Lectionary Sermon for March 11 2018 Lent 4b on John 3: 14-21

Sorting out real truth has always been more difficult than quoting a few key Bible verses. The Nicodemus story reminds us that truth typically only begins to take shape when an individual goes out of their way to seek the truth.

So Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – and we are given to understand that there would be strong motivation for him to keep the visit secret. After all Jesus would hardly have been accepted by the orthodox group that Nicodemus represents. Nevertheless Nicodemus comes seeking the truth about Jesus.

The Greek word for truth means “making obvious the unknown”. But there is something else which is often overlooked. Truth in practice is uncovered a little (often a very little) at a time.

This I believe is true in both science and religion. Think about it. In science the Greek philosopher Democritus postulated many years ago that matter might be made of small discrete particles called atoms. There has been a long and uncertain path of discovery ever since with many blind alleyways, twists, and turns before the scientists could actually photograph shadows of these atoms and gradually work out the complex ways in which they are assembled. And what wonders of energy and creation have been uncovered in the process, a process which was marked by famous experiments such as those of Lord Rutherford and still continues with the Large Hadron Collider and a host of experimental breakthroughs.

Think what we may have missed if the scientists had said:
“ Democritus has told us all we need to know about atoms”.
In religion we see a similar tortuous and gradual uncovering of truth…whether it be the truth about God, or specifically to Christians: the truth about Jesus and the truth about what it means to believe and follow Jesus.

Think what we would have missed if we ever said:
“I know some verses in the Bible that tell me all that I need to know about Jesus”.

The notion of God may have started in human understanding as a virtual tribal token, one of many Gods, and yet through the centuries our perception has gradually changed and grown from what was first thought to be a local, unpredictable and at times vindictive Spirit to the beginnings of understanding of something more mysterious with shadowy glimpses to what might lie beyond and as part of a vast creation. In the course of our quest for truth about such matters, we have also encountered a love principle which promises meaning to human existence.

This morning’s reading contains that wonderful poetic verse (John 3:16) that introduces us to one dimension of the Love principle which the King James version renders as: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This is of course a huge step forward from the Old Testament God portrayed in places like Genesis and the Psalms – yet history teaches us that even this famous verse has not proved to be the final arrival point – and certainly not one which always enables us to live at peace with our neighbours and be at one with creation. In fact, let’s be frank, this particular verse, John 3: 16 taken in its most superficial meaning may well have been more responsible as an excuse for violence and unkindness perpetrated in the name of Jesus than any other verse of the Bible.

Whosoever believes in him shall not perish. A casual encounter with this part of the verse allows us to think….. Aha …..therefore anyone will perish if they don’t believe, therefore with that much at stake let us force them to belief…. and of course by belief, we mean our sort of belief!

History teaches for example that this verse has provided an excuse for saying since the Muslims and Jews won’t believe in Jesus and are dangerous to salvation because they are not teaching the Christian truth – very well then, let us make life difficult for them until they are forced to believe. !? This provided the excuse for the Crusades where the Muslim unbelievers were put to the sword by the thousand. This is also partly why for centuries there were pogroms against the Jews right through Europe – massacres, house burnings, removing their legal rights … and indeed it is even claimed by some commentators that the lack of sympathy for the Jews was why it took so long to mobilize action against the Nazi concentration death camps.

A few years ago on a trip to Europe, Shirley and I visited one massacre site where, towards the end of the second world war, several hundred from the local Jewish ghetto had been tied together in pairs and pushed into the river to drown. We were shown the spot on the bank of the Danube in the so called Christian city of Budapest, and the Jewish guide asked: “Where were all the good people?” Given the high attendance rate in the Churches in Budapest, it was a fair question.

Then there were those a few hundred years ago who said the Catholics won’t believe in Jesus the same way as we as Protestants do. Destroy their Churches as protestants did in England, murder the Catholics as was done by Huguenot soldiers in France until the Huguenots in their turn were massacred on the orders of the King of France in 1572 (with, I might add, the king leaning out the window of the Louvre and firing casual pot shots at any Huguenot in the streets below with his arquebus).

As we move closer to the present the pattern seems little different. Fight the Catholics on the streets as the Protestants did in Northern Ireland, chant rude songs about children who went to Catholic schools in Christchurch as I was taught to do as a child…( although perhaps I might just confess as an aside we rather enjoyed the cone fight we had all those years ago in the pine forest when the Catholic Sunday school turned up to the same beach reserve as our Durham Street Methodist Sunday school for their annual picnic).

More seriously, this assumption that only verbal agreement with one’s own version of faith gives eternal life becomes a serious distortion in the hands of the missionaries who historically have often assumed that any culture, other than their own, needs to be destroyed as quickly as possible. Nor should we assume that such thinking is a thing of the past. In the last few years I have heard evangelical missionaries talk about the evil of Hinduism, and of Islam and even of Buddhism. I have also taught in New Britain where some of the missionaries insisted on introducing a Western culture as well as a Victorian religion.

I have also witnessed the callous indifference to the physical plight of people by some of these same missionaries who acted as if, since only eternal salvation matters for the heathen, we can therefore ignore less important things like hunger, disease and injustice.

Yet even although the verse says: whosoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life, it is only at the most superficial level that this belief could be thought of as a creedal statement. Announcing that one is saved is hardly the same as living as a believer. Jesus elsewhere makes it very clear what it means to believe in him. “ In so far as you do it to the least of your neighbours you do it unto me”. Surely this means that to believe in Jesus means adopting and following his ways.

Jesus was accused of eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Very well then, presumably believing in him means caring about those in society who are different to us. Jesus also taught that those not recognized as having the right religious credentials can be the ones living in accordance with his teachings. If this can be applied to Samaritans – then surely it equally applies to Hindus or Muslims. This time of Lent, traditionally a time of self examination is a good time to ask ourselves honestly if we can see evidence that we are taking his words seriously by the way we are living.

A superficial reading of John 3: 16 also causes us to overlook how the verse starts. For God so loved the world – it doesn’t say, the Western protestant world – nor even only the human part of the world.

Believing in Jesus, who for us personifies this love for the world, may then mean we have to genuinely start caring about those of other races and other creeds. If the world is more than just the human race – then perhaps belief also means we should be insisting on caring for creation with its precarious ecosystems and millions of interacting life forms.

It is clear that Jesus only gets part of his message across to Nicodemus. A few verses earlier Jesus talks about being born again and Nicodemus makes it clear he has not understood. As Jesus says in reply : if I have spoken to you about earthly things and you do not believe me, how will you believe me if I speak to you about heavenly things.

He has a point. If we cannot get the basics of Jesus’ teaching, with his down to earth message about how we should be interacting with one another and further if we don’t have the vital experience of living this life in practice. Without the life witness there is little point to rushing to pretend esoteric intellectual certainties about theological implications of salvation. Berating unbelievers with dimly understood theological words instead of offering genuine friendship and compassion is hardly demonstrating belief in Jesus’ way.

So Nicodemus didn’t quite get it. However make no mistake about it, Nicodemus may not have understood all in Jesus’ message, but he is at least partly on the way. As John tells it Nicodemus stays in the background but as a secret disciple serious enough about being a follower to be one who brings a scented resin to tend to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

Perhaps there is something of Nicodemus in all of us. Just as Nicodemus came in the shadow of darkness, not all parts of our thinking and deeds are always brought into the light. Light is not always welcome, particularly in areas where the conscience is not entirely clear. Light can be disturbing and some only notice the shadows it brings. Perhaps this is why some good people seem to produce a reaction of anger in others as their light shows other people as they really are. We all have blind spots about ourselves and others which cause us to rush to premature judgement and miss the potential in ourselves and others.

William Barclay in his Daily Bible on today’s gospel, uses the story of a man visiting and art gallery to look at the Old Masters hanging there. After a guided tour with an attendant of some of these works of genius the man announced to his guide. “Well I don’t think much of your old paintings
The attendant’s quiet reply… “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.”

Verses such as John 3:16 are indeed masterpieces – but our assessment of their meaning and potential may uncover new layers of truth if we will but look. AMEN

Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated. Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.

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Lectionary Sermon for 18 March 2018 Lent 5 Year B (On John 12: 20 -33)

One difficulty I have with religious visitors is my own prejudice.  Many of them seem bent on enlisting me to a view that says all who do not share the visitors’ view of the Bible and the visitors’ sect are doomed to burn in hell. There they assure me, will go the Catholics, the Muslims, the Hindus and alas even my own denomination members. Prejudice about those with different backgrounds and religion is not a new phenomenon and can I be bold enough to admit this includes the attitudes of a good number in my own Church.

So some Greeks – who of course would have been Gentiles as far as Jesus’ Jewish disciples were concerned, came with a request – “Sir we would like to see Jesus”. So what does Phillip do. You can almost hear him thinking. “Foreigners – not like us. Probably foreigners with strange beliefs. Certainly not the sort who would fit in with us…..”

So is Philip very different from a good number of us of us in the Church today. I can imagine him saying to himself, “Well, it’s not for me to introduce these sorts of strangers to Jesus…. So I’ll find someone, someone who can act as an agent on my behalf”.

In this case, Andrew. After all it was Andrew who has invited others to meet Jesus…. If we had been in Philip’s place today, might we have referred the foreign strangers to the minister or Parish Steward?

We shouldn’t be too surprised at Philip’s reaction. After all, from what we know of churches today would a group of mainline Protestants be in a hurry to invite a Muslim, a Jehovah’s witness, a Russian Orthodox or even a Catholic into their inner circle? Maybe if they took the words from the example Jesus set they should – but would they? – or more to the point would we?

As it happens, I’m guessing it might have struck the disciples as being strange or even a bit bizarre that the Greeks should even be there. Gentiles were not part of the inner circle, so why were they there? One commentator J H Bernard notes that since the account of Jesus clearing the Temple reminds us that event would have occurred in the Gentiles courtyard, and he speculates that perhaps these particular Greeks may have even witnessed this event and been sufficiently intrigued to seek out the man responsible for this daring act.

In this reading we are reminded that is as if we are being reminded that with Lent almost behind us Jesus can now be lifted up now that the dawn of the time has arrived….. when in Jesus’ words , “I can draw everyone to myself” . If Jesus can make himself open to the Greeks, perhaps we too should be wondering how we can make those who are strangers to us feel as though they belong. We might note also in passing that he seems to be treating them as if they were already disciples. Jesus certainly doesn’t make allowances for the Greeks as foreigners or waste time on conversational niceties.

So do we see Jesus making it easy for these newcomers? As that TV character used to say, “I should cocoa!”

Jesus too, leaves these would be disciples with the same difficult, costly and potentially damaging choice he offers his followers. What he says in effect, whether it be to the fishermen disciples at their nets, the rich young ruler, those he challenged to pick up their cross – or in this case the casual enquirers who were Greeks…. this is not merely a half hearted choice which allows you to keep to your old way of life. “Whoever serves me must follow me.”

I guess this has always been the challenge. Our own declarations count for little. We can announce we are Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics – but whether we are new to the faith, even would-be followers like the Greeks, or for many of us, members of a particular Church with many years of membership behind us… it is not our status that counts but whether or not we are following the way that Jesus set out in front of his disciples.

By using his allusion of the seed that has to separate itself from its parent plant – in effect to die to its old self before it can set off its new life, Jesus confronts them with an uncompromising alternative. Soren Kierkegaard would probably identify it as the key feature of existentialism – the leap of faith.
………..the leap that no one can do for you.

I suspect that Jesus’ message is typically down–played and treated with caution by modern society and even by much of the corporate Church.

Modern society is based on the concept of success and the achievement of status through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. To set these aside is to reject what is commonly accepted as the only sensible way to live. Even in the corporate Church, the notion of individual response without someone to organise it on our behalf is just not how we operate.

While this no doubt gives us the assurance we are not acting alone, there is a conservatism, and frequently an inertia, particularly when there is an assumption that we require the Church to act as broker before we can respond to how our conscience appears to lead.

Robert Funk sees typical religion as unfortunately something brokered by a whole raft of people on our behalf. The Archbishop or Church president selects and ordains the senior leaders, the senior church folk (often Bishops) ordain the clergy – and the clergy act as an intermediary between the congregation and the divine. And just in case we are expecting action on the issues that concern us, there is usually a ponderous committee structure to navigate. While we have clearly become more democratic in our processes, we should be honest enough to see the end result is that the Church no longer typically gives clear lead on issues of conscience.

I guess that is not new.
In the Second World War for example, in Germany it was only the individuals acting alone who could bring themselves to stand against Hitler. Those individuals were not waiting for their actions to be mediated for them. Less than 10% of the Lutheran Church clergy spoke out and as it happens, the Roman Catholic Church is continuing to defend itself on a frequently expressed charge that if anything they supported the Nazis.

On the world scene, the traditional Church denominations were also initially reluctant to speak against slavery, more recently the mainline Churches were painfully slow in that the biggest Churches still appear reluctant to see women in significant leadership roles. Today they continue to say little about the arms trade. Peace makers may be blessed in the sermon on the Mount, but in reality they have not always been visible as part of Church leadership in some of the nastier conflicts. An army chaplain, blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city, may not represent one of the Church’s finer moments. In this country, despite the record growing gap between the rich and the poor, the Church response has been reactive rather than proactive and if anything muted and restrained.

Individually however we do see within our Churches a small number of determined brave individuals anxious to move forward even without official backing, prepared to follow where their conscience leads. Since we should never forget that in the last analysis the Church is us, we can and should be inspired that we have amongst us those unafraid to question government policy, those prepared to speak up for refugees and minorities, those unafraid to work with the gangs, the addicts and the homeless. We continue to be inspired by those prepared to volunteer in disaster zones, those who insist on supporting Christian World service and those of our Church folk prepared to go into War zones as aid workers.

When we look at the way Jesus interacted with those he met we notice he continually pushed them to take personal responsibility. It is also my impression he tended not to insist those healed that God had done it for them – or that he had interceded on their behalf. Rather instead he acknowledged their personal faith, or actions in seeking his help. It was as if he represented a non brokered faith … a faith in which the shouldering of a personal cross is the test of an individual response.

The seed analogy is vivid and helpful. A seed still attached to the parent plant can only whither and decay. The seed freed to germinate and take root can give rise to new life. Certainly the parent plant – in our case even the parent Church has an essential part of our life cycle. Yet even there the parent Church should be continually allowing and even encouraging the seed to break free to give rise to genuine new life.

Jesus talks of the confrontation as one he in particular must face for himself. He sees the paradox of finding life through death, release through suffering, in effect the dawn after the night. Some of the terminology he uses strongly suggests his premonition of the dark despair he is understood to have faced in the garden of Gethsemane. As always with John it is hard to disentangle the theology from the factual record.

Some of the allusions are easy to grasp. When Jesus talks of he (and she?!) who loves his (or her?!) life will lose it Jesus is not of course talking of a sense of the worth of life – but rather the attractions of a shallow pursuit of that which comes easy… yet there is still mystery. The notion of hating your life to win eternal life is a difficult thought-provoking paradox and perhaps related to the historical fact that by the death of the martyrs the Church itself apparently grew. Yet in what sense the life continues is much harder to put into words. Modern cosmology has in effect put paid to notions of heaven being up there and hell down there as places, and the certainty with which some describe the hereafter (particularly at funerals) is hard to justify since many of the descriptions are contradictory and mutually exclusive.

What we can however be sure of is that a sense of what Jesus stood for has continued to have a lasting significance and regardless of the manner of his execution his message and the Spirit of what he stood for lives on, but not in the ether. Rather it is in the responses and deeds of those who win the right to be called followers by how they respond to the way of Jesus. Will that include those like us?

By contrast perhaps we might finish with an historical anecdote.
There are several versions of the story about the King Xerxes about to invade Greece. One version says that before they crossed the Hellespont River he had his mighty Persian army drawn up so that he might review them. He smiled in great satisfaction at their magnificence – then his officers noticed suddenly he had tears in his eyes. “What troubles you?” they asked.

“I was just thinking that in one hundred years not a single one of these fine soldiers will be alive. Nothing will remain”.

Xerxes’ words should remind us that each of us have a relatively brief time in which we can respond to the gospel. And dont forget that when it comes to following Christ each generation needs to ensure the mission is handed on to the next generation. We can’t depend on what previous disciples did in the past – glorying only in the deeds of a previous generation of Christians. Newcomers or old-hands, the test is always the challenge of living the faith.

The essence of Christianity was not necessarily finished when Jesus was lifted up on his cross. It continues to live if we make it live, but finding meaning in his message with our own seed is the chapter still to be written.

 Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated. Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 3 b March 4, 2018 (John Ch 2 : 13-22 Clearing the Temple)

Would our chosen trappings of religion pass the Jesus test?

How much of our religion really matters and how much would be what the philosopher A.N. Whitehead dismissed as trappings?

Reflect on what Whitehead saw when he looked at the Church.  According to Whitehead “Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, Bibles, codes of behaviour are the trappings of religion, in passing forms.”

I guess I would even 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 I am sure that many would assume trappings help us gain a degree of perspective and focus on our faith. But there is a problem when the trappings take over and we forget what the gospel is supposed to be about.

One of the key incidents in the Jesus story is surely his attack on one aspect of the trappings that affected his people of the time, the event of the clearing of the Temple.

Did you notice 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 Jesus’ uncompromising honesty and courage. It also 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.

For what it is worth I happen to suspect although John makes a good theological point, it is less likely the event would have happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because from that point he would have been a marked man and not free to continue with his ministry.

Of far more importance is why Jesus might have come into conflict with the temple authorities in the first place. Let’s look again at the setting.
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….
Next was 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 still 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 should be money changers in the Temple was hardly surprising. Because travellers 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, ordinary non Jewish money was considered too base for the purchase of the animals for religious purpose.

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.

Even exchanging shekels for half shekels would be a cost because the money changers were expected to take some profit. Even worse 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 then had cause to be upset.

Exploiting the poor was of course an extreme and glaring injustice, particularly when done in the name of God.

Jesus probably 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. So we recall 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) . 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 those bargaining. 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.

You have probably heard 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, but 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.

Jesus driving out the money lenders only becomes awkward when we think of some of the modern trappings which always risk growing in significance until they make a mockery of our faith.

Take 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 jewelled and brocaded splendour 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

( Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit). Note too, I am always short of ideas – and know that others have better insights and illustrations. Why not share them in the comments below?)

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Research proves arming teachers won’t make students safer — ThinkProgress

After last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Americans are imploring their leaders to take serious action on gun control. During a town hall Wednesday night, for instance, survivors of the shooting suggested plenty of steps that could be taken, from banning bump stocks to limiting magazine capacity, strengthening background checks, and easing the NRA’s stranglehold […]

via Research proves arming teachers won’t make students safer — ThinkProgress

Bill’s comment…  I was amazed that Mr Trump should turn to the arming of teachers as plausible option for keeping schools safe.     The numerous studies about the in-effectiveness of this option are well known and any literate citizen can access the data and understand the significance of the data, let alone a man who describes himself as having superior intelligence.  Instead we now discover the President either had so little previous interest in this topic he lacked readily accessible information that he needed before making his proposal or alternately he has been badly let down by his advisers.    This is especially unfortunate since his advisers were presumably so carefully selected by the man himself!

Mr Trump’s critics have been suggesting that unless his advisers explain issues in Twitter-sized bites – or alternately persuade the pro-Trump Fox commentators to break the information down to simplified information, he is suspected of lacking the concentration to listen or understand.

Stopping bad guys by using good guys with guns seems a very poor alternative to not giving the bad guys the freedom to get their guns in the first place.   Most other nations have been able to work that out for themselves.    Why return to something that hasn’t worked where it has been tried and has already failed in an American context?

Remember a good number of perpetrators have already decided that they intend to commit suicide by waiting for the inevitable hail of bullets and explain how arming the teachers would change that likely outcome.  Many public places are patrolled by armed law-keepers but many of those public places still have high numbers of gun victims. Remember the teacher who shot herself by accident, another who shot himself in the foot, the teacher who accidently left their gun in a bathroom, the relatively few number of massacres stopped by armed amateurs, the difficulty of training  to bring teachers to the point where they could stop the armed assailant without adding to the problem and the fact that the majority of surveyed teachers have already rejected the armed teachers option should all combine to give the President a clue.  A simple survey of countries that have introduced gun control and eliminated mass shootings in schools should bring the conclusion to the point it is called a no-brainer…… Oh….unless of course the brain of the elected authority figure has already reached its limit!

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Lectionary Sermon for 25 February, 2018 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

Say what?… Oh so familiar words but what are we expected to make of that ….“Take up your cross and follow”?

In our setting I guess it is inevitable that the words are distorted in our minds by a fragmentary grasp of Church history. Crosses are not actually part of our thinking in the world we encounter today. For most of us I suspect, the only cross we now think of is Jesus’ cross, certainly not ours.

Many times until it became part of our thinking we have been told that for some hours on the cross Jesus suffered eventually died – then wasn’t there some magic and somehow everything was put right? The gospels, 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 here are strongly tempted to shut our eyes to what a whole life response to Jesus might do to disturb a quiet life. 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 answer Jesus when he was in effect saying “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 imply our right is to maintain a faith which allows us a relatively trouble free life. 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 Churches are insisting we put ourselves out for the victims? It would not be popular.

Following conscience issues which interfere with entrenched views is seen as undermining existing authority and status. We seem pre-programmed to hold on to our nation’s hard won riches and not share them with the needy… why else would our churches be muted in their protest when our government gives such a small percentage of GDP to International Aid programs.

One risk is the personal danger we anticipate in protesting too loudly. Should this surprise us? What would happen to 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 no longer reflects the essentials of Christi’s teaching. True these criticisms 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 cross carrier.

Think back to 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. At least that way we inflame no passions. But start insisting on genuine action – altering immigration policies to let more from 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, perhaps we should also notice 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 also has something to teach us for this time of Lent.

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US Gun Violence, whose mental issue?

If there is  one thing that Mr Trump has got right, it is likely to be the conclusion that mental stability does have something to do with the appalling statistics of gun violence in the US. Unfortunately the President may not realise that even the mental stability of the policy makers may be a contributing factor.

Mass killings like the recent Florida school event are merely one dimension of a wider American crisis. The school deaths are minor when compared to all other forms of gun crime. Even Mr Trump should realize that other first world countries have much better systems for dealing with such a threat. A rational approach would be to identify and quantify the dangers and deal systematically with the most obvious first. Unfortunately it turns out when it comes to regulating arms, Mr Trump prefers a system of appeasement of interested parties, disguised by bluster and fine sounding but what all too often turn out to be empty promises.

A good part of the viewing segment of the world has already watched Mr Trump rise to promise to address the gun problem. He chose the stage at the Republican National convention in July 2016. What was it he said? “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.” Then to underline his determination, when he took power there was his famous end to the “American carnage” promise in the acceptance speech which he assured his audience would be starting right then and there. Perhaps those among his audience new to his rhetoric should be forgiven for assuming he would not have made the promise unless he had some grasp of the reality of what would be needed to fix the problem.

Those relatively unfamiliar with Mr Trump’s past promises probably assumed he was intending to follow through with actions which would match his prior political statements. For example in the year 2000, as he considered running for president, he wrote in his book, “The America We Deserve,” that “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” He added, “With today’s internet technology we should be able to tell within 72 hours if a potential gun owner has a record.”

Again his audience might be excused for thinking he meant what he said and assumed that this would affect his intended legislation. In the event, Donald Trump, ever the cynical deal-maker, noted that the National Rifle Association offered $30 million to the Republican Presidential campaign. Last April he acknowledged the NRA support and said he would make sure they were remembered! What that meant in practice was that both Mr Trump and the GOP would resist any move to allow any substantive legislation limiting the sale of guns.

From what Donald Trump had previously said (and by implication had promised) it was presumed he would work on the principle that if some are too deranged to be allowed access to the purchase of dangerous weaponry one logical consequence would be in denying such people access to purchase. It turned out the POTUS was thinking rather more about the NRA support. What we actually saw was that when Trump came to power he actually reversed legislation President Obama had introduced to add the names of about 75, 000 people to the watch list of those deemed to be likely to be a risk to the community.

This would not matter if he had showed he had developed alternative legislation which made a visible difference to the grim statistics of gun violence. Each time there has been another mass killing the President and the GOP have assured the public that now is not the time to consider new legislation. Now they are doing it again. So when exactly will they act?

Unfortunately for the President, gun violence is rather easy to measure and if Mr Trump knew how to deal with the situation at the beginning of his Presidential term thus far there is absolutely no sign of it in the subsequent statistics. He says gun violence in schools is his number one priority. Well then, how come the once a week average school shooting has changed to 18 incidents in the first six weeks of 2018? Some 11,686 gun deaths were recorded in 2017, an increase of 12 per cent on Obama’s year in 2016, including 273 in mass shootings. Remember Mr Trump said at the beginning of 2016, the carnage stops right now. Putting it bluntly, it only got worse.

The US firearms homicide rate has continued to be far higher than elsewhere among the richer nations. For example the US has of the order of 16 times that of the rate recorded in Germany, and six times that of that in neighbouring Canada. It may be unwelcome news to Mr Trump and his supporters but the cold truth is that countries that ban or restrict access to guns, such as Australia, have many fewer gun fatalities.

I am guessing, or at least hoping, that the US has no serious lead in the proportion of dangerous and deranged potential perpetrators of gun violence. We can but hope that  the US now has rather more sensible lawmakers in the wings than those currently unprepared to challenge the President’s current erratic and thus far demonstrably ineffective notion of how best to deal with the US gun problem.

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Tax Rebate: Now you see it – now you don’t ?????

Apparently Donald Trump’s degree in real estate didn’t include a topic entitled “common sense in economics”.
1. Yes, we can see that some (especially the rich) can now look forward to a federal tax rebate.
2. Yes, we can see that, not withstanding the loss of some Federal income from tax, that Mr Trump has found lots more money in his proposed budget for things like better nuclear bombs.
3. And true, he has made savings by proposing less Federal money is spent on stuff like health care and Amtrak.
BUT…… Where will the money come from for all the basics?  Mr Trump says if we take Amtrak as an example that although under the new Trump budget, the Federal government will pay less for rail transport, the State budget will be asked to cough up the difference. And here is the tricky bit…….State tax destined for Amtrak will of course need to increase by the same amount saved by the Federal tax payers. And who will pay that tax? Goodness me, surely not the same tax payers who are getting rebate from Mr Trump, who can then say ….”nothing to do with me…. it is no longer a Federal tax”.  But….. – and here is the part I don’t get –   If the same people who get the rebate from Mr Trump have to pay it back via the State taxation, why are those same people so grateful for the federal tax relief?

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