Lectionary Sermon for 2 July 2017 on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Ours is not the first generation in history where people have displayed feelings of superiority when they involve themselves in conversations describing the shortcomings of those who have chosen different paths of enlightenment. It is an age old game where the followers of one faith or version of faith pour scorn on the followers of another. I suspect it is a phenomenon which crosses land and sea and goes way back into prehistory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a key passage in the gospels. Perhaps more than any other verse it reminds us that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship. Certainly there is mystery. Turning to Christ with heavy problems is often seen as more than just applied psychology because some who have been driven to despair by tragedy and overwhelming grief later attest to their feeling that in the midst of their despair they found their load to be lifted.
Modern burdens are diverse indeed. Some are burdened by poverty, and depression is a condition which is surprisingly common across all socioeconomic groups. The burden of alienation takes many forms and how we arrange to help may reflect the nature of our community.

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

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

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

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Having watched a number of alternative energy projects fail through naive misunderstanding of practicalities I am wondering if the President of the United States is well served by his advisers. Mr Trump claims he is looking at building his wall with Mexico in a way that might incorporate solar panels.  The panels, in his mind at least, would subsidize the wall.

In this instance his lack of scientific knowledge or even perhaps an inability to listen to qualified advisors is making his prognostications sound silly.

It is true that in general terms electrical generation by solar panels is becoming more attractive with advances in technology. Unfortunately for the President, if anyone bothered to look at any of the recently established photovoltaic farms they would notice that the current arrays of solar panels are placed as close as possible to centres of population and more importantly that the panels are not arranged in a single long line. It is inefficient to place them in a single line primarily because one of the main expenses in this form of generation of large solar farms is the cost of the multimillion dollar power lines taking the electricity to the consumers.

While there is indeed plenty of sunshine in the area of the projected wall, if the US expects to be a beneficiary of the generation scheme, the current sparse US population near the wall will add tremendously to any costs of distributing the generated power on the US side of the border.

Most solar arrays already take some years before they pay for themselves.    If the solar panels are intended to subsidize the wall simple logic suggests separate installations clustered away from the wall in the most advantageous positions would be the way to go.

If on the other hand Mr Trump secretly anticipates that the panels are intended primarily to electrify the wall to keep all those illegal farm workers out of the Mid West perhaps he doesn’t care that his proposal is clearly uneconomic.   The rapturous Mid Western crowd who listened to his announcement may be slightly less enthusiastic in the cold light of the next day when it turns out that a consequence of the electrified wall is that the Mid Western farmers will then have to pay more for their previously cheap labour.

It may take some time for news of his proposed scheme to reach the coal miners who voted for Mr Trump, but the President has apparently forgotten one of his main election promises was to get the coal miners back to work at the very time in history when alternative power was putting them out of work

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Donald Trump and Human Rights

While I sympathize with those concerned about the treatment of Otto Warmbier at the hands of the North Korean authorities I am also disturbed at the lack of balance in the US response.

If I have understood it correctly, this US University of Virginia student, a visitor to North Korea, stole a propaganda poster, was given an outrageously severe prison sentence and in all probability was treated harshly in the seventeen months he was held in captivity.

I am sure I am not the only one who has noticed that this apparent disregard for human rights is not unique to North Korea.  The Saudis have been known to chop off the hands of common criminals and the US turns a blind eye. A cynic might think Saudi Arabia is only supported by the US for its oil production and as a contributor to the massive US arms industry. Turkey, another ally, is currently holding thousands of potential opponents to their President in somewhat uncomfortable conditions Eg administering frequent torture and beatings. At least Otto Warmbier was returned with all his limbs intact. Is the Armada on its way to Turkey?

Have no US prisoners been given absurdly long sentences without trial, been held on flimsy evidence, been treated badly, or been deprived of sleep and water boarded? Have no US prisoners died in captivity? Doesn’t Donald Trump read his Intelligence briefings? Guantanamo Bay springs to mind.

I understand that the “recently discovered” prison in Syria where prisoners had been tortured and or executed was one of the destinations for US suspects under the Bush rendition programme. It is pushing our gullibility to expect us to pretend that the US State Department was unaware that this prison was anything other than a well-run humane institution.

Surely Donald Trump has caught up with the fact that the whole point of extraordinary rendition was so that the US could send their suspects to places like Syria, Turkey and Egypt to be tortured or simply to disappear without trace. Donald Trump is on record as approving of this torture, actually stating that even the families of terror suspects should be harshly treated. Given his own enthusiasm for torture it is a little odd that he now says that North Korea had no right to employ such techniques.

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Lectionary Sermon for June 25, 2017, on Matthew 10:24-39

There are some passages in the Gospels that are just plain awkward. The first impression of today’s passage from Chapter 10 in the gospel of Matthew is that at the very least this passage hardly fits the traditional artist’s image of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. The puzzle is that the words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” seem so very different from Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount.

After Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, surely this not here recorded as an incitement to spread the gospel by violence in some first century equivalent of Jihad.

On the other hand if the passage is more about some real life consequences of standing up for the Gospel message, remembering that this Gospel first appeared some years after Jesus had faced crucifixion, this particular teaching passage would have had real meaning for the early converts. They would have already begun to experience the rejection. What is more, for us too, it is also a timely reminder of how modern prophets and how those who speak up as a public conscience are still likely to be received.

We should feel great sympathy for those early Christians. Converts would have to face their families with the unwelcome news that they were now in effect turning their backs on the confinement of traditional faith, challenging the teaching of powerful religious authorities, and perhaps, even inadvertently making some in the community feel guilty. In so doing the early converts were not exactly setting themselves up for a good reception.

In those first years of the Christian Church, contemporary histories tell of new converts being ostracised, many cast out from family and community, leaders of the new faith being maligned, reputations destroyed and some converts beaten or even killed.

What was it Jesus said? “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Relatives will turn against relatives, and friends against friends. Notice this is not so much a declaration of Jesus’ mission, but rather a statement about what will happen for those who join him (and what did happen) –in other words, the backlash.

In the decades following Jesus’ death, as the Christian faith spread, families and communities became divided – sometimes violently. We have local histories, both from Biblical and non-Biblical sources, as to what happened when one member of a family, or one family of a community, became followers of Christ. Because they were taking a radically different approach to life, and an approach informed by their faith, Christians were ostracized, abandoned, rejected and even killed by their families and communities.

All too often, those outraged were family members and former friends – people who had made the decision that the norms of the culture were so important to protect that even close family members would be rejected if they dare questioned traditional views with what the Christians thought was essential gospel teaching.

Given that it is not a phenomenon confined to ancient history, from time to time there is a need for some self reflection. How do we ourselves react when someone close to us advocates tolerance or forgiveness for someone our cultural traditions would normally reject? Could it be that we ourselves join in the rejection of our modern day prophets.

Given that in other places and at other times Jesus taught the principles of forgiveness and peace-making we may well be initially surprised to find him saying “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In this instance we might also note that the word being translated as “peace”, here means creating “ order or harmony or acceptance in worldly ways”.

On occasion this particular text about bringing a sword instead of peace has been lifted out of context and used as an excuse for taking up arms against those who rejected Christ.

Although much is made of the early Christians who were martyrs to the faith, it is sometimes (and perhaps conveniently?) forgotten that when Christianity was later adopted as the preferred faith of the Roman Empire with the Emperor’s support, some Church officials interpreted this as compulsory conversion and those reluctant to convert themselves became martyrs. From time to time over the centuries leaders of a variety of State Churches mined such texts to excuse wholesale genocide and also proscribe torture or execution for those daring to set up variations of mainstream faith.

Even today many can find plenty of excuse for rejection of immigrants on the basis of faith differences or in worst case scenarios, taking arms against those who are traditional opponents of Christianity. In practice many modern military incursions, no matter how they are presented, turn out to be hopelessly compromised since target states usually coincidentally have strategic or frankly commercial attractions.

Selling such invasions to a nation’s public sometimes focuses on bad behaviour of self appointed guardians of rival faiths. For example instances of suicide bombers and those who choose to use Sharia law selectively eg honour killings, make it extraordinarily easy for us to demonize our Muslim opponents, yet all too often in practice those who have oil or gas or other natural resources turn out to be disproportionately targeted.

The association between previous foreign incursions and the subsequent suicide bombing is rarely remembered and the notion that somehow the practice of our religion is better than that of our rivals overlooks inconvenient texts which we prefer to overlook such as those when Jesus specifically asked us to treat enemies as neighbours and when he directed his followers not to store up treasures on Earth. This doesn’t somehow match the unequal oil and mineral grab visited on defeated opponents.

I would like to suggest that being true to the teachings of Christ does not include lifting texts out of context. With a little thought we can begin to see why the same Christ who said blessed are the peacemakers is the same Christ who says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”. Telling the unvarnished truth is not a recipe for a quiet life. Imagine for a moment the reaction if we were holding our politicians to account and insisting that those attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria only be carried out on our behalf, if those doing the bombing took full responsibility for the civilian casualties and were prepared to take full care of the refugees and fund the rebuild of the destroyed cities and towns.

If we think for a moment about divisive issues of recent times, we can see why the message of Jesus will not always bring peace. The role of peacemaker may be good for society as a whole but when the message is taken to those engaged in activities which encourage violence they are unlikely to react well to anyone attempting to change their behaviour. Think for a moment about the policemen who steps into a domestic violence situation to protect a victim. All too often in practice it is common for both the aggressor AND the victim to turn on the policeman.

Peacekeeping forces in a mediating role in a civil war situation are often themselves subject to aggression, and I would have to say from my own observation that the same applies even as far as those attempting peace-making in local Church and family situations.

In this sense even if the warning words from today’s Gospel passage (always assuming they have been accurately reported) namely that Jesus does not come to bring peace but a sword, may have been intended as metaphor, but since we know Jesus’ teaching enraged the self appointed guardians of culture and religion in his own time, those of us less confident that we are following through his directives, have no right to expect more peace that Jesus was offered when we show what his message might mean when interpreted for our own communities.

In this country we saw evidence that this antagonism is close to the surface and when a relatively small number of pacifists tried to challenge this nation’s involvement in both the First and Second World Wars they faced severe backlash at the hands of an angry administration.

In no way does this mean that we should shut our eyes to some future Hitler – but nor should we behave with self interest if there is a moral issue at stake. For example the Holocaust with its wholesale murder of the Jews by the Nazis was indeed an outrage and the six million victims justified a military response. However when our side who were supporters of the war against Hitler are reminded that Stalin, our ally in that war, subsequently killed an estimated 30 million in his acts of genocide, we grow strangely silent.

The start of Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus issuing the disciples their challenge to: “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” But remember, Jesus also warns them what might happen to them on the way, and in case they are under any misapprehension he tells them to flee to another town when they are persecuted. Jesus reminds the disciples that because the current dominant culture is opposing Him, they should expect no less. In other words they are not above the same treatment that their teacher encounters.

And, lastly, Jesus tells the disciples what they will encounter in families and communities as they deliver the good news. The reaction to the good news of the gospel may not be good news for the messengers. One last time:……..
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

I think Jesus’ words might equally apply to us. The modern world offers some values that are not Jesus’ values, and we need to face our own current standards with his alternatives. It is realistic to admit that standing up for Jesus’ values may turn out to be uncomfortable and is unlikely to be trouble free. On the other hand what Jesus offered is a potential way of transforming relationships and bringing love to a loveless world. Now that is a goal worth pursuing.

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Sermon for 11 June 2017, Trinity Sunday, Year A on Matthew 28: 16-20

Occasionally trying to sort out the meaning of words and ideas somehow misses the point. Let me give you an example. Like a number of you in this room I am a grandparent. The dictionary tells me that your grandparent means whoever is a parent of your father or mother. Clear enough? Well in my experience the dictionary misses the important meaning. When my two year old grandchild Bianca comes to visit and holds up her arms to be picked up, then brushes our golden retriever with my toothbrush, eats the dog-food and tips her cup of water into the dog’s bowl before she drinks it, I know I have a grandchild. When she picks up a book then climbs onto Shirley’s knee to be read to, Shirley is reminded that she has a real grandchild. The dictionary doesn’t quite tell us what being a grandparent means.

This coming Sunday is called Trinity Sunday so I would like to start with a question. What is it about the subject of the Trinity that might make any practical difference to our real relationships or to the lives any of us here in this present worship space?

When lay people hear serious theologians discussing the Trinity with its long history of disputes, esoteric vocabulary, and at worst, its apparent disconnect with the everyday world, perhaps we should have some sympathy for those who prefer to leave the theologians to their discussion, perhaps choosing instead a game of cards or even a snooze in front of the Tele.

Some theologians might have nothing better to do than reflect on the astonishing assertion that the three persons of the Trinity are consubstantial – I hope you all know what that means because I can’t be certain that I do. Or perhaps for a good part of this last week you have been wondering why it took something like 300 years before the disputes about the emerging idea of the Trinity began to settle at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Did you know Augustine made at least twenty separate attempts to make the idea plain and are you surprised that some are tempted to ask why it was worth it?

However if you turn it around for those of us anxious to make sense of a sometimes dimly understood faith, and it meaning in sometimes confusing world,surely it all depends on whether or not the Trinity opens us to some new ways of thinking and encourages us to consider whether or not the idea opens us to new relationships.

You may already be aware that the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible but it is fair to say that some of the concepts and ideas on which it is based are at least being partially shaped, particularly in the writing of Matthew and Paul and by the time the early Church got around to its formulation a good number of the early Christians found it expressing what they wanted to say.

The small scale tribal God who could be carried on their travels in a box became progressively more inadequate as the Israelites started to think about the wonders of creation. And let’s face it, this is an idea that is still developing. Should we be surprised?   Almost every time God is encountered in the Bible (He?) is presented with an air of mystery leaving far more unknown than known.

Even today, modern Physicists who admit frankly they understand little of the workings of creation, would almost certainly caution anyone from making definitive statements about the nature of creation let alone any form of creator behind the process.

Nevertheless by reminding ourselves of the metaphor that God is in creation, we might thereby be reminded we have a responsibility to think what we are doing to this creation. In the world media this last week there have been photos of huge piles of plastic being washed up on Pacific beaches. If we honestly believe that we are entrusted with the care of God’s creation here on earth, surely this affects our attitudes to waste plastic. If we care about pollution and fossil fuel burning doesn’t that also mean we should care about what our politicians do when they set up laws for this nation and support them when they want to sign up to climate control agreements.

But our developing ideas about religion also remind us, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, the Trinity emerged because the early Christians were trying to explain that they experienced God in three different ways, ie God in a threefold way.

In Elizabeth Johnson’s words:“They still believed in one God, but they experienced this one God in at least three particular ways: beyond them, with them, and within them”. The Father part was the notion that not only was there mystery in creation, they felt that there were glimpses of a caring force which they and their religious leaders likened to and personified as a loving parent.

When they talked of Jesus being the Son of God they were trying to say Jesus had grounded this notion in his own person and they felt that his being with them (demonstrating what we might these days call “his empathy”) gave a human dimension to the mysterious God which they wanted to call the Father. Once Jesus had left the scene, his followers had a strong sensation that somehow he was still with them – and was now in effect within. This they felt was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
The essence of what became the Trinity was then: beyond them, beside them and within them.

As a more modern generation we might argue we are now in a position to question aspects of the early Church view. Each part of the metaphor description of the Trinity is potentially moderated by knowledge gained elsewhere. Creation not only unfolds as our telescopes push back the frontiers into the depths of space, or look down though our electron scanning microscopes, but every aspect of this changing creation, great and small, is gradually unfolding year by year.

The biggest change for the Trinity is that this knowledge overwhelms our Father image with an impression of something much more unified and far less restricted to the human concerns of a single species on a relatively tiny speck floating in an unimaginably vast expanding universe populated by Galaxies of innumerable changing stars, planets and just when we think we know where it is going, a Universe now suspected to be only one of many universes.

God the Son similarly changes as more facts come to light. It is not so much that Jesus himself well be be radically different to his portrayal in the Gospels, but since we now know far more about other religious settings and far more about the history of his time than was revealed in the New Testament writing, we have to be more cautious about what we claim to know with certainty.

A key question here is to ask how much of his reported wisdom is applicable today for our changed circumstances? – and how much relevance we can expect Him to have for those born into vastly different cultures and religions?

And lastly we need to acknowledge that those mysterious feelings we have about a guiding Spirit are a little harder to interpret when we now know that many of our feelings are partially shaped by the biochemistry of the brain. To take one small example, many behaviours that in Jesus day were classified as sins, are now known to be influenced by neurotransmitters in the brain, by heredity and by environment.

Please notice that the sense of mystery and transcendence if anything is increased by modern knowledge, and it still makes perfect sense to remind ourselves that “God” is still beyond us. If we know that we ourselves find it hard to grasp what we are trying to describe as creation, we should be reluctant to pretend that we know enough to dismiss others’ attempts to put it into words. We should also check out our own religious language to make sure we are not dumbing down our image of this God of transcendence until “He” becomes what the poet William Blake once called a “Nobodaddy” as a sort of a ventriloquist dummy, somewhere “up there”in the ether, fabricated by our imaginations for the express purpose of doing what we ask for our exclusive satisfaction.

When it comes to the metaphor of God the Son highlighting the importance Jesus for us, beside us, remembering him in particular as the wisdom teacher for the practical everyday situations, we can’t have it both ways. If the flesh and blood Jesus was prepared to reinterpret the law for situations of need in front of him, we cannot pretend that this same Jesus would have us stay unable to face the unfolding situations and issues in front of us because we are frozen in our religious past. Nor are we entitled to ignore those who have chosen different faiths, particularly if one important enough to us to be described as part of the Trinity dealt with those of different faiths as neighbours to be loved.

I stress it is not just a matter of announcing to others that Jesus is the Son of God as part of the Trinity, it is more a matter of showing by our actions that this same Jesus is still beside us because we are attempting to follow the essence of his wisdom and reinterpret it for our generation. If being a grandparent is only discovered in the reality of relationships, surely claiming to follow Jesus must also be lived in our relationships.

In the last analysis, it is when we stop reading and cast within for the Spirit leading us on, that our faith might start to be transformed from something to be talked about to something that lives. Yes, new knowledge will continue to bring new insights and the last word is far from being spoken. Remember the notion of the Trinity continued to change long after the writers of the New Testament had struggled to express what they felt, simply because the situation facing the early Christians continued to change. Those changes are now accelerating. As life brings new challenges we will need to continue to adjust our thinking and no doubt the most meaningful creeds are still to be written.

Maybe the biggest adjustment in the time to come is when we realize that our greatest challenge is not to shape the right faith formula, Trinity or otherwise, but rather to seek the Trinity inspired formula that will shape us particularly in a way that we might be freed to offer something for our present community and future world.

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Lectionary Sermon for June 4, 2017, Pentecost Year A on Acts 2: 1 – 21

Born with Fire and Mystery
Just when we have almost come to terms with the strange accounts of Easter and its aftermath, and before we can reflect on much of the history of the early Church, we must first come face to face with something which some might think even more unexpected or bizarre than a resurrected Christ. While the gospels include some stories of unusual and wonderful happenings associated with Jesus, Pentecost introduces a new and some would claim a disturbing dimension.

This time the principal actors are the disciples themselves. If you had been present, just imagine being suddenly transformed in appearance with flames around your shoulders. And if the author of Acts, Luke is correct and reporting this event as it happened, wouldn’t you too be bewildered if yet another supernatural gift is visited on you and the really weird bit …you could suddenly speak in another language.

Other than the supernatural bits, the people present sound suspiciously like real live people today. Because things were getting a bit tricky for those who called themselves followers of Christ, they shut themselves away in a large room. Ring any bells? Then there were those who said, “These people are drunk”. Can you imagine a religious gathering which included judgemental types? So can I. Have you ever encountered anyone like that in the Church today? Then there were those who said “They can’t be drunk – for it is only 9 o’clock in the morning”. See, they had Methodists even then.

Leaving aside the magic bits for the moment and turning to the history that followed we can at least infer that whatever happened in that room, doubters were changed to functioning disciples and numerically at least, there is a sudden boost in number of loyal followers. What is more, apparently as another consequence of the Pentecost experience, at least some of these followers were now prepared to step out on their own to face potentially hostile crowds and to witness to what they have seen as if what had happened was utterly transformative.

To the modern educated mind, Pentecost is always going to be a hard sell. Tongues of fire, babbling in strange tongues with snatches of recognisable foreign language and talk of a mysterious Spirit…. Yet whichever way you look at it Pentecost certainly matters to the Church. A little more than half the Sundays of the Church calendar are reckoned by numbering the following Sundays as the Sundays after Pentecost. So if Pentecost is really the birthday of the Christian Church, what makes the difference? To find out why, we need to go back a little.

First the word itself: Pentecost is derived from the Greek for “fifty days” and is, for the Church, fifty days after Easter. But the initial opportunity for the Pentecost gathering was not strictly exclusively to do with Christ. The disciples and supporters of Jesus would have been able to assemble conveniently because Jews were gathering in Jerusalem at the time to celebrate another important Seder or feast, this one the Jewish festival of the Shavuot Seder, when the Jews too had a fifty day period to remember. This was, we remind ourselves, fifty days after the Passover, that occasion when Jews recalled the event of escaping from enslavement in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea by mysterious miracle first to the Sinai desert and then setting out to the Promised Land.

Shavuot and Pentecost share something else. Like Pentecost turned out to be for the Christians, Shavuot was a reminder of something that transformed their history but was not easily explained and despite our modern desire to have our explanations reconciled with logic and what we know of the natural world, open questions remain. For example if one or both accounts were written with intentional symbolism to leave impressions helpful for the basis of faith, perhaps the apparent challenge to the laws of nature might seem less important.

As always, we also need to remember that what would have been acceptable to contemporaries in the society of that day is rather different to that now expected. Regardless of our own personal views, even the most liberal commentator has to admit the parting of the Red Sea, like the foreign babbling and the tongues of fire at Pentecost, is still accepted by a good number as factual reporting. Equally we would be dishonest to claim that all commentators are agreed that this was the case. Since we can hardly expect similar miracles in our present circumstances we should as a minimum allow that the rationalists may have a point.

It doesn’t take too much experience with stories that change with repetition to understand traditional history is never entirely straightforward as people in real life shape stories for a host of reasons. This is not to say we ought to ignore anything that doesn’t fit our personal experience. Despite being a scientist and as far as my faith is concerned, one who likes to question everything, I would also have to stress that there is a place for mystery. Certainty closes off growth of thought but wonder leaves open the possibility that there is more than we currently understand. This in turn should encourage us to be more humble and even more ready to allow ourselves to listen to one another.

It also occurs to me that the mystery of the Holy Spirit described as flame is a wonderfully appropriate analogy. Flames are mysterious as they flicker and spread, at times almost appearing to flow, as they provide warmth and light with a wide range of colour and intensity. Even if we know that a flame is technically only gas heated to incandescence, before the flame appears it requires fuel and air and sufficient energy for the reaction to start. There must be something there to burn and that fuel must be subject to the source of energy and not denied oxygen. To take that analogy one step further, once we have a flame burning, in turn it can get other flames to start. Even if we, as intending followers of Jesus have the potential stored within us to be followers, we may still need activating, and we still need the oxygen of informed faith.

At this point we may need a reality check. Note that the question we need to have answered is not so much about what actually happened. In any event, that question can never be answered with absolute certainty since we can hardly replay the scene. The rather more awkward and even embarrassing question is whether we can see evidence that the same Holy Spirit is continuing to act – not just in the lives of this generation’s saints, but in our own lives.

When we look analytically at our society, we can indeed find committed individuals who are able to make room in their lives for helping those in need, for exposing injustice and for inspiring others to a more positive outlook. It seems reasonable to describe these rare individuals as reflecting the influence of some indefinable Spirit. Yet truth also forces us to admit that some others who would also be classified as Christian (if only for census purposes) do not reflect that Spirit, despite what they might otherwise claim. Church membership doesn’t somehow excuse us from the temptation of focussing on self interest or being driven by a wish to stay uninvolved.

To stay with the Pentecost image of fire, avoidance of involvement hardly qualifies as offering ourselves to be fuel for the mysterious flame. One Jewish leader, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, suggested that some modern persons are in danger of becoming “click vegetables,” who simply click from one data source to another with little comprehension. As the Rabbi put it, these have the attitude “If you’re bored with something, just click,” I think the Rabbi is right. If your only involvement with community is reading about it with passing clicks, this is hardly what Archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “seeing with the eyes of the heart”.

Even the so-called Pentecostal service with its ecstasy of uninhibited arm waving and the emitting of emotion charged sounds is hardly credible evidence of the Holy Spirit if it not accompanied by a subsequent change of attitude and appropriate action once the worshippers have left the security of the Church service.

So what then can we say about the Spirit at this day, Pentecost, fifty days after Easter and the marking of the birthday of the Church? Can I suggest that we respond to the birthday as we would with the birthday of anyone of us here today. The celebration matters more if the reason seems worthy..

Of course there would be some who prefer to think Pentecost is best ignored or at least quietly forgotten. On July 4, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence. With this action, the American Revolution was launched and a new nation was born. There is irony that on that very day George III, King of England, made this entry in his diary: “Nothing of any importance happened today.”

On the day of Pentecost, in the year A.D. 30, we read of perhaps 120 followers of a man named Jesus gathered together in Jerusalem. Suddenly the Spirit of God filled each one of them and illuminated and energised them with tongues of fire. On that day the Church was born. But here is the kicker. No historian of the time saw anything significant in that event.

The significance as it must do, came to lie in what those followers then decided to do with their experience. If they had done nothing I wonder if we would then have been brave enough to admit nothing was achieved. It is actually a choice that each successive generation must face for themselves. We are born, like the Church was born at Pentecost, into possibility. What we then decide to do with the motivating Spirit in our generation will determine of the significance of what that birthday potentially offers to the Church, the community…and even our world.

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A Challenge for Auckland Churches

At the recent School of Theology at Vaughan Park, the assembled Methodist Church leaders heard Professor Paul Spoonley from Massey University describe the present and substantial changes heading our way. Many of these changes are already presenting real challenges for our communities and to those who have to grapple with radically different local situations. As I listened it occurred to me that since local Church parishes are among the potential providers it becomes important that the parishes are alert to these changing populations and if they wish to continue to be relevant to their communities, a rethink will be needed.

In the next 10 years it is already clear that two out of every five New Zealanders will live in Auckland, with Asian communities on the rise and overtaking the Maori population. There will also be more in the over 65 bracket than in the 0-15 range. Two thirds of New Zealand regions will decline and there will be more marked differences between Auckland values and behaviours and those found in the declining regions.

With many immigrants from India, China and the Philippines Professor Spoonley noted the emergence of “Ethno-burbs” and ethnic precincts with more marked differences. Auckland now evidently has 40% overseas born, while 56% are currently immigrants. With most groups having declining numbers of children the main increases are currently among Maori and Pacific Island children.

Some church challenges which might affect many Parishes will include the question of how to improve communication with immigrant groups. More emphasis on helping provide hospitality and assistance to various ethnic groups with advertising in appropriate languages and the sponsoring of more by way of English as a Second Language courses may be worth considering. International evenings, cooking demonstrations and the encouragement of ethnic foods as part of regular church social events would help foreign newcomers. Another consideration is how we support the catering for the different interests of such groups.

In Auckland we already note the problems facing traditional sports in that rugby, rugby league and cricket all report declining numbers. On the other hand, golf, basketball, soccer, table tennis and badminton all report a resurgence. Perhaps there is some indication here for how the church might better cater for current youth interests.

The other significant change is of course is that in many areas there is an aging population. Simple changes like improvements to audio systems, better winter heating, the provision of more by way of ramps and hand rails are worth reviewing. However perhaps more important is how those who are unable to attend church through declining mobility or worries with health issues will continue to experience support from the Parish. Do these challenges suggest topics for discussion for the Parish council?

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