Lectionary Sermon for Trinity Sunday – Year B – (27 May 2018) on Matthew 28 16-20 or John 3:1-17

Trinity: A Bible inspired Idea in need of a Second Look?
How does the Trinity appear to the modern scientific mind? We live in an age when telescopes can probe the depths of space, looking back in time to many millions of galaxies, many with their million upon million of stars. Many of these stars are hugely larger than our home Sun and each at mind numbing distances from where we live. In that setting, the notion of a kind of creative being which is somehow like a human Father, yet one sufficiently in control to be creator of the entire universe seems bewildering.

To believe that same Father being is concerned primarily with one species living on the surface of what, compared with the entire Universe, is but a tiny speck of a planet, is a hard idea to sell. That this super-human type God should somehow be equivalent – in fact more than equivalent but actually mysteriously at one with a human type son – and also at one with an even more mysterious Spirit that can influence the human species in peculiar ways stretches credulity, particularly when we remember that the minds who first made this statement were much more limited in their understanding of creation than we are today.

I want to suggest another way of approaching this mystery. If we start instead with our perspective as humans and our need to relate to our setting, and particularly to one another within that setting, a more useful question is: how the Trinity idea helps in our present journey? Forget for a moment what lies beyond this world. For now the overriding concern is with the world we inhabit. Our environment, how it affects us and how we need to look after it , and in particular, how faith affects our relationships with those who share our immediate communities and our setting in the wider world.

To have a relationship with creation is captured as a metaphor when we talk of God the father. The notion of a father immediately highlights our dependence and sense of obligation. To portray Jesus as the Son reminds us his teaching is too important to ignore. To love as he first showed love for others is to capture the essence of the gospel. And the Spirit behind these relationships lifts the Christian journey to something above rules and regulations…God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – three metaphors which together open up some of the possibilities for the relationships we need.

Contrary to popular opinion the Trinity was not clearly defined by the Bible.

If you look at the emerging ideas about God we find in the pages of the Bible, one puzzle is why the notion of a Trinity was so late in its formation. It is true that the Trinity was hinted at by Jesus, although in all honesty, even here we cannot be sure in an objective sense since the gospel writers were recording their accounts years after Jesus had done his teaching, and writing at the very time when the Trinity was only beginning to be discussed and formulated. A further complication is that Jesus seemed to be anxious not to have the perception of himself conflated with the idea of God. “Why do you call me Good?” He is recorded as saying, “Only my Father in Heaven is Good.”

So then what should we make of this idea of three in one. We get one clue when Matthew and Paul start talking of the persons of the Godhead. The Greek word meaning person they choose to use is the same as the word used to describe the masks worn by actors in Greek plays. The highly stylised Greek dramas would identify different types with different masks – yet it was always clear to the Greeks at least, that the mask was only the outward label. By using the mask term for person we get a hint that these are only the outward signs of the complexities underneath. Focusing on the mask would not be expected to tell you everything about what lay underneath.

Another clue comes from the timing. Virtually nothing about the Trinity was written up to the time of Christ, yet in the time after Christ, it dawned on his followers that here was a life that enlightened the other parts of the faith.

Historically all the new understandings of what it means to talk of God came from times of crisis. When the Jews fled from Egypt, when the Kingdom started to show signs of breakdown, when they were under siege or appeared to have wandered far from their religious and cultural roots – that was when the prophets spoke. The oldest writings in the Bible reveal a very rudimentary notion of what God meant.

In the early years the Jewish God was seen as just one God among many tribal competing Gods. At one stage on their journeys they even carried this tribal God in a litter and when Moses presented his ten commandments there was frank acknowledgement of the other Gods around them – hence the commandment – you shall have no other Gods before me. When Isaiah is described as having an encounter with God, the plural Elohim is used. As the experience accumulated – the idea of God began to grow.

This is not to say that whatever creation meant to the Jews meant that the reality behind creation itself was any different to what it is today. The Jews’ perceived world was simply very much smaller than it is to educated people today. To the Jews there could be no perception just how vast or old the Universe is – or what wonders there were at the atomic and sub-atomic level. So their God was accordingly limited by their understanding. As their experiences and crises accumulated – so their perceptions of God began to change and grow.

In times of stability and ease, there is of course no need to rethink ideas. But think for a moment what was happening at the time of the birth of the Christian Church. Those early Christians were experiencing a time of total upheaval and change. The traditional Jewish Church had rejected Jesus, perhaps because they found his challenge to be threatening. This basically meant that many of Jesus’ early followers had few supporters and no community structure that could help them. Even the Jewish Religion of the time was under siege because an unsuccessful Jewish uprising against the Romans resulted in effect in the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem – which resulted in the Diaspora – the scattering of the Jews from Israel.

Then too, the Christians needed an understanding that reflected their reality that they not only needed continued guidance, but that Spirit of Guidance could not be interpreted for them by some established hierarchy of priests working with tradition because each of their fragmented groups were virtually on their own. The traditional belief of the Jewish understanding of God the Father may have been basically unchanged at the time – but suddenly the teachings of Jesus and the notion of life constantly seeking a spirit of wisdom and an awareness that God was continuing to act for them needed discussing and formalising.

The formula they eventually decided upon is what we now call the Trinity.
The actual formulation was not finally sorted to the majority satisfaction till the fourth Century when the crisis of the time was a bitter dispute – on a regional basis – of competing beliefs about the nature of Jesus. Although the Trinity took many of its ideas from isolated texts in the Bible – eg from the Baptismal formulation in Matthew, don’t forget there were many disputes in the first few Centuries about what was the nature of Jesus. Was he a wise prophet, the Son of Man, the Son of God – or God Himself? We should also remember that even today, although the mainline churches still maintain the fourth century formula, Christians are not agreed in what it means to say the three persons of the Trinity are the same in essence.

The Unitarians famously insist that the Trinity has no real meaning for us today and insist on one God. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) insists that the three persons of the Godhead are separate beings, with one purpose rather than being one in essence. The Binitarians claim two persons but one deity and – and it is clear there are others as well.

Some contemporary Christian scholars now talk of the Trinity as an idea that was appropriate for its time ie 4th Century AD – but one that needs further development to take into account modern understanding. One problem I referred to earlier is that just as science has revealed a far vaster universe of unbelievable grandeur and complexity, the notion of what was formerly thought to be a creator God with human like characteristics becomes increasingly inappropriate.

Our Church leaders are not simply outdated when they talk mere of an inspiring and helpful intellectual idea. Thinking of the Trinity as a sort of academic religious formula of mystery would of course be next to useless. Remember the whole point of introducing the formula was to elevate the teachings of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit to a point where they would provide trusted guidance for decision making in often difficult situations – of the sort faced on almost a daily basis by those in the early Church.

Leaving it as an academic formula with its inherent problems is more akin to a character in Alice in Wonderland believing six impossible things before breakfast. On the other hand treating the Trinity as something to be lived, takes Christianity from being a sort of spectator sport to one where we too can respond with confidence to the guidance we find in the words of Jesus as capturing the essence of a human  expression of God – and trusting to the mysterious Holy Spirit to go with us into new territory.

The next bit I am less confident about expressing in public. I want to say it is not only intended as something to be experienced and lived….in my view at least, it may also be a work in progress. We might do well to remember that the notion of the Trinity was established post Jesus and in fact at least a hundred years after the last of the books of the Bible had been written. It was established to meet the changing situation – and here is the important point….the situation has continued to change. As the situation changes should we not rethink whether or not our understanding might also need revising?

It is not just new understandings of the creation part of God so that God the Father now takes on new shades of meaning, so whether we like it or not that part of the Trinity formula has already changed. The other parts must also respond in our understanding to the changes in the sorts of day to day ethical problems which are far removed from those facing the early Church.

The challenge is to take the essence of Jesus teaching and apply it to today’s new situations: like the problems of mercy killing the terminally ill and long suffering in hospital, like dealing with the myriad of foreign religions and those with entirely different backgrounds to ourselves, not to mention new responsibilities for problems of distribution of resources in a finite world, genetic engineering, nuclear power, over population – the list is almost endless.

This brings us to what I see the real question about the Trinity to be. Either as a metaphor – or as reality, if we are indeed inspired by the idea, what do we now do that is different because of our understanding?

Because our circumstances and understanding change the Trinity seems very likely to be a work in progress. Have we reached a personal view of the Trinity that changes our life?

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Ollie North has Insights on Mass Shootings

I have only just caught up with the latest insights of one Oliver North ( the man who embarrassed the US a few years back in the Iran-Contra affair), in which he arranged for the U.S. to illegally sell weapons to Iran of all places—violating an arms embargo—then funnelled the proceeds to the Contras, who were fighting Ortega’s left-wing government.

I acknowledge that, knowing all about arms deals, Mr North definitely qualifies as the new President of the NRA and no doubt he will be well respected as a Vietnam veteran, remembering back to when he was a lieutenant colonel serving on the National Security Council. I presume that those who voted for him in his new position would have been well aware that he was charged with various felonies related to Iran-Contra and convicted of three. Fortunately in the new era, past crimes only matter if you are an immigrant.

Now Mr North is offering to solve the mass gun crime shootings in American Schools by placing the blame squarely on too much Ritalin made available to young boys, slack attitudes to abortion and on poor security in the schools. The abortion bit was a little puzzling to me since aborting future mass murderers seemed a neat if somewhat far fetched solution. I hope this does not imply we should be asking for details of Oliver North’s own drug prescription.

The other puzzle in his speech was that he seemed totally opposed to the notion that gun laws need to be reviewed. Should I be presumptuous and suggest that some computer savvy geek show the NRA president how to use Wikipedia? Other first world nations with more sensible gun laws don’t have anything like America’s gun crime death toll.

At least God is being consulted. I note that the self-claimed born again President Trump offers prayers and condolences instead of restrictions on gun sales each time this happens. Twenty one mass shootings for one month. Perhaps if the President were to speak louder and face the right direction, God might hear!

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AN OLD INDIAN FABLE RE-IMAGINED

I want to tell you a story that might at first seem rather strange. I am rather hoping it will start to mean something when you think about it.

Once there was a young fellow who was a bit confused about how his life was working out. It really started to worry him – so much so he sought out the local wise man in his town.

“I’ve got this problem” he told the wise man. “I don’t know if what I am doing is worth anything. With all that stuff to believe – I don’t know how to choose – and actually, I don’t even know if my life has value.”

“Um, I think I can see the problem” said the old guy. “Well this might help.” The guru walked over to the side board, opened the cupboard and took out a pretty ordinary looking rough rock with a red tinge.

“What I want you to do is take it round the town and get a few of the shop keepers to give you an estimate of its worth. But whatever you do don’t sell it. Come back here and tell me what you have learned”.

The young guy was puzzled – but because he was feeling desperate – a bit reluctantly he agreed.

The first shop he came to was a fruiterer. He explained the task to the fruiterer. The shop keeper looked at the rock – turned it over – frowned then he said. “Tell you what – looks fairly ordinary but the red colour makes it a bit special. I’ll swap it with you for a dozen bananas.” “Sorry” said the young man. “It’s not for sale.”

The next stop was a furniture shop. The furniture salesman was only mildly interested. “It might look OK as a sort of ornament on a dish in the middle of a table. “Give you ten dollars?”

“Not selling”, said the young fellow.

Next door was a jewellery store. The Jeweller’s eyes lit up when he saw the rock. “Hang on”, he said and put an eye glass in his eye to get a really good look. “A few specks of precious stones there” he said. “How about I give you a hundred dollars?” “Nah” said the young fellow. “OK then, you drive a hard bargain, $200… final offer!” “No” said the lad, “not selling”.

When the young fellow got out of that shop he spotted another likely shop. This time it was one that specialized in Gem stones just across the road.

That stone seller seemed genuinely surprised. He took one look and his eyes widened. “Hold on…” he said and took a closer look with a big magnifying glass. Then the gem stone merchant handed back the stone most reluctantly. “Sorry”; he said. “That’s out of my league. Under the stone chips on the outside there is something there speaking to me. Under the rough stuff that is the biggest ruby I have ever seen. I simply haven’t got enough money – even if I sold my shop and my home too.”

The young man didn’t know quite what to think. He headed back to the wise man to see if he could explain.

“Isn’t it obvious?” said the wise man. “First, our value won’t depend on the odd individual opinions of others. They, like us, can only make judgements by what they see happening in their own lives and own limited life experience. But did you notice, real value for a stone is not what it was when it was shut away . Similarly your true value is what you really can become when your inner gifts are revealed and offered, but not just to one, rather to all you meet.”

Posted in Children's stories, Just to make you think | 1 Comment

SOME MISPLACED METHODIST TOLERANCE?

One aspect of the disparate family that now constitutes the Methodist Church in New Zealand is starting to concern me. Don’t get me wrong. I rejoice in a Church which is sufficiently “family” to encompass progressives and conservatives. We find among those who call themselves Methodist, those who work to break down barriers with inter-church dialogue, and a home where both liberals and evangelicals can find a place. The Maori and Pakeha bicultural partnership has widened to encompass Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Indian, Korean and a growing variety of other significant ethnic groups.

Where I do have more of a problem is when the tolerance for diversity morphs into a tolerance for bigotry together with a form of fundamentalism which identifies followers of other religions as doomed to perdition. Part of my dilemma, is that for example I am genuinely puzzled as to why a hopefully small sector of New Zealand Methodist evangelicals see themselves comfortable with a prosperity gospel that leaves the wealthy an excuse for not offering practical help for the poor. From what I have read, John Wesley never taught that Lazarus was meant to be kept at the gate. If it comes to that, a gospel which is designed to offer no hope for followers of other religions and can thereby keep the refugees at a safe distance is not the same faith that I assume should encourage us to offer genuine welcome to the stranger.

In terms of foreign policy I would, for example, like to hear some of the Trump supporters amongst our New Zealand Methodist Bible literalists give some clear explanation to the wider Church as to why they recently aligned themselves with the US and approved the recent move to open an American Embassy in Jerusalem. Hopefully I have been misinformed that the reason why a significant section of the pro-Trump evangelicals have supported strengthening the Israeli hold on Jerusalem was because, in their minds, strengthening the Jews position in Israel will hasten the arrival of the Apocalypse and the return of Christ, after which the Jews who don’t convert will burn in hell for ever(!)

That President Trump supports such a view is hardly in doubt when he had Robert Jeffress (a megachurch pastor from Dallas) deliver the first prayer at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. Pastor Jeffress is not only famously quoted as responsible for the aforementioned prophecy, but had further insisted that religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism lead people into an eternity of separatism from God in Hell. John Hagee, the “man of God” chosen to give the final benediction at the same ceremony was similarly (at least in my mind) a curious choice. Hagee, who has preached extensively on end-times, is probably best known for his public utterance that God had sent Hitler to drive the Jews back to their ancestral homeland.

Just in case we might have thought that at least President Trump himself had concern for the Palestinians, it turned out that other than to blame Hamas, he raised no protest when some nearby stone throwing Palestinians, demonstrating their anger at the opening of the embassy, were shot by Israeli soldiers from the safety of their watch towers. It was scarcely a fair fight, in that although no Israelis were wounded, 68 Palestinians died (including a fourteen year old in a wheel chair!), while a further 2600 Palestinians plus were wounded. The American PR was probably not helped by the news coverage of the opening which not only showed no acknowledgment of the Palestinians’ death toll but instead highlighted a picture of Ivanka (nee Trump) and Jared Kushner who were shown smiling with their equally delighted Israeli hosts.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, insisted the deaths were entirely due to unreasonable behaviour on the part of the Palestinians encouraged by Hamas, and invited the UN members to congratulate the Israelis for showing so much restraint. By blocking a collective UN call for an independent inquiry, Ambassador Hayley, further upset the majority of UN observers. Having directed her accusations to the Palestinian camp Ambassador Haley demonstrated what some of the observers called arrogance by refusing to stay to listen the Palestinian reply.

An outraged Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has made it clear that as a consequence the US will not be playing a part in future peace negotiations. As he put it Washington is “no longer a partner and a broker.” “We will not sit with them,” Erekat said. “They have become part of the problem not part of the solution, a big part of the problem. Trump’s administration is the biggest problem.”

Just for the record, I for one am concerned that any Christian group would offer their support for this recent act by the Trump administration which I can only see as destabilizing the Middle East. In my version of an ideal New Zealand I would like to see the New Zealand Methodist Church leadership send a note to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to recommend they do not award the Nobel Peace Prize to President Donald Trump. Do others agree?

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The Trumpish Art of the New Dealer

In the same way the hard of hearing can still follow the gist of a speech by watching an expert in sign language interpret the opening and shutting of a political leader’s mouth, given the widespread international varied reactions President Trump’s recent prognostications on Iran, I am offering an interpreter’s guide to his speeches.

First the key features of a typical speech. Many of the listeners clearly have misunderstood and assumed that President Trump means the same thing as other lesser mortals would mean using the same words and phrases.

Remember “I keep my promises!” Only a Trump newby would think those words actually meant he was always going to do what he said.  Mr Trump doesn’t “do adverbs” very often in speeches.  Words like “occasionally” are not a typical feature.  A Trump promise is like ….well….. like a marriage vow before a storm comes over the horizon. “I promise to love honour and obey”.  I suspect that in his mind he meant it but he is describing an instant in time.   For a man of action things can change – even from tweet to tweet.  Promises?? Three wives and a host of what the President seems to imagine to be small minded self-claimed mistresses turning up unexpectedly and we might begin to understand the limitations of a Trump promise.

Fortunately we now have the supporting evidence from the fate of many of his campaign pledges. Who can forget the repeated slogan of intent to lock Hillary up? Who was going to build a beautiful wall and get Mexico to pay for it? Who was going to release his tax returns…shortly? Who was going to show that President Obama was born in Africa? Who was going to come up with a magnificent improvement to the tax system and in particular one which was targeted not at the rich but mainly at the middle class? Who was going to replace Obama-care with a scheme that gave much better coverage and would produce real benefits to the needy? Whose budget claimed that reducing the tax would be fine yet which resulted not just in a failure to balance but to set a new record of deficit? Surely these were insights into the moment of Mr Trump’s mind – and most certainly not to be taken seriously.

The next striking feature of his speech making is the contrast between his delivery of pre-prepared speeches such as the all important Iran announcement which appears carefully crafted (presumably by speech-writers) and his own free-wheeling repetitive style of recycling favourite phases, together with his poorly spelled, illogically constructed and error-ridden tweets. Curiously, since analyses of Trump’s key voting support show the biggest identifiable supporting sector was essentially drawn from poorly educated white males, Mr Trump’s famous limitations with the English language may well turn out to be entirely appropriate. Why use words that the illiterate might not follow?  Why bother to read if your main supporters wont see the ideas repeated on Fox? And if it comes to that, with so few words at your disposal, if you have the money, why bother to write when you can pay someone to do it for you?

Did you note that the now conscience-stricken ghost writer (Tony Schwartz) of Trump’s famously ghost written book “The Art of the Deal” pointed out that the reason why Mr Trump needed a ghost writer was that Trump himself only had an effective vocabulary of about 200 words? Assuming he is right in his estimate as Tony Schwartz put it, “with a vocabulary of 200 words Mr Trump has the smallest vocabulary of any person who has ever run for any kind of office, much less president …” A series of analyses conducted at Carnegie Mellon University was applied to Trump’s speeches. Those investigations found him scoring poorly in matters of grammar and eloquence

Several unkind critics have at least allowed that such a small vocabulary is not proof that the President is a complete ignoramus, even if, as Ian Warden in his Canberra Times article on that topic put it, this leaves the impression that Mr Trump is on the same level as a talking budgerigar.  I have just had the thought that perhaps to Mr Trump the equivalent of a budgie smuggler is his brain snuggled under a toupee.

More seriously there is a question whether or not Mr Trump actually needs to understand the implications of his own speeches. Lesser mortals can do that for themselves.  Mr Trump seems to expect us to focus on his own current assessments of progress with little or no required understanding of downstream consequences of announced policy. Try the following check-list of reflections…

It is relatively well accepted that terrorism emerges when a strong force eg the might of the US military is brought to bear on much weaker forces. The disenchanted losing population realizing conventional warfare is ineffective naturally turn to symbolic acts of terror. For example, the recent unwise crushing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq led to a measurable three fold increase of terrorist acts and is generally agreed to have given rise to ISIS. Crushing ISIS (who have now emerged as a significant force in Afghanistan) may appear to have worked in Syria but I would have thought that bombing the towns in which ISIS were sheltering guarantees many future year’s trouble from the bombed and displaced families of justifiably enraged civilians.  On the other hand if the grand plan does indeed require spending obscene sums of money on weapons surely those weapons become more necessary if current policy produces a constant supply of future enemies.

Mr Trump is however apparently pursuing a more convoluted and even confused policy presumably providing jobs for the military into the distant future when he has the US combine with Saudi Arabia, the Kurdish rebels and Turkey to oppose ISIS and the Iranian forces in Syria while at the same time opposing the Assad regime and (by proxy) the Russian forces.

Since the two major Kurdish rebel groups have actually born the brunt of the war against ISIS, arming the rebels was probably inevitable, but there is catch because the other main ally Turkey who is also the major destination for fleeing civilian refugees is also engaged in a proxy war with the Kurds. The Turkish President is highly offended by US military assistance to the Kurdish groups while at the same time his government is trying to subdue the PKK. The confusion deepens when it is realized that Russia is committed to the defence of its Mediterranean base on the Syrian coast and Russia is dependent on Assad as an ally safeguarding its rights to the Mediterranean naval base. The reason they turn to Assad is that, like it or not Assad is the most popular single choice of the various voting factions in the country.

President Trump has chosen to remain transfixed on the Kurdish victory over ISIS and is attempting to take personal credit. Unfortunately the disturbances in Syria continue and there is no sign that the US allies are serious about restoring the ruined cities and towns. Although UN observers claim that the US coalition has killed at least as many civilians as the Assad regime, the Trump edict to refuse to accept the refugees has increased the tensions and should guarantee the probability that at least some of the refugees will turn against the US.

Trump’s foreign policy via his tweets and speeches is a great act and a great gift to the late night comedy shows.   As one presenter famously put it.  The President is “a gift that keeps on giving”.   Mr Trump behaves (or surely, given his own assessment of his intelligence), pretends to behave as if he honestly doesn’t understand the history of the area. He doesn’t appear to understand that the Kurds now occupy an area in Syria which used to be part of Ottoman Empire until the Western powers redrew the boundaries after World War One and convincingly seems oblivious that the Turkish President is highly offended that the US appears to be supporting the Kurds in what the Turks see as a disputed area. Mr Trump clearly likes to appear not to have realized that chemical warfare was introduced to the disputed territories by both the US and Russia, or that some of the illegal weapons like cluster bombs, fuel air explosives, white phosphorus and chlorine were financed and/ or supplied by the US for Saudi Arabia to use both in Yemen and Syria.

Nor did the President seem to want to come across as knowing that until quite recently the appalling prisons in Syria not only provided the setting for torture and murder but were also accepted destinations for the US tactic of rendition which enabled the Bush regime to deal to unwanted Iraqi prisoners. It is not clear whether Mr Trump’s righteous indignation about Assad’s Syrian prisons and his Presidential fury about chemical weapons was intended to be seen as naive ignorance or alternately cynical hypocrisy.

Much of Europe and the pro-Russian bloc see Mr Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear treaty with Iran and replace it with strong sanctions as wrong at almost every level. If it is indeed intended to make the people of Iran suffer, surely someone has told the President that for years they have become very resentful as a response to their treatment at the hands of the super-powers. (Read an historical summary of the history of Iran since 1900 and you will see why I make that assertion!) Their oil and uranium deposits have been exploited particularly by the United States, Russia and Britain. Their political rights have been cynically subverted each time they tried to retain a fair share of their own minerals and it is widely accepted that, even quite recently, democratically elected governments in Iran have been replaced to fit the interests of the UK and America.  But here is the Trump pay-out for the deal.   Forget the people of Iran…to Trump they are just Muslims.   America has been the winner in Iran for years particularly with oil and under this American president this should continue.

Even a cursory familiarity with the more serious commentators on Iran should have showed the US President that when it had been introduced, the current Treaty was better supported by the more liberal sector of the Iranian public. The more hard-line religious pro-nuclear leadership had resisted the treaty on the grounds that given the recent history and past arbitrary interference by the US, the US led Treaty was not to be trusted. That the US under Trump was able to overturn the treaty when Iran had been attempting to follow its restrictions has now provided the evidence the hardliners had been predicting and this is expected to make the general public less willing to cooperate with the US.  The Iranians were already smarting under what they considered to be unacceptable restrictions on their trade and the rial had lost value substantially as a consequence. It seems clear to most of the international community that infuriating the Iranians by announcing a list of new restrictions can only create more enmity and make a return to a nuclear programme more likely. To the Trump mind, the protestors will be crushed in order that American will become great!

It will not have escaped the attention of the wider Iranian populace that their most disliked near neighbour of Israel has been permitted the biggest nuclear arsenal in the Middle East by courtesy of the US nor that their enemy by proxy of Saudi Arabia enjoys enormous US support for its powerful military.

The mounting irritation on the part of the European nations and the UK in response to what they see as Trump’s unwarranted abandonment of the treaty is at least understandable. His decision to become the self appointed economic policeman for the treaty partners’ trade arrangements under the US abandonment of the treaty creates the inevitable impression that Mr Trump is deciding for others (and against their economic interests ) as to what their attitude to Iran should be. To impose further tariffs and impose sanctions on any nations or any non-US companies to do the same is already creating outrage.

The French are already insisting that the US has no right to determine their arrangements with Iran particularly given that the French President had made the French position very clear about the unacceptable consequences of the Trump proposal. Similar protests have come from the UK and from European representative in Brussels.

What seems obvious to most commentators is that the abandonment of a treaty which appears to edge a nation towards abandoning nuclear weapon aspirations is very bad timing when at the same time North Korea is being told to abandon its own weapons development programme. It is highly likely that the risk to North Korea is that their negotiators will give evidence that the example of Iran shows any future agreement with the US is just as likely to be abandoned on a whim at some future date. This is hardly likely to assist the successful conclusion to the upcoming Singapore conference.

Fortunately Mr Trump can see the world differently and has made it perfectly clear that none of that trivia will deter the judges from realizing he was right all the time and grant him his long awaited Nobel Peace Prize.  That, in his mind at least, will show Obama.

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Happy to be Hitched?

Some thoughts on the debatable wisdom of being hitched to a once rising stellar body ….

Up until recently I had been attracted to the notion of hitching one’s wagon to a star. Now it occurs to me that this may well become problematic if it should ever transpire that the hitched star turns out to be falling.

The initial prospects of hitching up to President’s elect Trump’s star must have seemed attractive enough to a great number when the promises were first made.

Remember in that campaign we were told (and not least by the candidate), America could now have the candidate it deserved.  Perhaps we need to think about that!

Let’s do a quick review. Mr Trump’s personal doctor was on record as assuring the electorate the candidate had extraordinary health and fitness. The candidate himself told us that unlike a previous candidate (Obama), this new man Donald Trump would not waste an excessive time on the golf course. This new star was going to do away with all that fudging of truth. No more fake news. Mr Trump was going to unite the nation. The down trodden working class whites would have their issues granted some well over-due attention. The swamp would be drained. The evangelical right would get their policies into law.

Because Mr Trump let it be known that he was born again as a true Christian, Jerusalem would at last be safe.

The neglected armed services would be more powerfully armed and universally respected ( albeit without the poofter transgender losers).   The candidate Trump had repeatedly reminded the public he had been an incredibly rich and successful business man. We would see this for ourselves when he released his tax returns, which he would do as soon as soon as due diligence had been carried out (!) As a money wizard he would of course know how negotiate fair trade deals, and remove unfair taxes. True he didn’t quite explain exactly how all those services assisted by the Federal Government like health, education , transport and environmental protection etc would be delivered on a radically depleted tax take, but Mr Trump implied that once the stupid stuff like Obama-care had disappeared, all would become obvious. And the promises kept coming.

He was going to bring about peace in the Middle East, sort out China with long over-due tariffs, make the schools safer and the gun crime in the cities would go away. ISIS would surrender and Iran would be finished as a threat. No more shady backroom deals or vested interests would be on show in Washington. The White House would be sorted because the very best for the key positions would be personally chosen. Potentially dangerous immigrants from dodgy nations would be turned away at the border, with the worst rapists and murderers would be kept out by the magnificent proposed wall to be paid for by Mexico …and there would be a forced exodus of people who did not have the rights to stay. Did I remember to say Hillary was going to be locked up?

But here is the important bit. The combined effect of these wonders would be that once again America would be great again…great not just in the eyes of the American people… Nay, great in the eyes of the world.

……Except, thus far, that is not quite how it seems to be turning out.
If the international polls are to be believed, the bewildered observers from many of those foreign places were ignorant enough to be disenchanted by the presidential change of direction and saw both the President in particular and the United States of America in general come across as less trustworthy. According to the polls the international community average support for the previous Obama administration of approximately 48% now dropped to the low 30s by March 2018. At home things weren’t much better. The US population far from becoming united under the President consistently dropped their average support from an initial average of approaching 50% to the low 40s. The protests started to come thick and fast.

Well then what about the specifics of what we were told before the election. OK the doctor’s letter about the fitness and health of Candidate Trump was admitted by the said doctor to be authored by ….. er…..Candidate Trump. Golfing Trump was frequently found taking a Mulligan in the rough when he had promised to be at work. The second amendment about freedom to bear arms turned out to be a Quid Pro Quo for the election contribution to the GOP from the National Rifle Association.  While he appeared to briefly listen to the Gun Crime concerns of students and teachers, as a star he was more comfortable being a shooting star (albeit one prevented from personal heroics by heel spurs).  When Trump from a US with much higher gun crime figures than other first world nations started to tell countries like England and France to arm their citizens they were understandably outraged.   And there was a curious oversight.  The second amendment was the amendment that got Mr Trump’s attention.  On the other hand the first amendment which among other things guaranteed the right to free opinion turned out to be with the unspoken proviso that the free opinion had to coincide with the Trump version of the truth.

Because Mr Trump let it be known that he was born again as a true Christian, Israel would at last be safe.   His previous stance on abortion was now changed and like any true Christian not to mention like the key voting block of White evangelicals he was now against it.

Fake news??? Well ,the Canadian Prime Minister must have been under the impression that at least some of the fake stuff might now be coming from the top. A few short months after Mr Trump had publically routed the Canadian Prime minister with trade figures that showed clearly how Canada was being advantaged and how the US was being short changed yet now a few months later President Trump was actually boasting of making those figures up.

One of several examples of Trump’s truthiness as recently as this last week was the revelation from one of Mr Trump’s lawyers that a payment of $130,000 made to silence a porn star Stormy Daniels about an affair she had had with Mr Trump turned out to have been made with the full knowledge of Mr Trump. Since Mr Trump had earlier flatly denied knowing about the payment, this revelation suggested that at the very least he had been economic with the truth.

Claimed fact after fact from a regular stream of Presidential Twitter rants was now being regularly fact checked (see Politico) and an extraordinary high percentage found to be misleading or even deliberately false.

But there was also a curious shift in the extent the wider audience was prepared to tolerate lapses of honesty. My personal musing on the topic leads me to wonder if because his critics have already encountered and publicized so many Trump untruths, one remarkable consequence is that each fresh dramatic revelation seems to have much less shock factor than might have been the case had there been fewer instances . James Comey, fired by Trump as Director of the FBI, provided numerous examples in his memoir, then summarized Trump’s relationship with the truth as lamenting “the lying about all things, large and small, to satisfy some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth”.

Perhaps too,  it was not unexpected that so many of the media watchdogs were now committed to examining the record. We should hardly be surprised that, having been roundly abused by the President for their own alleged published untruths, some of the same accused Journalists had set to with a will and painstakingly uncovered example after example of Trump’s lies and distortions.

Perhaps the saddest new development in the shadows of the arc of Trump’s shooting star has been the way in which whole communities have become bitterly divided.   Many of the US tourists I have encountered in my own home city of Auckland New Zealand tell me they are deeply ashamed about what is happening back in the United States.  They also say that talking politics in their home communities is now best avoided!  Hopefully they were not a representative sample.   Yet regardless of whether or not Mr Trump deserves the criticisms, the perception of his success is, at best, debateable.

But here is the rub.   The well intentioned Trump voters are now caught in a bind.   Those red  hats were a visible sign of those absolutely committed to Trump policies. Now those policies have been round long enough to be tested and some are now looking suspiciously like policies which are starting to fail.  Unfortunately the Trump supporters and the pro-Trump politicians are inescapably associated in the public mind with those same policies.  Those who were proud in announcing support of those policies are now self-identified.  In terms of the GOP, the President has already made it clear that he has no room for those who question his policies yet the hard truth is that a host of polls says in total the naysayers are now a majority.  Will those who stand alongside such a president be remembered by that same majority as representing policies that the majority reject.     If it turns out that the policies such as the debt creation by tax rebate become failed policies, will politicians and advisers who colluded with the President be saddled with the prospective label of having poor judgement?

To all but the most conservative Christians, the born again Christian Trump was now beginning to look suspiciously as if he had been reborn as his previous self.   The New Testament provided check lists of what a Christian rebirth should have implied…  “Slow to anger?” …. er… ask the ex-White House staff.    “Keeps no score of wrongs?”  Nothing there about tweeting the score …um….”Forgive 70 time 7″  Well surely with Mr Trump, a single word of dissent is enough.   Don’t store up treasures on Earth?   …. Take away those treasures and what is left for a man who faked telephone calls to get himself on the Forbes Rich list top 500?   Love for ones neighbour ?– well perhaps not if the neighbour came from Mexico or one of the bad Muslim countries with a beef against Saudi Arabia (and where by coincidence there were Trump investments and a mega truck load of US weapons).  Peace would be restored in the Middle East between the Palestinians and Israel although it is hard to escape the impression that, at least to to Mr Trump, the US neutrality as peacemaker edges towards favouring the Israeli take over of all of Jerusalem and a total disregard for the views of the Palestinians.

At least some increasingly discomforted Republican lawmakers appear to have watched from the side-lines and showed signs of unease at the growing list of problems. For the first 12 months Wall Street had continued existing practices and the rich clearly prospered – but then President Trump started to introduce his trade policies and signalled his tariffs and the market started to falter.  Trump-care hasn’t seemed to have the same appeal and coverage as Obama-care. The White House staffing issues have provided a further visible sign of Mr Trumps lack of wise judgement. No doubt the first of the advisers to go might have suggested Mr Trump was going to turn out to be a strong man of action but the trickle of those leaving has looked more and more like a flood and has included the dismissal of a large number of White House staff many of who reportedly shared the common sin of correcting or questioning some aspect of Trump’s increasingly erratic policy changes. In the wider scene, whole departments of Government were vilified, partially defunded or allocated apparently poorly qualified leaders.

One by one the standard safeguards surrounding the conventions of the Presidency have been set aside. Remember the refusal to furnish tax returns (which presumably might have revealed the true state of Mr Trump’s true wealth and inconvenient vested interest relationships), his insistence that he and his immediate family should ignore their conflicts of interest and apparently be encouraged into open disregard for not using political status to assist family enrichment.

For those previously finding confidence in the US Presidential traditions, these actions left many dumfounded. Handing key political roles to unqualified family members was hardly draining the swamp. Mr Trump’s disregard for the rights of “first world” peoples, his dismantling of environmental safeguards and his rubbishing of the Paris agreement on Climate change left many in despair – while his partial defunding and down playing the UN role in peace-making and assistance in disaster relief must have worried many observers.

This is not to imply that Mr Trump has already lost his key support. While the overall statistics of the national polls strongly suggest that the overall electorate is not committed to the President, I suspect the dilemma for any Republican representatives who might prefer to dissociate themselves from the Trump Presidency, is that most local electorates in the so called Red States remain strongly pro-Trump. In those states, to abandon Trump would be political suicide for the GOP representatives.  In any event the President himself has been extremely critical of any Republican representative who has dared question any of his announced policies.

Some observers may well consider the President has shown himself to be divisive and even deeply flawed but what is less clear is why the commentators are finding faults which are not perceived by the voters at the local level. Perhaps it may be simply a reflection of where their information is coming from. It may be unfortunate but it is hard not to have noticed some news outlets are famously biased, whether they be for or against the President, and not everyone chooses to seek to become well informed by for example watching the BBC and CBS as well as Fox. This leaves us with some uncertainty. We can only speculate whether a reaction of discomfit at being tied to a doomed and falling star has influenced the unexpectedly large number of Republican incumbents (43 at time of writing) who have signaled they are taking retirement prior to the incoming mid terms.

But now it is over to the reader. If I have missed key facts please share them to provide balance.

 

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Lectionary sermon for 6 May 2018 Easter 6 Year b on John 15:9-17

Most countries in the West are currently undergoing profound changes in terms of their response to traditional Christianity. Each census over the last forty years has showed a marked decline in the number whose self identification is Christian. It is true that new immigrants often show a strong religious affiliation to any of a number of religions from their own past home nations but typically the new groups express concern about arriving in a community where there seems to be growing secularity. The new-comers are naturally uneasy surrounded by what they see as threats to their traditional religious practice while many of us who were in effect from the previous generation immigrants find ourselves in aging and diminishing congregations.

Although some ethnic congregations retain a degree of numerical strength, in practice inter-church understanding and cooperation is limited because the bigger Churches have radically different notions of purpose, and for the most part the Churches and their congregations appear to have limited impact of the daily life of the wider community.

So for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, how is it working out?
If we forget for a moment our own view of our own particular brand of Christianity it is hard not to notice that the disparate sub-groups, all claiming to follow Jesus, behave very differently in living out their religion. And it becomes a fair question. So in general do you think his followers are noticed as living Jesus’ message? And if it comes to that….. more to the point…. are we living that message?

Look around. Which group would others see us as representing? Some are very religious and put their emphasis on acts of worship. Some Church groups are struggling to maintain buildings and staff and have little energy left for practical mission and are not necessarily noted for providing welfare assistance to the wider community. Some are very caring and visit the sick, care for the refugees and the poor and stand up for the rights of the oppressed. Is that us? Others are extremely judgemental and rather than seeking ways to help those who are strangers to the community try to reinforce their own sense of belonging by expressing disgust at those who don’t share the same set of beliefs and values.

Surrounded by a group of approximately like minded Church members we might feel comfortable in our attitudes to scripture, to assume our faith is affecting our day to day living in a positive way, and even that we are consistent with Christian teaching in the way we treat those outside our circle of faith. Today I want to suggest that just as those closest to Jesus needed to be pushed out of their comfort zone in following their master, perhaps we too should be vigilant that we are not becoming too complacent in living of our faith.

Yes, I know that if we are relatively regular in Church attendance sooner or later we are bound to encounter many of the standard stories of our faith. And yes that may be as good a place as any to start the Christian life.

But I guess the real question then becomes: how are we going in developing our own faith action stories in our own lives? And perhaps even more pointed: are our attitudes and actions helping others understand the gospel?

Studying the Bible, and hearing about Jesus and the adventures of his disciples may inspire us but surely that can only take us so far towards living the Christian life. Sooner or later we have to decide for ourselves which parts of our faith are important enough to give direction to our life’s journey, and it is good to pause every now and again to ask ourselves if this journey is working out in a positive way for ourselves and those who are influenced by our decisions.

It is actually quite easy to lose one’s way when it comes to Christianity. Sometimes the arguments over the details of interpretation and what the earnest minded and even the fanatical might call the basics of belief, draw attention away from something Jesus claimed to be at the heart of his message. I may have it wrong but as far as I can tell the message Jesus emphasizes is essentially a call to relationship.

Remember his two key commandments. Love God – and love one’s neighbour. The relationship commitment is first to embark on a life-long journey to seek that mysterious creative and elusive “God” force which draws us to journey with a sense of wonder, and the second to find and then use a human setting for the awakened sense of love and compassion. Without this commitment to Love, as Paul so eloquently put it in chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, we are nothing.

Jesus is very clear about the attitude required for this commitment and, according to the gospel accounts he himself was prepared to die for this principle. In our reading today from the gospel of John, we discover Jesus telling his disciples that they are to love, but not just love in general, they are to love as he has loved them. Although that sounds straightforward, to find meaning in his statement we must first be sure we know how Jesus expressed his love.

Before we reflect on how Jesus loved the disciples we might pause and think for a moment as to who the disciples were. According to all four gospels the disciples were most assuredly not clones of Jesus. Loved they may have been but they were not all portrayed as particularly loveable. Peter for example comes across as impetuous and, at least before the Crucifixion when it came to the crunch, even cowardly.

There were those who were ambitious vying for places of honour in heaven, and of course the largely illiterate majority who are portrayed as slow to understand Jesus’ message, not to mention the potentially dangerous Judas – and as a group, none obviously worthy recipients of Jesus compassion and concern. Certainly a clear majority are recorded as deserting Jesus at the very time he most needed them.

For all their potential problems, Jesus did not appear to have gone out of his way to choose as followers those like himself. The implication then that by talking of love for ones fellows as Jesus himself had shown love, was not a prior requirement of those who would be disciples. Jesus commitment with his disciples was one to those who happened to be close-by.

Dr Liz Carmichael from Oxford University, herself one who committed her efforts to working with the afflicted, saw this radical Messianic friendship of Jesus as: “Making friends with people who are not my sort”. Or perhaps even in Bishop Desmond Tutu’s words “an enemy is a friend waiting to be made”.  So a political question.  Does that mean we are not representing Jesus if we want to keep refugees at a distance.    Would a Christian nation do that?Not all of us have the confidence to commit ourselves to strangers, but there is nevertheless, for most of us another form of relationship thrust upon us by force of circumstance. “You may choose your friends” goes the adage, “but you can’t choose your relatives”. If, as the history of Christianity’s saints suggest, it is possible to commit one-self to those who might even have a different view-point or different culture, then how much easier should it be to share commitment to those whose connection is that of a relationship by birth.

Loving those who circumstances bring our way could only help a fractured and uncertain society where there may be no immediate family to fill this role. In practice we should be truthful with ourselves and admit while John records Jesus as making the ideal of love key to his message, since few if any of the saints were able to achieve this ideal in all aspects of their lives, so while clearly it is an ideal worth striving for, it is probably best understood as a goal rather than as a prerequisite for the Christian journey.

Ethics is inevitably situational in practice because we cannot know in advance what the calls upon the best of our intentions are going to be. Crunch situations find us out. “Greater love has no man than this, (the saying goes) that he is prepared to lay down his life for his friend” said Jesus. Today can we even widen it and say “his or her”.   The catch is that in the real world we have no knowledge of whether or not such a dilemma is going to confront us and still less how we will respond in practice.

We do know that such situations are uncommon. The one who dashes into the burning building to save a trapped child, the one who responds to the call for help against the armed assailant, or the one who swims out in treacherous surf to the drowning swimmer are inspiring but rare examples of Jesus’ injunction, but in the same way the disciples were found wanting when the soldiers came for Jesus, the truth is that we do not know how we would be found in such circumstances.

We know from history that the practice of prayer and Bible reading would not automatically equip us for such an occasion. The small percentage of clergy prepared to stand up against unfair provisions for families, or the few who speak up against inhumane Government policy, or show leadership resulting in tolerance for unpopular minorities suggests that even Church position is no guarantee of loving and sacrificial attitude.

Nevertheless Jesus places this ideal squarely before us so what should our response be? If we are to take his message seriously perhaps the most sensible reaction is to make a determined effort to begin by shifting our first loyalty from ourselves, to those around us. Of course we can never be certain that our commitment to others is going to win through when the unexpected arises, but it does seem to me that until we see those about us as worthy of attention, worthy of sympathy and worthy of sacrifice we have not begun to understand how to honour those we claim to love.

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