowing that others are similarly hardwired and that we all have very different imprinting should also make us less judgmental.

Maybe the real problem is that we are most comfortable with faith when we treat it as a spectator sport….and have someone do it for us on our behalf. We can look back and see how Jesus faced and overcame his personal temptations, and we can criticise our leaders when they fall short but that doesn’t mean we have faced our personal temptations. Nor are reading about the Bible times and places the same as assuming nothing has changed now we are in the twenty-first century particularly in a different cultural setting. If we were a little more keenly aware of the hard-wiring of temptation and what it means for the sort of world we currently face, perhaps following Jesus lead we might see a need to think how we too should best face our personal temptations – and then choose for ourselves a style of witness which reflects what we believe to be important.
AMEN

 

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Alternative lectionary Sermon for 15 February 2015, Year B, Epiphany 6 (on Mark 1: 40 – 45)

A Faith Past its Use-by Date
One of the features of modern elections is that, like the photos in fashion magazines, the candidates’ pictures on the election posters and flyers frequently show signs of air brushing. Presenting an edited version of the person to make them more presentable is not a new phenomenon. Roman emperors had the sculptors enhance the emperor’s muscles and smooth their faces. One who insisted on a more honest approach was Oliver Cromwell who had a notoriously lumpy face. When he saw his portrait artist’s fawning attempt he dismissed the effort with the now famous expression that he wanted to be “painted warts and all”.

This brings us to this morning’s verbal picture of Jesus painted by Mark. In the oldest versions of Mark gospel such as the one in the precious manuscript called the Codex Bezae held in the University of Cambridge library we can see the original which said bluntly that Jesus, confronted by the Leper, “was moved by anger”(Mark 1:41. The translators of the majority of manuscripts since that date say that Jesus was “moved by pity”, verbal airbrushing, no doubt designed to present a more acceptable version of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. What even the ancient version doesn’t say is why he was angry. Perhaps it was anger at the way the leper had been treated, or even the fact that he was actually in the Synagogue, the last place a leper should have been after being identified as unclean. To airbrush away the anger may be well meaning, but is certainly not true to what Mark was attempting to say.

But this meeting of Jesus and the Leper has another set of meanings which gets to the heart of Christianity as a religion.

Although scientists tell us that the human species has been around in recognizable form for at least 2 million years, formalized religion is much more recent. Because each religion has emerged and been shaped to serve the needs of different communities and because communities change, many of these religions have died out or simply become irrelevant. This is not to say religion itself has outlived its usefulness. A few years ago there were a series of psychological studies that showed that people who were comfortable with their religion lived longer and happier lives. On the well-being scale there was a distinct correlation between faith and psychological health. In short, faith can provide the principles to help us order our lives – and where the principles help us get on with our fellows there is much that is positive as a result. Yet the detail and explanation side of faith is constantly changing as more knowledge is uncovered. It is there that if the thinking doesn’t change to fit new situations, eventually people have to abandon their faith.

There is no shame in believing that disease is caused exclusively by demons and bad magic, but only if you have never learned about bacteria and viruses. But once we do have that knowledge about the causes of disease, there is no room for witches in our belief system: let alone witch burning.

As long as the religion focuses on positive principles for living and helpful ways of treating one’s neighbors’ religion will always have value from generation to generation. This may be why the main branches of Buddhism and basic versions of Christianity have lasted so long in relatively unchanged form. But we also learn from history that when our religion is tied too closely to culture or when it claims to explain science and history with outdated knowledge or for that matter, when its leaders use it to control and limit behaviour .. then it has a short use-by date and is even self destructive. Maybe we simply hurry too quickly to thinking we have sufficient of the answers to have arrived at final truth. Richard Holloway in his thoughtful small book entitled “Looking in the Distance” even suggests a health warning is needed for those forms of religion that make claims beyond verification.
He also quotes Montaigne’s ironic observation that it is rating our conjectures highly to burn people for them.

This morning’s reading from Mark provides a perfect example of both the good part that lasts and the part of religion which has long since passed its use-by date.

First we have a leper. In Jesus’ day and right through the Middle ages, to get leprosy was a dreadful curse. Because leprosy often attacked the skin nerve endings deadening them to pain, the simplest skin aggravation, like a splinter or a thorn could sit undetected until the sore was heavily infected – and before long, feet and even hands would become misshapen and infections would spread. Although leprosy itself was not particularly infectious, even without knowledge of microbes, the population appeared to be aware that somehow contact spread the disease, and without access to any effective medicines or treatment known to work, the simple answer was isolation. The community leaders would declare the leper to be a non-person who must not be approached or touched. In the Middle ages for example, some communities set up a rule whereby the living leper was taken into a place of worship by the Priest wearing his stole, who would conduct a funeral service for the diseased person to show that as far as the community was concerned that person was no longer alive. From there on the Leper had to wear an identifying black robe, live separately with other lepers and the closest they could come to a Church service was watching the service through a peep hole in the Church called a leper squint. Because there are different forms of leprosy and because other skin conditions could be mistaken for leprosy every now and again someone would recover – but they would need to be carefully checked out by the standard procedures for the day before the cure would be accepted by the community.

In Mark we find Jesus meeting the leper. By the customs of his day, here Jesus was behaving strangely.

It may have been partly the leper’s fault. He was after all, supposed to call out a warning to Jesus, so that he can avoid the meeting. I don’t know what this warning was to be, but it may have been along the lines of what was a later custom….“Unclean – unclean”. Whatever the case instead he goes up to Jesus and the unusual bit was that Jesus stayed around.

We should not pretend there is enough written to know that Jesus had definitely cured the man of leprosy. What we should admit is that we don’t know what sort of skin disease the man actually had – nor do we know how effective Jesus cure actually was, because Jesus later asked him to go to the priest to be checked out – but the story doesn’t actually tell us what we hope and presume happened – which was that the man got checked out and was confirmed to be cured.

What we do know however was that whatever Jesus actually did, there is no doubt he was doing his best to leave the man better off. Leaving aside the actual cure, for Jesus to reach out and touch one who is cut off from contact is a huge step in signalling to this man that he is no longer rejected. Jesus also took the trouble to direct him to the standard procedure for being recognised as cured. Without this, his reinstatement into the community could not have happened. If there is principle that Jesus was recorded as modelling over and over again, it was that Jesus apparently spent most of his mission making lives less miserable. The details of each encounter are incomplete – and yes, sometimes we find understanding what happened elusive, but nevertheless this principle seems at the core of his dealings – and maybe this is the part we have the means to follow.

For church-goers today there is some attraction for leaving this at a story about a leper, because meeting those with leprosy is increasingly rare for people like us in today’s world. An SEP…. a someone else’s problem. Yet there are other “untouchables” who are our challenge. At the very time leprosy is now firmly under control, other diseases like AIDS still isolate the sufferers and create another group of untouchables. The real question for us is how those currently suffering from conditions with associated stigma might get to find out that Christ is still part of their reinstatement as accepted members of society. What will such people encounter when they meet those like us? After all arent we supposed to be the hands of Jesus.

There is also the question of faith healing. It is true that leprosy is only one of a host of diseases for which at one time there was only fear and superstition – but for which there is now hope.

But I said before, situations change. In Jesus’ day there were no antibiotics and if getting rid of leprosy was required, faith healing was about the only possible choice. Yet in practice, faith healing has a very low success rate for genuine serious medical conditions. Some time back, Shirley and  I visited Lourdes in France and saw hundreds in wheel chairs and even a couple on hospital beds being wheeled to the healing waters of the springs. I did not see any empty wheel chairs of those returning.

However when it comes to leprosy today I am told that with the correct drugs there is almost one hundred percent cure rate. Knowing this, it seems to me that to deny a sufferer from leprosy access to effective anti-leprosy medication and to insist that faith healing should be their only option is not doing one’s best to reduce suffering and to make lives happier.

According to Mark’s version, Jesus’ actions also draw our attention to one final aspect of faith. Jesus gave strict instructions to the man not to tell others about what had happened….an instruction the man disobeyed.

To quote one of my favourite writers, Colin Morris:

The religious minds tend to be one of two types, crusading or crucified. The crusading mind is cocksure about what it knows, and unequivocal in its demands; all have heard and therefore all must obey. The crucified mind is diffident, almost timid in the claims it makes because it is always conscious of the mystery of the other as a personality with hidden sensitivities and private agonies…. (From Things Shaken, Things Unshaken)

Just maybe we should hesitate a little before rushing to crusade on Jesus behalf. It could even be that this faith we claim to be carrying is to be lived rather than merely talked about.

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Lectionary Sermon for February 15, 2015, Transfiguration Sunday, Year B on Mark 9: 2-9

I have met a number of preachers who try to avoid preaching on this particular passage with its story of the Transfiguration. In a scientific age, we find awkward stories of visions of the old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah on a mountain top together with Jesus reportedly changed in appearance so that his cloak shone with a dazzling white gleam,(Mark uses the word stilbein – which is also used for the glint of metal or even sunlight) and then as if this were not enough, there came a voice speaking out of a cloud…. small wonder then that those who compile our lectionary give us an easier text for the day as an alternative for the faint hearted.

It may also help to remember that as when Matthew and Luke describe the same event there were plenty of scriptural allusions. For example Exodus 34 tells us that when he returned from his second ascent Moses’ face shone. Matthew also claims Jesus’ face shone. The fact that Elijah was present may remind us that according to Malachai, Elijah was supposed to come again at the climax of history (Malachai 4:5-6), and from Deuteronomy, in the last days a prophet like Moses would appear (Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 18). Before rushing to make our own commentary on today’s story we should at least be cautious.

Our bad experiences over the last few decades with those who claim to have found scriptural allusions to the last days and made faulty predictions as a consequence should cause us to see the stranger parts of the scriptures as straightforward as they might first appear. Small wonder too that the skeptics remind us that Mark who was recording the event was not present for his eye-witness account and that the whole experience was too unlikely to have happened.

Tradition claims that the Transfiguration happened on Mt Tabor, to the extent that the Eastern Church even calls the feast of the Transfiguration Taborion , but if so it was a very small mountain no more than 1000 feet high with a fortress on the top. What is more this Mt Tabor is in the South of Galilee and Mark seems to be suggesting the Transfiguration was nearer Caesarea Philippi which is in the North where at least there is a more likely mountain Mt Hermon which at 9,200 feet provides a much more appropriate isolated place. So yes, there may be genuine problems in the account as a factual and accurate report.

Yet I would like to suggest a different approach.

In this day and age we are normally careful to distinguish objective reporting from story-telling, yet this particular account comes from a different age. At the time of Jesus, it was common practice to use mountain top encounters as a way of introducing encounters with the divine. Stories of Mt Olympus, and of the mysterious high hill setting of Delphi, would also have been familiar and not just to the Greeks. In the same way for the Jews it would have been Mt Ararat, the Mount of Olives and so on. It was also common to slip mysterious touches or scriptural allusion into stories to draw attention to key teaching. Precision in reporting was secondary to the message, which is presumably why the gospel writers often blithely contradicted one another when they reported on the same events. Nor, perhaps I should add – is a myth the same as a lie.

So what was the transfiguration and its message?
In terms of Jesus’ journey, the transfiguration is presented as the point at which he became convinced that he had divine confirmation that he was on the right track to go to Jerusalem and face his fate. The significance of the voice from the cloud may have been a reminder of the same way that Jewish tradition says Moses met God, and that it was in a cloud that God came to the Tabernacle. You may remember also a reference to the cloud that filled Solomon’s temple when the building was complete. That Moses who was considered the archetypal guide to the people of Israel and was by tradition the supreme law giver, and Elijah, the supreme prophet in the eyes of the Jews should also be present might well have been another way of stressing that Jesus was correct in understanding he had divine support.

But assuming it was an event and not a theological explanation, the real test of the transfiguration was not so much the question of whether or not the transfigured appearance of Jesus was literal, it was more whether or not Jesus and the disciples were affected by the experience.

Putting it directly, whatever happened, from that point, Jesus now appeared clearer in his subsequent actions but don’t forget the disciples who had been with him were only partially affected. The disciples were still only partly convinced that Jesus should go to Jerusalem. Peter, remember, is recorded as inappropriately treating the transfiguration as one that needs a religious response – wanting to put up symbolic tabernacles or tents opting for a kind of artificial piety… in the same way I guess, as many today treat the task of honouring Jesus and the saints as more to do with magnificent buildings and adulation for Jesus and the saints rather than with altered lives.

When I search for a more contemporary example of that mountain top experience I think of Edmund Hillary making it to the top of Mt Everest with the Sherpa Norgay Tenzing in 1953. Certainly it was a life changing experience for Sir Edmund, but for him his personal transformation was partly in the way the experience taught him to see the Sherpa people in a different way. From that point he became dedicated to building schools and hospitals in Nepal and ensuring the trust he set up made a difference for those mountain people. Just remember too that life changing experiences are only life changing if we allow them to be. Many others too have since climbed Mt Everest and no doubt saw the same awe inspiring magnificent view, but not all saw the same vision for the Sherpa people.

Historically many of us have our own equivalent of mountain top experiences – those life changing events – both good and disturbing, that have the potential to alter our view and transform our lives. Soldiers have gone to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, missionaries have gone out to live with head-hunters, tourists have visited the slums of Calcutta and stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes too the experience is mysterious, even troubling and almost impossible to put into words. Yet having the potential life changing experience is not enough by itself. Jesus came down from the mountain and set out for Jerusalem. Peter came down from that same mountain then denied his lord three times. Some tourists return from their trip to exotic places and sign up for child sponsorship programmes. Others see it merely as a chance to put five hundred photos together for a relentless data-show. Some soldiers return enthused to join international relief organizations and service clubs – others to take to the bottle or drugs – or at worst even commit suicide

We can be certain Mark was not present at the transfiguration according to his own record so his witness in recording the event must be second hand at best. Assuming that tradition was correct and that Mark, for a good part of his gospel, was indeed transcribing what Peter had been telling him in Rome some years after the event, he would have had every excuse to leave this particular story out – particularly as it sounds surreal – but rather than condemning Mark for including the story we might do well to remember that Mark was showing courage in committing to the message of these written words in an environment hostile to the message. Scholars tell us that both Paul and Peter died for their faith in Rome and the signs for those supporting Christianity would have been very clear indeed.

But surreal or not, there is no indication that Mark would have us stay with the mysterious, on the mountain top where the experience and the view was different..

Perhaps Mark is reminding us that the memory of the mountain-top experience may encourage us to see things differently but according to Mark’s account, Jesus led them from the place of high mystery to return to the bottom in the valley where they were straight away back with reality. There they would meet the epileptic child whose epilepsy was sufficient to have him burn himself in the fire, and face the upcoming confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees – in short underlining for us that there can be turmoil and real life challenge in the world that is at ground level, rather than the world as it might be above the clouds.

We may well derive our inspiration from those special experiences, but ultimately no matter how much we might like to keep the realities of the world at bay ultimately we have to decide between real and artificial religion. In a world where there are haves and have-nots putting the main effort into building tabernacles to honour Jesus and the saints won’t quite do it. In a world where obscene amounts are spent on arms, praying for peace while buying shares in the armament factories is not taking Jesus’ teaching seriously. Praising God for creation on Sundays and turning a blind eye to the multinationals as they lay waste to tropical forests for the rest of the week in order to satisfy energy needs with vast plantings of palm oil is a curious way of showing responsibility for the natural world. In a world where the survival and well-being of the poor and elderly is dependent on health assistance, for the wealthy to be arguing for tax reduction may well be meeting the needs of self interest but it is hardly consistent with the injunction to love our neighbour, especially in a nation that prides itself on its wealth and prestige.

The mountain top is a wonderful place to gain a sense of perspective but it is rather inappropriate as a place to live. Jesus appeared to need periods of meditation and even the mountain-top experience, but we should be under no illusion that his life was all about these mystical experiences because he showed his work was where the people who needed him could be found. We should perhaps acknowledge that prior to the mountain top Jesus was recorded as being busy with the realities of life beneath the mountain. To be a voice for the voiceless, a soother and healer of the hurting, a challenge to the hypocrites, those who put prestige first in the name of their religion – these must surely be the tasks of the valley. They were certainly the tasks to which he returned.

It is of course tempting, to try repeatedly for the mountain top experiences and forget how they are related to relationships and living. Mountain climbing, balloon flying, even high church worship can all be immensely satisfying as a means to enhance a sense of wonder. Yet the high purpose of Church cannot be used as an excuse to keep ourselves above the world of the valley and the plain. Nor does an incident of transfiguration witnessed mean that we no longer have a personal need to be transformed. That, even those close to Jesus might have simply got it wrong and misinterpreted what they were experiencing when they at least were supposed to be present should be a salutary lesson to us. We were not present and as a consequence may need to pause in thought before rushing to announce what it all means.

I wonder if you have come across a different mountain top experience in the well-known and often repeated story of Sadhu Sundar Singh. This particular version is one retold by Dr Keith Wagner.

Sadhu Sundar Singh and a companion were travelling through a pass high in the Himalayan Mountains when they came across a body lying in the snow. They checked for vital signs and discovered the man was still alive. Sundar Singh prepared to stop and help the unfortunate traveller, but his companion objected, saying, “We shall lose our lives if we burden ourselves with him.” Sundar Singh, however, could not think of leaving a man to die in the snow without an attempt to rescue him. His companion quickly bade him farewell and walked on.

Sundar Singh lifted the poor traveller on his back. With great exertion on his part, which was even more difficult because of the high altitude, he carried the man and continued on his journey. As he walked, the heat cast off by his body began to warm the partially frozen man. He revived, and soon they were both walking side by side. Before long they came upon yet another traveller’s body, lying in the snow. Upon closer inspection, they discovered him to be dead, frozen by the cold. The man was Sundar Singh’s original travelling companion.

Sundar Singh may not have mastered the finer complex implications of Mark’s account of the transfiguration, but his actions suggest he was living the essence of the message.

When others look at the life we are living will they too see the imprint of our mountain top experiences.

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The Challenge Laid Down by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry, an avowed atheist with undoubted wit and encyclopaedic knowledge, has hit the headlines again, this time with an unexpected left field response to what was probably intended to be a standard type frivolous light-weight introductory question. In this instance Ireland’s RTE television station interviewer, Gay Byrne, began by asking Fry to humor him and suppose for a start that God really does exist.

“Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the Pearly Gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, or it?” Although we cannot be certain what Byrne was expecting by way of response he appeared totally gob-smacked at the direct reply.

Fry said he would respond by asking:
Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?” ….. and…. that was just the start.
His next imagined response to God…… “How dare you create a world where there is so much misery! It’s not right, it’s utterly evil”.
This was followed by: “Why should I respect a capricious mean minded stupid God, which creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

The interviewer Byrne then asked if this might then disqualify Fry from entering heaven.
Fry’s response? He wouldn’t want to get to heaven on God’s terms because those terms are wrong!

I am afraid I cannot join in the chorus of apoplectic protest criticizing Fry for being unthinking and irreverent. I would however like to suggest that no matter how frivolous Stephen Fry might seem, he raises a very critical issue. If we assume that creation is designed with love for humanity in mind, it would take someone either very hard hearted or alternatively very obtuse not to notice the blindingly obvious. The problems and suffering are not fairly distributed. A traditional creator God who is wise and loving and who intervenes in response to prayer would not fit the world we encounter.

If a faith is first and foremost tied to ancient tradition, Fry has a point. A pre-scientific age where disaster and illness are associated with malevolent forces, or for that matter, good fortune attributed to the favor of a interfering and sometimes capricious God, is not the age in which we live. If such a notion of God and nature was still all we had, then we would be stuck with having to placate such a being as best we might. But surely this is failing to recognize the world and the universe for what they are now known to be.

First and foremost we now know the whole show is not designed with humans in mind. Those who claim that disaster is God’s way of visiting punishment on naughty people who don’t follow his law are shutting their eyes to the obvious. Despite many claims to the contrary, most of us most us now realize examples of disease and most catastrophes in the natural world already have explanations related to the workings of nature. Cancer is not linked to sin, but it is linked to DNA mutation and genetic damage. Chalking crosses on doors to ward off the Black Death is inexcusable in an age when our scientists can identify and treat the causes. Earthquakes and storms are now understood to be natural phenomena. Putting it another way, storms on Venus or Jupiter have nothing to do with homosexuality or witches.

Where I do take issue with Fry, is in his apparent rejection of a picture of God from another age. While it is true that creationists and Bible literalists are still with us, I would have thought that for most modern Church leaders, their theological education of the 21st Century had been designed with contemporary knowledge in mind. If Stephen Fry thinks that what he is criticizing is mainstream Christian understanding, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we have not made the contemporary understanding better known.

We might also need to remind ourselves that the problem of suffering is not a novel question and many thinking religious thinkers and philosophers have faced this as an issue many times through the centuries. Whether earlier responses are still relevant is a matter of opinion.

Now for the challenge. Since the aim of this site is not so much to state the truth as to encourage the visitor to think, the challenge is to come up with a coherent response to Stephen Fry’s answer to Gay Byrne. Is there anyone out there prepared to give this a go?

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Lectionary Sermon for 8 February 2015 on Mark 1: 29 – 39

On Clicking the “I agree” Box
Some time back I read a comment on Twitter which said
To most Christians, the Bible is like a software licence. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree” @almightygod on Twitter

While this is demonstrably true for many, it seems to me that this is only part of the problem. Colin Morris once stated in an address to the Methodist Conference in the UK that he hoped that we might move beyond the days where: “…….the liberal’s ignorance of the Bible was only matched by the evangelical’s ignorance of the world to which it might be applied”

Bible reading must always be related to context – and this includes an acknowledgement that since the days of the Bible our context has changed. If a few more took the first step and actually read it – including the fine print – they might notice that many of the common misconceptions about Jesus in the world, as it was then, are simply not supported by the record.

To watch some of his modern day imitators, we might assume that Jesus was into grand occasions and liked performing for the crowd with dramatic action? Not here into today’s gospel – or indeed for almost all of his reported encounters with people. Here he is just as prepared to help those in a small house – without even room for a big audience. And what is more, his help is very low key indeed. In Jesus day the obsession with exorcists was so great that there were elaborate ceremonies laid down. For example for a woman with a burning fever, the procedure should have been the complicated ritual laid down in Exodus Ch 3 verses 2 – 5 in which a iron knife is tied by a braid of hair to a thorn bush, to be repeated three times over the next three days – and then followed by a magic incantation – which would presumably be thought to produce the desired cure.

A modern cynical scientist might observe that since the release of pyrogens into the blood to raise the temperature to kill the bugs is the body’s natural way of dealing with pathogens, three days fever would usually abate by itself with or without an iron knife or incantation. Yet for whatever reason Jesus simply ignores the detailed “cure” laid down by the law and takes a much simpler and less dramatic path.

Jesus solves everyone’s problem? Well sorry – not according to the record. Today we find Jesus getting involved with physical healing – that much is in the record. Perhaps it needs spelling out that here he starts by ministering to an unnamed woman with a fever. Her temperature may have come down – but certainly as far as Mark is concerned, she is still not worth naming after the event and no doubt to the horror of feminists today she has been apparently healed so that she can resume her tasks of serving the men. Jesus may be the initiator of a system that ultimately will contribute to the freedom of women but he appears in his day almost as much constrained by the traditional rules of his society and culture as we are by ours today.

In this respect, perhaps I should add, Paul appears to suffer the same constraints when he asks not for the freedom of slaves, but rather their humane treatment, and in another place also insists that women should keep silence in Church.

Jesus heals everybody? Well, no actually. Mark in today’s reading, records him ministering to many who came that day, but presumably only ministering to those who happened by good fortune to live close enough to turn up. Those in the next village might just as well been living at the other side of the world for all the good Jesus was able to do for them.

What about the thought Jesus had God-like strengths and gifts? Note the record in this instance implies he seems worn out by the end of the day which might help explain sneaking off early the next morning for some meditation. Jesus again according to the record showed many of the standard human weaknesses and limitations. He reportedly could preach a great sermon, but not all who heard him were affected to the extent their lives were changed. He reportedly was a great debater, but his replies enraged some as well as convinced others.

But beneath all there is of course the question we would prefer that was not asked. In his healing was Jesus actually doing what is popularly known as miracles? There is a common belief that Jesus could do actual miracles in which the laws of nature were suspended at will. Yet if so, since the laws of nature are very firmly in place for us today, does that mean that whatever Jesus was doing is actually beyond our reach? Some get angry when this is questioned because they say it is not right to even raise such matters where faith is sufficient. But we must at least be truthful with ourselves and at the very least allow the answer that there is no way of knowing. Whatever Jesus was doing was in fact recorded years after the event – and those who stated what happened were not there.

We also know that many claimed miracles today turn out to be based on false claims, and that it is extremely difficult to establish evidence that laws of nature can in effect be suspended. Honesty also demands that we admit in Jesus day accurate diagnosis was virtually impossible. Leprosy was associated with many skin conditions other than Hansen’s disease, and temporary conditions like an epileptic fit would be expected to get better at least in the short term as would many natural diseases. Even death was hard to establish without stethoscopes and a host of modern techniques. When someone is reported as recovering, if you don’t know whether they had a condition not able to be dealt with by natural processes of the body’s immune system, and if you have no way of checking whether the cure was effective for the following days, certainty about miracles is misplaced.

We already know that different versions of the same event in the gospels can and do differ in some details so we know that there is unreliability in the record. If we remove all stories where a degree of exaggeration might have crept into the retelling, there may be few, if any, stories that show Jesus was operating outside the standard constraints of nature. Clearly miracles were part of the thinking in those days when demons and strange happenings were rationalized with a different mind-set to what we might consider today and there is a sense that we can only appreciate what is written if we try to see it with the ancient mind rather than with a modern analysis. We might also note in passing that while miracles are frequently mentioned by the gospel writers, the most prolific New Testament writer Paul does not consider it important enough to even mention one miracle of Jesus outside the resurrection.

Well no doubt this may irritate extreme conservatives, but as far as I am concerned, to find that Jesus was not some all powerful magician who could click his fingers and heal with a touch would not cause me to abandon my faith. If Jesus were indeed superhuman and could deal to every situation, this is so far from the realities I face and the weaknesses I experience, I would be forever consigned to casually ticking the I agree box and leaving it to others to attempt the actual Christian walk.

There is for example a caricature of Christian witness you too may have encountered, that has large groups of people gathering in worship to chant repetitious flattering phrases pointing out to God or alternately to Jesus how great he is – and enjoining him to fix all the current problems. There is probably no harm in this when those present are actually doing their best in becoming involved in dealing with day to day problems for which they are praying. There are always situations of injustice, the need for visiting the sick and the prisoners, feeding the poor, making peace, righting injustice or perhaps ministering to the deranged. If we use our prayer to focus on such situations as a prerequisite for involvement, this can only be positive. There is no shame in genuinely praying for the strength to do that which is beyond us and using the prayer to sort out our thinking. But prayer removed from a willingness to do anymore than offer support in the prayer chorus line approaches hypocrisy. Simply using prayer as a substitute for action and landing all problems on a faulty memory of how Jesus actually went about his tasks seems a parody of what Jesus showed mission to be. I suspect that there may even be a degree of escapism in worship that extols Jesus and presents great lists of problems to lay at his feet in prayer rather than following his lead and struggling with actual problems within the constraints of reality.

I guess what I am really calling for is a careful examination of this particular software agreement before anything gets signed.

My reading of this particular subsection in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus had to cope with some very realistic problems and that even he did not bring all the answers by way of complete solutions. If we are indeed signing up to follow in his footsteps – and what is more following into a world which has probably changed almost beyond recognition, there is every probability that the problems have become even more complex and intractable. In this case, the “I agree” box does not mean that our tick will mean everything is done and dusted.

I believe it was Mark Twain who observed that: In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

We do need to examine the questions for ourselves – and not be afraid of the answers. Perhaps it should be before we can say “ I agree to” the basis of our faith, we need to acknowledge that we are signing up for a journey (not an achieved destination), and one for which each step needs thought and planning to deal with actual not ethereal realities.

We may also need to reflect that Jesus was subject to the limitations of his world and recognized reality – only helping where he could help. That is a positive message for us today, for although our context is different, the gospel does not make other worldly demands. To follow in his way, we too must help where we can. We should not be surprised that we cannot walk on water, or summon a genie to banish an incurable cancer. What we are called to do is to offer support and friendship to the afflicted – and like Jesus be prepared to grasp the near edge of the problems that come our way.

And yes, we are called to faith, which is very different to a cheap acknowledgement of belief. In belief someone else has done the thinking for us. Faith is what we are genuinely prepared to trust because we have worked it out for ourselves – and sometimes with fear and trembling.

There is just one last thing. Before you are permitted to use the software agreement you must sign. Hopefully, you have read – you have thought – and finally a genuine decision is called for.

David acknowledged that the time we have is not infinite when he said to Jonathan, “there is but one step between me and death”.

You may recall the famous story of the rabbi who was asked by his disciple, “when should I make a decision to follow God?” The rabbi thought for a moment. “Exactly one moment before you die.”

Hold on Master” – protested his disciple. “ How could I possibly know when I am going to die”.

Exactly”, said the rabbi. “ Do it now while you still have time”.

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