Lectionary Sermon 1B 29 November 2020 on Isaiah 64: 1-9, Mark 13: 24 – 37

AN UNEXPECTED PRELUDE TO SOME GOOD NEWS
The modern scholars who chose today’s gospel reading from Mark for the beginning of Advent appear to have been following a traditional Jewish approach to history by selecting what appears to be Jesus’ last will and testament as the way of introducing the significance of his coming.

Instead of starting this Church year with what we might expect, in other words the story of the impending birth of Christ, here we are, well into the gospel of Mark –and we begin with a speech from Jesus towards the very end of his teaching ministry, talking about his second coming. For most Christians today this should not be completely unexpected because most of us are probably familiar with the general gist of Jesus’ life story. After all, that we know Jesus came once is also now part of our history, not our present, and I guess we are therefore entitled to review how we continue to recognize him in the coming.

As we move deeper into studying the document of our chosen faith we find there are many interesting twists and turns to encounter. We need caution before we insist all the Bible should be read and interpreted literally. We need to admit the strange stories encounters with God of the Bible kind are very different to what we encounter today in our real world. Bible-wise we are told of a God who speaks out of a mysterious burning bush, one that wrestles with Jacob…. a God that gives a personal warning to Noah who saves the world’s future by building a boat, a God who helps Moses part the sea, stops the Sun from moving for Joshua, who orders Joshua to have his men blow their trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho, one who protects Daniel’s mates in the fiery furnace, and a God who appears in a blinding flash to talk to Paul on the road to Damascus.

Putting it as bluntly as possible…none of these miracles are anything like the real lives we experience. I for one would find it hard to accept a claim God had just challenged one of my fellow worshippers to a wrestling match. Nor would we expect to pause in our morning Church service and find ourselves like the young Isaiah in Chapter six of Isaiah who was interrupted in his devotions looking up to see God sitting on his Throne in the heavens. If God really were to meet us in a blinding flash when we were walking down the road to the shops – or if we claimed He were to call down fire and pestilence on our enemies or zap some of our contemporaries who he judged as sinners by turning them into pillars of salt, we would hardly be in Church this morning reflecting on the mystery of how we might meet Christ… Perhaps our critics should then suggest checking on our medication.

At minimum there should be a puzzle for the literalists in working out what Isaiah is up to in today’s reading. After all if he had been earlier reported correctly as a young man looking up to actually see God present and sitting on a throne – why would he now be bewildered and looking for a sign of God’s presence. Remember in today’s reading, Isaiah is now an old man. He has been in exile with his people and returned to a city in ruin and is standing in the rubble of a lost temple, feeling perhaps as though he has lost his faith. He calls” God, tear open the heavens and come down!” And this would be handy would it not? Yet realistically this is not how things happen, no matter how unfair we consider the deal we have been given.

To me, regardless of how Christian we hope to appear to others, experience teaches us our prayers do not protect us from the dangers and the dangers and difficulties of life. Not then – not now. The events of this year, the COVID pandemic, the nasty outcomes of uprisings and chaos in the Middle East, nasty tropical storms, devastating flooding and so forth…..None of these would be part of the equation if God was personally protecting us with the equivalent of Harry Potter magic.

In the real world some turn out to be lucky – but equally some are not. Getting struck by lightning is right up there with winning the lottery. Churches like my home Church from younger days Durham Street Methodist Church, can and indeed did, fall down in an earthquake. There was clearly no magic Talisman that protected Methodist interests in that tragedy. And yes of course, for others as always there are mysterious miraculous escapes from tragedy. The real world continues to be a curious mixture of the unexpected, the cruel and the miraculous wonder. For some everything is just great – then for others just plain frightening…and there doesn’t seem to be any simple formula for what happens.

I don’t know about you, but my experience of God is not one of continuous, dramatic miracles. That’s not the way most experience what they call the living God. I can accept that for some, perhaps sometimes, there is the equivalent of the blinding flash of light, maybe even the sensation of the voice from above, but to quote William Willimon: “in my experience God speaks most often through whispers, not shouts. God is found in the shadows, rather than as blinding light. And sometimes the whispers are very low whispers, and sometimes the shadows are very dark.”

Miracles may be miracles to those who feel they experience them – but we should never assume they will be equally convincing to others who saw the same events with an entirely different viewpoint. Even with the Bible miracles, when for example the resurrected Christ appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), Paul reportedly heard the voice of Christ, so clearly that his life was changed forever. But those who were with him heard nothing.

But here is the thing. A faith that will matter is one that continues to grow and reshape. In the same way that the realities of nature and creation only gradually emerge for the scientist – I suspect that the serious seeker of truth is more likely to encounter a window that casts unexpected light than the casual visitor.

Fred Craddock suggests that the presence of God is so easily missed because what may have originally happened (as he puts it) in rather muted tones, yet later reported in the equivalent of glorious Technicolor in the Bible.

Craddock gives the example that when Luke tells of the death of Herod, he says that God struck him instantly dead and he was eaten up with worms (Acts 12:20-23). However, the historical record has it that the original Herod died of the gout. There is another miracle so dramatic and so embarrassingly unlikely that it rarely gets mentioned. Remember when at the time of the Crucifixion and resurrection Matthew says the tombs broke open and many dead people were seen walking. Why do you think this miracle was not even noticed by other gospel writers and totally absent from contemporary historians of the day?

There is miracle in the encounter with Jesus but it is hardly likely to matter unless the encounter has something to do with the real world we inhabit. Jesus taught that the encounter is experienced in the way we interact with those in need. Even while the images of the first Christmas might add immeasurably to our Christian experience it is worth remembering that Mark and John in their gospels and Paul in his letters left out the birth details altogether. Perhaps we too might shift our focus towards valuing Jesus for what he can become for each of us.

As we approach Advent we can enjoy the poetical imagery in the gospels yet at the same time we need to guard against dealing with the approaching birth of Christ as a rigorous literal account and avoid presenting it as a separate religious package of other-worldly events, so bizarrely different that it has nothing to do with the real world.

While none of us escape encounters with the divine in that all of us live in this mysterious work of creation, for most of us, encounters with the love of God will come most often from the unexpected acts of love in our interactions with people, especially when acts of compassion are offered or received. Nor should we forget where we are aiming to finish which is why we should listen thoughtfully to Jesus when he talks of what comes next. The German Theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, in his Theology of Hope uses a striking analogy. He says “We must not drift through history with our backs to the future”

Rather than drifting perhaps our mental image should be that of rowing. Look back, yes, but to give ourselves direction, as we continue to strive for the goal.
This is why we will be encouraging our New Zealand Methodist congregations to give Christian World Service (or equivalent programs) a real priority this Christmas. For those who find themselves in the darkness of despair this Christmas, whatever we might offer by way of unexpected acts of kindness may be the only chance for some of encountering what Christmas might mean.

Hans Reudi Weber as a staff member of the World Council of Churches once wrote that :
The message of the Bible does not support the common conviction that the Church’s only task to look after the” religious department of life”… Christians are called to share Christ’s concern for the whole world, with all its harsh realities. …..the first covenant the Bible speaks about is not the covenant with Abraham or Israel – or the Church, but the covenant with Noah and the whole living creation.

There is a danger that because we think we have seen it all before we will find ourselves getting right through the Christmas season without encountering or seriously sharing what Christmas is all about. Without recalling Jesus’ last Testament we might forget what Christmas can offer. Jesus message carries hope – but it is hope in a potentially grim setting… a real setting. If we are to glimpse the fragile light which dawns with Christ’s coming, we must sit awhile in the darkness. The songs of the angels will only be there for those who strain to listen. Which brings us to ask what we too might do? (Or, perhaps more to the point for us busy people, what might we find time to do?) The message in the gospel is very simple.

Use your eyes and ears. Stay awake. Since few appear to have responded to Christ at the first Christmas we can only presume that those portrayed as seeing the babe at Bethlehem saw only another poor baby. Think what they might have seen had they known what followed.

We are likely to be disappointed if we are holding out for a direct encounter with the infinite. More often the hint, the moving shadow, the glimpse is only perceived when we turn aside from the gloss and noise and shallow celebrations of our own making and are truly attentive to the music of the spheres.

Some readers will find in the above, echoes of the writings of Bill Loader, William Willimon, Fred Craddock and Hans Reudi Weber
I would welcome readers’ comments, examples and alternative viewpoints in the comment box below
.

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Lectionary Sermon for Sunday 22 November 2020 (Matthew 25: 31- 46 )

JUDGEMENT WITHOUT RELIGION
Let me share with you a parable which to me provides a counterbalance with Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ teaching. It’s a new look to an old story, courtesy of Terry Pratchett.
“…….The old man in the hovel looked uncertainly at the feast spread in front of him. …
‘I’d got a bit of a mess of beans cooking’ he mumbled, looking at his visitors through filmy eyes.

‘Good heavens, you can’t eat beans at Hogswatch,’ said the king, smiling hugely.’ That’s terribly unlucky, eating beans at Hogswatch. My word, yes!’


‘Di’nt know that,’ the old man said, looking down desperately at his lap.
‘We’ve brought you this magnificent spread. Don’t you think so?’


‘I bet you’re incredibly grateful for it, too’ said the page sharply.
‘Yes, well, it’s very kind of you gennelmen,’ said the old man, in a voice the size of a mouse.
‘The turkey’s hardly been touched, still plenty of meat on it,’ said the king. ‘And do have some of this cracking good wigeon stuffed with swan’s liver.’


‘-only I’m partial to a bowl of beans and I’ve never been beholden to no-one or nobody,’ the old man said, still staring at his lap.


‘Good heavens man, you don’t have to worry about that,’ said the king heartily. ‘It’s Hogswatch! I was just looking out of the window and I saw you plodding through the snow and I said to young Jermain here, I said, “Who’s that chappie?” and he said, “Oh, he’s just some peasant fellow who lives up by the forest,” and I said, “Well I couldn’t eat another thing and it’s Hogswatch after all,” and so we just bundled everything up and here we are!’


‘And I expect you’re pathetically thankful,’ said the page. “I expect we’ve brought a ray of light into your dark tunnel of a life, hmm?’


‘-yes, well, o’ course, only our dad brought me up never to ask for-‘
‘Listen,’ said the king, raising his voice a little, ‘I’ve walked miles tonight, and I bet you’ve never seen food like this in your whole life. …..Let me make myself absolutely clear. This is some genuine Hogswatch charity, d’you understand?’


That’s the story. Now two questions. First: Did the King in Terry Pratchett’s story truly see the face of Jesus in the poor man? – and second: How would we have dealt with the sight of the poor man?


The lectionary organizers call today the Reign of Christ Sunday. In today’s gospel reading Matthew finishes his account of Jesus preaching on last days. For those of us who associate end times with the Bible quoters on the street corners do you think we should be surprised how non religious Jesus’ words were.

For those of us used to encountering street evangelists and their frequent attraction for strange mysterious symbolism of the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel, we might expect Jesus to do the same. Well he doesn’t. His message is grounded in simple ethics. While it is true Jesus uses metaphor when he likens judgment to separating sheep and goats we shouldn’t fail to notice that when Jesus outlines the basis for separation he talks in terms of practicalities.

The message could not be plainer. Yes, there is judgment, but it is not on the basis of achieved status or even past reputation. It is much simpler. It is not even salvation through joining the right group, nor is it passing the right initiation ceremonies and confessing the right formulae of faith, but rather, at least to me – the judgment seems simply whether or not we try to live the central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.

We should not be too surprised that down through the centuries Jesus’ message is often subverted. Religious status has always been attractive. Some branches of Christianity elevate their leaders to almost God like status. The status is stressed by title – some with a whole series of religious ranks –acolyte, deacon, priest, Dean, Bishop – Archbishop etc- sometimes too, status is stressed with fancy robes or impressive hats. And again all too often, for example, Bishops and Church presidents are feted at public gatherings – seated in the most prominent situations – honoured with special foods and offered special gifts.

Some versions of the faith also put a great deal of emphasis on confession of faith. No doubt we have all encountered claimed status for justification like “born again”, like being a Bible Christian, or perhaps alternately a true believer. In apparent contradiction to this section from the Gospel of Matthew such marks of authenticity are substituted for what Matthew appears to describe as following what Jesus really taught. Still others put the focus on the way we worship – implying it is important whether or not we say the right prayers, sit listening to the correct sermons – or are found to be singing the right hymns – surely they seem to reason, this is after all what is called worship, and that should count for something.

Well maybe it does… but the hard truth is that certainly isn’t apparently what Jesus is recorded as saying. Matthew, when selecting which of Jesus’ teachings to highlight as a summary statement, has none of this. Status and religious practice don’t even get a look in. Perhaps it was this that Dr Myles Munroe had in mind when he once put it “the value of life is not in its duration, but in its donation.”


Of course much philosophical reflection goes into the wording of our creeds but on reflection if we merely used the essentials of this reading our intentions would be rendered rather more comprehensible. Imagine instead of affirming the familiar creeds, standing to insist.

“we believe that…. we should feed the hungry, we believe we should make sure we offer the thirsty a drink, we believe we should clothe the unclothed, welcome the stranger and visit the prisoners. We believe we should see the face of Jesus in the stranger”…….

At least we would then be reminding ourselves of the essence of what Jesus expected of his followers.

No doubt intoning: We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, …. or he died for our sins…. can be defended at one level by our learned theologians, but isn’t there also a verse in the New Testament that is paraphrased “Even the Devils believe… and tremble”

Over recent years I have come to be reminded that that the Reign of Christ Sunday is not part of some competition to get our description of the Christ into a philosophically acceptable form, but rather to ask what we are expected to do in order to be following a New Testament view of Jesus as king.

Part of our response is to ask ourselves the key question about how we individually should fit into the required responses. Allowing the wider Church to come up with all the action can only be part of the response. Dare I also say I think we make a mistake when we assume that the Church is the only means by which we might do the work of Jesus.

Reflect for a moment on those TV clips where rich people (including the outgoing? US President) boast about how much they possess. We might do well to remember how the sheep and the goats story finishes.

In the year 1885, the London Times ran a series of editorials honouring the British Philanthropist Moses Montefiore who was knighted by Queen Victoria for his numerous charitable works. The Times related how Sir Moses had once been asked by a brash young man what he was worth. Instead of refusing to answer this personal question Sir Moses Montefiore barely paused before naming a sum – which was very much less than the young man was expecting.”Surely” the young man protested, “you are worth more than that.” Sir Moses merely smiled. “Young man” he replied, “you didn’t ask me how much I owned, you asked me what I was worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity this year, and that is the number I gave you. You see in life we are only worth what we are prepared to share with others”.

In those terms I wonder what we might calculate we are worth.
A great story and on reflection we might remember that what we share may possibly be our money and possessions but it might equally be our hospitality, our time, our genuine sympathy and in fact simply caring enough to notice and respond to the concerns of our neighbours.

If we turn to Jesus words there are a number of points that at a quick reading might otherwise go unnoticed.

The first is that Jesus seems to expect that the critical behaviour he valued can be easily overlooked. Finding and responding to the Christ we encounter in the faces of those in need does not come easily. How else would it be that serious problems in places on the main tourist and travel destinations might have gone so long unaddressed, despite the ready access to these places by tourists, which presumably included a good number of those thinking of themselves as Christians.

So must we help all? That is clearly impossible. The scale of the problems prevents us from dealing adequately with the needs of all. There are many lonely and needy in our Church and in our community. There are something like one billion without security of food supply – and as it says in another place the poor are always with us.

Jesus is more realistic. “As you did it to one of the least of these…..” I suspect he is saying we do what we can. It is only when we do not have the listening ear, or the sympathetic eye – or the will to care – that we deserve condemnation.

Given that we can at least bring ourselves to start to look about us with the attitude that Jesus most clearly explains, it will then be up to each of us individually to determine how to express what we know we should do.

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Lectionary sermon (homily15 November 2020 (Matthew 25: 14-30)

TALENTS FOR PEOPLE LIKE US
I suspect there are many who assume that all Jesus ever wanted his followers to do is occasionally to show up at a service and even better be Church members.

You may well know the story of the farmer who had a young Ministry of Agriculture drive down the long farm drive one day. The young fellow climbed out and said self importantly…. “I’m here to inspect your water pipes and check on your troughs to see if they are working.” The farmer turned his eyes heavenward and replied with a sigh. “OK help yourself. Just keep out of the paddock down by the river if you know what is good for you.” “Listen here!” said the young man “see this ID card. My warrant says I can go anywhere.” The farmer shrugs and the young man sets off straight down the hill to the river paddock. Moments later the farmer hears screams and sees the young man being chased through the river paddock by the farmer’s prize bull. “What do I do?” he yells to the farmer. The farmer grins. “Show him your card”.

Our church membership card is about as meaningless when it comes to the challenge of real life emergencies. If only Jesus could have left his parable of the talents as being about how leaders face challenges and the investment of their talents! Unfortunately he insists that each one in the household has their own set of challenges. Our moment of self realization is when we suddenly recognize that he was not just talking about the Bishop, or The Donald or Sleepy Joe or Aunty Cindy. He is also talking about us. Notice Jesus made no exception for age, nor for status.

Yes we know that some have more problems than others but I guess the real question is whether or not we too acknowledge if we as individuals should be numbered among those trying to follow the gospel or is it the poor performers.

Obviously the personal problems which present themselves change with time. When we are younger the gap between the rich and the poor might be a moral issue just waiting for the appropriate faith led action. As we get older our concern might be more for our contemporaries as they face problems of failing health and loneliness. Either way impending disaster is not a new phenomenon. This gives today’s reading about the talents particular interest because as for Western nations today problems continue to be shaped by peculiar circumstances.

At the time Matthew was setting down this particular parable Jesus was no longer physically on the scene. He had been crucified because his message was seen too dangerous for his community of the day. Quite apart from his followers, his teaching had seemed unsettling for the occupying Roman conquerors of Israel.

Despite their stories of resurrection, any chance that the new Christian sect might have had of appealing to the mainline Jewish community had evaporated when a Jewish rebellion occurred in 66 AD. This uprising had been put down savagely by the Romans who had responded to the outbreak of insurrection with acts of punishment including many crucifixions over the following four years.

This culminated in the Romans sacking Jerusalem, setting in train the Diaspora which scattered the Jewish nation to the corners of the known earth. The Jews despite following the God of Abraham were not protected by their religious position.

The Roman historians record the Roman General Titus returning in triumph to Rome with the spoils of Jerusalem (including the Menorah ie the great candlestick stand from the temple) then setting up tableaux to show how he had crushed those who had risen up against the might of Rome.

The leadership of the early Christian Church was very uneven, and without a settled body of teaching that was still to emerge as what we now know better as the New Testament – numerous and somewhat secretive sub sects like the Essenes, and the various satellite Churches in separate cities and regions with poor communications between them, had their leaders vying for control, offering a range of sometimes contradictory beliefs. Does that sound familiar?

Don’t think for one moment that the early Church was somehow more certain than the modern Church. Even their Christian teachings were open to interpretation. There were arguments about which of the many available gospels to accept as authoritative. The early followers had to distinguish between levels of teachings with some writings being designed for the inner circle of believers. Matthew (like the other gospels) was being edited and re-edited by successive Christian leaders.

Today’s particular story was a case in point because the equivalent story in Luke had those entrusted with the money being given much less that in the Matthew version. The word talenta used in Matthew was technically a weight rather than a denomination and was a substantial amount (vastly more than a week’s wages). This would in effect be the equivalent of a substantial lottery prize today.

The story would have had particular impact for that day particularly as each church community was virtually on its own and most would have been struggling for survival. With few certain resources the temptation was to hold to what they had and since the technical laws of the day condemned dangerous high interest money dealing there would have been an excuse not to risk investment. The preference for the option of in effect burying the money, and simply trusting to God to make things better would have been very strong.

When I encounter the story of the talents my first impression was that it struck me that Jesus was being very irreligious. Religious custom was then (and probably still is today) to expect the leadership to petition God for guidance and assistance, and by custom in most Churches this seems to lead to most members staying in a passive spectator mode with few in each congregation being proactive in individual actions and choices. Further even today we structure our Churches for the most part in such a way, that where, if indeed actions are to take place, it seems as if we prefer that selected people will act on everyone’s behalf.

There is a model of Church that seems to lead to us talking glibly of Church as the people – yet for all the talk, in practice behaving as if Church is a set of buildings with a hierarchy of leadership acting as a brake on any suggested action in response to the most serious societal and international problems. A more direct link of the sort in the early stories of faith where for instance Jacob has a personal encounter with one in retrospect he thinks may have been God, and what is more an encounter in a nameless, natural setting, is not normally part of our thinking.

Into this, our normally passive and relatively undemanding situation, the parable of the talents presents us with an uncomfortable set of truths.

We might start by reminding ourselves that although the natural tendency is to act as if the Church is should be preserved in unchanged form regardless of what happens elsewhere. In point of fact sociological studies tell us that the setting and indeed the congregations of most churches are undergoing change. If indeed the Church is the people surely we must expect this change to bring about new needs, and new needs will call on new talents and different abilities to meet those needs. If there is no sign of change of actions, the change is not being addressed and the church becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Matthew in his particular way of ordering his stories has assembled three of Jesus’ parables in this section – each of which talks of the rich master going away for many days leaving his servants to make their own choices. In each, Jesus seems to be stressing that even if the master is to return, we can forget that for the here and now because, in the meantime, it is we (all of us) who are responsible for acting wisely. I can imagine Jesus in effect saying … no-one else is going to do it for you…you with your varying talents and abilities and different starting points must start acting now.

So the first truth is in fact that there is no escape clause. We may not have been given the largest share of the talents – but regardless of the starting package, we are called upon to do what we can with what we have been entrusted with. There is no-one else.

I once came across another way of stressing the same point in the form of a question.

If”…. So the question went… “ If you individually and your very own actual personal actions were copied by everyone else in the Church, what would the Church be like? – and what would it then be able to accomplish?

The second awkward reminder is that the reward for good work – is not resting on the oars to bask in the glow of work once done. Rather the reward is further challenge.

The other – and possibly most relevant in terms of current models of actual Church – is that the only ones deserving of punishment are those who use the excuse of possible difficulties for doing nothing.

I know a standard application for this particular parable is to use it for sermons and programmes on stewardship. Yet I prefer to notice that the word talent is also to do with specific abilities which are not only different in value – but in nature. Again past custom causes us to stress abilities like abilities in worship which have been conventionally valued in the past.

In our Church setting, perhaps in view of Jesus actual gospel message, we have allowed the form of worship – the songs of praises, the public prayers and the act of reading and preaching – to dominate almost to the point where other talents are devalued. Yet what else might “each member a minister” mean in practice. Whether or not the Church has something to offer to the community and the world depends on more than the quality of the worship.

Certainly not all can sing. (That is from personal experience!) But Jesus rarely (if ever) is found talking of the need to sing or preach. He does however talk time after time of those other gifts. He seems to focus on such talents as the gift of forgiveness, the gift of serving others, the gift of being a good neighbour, the gift of touching the untouchable, and even the gift of seeing past the rules to notice and to care about individuals who need our help.

Perhaps there is a case to be made for looking past what normally passes for Church activity – particularly the activity arrived at by custom – and instead start with what Jesus says is important. Jesus’ parable of the talents appeared to be aimed at those who were reluctant to risk their talents in a time of change. There is little question that we are currently in a time of change ourselves. Under such circumstances is it fair to ask if perhaps the parable of the talents might once more be seen as a reality we need to consider. AMEN

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Lectionary sermon 8 November 2020 on Matthew 25: 1-13

SLEEPING THROUGH THE CALL TO ACTION
Given the extreme differences between our society and that in Jesus’ day, is it surprising that some find today’s parable strange and even irrelevant. I hope I don’t upset my listeners by suggesting first that the parable was probably primarily aimed at an audience from Jesus’ community – but second, that there is also a possibility of finding a message that relates to us if only because we share some of the same characteristics and weaknesses as the Palestinians back then.

First, lets remind ourselves about the local background behind the parable. In Palestine in the first century AD, the scholars tell us of wedding customs that were very much in line with Jesus’ story.

Back then wedding feasts were the main social highlight, considered so important that that even those studying the law could be released from their duties to attend. Out in the countryside a great deal was made of the wedding procession which often went between villages and the whole village would turn out to accompany the bridal couple to their home – in the course of which the bride would often finish up in a new village.

One of the customs was evidently to see if you could catch the bridal party unawares. The bridegroom might sneak up in the middle of the night and since no-one was supposed to know for certain when that was going to be – or even the exact date of the wedding, the custom was to post a lookout who was supposed to call out – “behold the bridegroom is coming”. At this point those who were prepared were supposed to rush out to greet him. It then followed that unprepared bridesmaids missed out altogether.

So who was intended to be represented by the bridesmaids. The consensus of many commentators was that, the parable appears to have been directed to portraying the Jewish nation as a whole. In his story Jesus was in effect saying that many were unprepared for the Messiah’s coming.

Now almost two thousand years after Jesus told the story, for a good part of the myriad of Church congregations, this parable has come to signify the second coming – with the message of be prepared. Yet prepared for what? Time after time down through the years we find preachers claiming it was to do with Armageddon perhaps and Jesus returning…perhaps in something symbolized in Revelation?

If we are objective with Christianity’s record of numerous attempts to find the signs of this coming we should be honest enough to admit that over the last 2000 years there have been numerous failed attempts to prepare one another for a coming that failed to materialize….again and again and again.

Remember a few years back that mysterious planet which was supposed to strike the Earth just like the previous prediction by the failed doomsayers several more years ago.

We might cast ours mind back to 2011 the old Pastor, Harold Camping, who for the third time missed what he believed to be his certain date for the end of the world. When it failed to happen on his earlier predicted date in 1994, he read some more of the Bible, did some more calculation and announced was going to be 21 May 2011. For certain, he said, that’s when the faithful were to be raptured up to heaven. When despite the numerous texts he had used, that date too failed, a bewildered Harold Camping recomputed and clarified his broadcasts to explain that the 21 May was a beginning of Gods judgment and it was actually going to happen in its pyrotechnic and spectacular finality the same year 21 October. The only problem was that it didn’t.

Harold Camping’s failures consign him to that steadily growing very long line of failed prophets. Time after time (and sometimes among some fairly mainstream denominations) self-appointed prophets have convinced their faithful followers that the signs are now right for the imminent coming of the bridegroom to claim his own. Sometimes waiting in joyful and humble expectation, sometimes waiting with vast outpouring of emotion and even fear … and yet always the result appears the same. The fireworks fail to start, the riders are missing in the sky, the stars refuse to fall and the Lord fails to show. And, thus far at least, the world stubbornly refuses to end.

Yet the parable in Matthew is still there with its troubling message. When least expected the bridegroom will show …and hard luck for those who are not ready. Perhaps it is the wrong sort of coming and the wrong sort of getting ready which dominates our thinking.

Looking at Christ’s original message and seeing what has happened to it through the best efforts of the modern doomsday prophets it is probably fair to suggest that there has been a human tendency to surround the message with unnecessary religious gloss and fantasy. Although Jesus had a natural storyteller’s feel for a great illustration – time after time he reminded us that what he really required of his followers was that they should drop religious pretense and start caring about the God of Love they claimed to follow, and, what is more, expressing this love in the form of concern and compassion for all who are encountered as neighbours.

Preparation in this sense is more than getting “on message” and is not then particularly compatible with stepping up the religious emphasis. Dom Crossan, impatient with the strange prognostications of those claiming an individual enlightenment free from any bothersome need for scholarship or compassionate action put it as follows:

The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)
(Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, then and now. NY: New York. Harper, SanFrancisco).

For those of us agreeing with Dom Crossan there is no need to look for total mystery in Jesus’ coming when Jesus himself in several places suggests we will find him in the commonplace. Jesus says we will in effect be meeting him in the faces of those in need. If it was necessary for Jesus himself to reach out, meet and on occasion even touch those in need, whether they be lepers, those requiring physical healing, or those rejected by society, perhaps we too need to review who we meet, who we help, and how we are expressing the love we claim to have in our hearts.

The religious setting of a Church has one potential downside in that it is very easy to convey a false sense of religious concern when we are so to speak “on show.”
Years ago, when 20th Century Fox advertised in the New York papers to fill a vacancy in its sales force, one applicant offered a novel alternative to the usual CV: “I am at present selling furniture at the address below. You may judge my ability as a salesman if you will stop in to see me at anytime, pretending that you are interested in buying furniture. When you come in, you can identify me by my red hair. And I will have no way of identifying you. Such salesmanship as I exhibit during your visit, therefore, will be no more than my usual workday approach and not a special effort to impress a prospective employer.” From among more than 1500 applicants, who do you think got the job?

Looking around at the various approaches we might note that in our world today, there are two big mistakes people often seem to make with regard to the coming of the Lord. One mistake is to assume that the preparation is for some Hollywood blockbuster type event perhaps in line with the Lord of the Rings and that the preparation is therefore best left to looking around for some self-assured authority who might explain for us the meaning of obscure texts. No wonder this leaves so many with nothing to do other than to anxiously wait with a mounting sense of paranoid anxiety. The other mistaken notion is to join with others who are more in tune with religion than ourselves, watch from the side-lines and save our involvement for the odd foray into Church worship.

Finding someone to do the interpretation of this particular parable, and to organise our preparation for us, seems to me almost the opposite of what Jesus was suggesting. Leaving the preparation for our response until it is too late is silly at every level.
In the same way that any impending event depending on us needs our attention, there are clear examples of mounting needs of neighbours that require our thoughtful and often costly response. Imagine doing nothing about a mounting debt, nothing about a known and worsening structural fault, and nothing about near neighbours facing crisis. If caring about neighbours is the Jesus thing to do, putting off showing concern is to be unprepared. Nor can we simply leave it to others and hope for the best.

Surely the point about the foolish bridesmaids was that they had not even done the preparation for themselves and wanted the bridesmaids who had actually organised their own oil, to share. Christianity by proxy – attending the same Church as the committed believers, and thinking that associating ourselves with others’ efforts to love their God and their neighbours as themselves is hardly likely to substitute for our own efforts in preparation. Jesus was in effect saying you cannot borrow someone else’s oil.

The foolish bridesmaids were only guilty of one thing – they slept when they should have been awake.

It is we who are after all are the Church – and if we are letting the chance to take action go by, whether or not we can be stirred to wakefulness will in the last analysis depend on no-one but ourselves.
( A Note to the reader: Share with a wider audience by adding your own reactions or examples in the comment box below).

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Lessons from the Disunited States by Bill Peddie

The excruciating four year unfolding circus on the US political scene makes the New Zealand political scene seem very tame in comparison.

Unfortunately, for good or ill, we are bound to the leading Western powers by historical ties of trade and defence. The mixed blessing of Vietnam and Iraq should still be relatively fresh in the collective memory. This means we have little choice but to care what happens in the US and which may well once again drag us into some dubious adventures.

Donald Trump may be a passing aberration, but the speed with which he deleted the nuclear limitation treaty with Iran which had at least moved that nation in the direction of nuclear disarmament, raises the possibility of an abrupt ill-judged lurch into some massive war. It will be very difficult to resurrect such a treaty even if Mr Trump does eventually surrender his right to live in the White House.

At the very least it occurs to me that there are some very important lessons for those of us who want our politics and values to continue representing the wishes and needs of our community. Presumably even if a leading partner appears to lose its way, it would be a shame to abandon all recent trends whereby our New Zealand was doing its best to make a contribution to the needs and interests of the wider world.

Because much which has happened in the US under Donald Trump has been justified in the name of Christianity and has been supported by sectors of the Christian Church, our Methodist Church should at least be taking a very active interest in what was being claimed. Policies which exacerbate inequalities eg interfering with poorer nations’ health, security and welfare create disparities in their futures which is partly why we have so many refugees seeking better options.

Yes, it certainly seems true that in the US, President Trump had elbowed his way into the spotlight where his grandiose promises, lies, and self-centred boastful and vindictive tweets which then replaced thoughtful, just and compassionate policies. Remember all those speeches denigrating his predecessors,, reducing the effectiveness of the United Nations and making a mockery of the intentions of the World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization.

Perhaps more seriously, a number of mental health experts have warned that Donald Trump suffers from a dangerous and possibly incurable narcissistic disorder which makes him incapable of empathy or reason. I would have thought that would be the last qualification for a keeping of the red button.

Dangerously close to being identified as a supporter of white supremacy it is tempting to wonder if the Trump appeal is a consequence of speaking to the human baser instincts of selfishness and bigotry. In his attempt to undermine other rival nations he has imposed a raft of tariffs, set aside a good number of long established treaties and poured armaments into some unstable parts of the world while taking little interest in the stream of refugees fleeing the consequences. That chaos is unlikely to be resolved in that the so called “Peace deals” with Arab nations which generally tend to favour one side of the Islamic divide.

Back in the US the COVID pandemic has exposed serious failures in the much vaunted US health system whereby the Hispanics and Black communities have had a much higher death rate than rich whites as reflected by the limitations of the public hospitals which have been very much worse than those in the Private sector.

The hard statistics from the last three and a half years, betray the confident promises. While promises to reduce the national debt and get rid of violence in the cities were made at the beginning of the present term, the problems continued to rise then took off big time with the arrival of COVID 19. As reflected in a host of polls, international confidence in Mr Trump in particular and the US in general fell in all but a few of the US partner nations. Violence in the streets continued unabated then started to rise. The Trump led government reduced Federal Government assistance for those living in Democratic led States and continued to undercut Democratic Governors.

But here is the point. It was never just President Trump. Something like 41% of the US public, many Church leaders, and not to mention almost all Republican Senators, steadfastly took the Trump side on matters such as the right to carry arms, the Impeachment trial and the turning a blind eye to clear infringements to the right to universal voting capability. The Trump supporters turned a blind eye when he pardoned criminal lawyers who had supported him in the past. Even when he was recorded as acknowledging the significant dangers of the Coronavirus to Bob Woodward, at the same time he was telling the public there was nothing to fear. There appeared to be no concern from the huge self-interested Trump support base about those obvious lies or even that inadequate action was being taken to safeguard the US public. The fact that the US had a much higher death toll proportionately from COVID 19 than virtually every other significant nation did not appear to worry the Red Cap MAGA brigade – which then raises the question of how blind trust overcomes logic.

Perhaps the strange myopia was a consequence of naked self-interest. The rich understandably supported Mr Trump when he borrowed money to give them tax breaks and farm owner support was partially retained when some of that money was then used to compensate the farmers who had lost market share as a consequence of the imposed tariffs on China.

Perhaps someone will see the political sense in a future non–divisive political slogan which gets closer to the heart of what might build a community or even the whole world. Rather than MAGA what about the old quote from John Wesley?

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

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Sermon for 1 November 2020 on Matthew 5:1-12

WHAT DOES YOUR LIFE SAY ABOUT YOUR FAITH?
A few days ago I was having coffee with a man who is both enthusiastic and certain about his faith. He is also very different in his conclusions to me. He shared his certainty about what heaven was going to be like and explained that those who attended his Church would encounter the same future. This got me wondering about how many might share my particular view of faith – and I have to admit that there is indeed a wide variety of faiths to choose from.

In my own city among many we have Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, JWs, Seventh Day Adventists, spiritualists, atheists and agnostics… and this is all without thinking about a whole range of both conservative and liberals …. Catholics, Anglicans, and a profusion of Protestant Churches, like Methodists (who are different from the Wesleyans! ) the Presbyterians, Baptists, Salvation Army and a host of Pentecostal / New Life type churches. So if we all believe some different stuff how does this all fit with the central teaching of most faiths including my own?

Well, today’s passage suggests a different way of thinking. Jesus in this famous summary of his teaching seems to completely bypass what we should believe about spiritual matters like heaven and goes straight to instructions for how to live – and what we ought to be.

Assuming Jesus’ teaching was important to his disciples, what the Sermon on the Mount teaches may turn out to be the heart of Christianity for modern disciples as well. If we think of ourselves as disciples, dare we suggest perhaps formal beliefs about Jesus’ status might need to take second place to what the Christian life should mean in the here and now.

Well let’s join the disciples, as Jesus takes them up the hillside and shares with them the key teachings. Remember not a word about stuff he wants them to believe …. but some key markers he expects….

It was almost as if Jesus was saying: the key features of my way are based on these ideas. It even occurs to me that the same ideas might even be just as valuable to the follower of some other faith. If we think of ourselves as disciples for this generation surely how it will pan out for us is now going to depend on whether or not we too are going to start living out what was being taught.

If we wanted to distinguish Christians from non Christians while it might be easy enough to ask them to list their beliefs – there may be a more important question namely -what would their ….or is that ….our behaviour look like compared with non Christians? Are we doing what Jesus put as important. Blessed are those – those who what?

As tempting as it might be to scorn Donald Trump for being the opposite of what Jesus says was important, notice Jesus doesn’t say look to our leaders to mourn for those who suffer loss, for leaders to be meek, for leaders to be peacemakers on our behalf, for leaders to put righteousness ahead of personal achievement, and so on. That would be passing the buck. It is quite simply instructions not just for leaders, whether they be political or church leaders – it was addressed to all those who would be disciples.

It is all very well asking Prime Ministers and Presidents to bring about peace on our behalf – and certainly to be honest I am worried Trump and all those other wielders of power will turn out to be rotten peacemakers on our behalf. But quite frankly Jesus did not exclusively address his instructions in his Sermon on the Mount to Presidents or even to Emperors – in fact if Matthew is to be believed he wasn’t even talking specifically to the general crowd of spectators.

For the church regulars among us, this is just part of the Sermon on the Mount. Profound wisdom in summary form, and for those familiar with the other gospels, it sounds very much like the same material scattered in Mark and collected in Luke (Ch 6 – verses 20 -49). At the very least, this certainly strongly suggests that the record of all three gospel writers used some common source. However rather than looking at the similarities and differences, setting the scene in broad brush strokes might be more helpful.

Although Jesus covers a lot of ground in the sermon which follows, today we only reflect on his introduction to the sermon with the brief list of who should be seen as blessed. This list is probably more commonly known as the Beatitudes. A funny word that. The word Beatitude comes, of course, from Latin. The Latin word “beatus” means happy. For those amongst us who like obscure learning, the Greek, from which the translation comes, is the one Matthew used as the beginning of each phrase in his list as the word “Makarioi”.

This word can, and has been translated into English in different ways. Most commonly it is “blessed.” Other biblical translations use words like “happy” or “fortunate” or sometimes “honoured”. The French version of the New Jerusalem Bible even translated the word as “debonair”…which I am still thinking about!

I guess each of the nine Beatitudes, used in this particular context, is apparently intended to identify a blessing or some sort of favour, but in some way to our contemporary minds, it is a surprising list. In a 21st century world we would probably first think of someone being blessed if they lived long and prospered in material ways.

Indeed virtually every one of the extremely numerous advertisements we see on our flat screen TVs implies we will be most blessed if we invest in the right material goods. If we buy the right car, look like that shapely model using that butt tightening exercise equipment, own the latest vacuum cleaner, drink the happiest of mood enhancing drinks, win Lotto, install the best lights, get the cheapest takeaways from the shiniest fast food outlet – you get the picture.

Donald Trump will no doubt be envied by some for his personal fortune but I suspect on the Jesus scale, Jesus turns that on its head. He finds the blessings in an entirely different set of values….and what’s more he seems to expect those who set out to be his disciples to recognize these as values in their own lives.

Can I suggest that even when the news of an election overwhelms our news outlets, we would think very differently if we approached an impending change of power – not in terms of what the potential leaders say is important –or who our current politicians say we ought to despise – but rather seek evidence of the imprint of Jesus list of Beatitudes in what we expect.

It also grounds what we now call Christianity in the real world. Regardless of what good fortune may come our way, for virtually every person on the planet there are also inevitable hard times, whether they be in coping with loss, dealing with setbacks in health, coping with criticism and envy, or dealing with our own sense of injustice – or injustice for those we may be in a position to help. Disease is no respecter of position and it would take an extraordinarily obtuse person to assume they would never encounter adversity.

Perhaps I should say it outright. A neat comb-over on the top of the head can’t preserve the nerve connections, neuro-transmitters and the myelin insulation sheaths of those neurons in the brain. Botox might smooth the wrinkles on the outside but it won’t keep you young on the inside anymore than the embalmer’s art would keep you living for ever. What however may be novel in the Beatitudes is to suddenly realize that here Jesus in this reported list, helps us find the blessings in the midst of difficult and inescapable realities.

Certainly we can live our lives as if wealth and position will shield us from any serious darkness in our lives. On the other hand if we listen to Jesus’ words about finding blessings, we find ourselves called out of our intended isolation and ushered back to the world as it really can be. Jesus is advocating an emotional openness which enables us to encounter the depths as well as the highpoints of existence – and find something worthwhile in both.

The Beatitudes have the potential to help us find worth in the whole of life – both good and bad, but for them to have any meaning at all in the personal sense , they need to be part of our very being – and bluntly – this will not happen unless we first accept them.

For some strange reason, outside formal Christianity, this notion that those who follow Jesus are expected to remodel their lives according to his principles is not widely acknowledged. In my admittedly limited experience it is not even the sort of topic that makes it onto the agenda of important Church business meetings, synods and conferences.

Even when we can remember the list, it is the rare individual who lives as if it is true for them. And to be honest – I am not just talking about other people – me too.
Perhaps it is simply that while most of us have probably heard the Beatitude phrases about who will be blessed many times through the years, I wonder if rather we expect to associate them with the sort of thing we hear from the pulpit, without ever entertaining the thought that others might expect to see the same humility, the same insistence on mercy, thirst for justice, peace-making characteristics, and so on from the list as identifying us among the blessed. Perhaps if we recalled how those in other branches of the Church are sometimes criticized by people like us for their failure to match behaviour with their claimed teaching, we might be a little more concerned about our own shortcomings in this department.

Four of these same beatitudes are listed in Luke but notice he only lists the needy, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are persecuted. In Matthew’s extended list, there is a subtle change. The focus is less on the needy themselves and more on changing the attitudes of the hearers.

The challenge as Matthew remembered it was now no longer Luke’s version of simply “blessed are the poor”, or “blessed are the hungry”. No rather it was the challenge to reflect an attitude of being poor in spirit, and the hunger was no longer hunger for food. It was now having a hunger and a thirst for righteousness.

Notice too, the last beatitude of Matthew’s list is personalized – instead of saying blessed are the – it becomes blessed are you – when you are reviled, persecuted, have evil falsely said about you – for that makes you like the prophets who were persecuted before you. Because Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the persecution was already beginning, we might even suspect that either Matthew is putting words of encouragement into Jesus’ mouth, or perhaps it is simply that he is selectively collecting the words of encouragement from other memories of Jesus.

So….”blessed“….. Does that sound like you – or me?

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SERMON for 25 October 2020 on MATTHEW 22: 34-46

REFLECTING ON THE BASICS
Most of us are familiar with the gist of today’s gospel passage. Jesus said to the Pharisee: “the greatest Commandment is Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your mind: ….and the second, is Love your neighbour as yourself.” And yes it sounds clear. But what do we find? In my home city one main denomination pulled out of the inter-church ministers’ fellowship because one denomination had invited two Imams to an interfaith service.

Our church histories are full of Inter-faith warfare between followers of different branches of Christianity….. and don’t forget the latest – a history teacher in France beheaded by an Islamic refugee for showing two caricatures of Mohammed to his class, but why beheaded? Don’t the Muslims follow the same God of Abraham?

Maybe Christians aren’t alone in showing lapses in love. Unfortunately it is no longer totally unexpected to hear of Christian priests and ministers sexually assaulting choir-boys. Knowing what Jesus said about love doesn’t excuse us forgetting that Christian ministers should lead by example… and more to the point, doesn’t Christianity in effect teach that we too are all to be ministers.

In short it is remarkably easy to forget Christianity is not restricted to reading about the faith particularly when history is full of cases where sincere Church going believers have seriously lost their way with the Golden Rule.

Just think for a moment about some of the more dramatic.

We have the Crusades where whole armies of those under the banner of the Cross rode off with the intention of the massacre of those Muslims who controlled the Holy lands. On the way they sacked cities (including the odd Christian city that had easy pickings) Those same Crusaders boasted on their return of blood up to the bridles just like it says in the Book of Revelation!

We also have the persecution of Jews with the excuse that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the forcible conversion of thousands to Christianity under some of the Roman Emperors, the burning of those suspected of being witches, the burning of those who translated Bibles into non Latin languages like English, Catholics responsible for the massacre of Protestants and Protestants for the massacre of Catholics.

We have the Inquisition, the defense of slavery and God enlisted as a rallying point (often on both sides) of just about every major war in every century since the time of Christ. I think for example of Hitler having his storm-troopers marching into battle with “God is with us” imprinted in German on their belt buckles. Most of us would also know of US chaplain blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a city in Japan.

Where is the Love when we find Christians on both sides wading in to argue moral issues like the acceptance of homosexuality, like the right to life, like abortion, like pacifism, like euthanasia and like genetic engineering, with each side claiming their beliefs in line with Christianity.

If all these failures were in fact what Christianity brings to our world then there would indeed be little point in following Christ, yet fortunately this is only seeing one side.

While it is true that some have used Christianity as an excuse for self-advancement, we also remember self-sacrificing sincere Christians who set up schools and hospitals, who worked for justice for all, who freed the slaves, who worked for more humane conditions for widows, for orphans, for prisoners and for the disabled. We have peacemakers, aid workers, hospital volunteers and many more besides.

Yet here is something else – this large group many of whom seem largely motivated by Jesus’ teaching of love also encompasses a wide range of religious affiliation and beliefs. These too, are people with radically different theology – different ideas about heaven and hell and creation – yet all can still apparently catch on to this teaching about love.

So we return to Jesus’ teaching for a moment. I wonder if you ever noticed that Jesus when he teaches he seems remarkably light in the theology department. Unlike the rule-bound Pharisees and Sadducees of his day who spent hours focusing on discussing slavish obedience to the law, in other words the 613 commandments found in what we now call the Old Testament, Jesus frankly doesn’t seem to care about the detail of the law.

Perhaps practical theology doesn’t need to be restricted to the pages of religious books. One of the rather nice interludes on a leading TV channel in this country is a regular segment entitled “Good Sorts”. The public is invited to write in with suggestions for examples of people who, without thought for reward, put themselves out to do good things for those who need help. In turn the programme organizes a form of surprise reward for the agreed “good sorts”. Yes and it is a feel good piece of TV. Does it surprise you that those chosen as good sorts are usually self effacing people and certainly not those chosen just for their business success or their late model cars. I would go further and suggest that most of us know, deep down inside, that actions of genuine freely offered kindness somehow matter far more than displays of wealth and prestige.

Don’t forget that there were heretics in Jesus day, yet Jesus seems soft on heresy.
Those who didn’t treat women according to the patriarchal laws were technically heretics according to the law – and let’s face it, Jesus was one of them. At times Jesus could even deliberately flout the laws. He healed on the Sabbath, spoke to Samaritans (including Samaritan women),and he cared for the despised in society including prostitutes and tax collectors. He even touched the lepers.

When it came to heresy Jesus did most of his teaching by example. Those who followed different rules of sacrifice and even had an alternative temple – in other words the Samaritans – were also heretics – yet Jesus, as a Jew, could set aside those rules which identified the heretics and focus on basic responses of compassion – even making Samaritans sometimes the good guys in his stories. Those who have discovered statements about condemning homosexuality in the Bible are disappointed that Jesus does not even seem to mention the topic.

Although Jesus did have respect for religious tradition – and true he identified the important laws – he produced his perspective by focusing on the spirit not so much the wording of the laws. Where he did stop to talk about law, it was usually in terms of hypocrisy and chiefly hypocrisy of the sort where the form of religious behaviour was on show – and his concern was more where the compassion was missing. Which raises the question: If those matters seemed to draw Jesus’ fire, should it also be our concern?
However, it would not be true to assume Jesus was breaking new ground in giving as the basics his two Commandments. When he points to loving God he was of course quoting from what we would call the Old Testament. The verse about loving God is the famous quote from Deuteronomy Ch 6 verse 5. This would be well known to his audience since it is part of the Shema, the sentence with which every Jewish service of worship still commences. These days it should remind us of that definition of “God is Love”. This love should come to dominate our thinking and provide the motivating dynamic for our actions.

The second commandment Jesus chooses is again another quote – this time from Leviticus 19 verse 18. It is almost as if Jesus is reminding us that the Love mentioned in the first commandment will find its meaning as we apply it to those around us.

Perhaps it is also as well to remind ourselves that, as some have put it, Love is not a noun – nor is it a feeling of gooey well-meaning. It is best thought of as a verb – if you like a set of compassionate actions and responses to what we encounter in our meetings with others.

I would like to remind you too that the world itself is not a fixed environment. The rapidly changing circumstances of our fellows and our knowledge about how best to respond are also rapidly changing. Love cannot be thoughtless reaction if it is to produce positive outcomes.

Another change is perhaps more worrying to those who like to keep concepts of God unchanged in understanding. Rapid advances in technology have blurred the lines between what was considered the traditional lines of demarcation as to what humans could do and what they used to think God would have to do on their behalf. A few centuries ago if you got really sick, doctors could not help you. All you could do was pray.

A few centuries ago what was grown locally was all you ate. Food sent a long distance would spoil so if the local food ran out you starved and all you could do was to pray.

These days if you get really sick, in many cases doctors not only can help – they can even keep you artificially alive in the hospital. But sometimes the drugs to keep people alive are very expensive and those like the rest of us have to decide if the drugs should be available. We often no longer need to pray to God to keep Grandma alive. Now more often, the family has to make what was previously thought to be a God type decision about whether or not Grandma should be resuscitated.

Since surplus food can now be grown in places like this country and shipped long distance if a community is starving in some distant country – it is not God who we must appeal to get them fed. It is we who now have to make the sometimes literally costly decision about whether or not to save them. Loving your neighbour takes on new meaning in an interconnected world.

Should ninety year old Granddad get a kidney transplant? Should 12 year-old pregnant Jane have an abortion? Should genetically engineered crops be used to feed the hungry? Should the overstaying illegal immigrant be sent home to a grim future? If we find that a group of Muslims are being discriminated against in a workplace, whose responsibility is it to get action? Those decisions cannot be taken lightly – but if loving your neighbour has any meaning at all, genuine decisions to meet the reality of changing situations must be faced.

When Jesus says there are just two Commandments to follow, he certainly homes in on the essentials, but in so doing he has not filled in the detail. Until the detail is filled out it may just be an empty ideal. That detail we may need to work out for ourselves, and sometimes in practice with fear and trembling.

For aspiring Christians, knowing that Jesus once said something wise about love is hardly the point. What are we called to do? Surely it is not to what William Barclay used to call “some nebulous sentimentality” but rather to a practical expression of the love, to which we are called. Without some actual response it would be hard to justify claiming that Jesus’ statements about love applied to our walk in faith.

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Lectionary Sermon for 18 October 2020 (on Matthew 22: 15-22)

THIS ELECTION WHOSE IMAGE DO WE SEE?
(APOLOGY: Busy week….This is a corrected version of my sermon for 22 October 2017. Please share your own insights in the comments box)

A rich but miserable man once visited a rabbi seeking understanding of his life and how he might find peace. The rabbi led the man to a window looking out into the street and said “What do you see?”

I see men, women, and children,” answered the rich man.

The rabbi then took the man and stood him in front of a mirror. “Now what do you see?” he asked.

I see myself,” the rich man replied.

Yes” said the rabbi. “It is a strange thing is it not? In the window there is a glass and in the mirror there is a glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others, and you see only yourself.”

While many of the faces and the politicians change each time there is an election, when it comes to choosing between seeing the reflected interests of ourselves or noticing the needs our neighbours, perhaps the silver in the glass still makes an unfortunate difference. Maybe the wise rabbi was onto something?

Which brings us to today’s reading.

There are some phrases which are so familiar in English that just about everyone knows them. And I am guessing most here would be familiar with that familiar “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. What we tend to forget is: first why the phrase was probably said and why the added part. Does being in Jesus’ camp call for a change of viewpoint?

The statement Jesus made was indeed clever and wise but I suspect it is also one which is often misinterpreted. I have heard it used to justify the need to pay taxes and I have also heard it used to justify paying a tithe to a Church… but I fear that both of these suggestions gloss over the main point Jesus was making.

If we wind the scene back it is probably worth remembering why Jesus’ enemies were out to get him in the first place. Remember there were in fact two main groups who were getting increasingly uncomfortable with the sorts of things Jesus stood for.

First we have the Pharisees who were clearly well respected and firmly in control as the educated religious leaders of the day. They were certainly not forgetting their religious duties and in fact there is good evidence that they tithed – not only with money but also with produce. However Jesus had an unfortunate habit of reminding them that it was not the slavish obedience of religious law that really counted, rather it was spirit of servant-hood behind the teaching that mattered.

Jesus also took exception to the status the Pharisees accorded to themselves.
Jesus, time after time, both in his parables and in his actions showed that what he valued was compassion – not position. Religious people who placed themselves above others were frequently his target – and those who might normally be expected to seem of least value were the ones who most often attracted his time and concern. And let’s face it, just as the Pharisees were made to feel uncomfortable with Jesus it is possible that if we agree with Jesus there may be a need to look again at the way Church leadership is still exercised today in terms of accorded status and direction of leadership.

Religious leadership was only one part of the leadership of the community – the other part was of course the legal and civic leadership.

Which brings us to the other main group who were deeply offended by Jesus…. the Herodians. These were the in- group of leaders installed by Herod Antipas. According to the historians, the Herodians were only able to retain power by supporting the Romans who were the invading power and were therefore seen by many as traitors and collaborators. Because it was in their interests to do so, they were strong supporters for the severe taxes demanded by the Romans – and in this they were very different to the Pharisees who thought that the tithe paid to the Church of the day was the key to appropriate tax.

Although they used honeyed words to start their conversation with Jesus, his questioners must have realized that no matter which way Jesus answered he would be giving the greatest offence to one or other of the two groups – and in fact leaving himself open to charges which in those days carried the death penalty.
Listen to them: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” That is the flattery bit. And now the no-win trap question….. “Is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?”

If he says “no” – he is to be reported to the Romans. That would be incitement to disobedience to the Romans who held ultimate authority. The Romans would have no compunction in sentencing him to death.

If he says “yes it is legal” – those against the occupation would publicize his reply, treat him as a traitor and at best he would lose his main support. It is truly a lose-lose situation.

Jesus reportedly recognizes their trap immediately and challenges them. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” And why “hypocrites”? Perhaps it is that they have forgotten that there are more important and different values than those concerned with money. By talking taxes they are overlooking the higher values which they themselves offend against.

Jesus asks for a coin.

We remind ourselves what the coins meant in those days. New Zealand coins like the other coins of Commonwealth countries traditionally show on one side a portrait of the British sovereign Elizabeth II surrounded by an inscription. This design is a descendant of the coinage of imperial Rome when the symbolism mattered more. In those days the portrait then was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviated form, included the emperor’s name and his titles. The coins of the Roman Empire circulated over a vast area populated by people of many races and languages. The empire at the time of Jesus included Judea and Galilee and by the time Jesus came on the scene Rome had had just about enough from the fractious, fiercely patriotic Jews.

The coins were used as part of the Roman answer. The coins quickly replaced local currency and became the only accepted form of money exchange. In the days of imperial Rome, back before photography and television and modern travel, coins along with sculpture were also the only ways that most of the residents of the empire had to see what their emperor looked like. These coins were essential to trade and taxation. They were also designed for control. People became dependent on them – nothing else had commercial value.

Jesus then was actually asking to see the coin used to pay the tax. He is handed a denarius. A denarius was a silver coin, a day’s wages for an ordinary labourer. The denarius brought to Jesus almost certainly depicted the reigning emperor of the day, Tiberius. The Latin inscription on this coin would be translated as: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus and Augustus.” [John Yonge Akerman, “Numismatic Illustrations of the New Testament” (Chicago, Argonaut, Inc. Publishers, 1966), p.11.]

Notice that the Romans often claimed divinity for their emperors so the inscription would have been quite offensive to the Jews who recognized no other divinity but their God. So here, in the inscription the Jews would be reminded of the offence of Tiberius, portrayed as heir to his so-called divine predecessor.

Jesus now asks what seemed a simple question. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” There was only one possible answer, the emperor’s. No-one would want to be heard discussing the inscription.

Jesus then gives his famous response. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Sounds straightforward but note he didn’t say for example pay all taxes on demand. There is the hidden requirement of justice and fairness. It is hard to argue that we should pay what fairly belongs to the authorities – but if it were unfair – now there is a different issue. If unjust there might even been a case for non payment. Remember the second part. Again a hint of ambiguity: “And give to God the things that are God’s

Sometimes, you see, these notions can be confused.

Awhile back I read of a congregation member from one Church who won Lotto and she offered a few thousand dollars from the prize to her pastor. The pastor decided this was not enough and decided to take the Lotto winner to court to give a more fitting amount. I would suggest the minister whatever his title, did not represent God in his actions.

What belongs to God? Consider! Does Lotto? – Well in practice it gets complicated because on one hand too much betting can destroy lives, yet if the Lottery Commission gives a proportion to worthy community programmes like Children’s hospitals and hospice nursing then surely it is not so clear.

If the emperor can make a claim for a coin that bears his image, then wouldn’t whatever we mean by God be entitled to claim what bears God’s image. But what bears the image of God? Here it may not be easy. I don’t for example think we should necessarily think of the Church as automatically representing God’s image.

Maybe we should follow something more like Christ’s words when he said, “as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters you do it to me”. At the very least Jesus’ through his parables and actions portrays compassion and justice as key ideas. In the Old Testament we find God’s image in the poetry of Genesis …and I guess in creation. But if Christ’s face, and a response to a God of Love or God in Creation is to be seen in our words and actions this is not achieved by a simple label of “Methodist” or even “Christian”.

I am convinced that careful thought needs to be given to many of our choices if we want to leave room for a Christian expression in our actions. Using texts from the Bible might take us some of the way. Yet perhaps in practice it is inevitable that reluctance to share will play an unfortunate part in controlling our decisions. Remember Jesus points us to another set of values that he reminds us must also have a part in our lives. We ignore that at our peril.

Let us pray that we might begin to notice that the image on the Caesar side of the coin is only one part of life – and that Jesus provides a different way.

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Lectionary Sermon for 11 October 2020 (Matthew 22: 1-14)

THE OFFER OF A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Living our Christianity in the real world with real world problems is not always without risks. It is true that for the lucky ones there may even be years in a row when most can get by with a passing acknowledgement of dimly remembered Bible stories and the occasional trip to Church for recognized occasions which some cynics might call the nod to hatches, matches and dispatches. To assume that is complete Christianity would be a mockery for those who care about living the centralities of faith.

To be honest, many of our cities and towns have substantial numbers in the population who might call their home country Christian yet make no effort to examine their lives to see if they have been personally affected by the sort of principles taught by Jesus. I wonder how others would see us?

While life appears relatively predictable it is hardly surprising we get complacent. It is almost as if while distant nations might suffer from disasters of the type recorded in our history books, coping with war, famine, plagues and natural disasters are simply not front and center for our typical expectations. Perhaps even regular churchgoers should be asking why the lukewarm faith typically followed by people (with more than a passing resemblance to folk like us) appears to have little to do with preparing us for the changes of fortune which may well come our way.. The temptation is to try to pursue one’s faith in a relaxed way so that it conforms to what we, as claimed followers, assume in terms of our current rewards and expected recognition of status.

This morning’s story from Matthew seems one way of jolting us into a new way of looking at ourselves. The fact is that is that Matthew, writing some time after Luke records his version of the same parable, has altered the version of Jesus’ parable of the wedding guests from the gospel of Luke and given it a much harder edge.

Picture the setting. A king is having a wedding celebration for his son and anyone who has had the slightest connection with what goes on behind the scene at a wedding will immediately know the potential trouble ahead. Who should be invited – and who should be passed over. When the guests arrive, where shall they be seated? and what protocols should be followed? That the wedding is of the son of a king just makes these issues even more problematic.

Any wedding when made to conform to that myriad of human failings and perceptions of pecking order is bound to produce some problems. And this wedding in Matthew at least sounds plausible when the first set of problems about wedding invitations spurned begins to emerge. But then things turn nasty, and let’s be honest, much nastier than when Luke told the same story. Why?

This morning’s parable reminds us that a story can – or perhaps even should – be further altered to address current reality, whereby citizens world-wide are plunged into a risky test situation where missteps have serious and even fatal consequences The result may not seem an improvement if pleasant stories are your choice.

Matthew is clearly dissatisfied with Luke’s version and embellishes the story – but unfortunately in the process paints a most unfortunate picture of the apparent nastiness of the master. If God was intended as being represented by the King in Matthew’s retelling we note in passing it is not God as portrayed by most ideas of Gospel. On the other hand it is a dramatic reminder that if the guests represent us maybe it may be time to check the calls on our own expression of faith.

Look again at the detail. Having been turned down by those originally expected to accept, the king probably correctly reasons that such wholesale rejection of his invitations is in fact a deliberate slight, and in all probability an indication of rebellion. How to respond? His answer is Old Testament type fury with a total display of power. He even goes as far as to murder the messengers who return the rejected invitations. Next he orders the effective destruction of the entire city, butchers the rebellious inhabitants – and finally shows his contempt for the original ingrates by in effect organizing a transfer of power to total new- comers – appointing if you like a new class of supporters.

Then as if the previous mayhem were not enough, he takes one poor guest, identifies him as improperly dressed, has him bound hand and foot, then tossed out for the apparently minor crime of being improperly dressed.

So there are puzzles to solve. Why did the story need changing in the first place?
In the first place when the story first started to circulate there was a different setting in which it was probably heard?

Remember Matthew was probably assembling his version of the gospel at a time when the Romans had tired of trying to subdue the Jews who resented their invaders to the point that they had risen in revolt. To teach the rebellious Jews a lesson the Romans had had sacked Jerusalem and driven the survivors in effect out to the wilderness. Matthew then may simply have been putting a theological spin on the reason why this terrible event had occurred by adding a blood-thirsty bit of vengeance to the simple parable found in Luke’s gospel. Matthew appears to be using Jesus parable to remind us that those originally chosen – the Jews have not understood that the invitation to join the son’s party requires a response – and in the face of their inability to respond, others – presumably those we would now call the Christians – must seize the opportunity.

And there is plausibility in the wrong choice. Turning down the invitation on the grounds that we might find a better offer would seem a relatively common response. Since we are not so much talking of Church attendance as participation in the good things of the kingdom, time after time history teaches us that to ignore those higher values of life can and does lead to crisis.

Since we are in the midst of an election what about a question a follower of Jesus should be able to answer? Are our chosen politicians those whose policies were Christian values like giving priority to the concerns of the most disadvantaged in society?

Shutting your eyes to the poor, only works for so long. The French revolution and the Russian revolution are not mere parables and it is hard to pretend that the upsurge of refugees or those suffering current as a consequence of the world wide COVID pandemic hasn’t got implication for those of us whose faith claims to give priority to all such.

Church leaders and even whole denominations lose their right to the seat at the feast if they do ignore the moral imperative of the real issues of the day. It is said for example that the same evening on the same Moscow Street at one address a group of revolutionaries gather to discuss overthrowing the Tsar – and at another address in the same street a group of Priests gathered to discuss the colours of their vestments. One of those meetings changed the history of the world.

In most nations there is a tendency to forget the embarrassment of the starving – and the growing gap between rich and poor. There is something sad about the way in which most wealthy nations refuse to take the growing world refugee problems seriously and although most large churches would claim to be concerned for the planet there is little evidence of concerted action. A few years ago in our universities there was a social theory explaining the lurches observed on group and individual behaviour called catastrophe theory.

Its main contention of catastrophe theory was that stresses would continue to build incrementally until there was a sudden switch in response and suddenly all was different. This is a lesson which has proved very difficult to learn at a national and even international level. A few years back, the partial collapse of the world banking system, and even today the insidious build-up of social pressures until rioting breaks out, the increase in world terrorism ….. all complex phenomena no doubt – yet in retrospect these were phenomena where the warning signs were present.

The notion then that those who might expect to have a seat at the top table suddenly finding themselves cast out to a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth may have more gritty reality than we might hope, particularly if we are more interested in preserving the goal of conventional symbols of wealth. William Barclay once put it that it is easy for a person to get so involved in the things of time that they have nothing left for the things of eternity.

This brings us to a part of the wedding feast parable which we find hard to comprehend unless we are aware of some local knowledge – namely why the guest who failed to put on the wedding robe got chucked out.

Don’t think for one moment everyone in Bible times was living in the sort of luxury we now enjoy. Several knowledgeable commentators have pointed out that in Jesus’ time when guests often didn’t have a large wardrobe, the wedding robes would have been ones provided by the host. In other words putting on the robe would be a natural courteous response to the hospitality offered. But in order to understand this for its full meaning we need to look a little deeper.

Some commentators have also noted the likely parallel with the imagery offered by one of the letters attributed to Paul. In Galatians Paul entreats us that on accepting the challenge to follow Christ we clothe ourselves not with ordinary clothes but rather clothe ourselves with Christ. This curious analogy (Galatians 3:27) draws attention to the difference of clothing yourself temporarily for the occasion (eg a business suit for a day in the office) and clothing yourself for what some have called eternity.

In the context of the parable, all but one of the guests understand that to take advantage of this opportunity which has unexpectedly come their way, they had better do rather more than turn up. In this feast they have a part to play.

The analogy with church is clear. Simply turning up is hardly the same as clothing yourself with Christ – in other words our challenge is to cloak ourselves with the persona in which the values and attitudes of Christ become part of our own persona. While it is probably human nature to prefer routines and even ruts to chaos – when the chaos arrives as a result of neglect – as with the wedding feast – there may still be new opportunities but not necessarily for the same people. Those opportunities may well be opportunities of service, of compassion, of ensuring justice,- opportunities in fact that come with clothing ourselves with Christ. The parable comes also with an awkward truth. Not all those invited for the feast will accept the challenge – and not all will accept the offered robe. The invitation is there – how will we respond?

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Lectionary Sermon 4 October 2020 on Matthew 21:33-46

IS IT TIME FOR AN ACCOUNTING OF OUR HARVEST?
(The following is a revised version of the equivalent sermon from 2017)

There are different ways of reading the history of the Christian Church. Despite the subconscious acknowledgement that there is one Jesus and one essential gospel it is easy to get so tied up in the minutiae of our present local church setting that we might easily miss just how many times today’s particular parable has played out in the shaping and reshaping of the church into its current myriad forms. Even more to the point, there is the danger we will miss seeing which part of the parable might be calling our own actions to account.

As with many of the New Testament stories, the key to unlock this allegory comes from earlier teaching. In this case the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah talks of the “well-beloved” as an image for God and talks of God’s pleasant planting in terms of his people. Isaiah’s vineyard refers of course to the 8 century BC people of Judah, but don’t forget Isaiah has earlier explained very clearly what is meant by “the harvest“.

The contracted workers are expected to be an example – a shining light or beacon to the whole of humankind and in that context the harvest means sharing behaviour in keeping with how the character of God was portrayed at the time, and here is the important part, with an emphasis on providing… what’s the word?….. justice. If we look back to the first chapter of Isaiah we even find this justice defined. In verse 17 he explains it in terms of rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow. Dare I suggest this is not quite the same as pointing to an increase in the number gathering each Sunday.

And in case there should be any mistake about how important this is to Isaiah he makes it every bit as clear that if this justice is not delivered, it doesn’t matter how pious the people might sound – that is futile without the acts of justice. In the absence of justice, Isaiah hears God’s words saying… what? Here it is (Isaiah Ch 1 verse 13): “Incense is an abomination to me.” I wonder if these days a modern Isaiah might imagine God saying : without justice ….worship songs and high sounding prayers are an abomination to me.

Jesus theme fits this imagery. The nation of Israel is that planting of grapes. The harvest which is to be produced is still justice. The workers are given chance after chance to hear the agents of the Lord who presumably are intended to represent the prophets, and the last of these is the owner’s son – I assume this means Jesus himself, and all came asking for the harvest. But not only are the earlier prophets ignored then reviled – What did Matthew say? :they “beat one, killed another and stoned a third”…but then even the son himself – the son understood to be Jesus is taken to be killed.

Matthew in choosing this parable to record was writing at a time when Jesus had already been sent to the cross – and undoubtedly the listeners also saw the connection between the son of the land owner and Jesus himself.

Yet Matthew records Jesus as saying even that killing the son won’t stop the God from his insistence on the harvest. Thereby comes the truth that would have been very upsetting to some in the audience. What of the tenants who had had their chance to deliver justice – to deliver the harvest and failed? They have no further value to the owner of the vineyard, their chance is finished and the vineyard given to others to take on the responsibility of the harvest.

The reason why this would have been upsetting to some among Matthew’s audience is that, for the Jews of that time, there was an absolute self-assurance that they were the chosen people. Their whole faith was predicated on that assumption and to have someone say that they had had their chance and missed it would have been very hard to swallow. And I suggest it would be much the same for anyone today thinking that they had joined a Church with a satisfying theology where they felt at home with their place – in effect among the chosen…then to discover in effect that the Church had dropped the ball and some other people would have to pick it up.

Remember Matthew was probably writing after the knowledge that the Jews had been turfed out of Jerusalem by the Romans, and I suspect he believed the parable was saying that the Jews had missed their chance to deliver Justice – now it would up to the new Christian church to have their chance to deliver.

But we have one advantage that Matthew did not have. We can read our Church histories and see that this story has actually been played out not just once but a number of times in the history since. That early church started to deliver – then failed. Others then took over… and in time they too lost sight of the purpose of the harvest.

Time after time the vineyard shapes up to give a great harvest and the workers lose sight of why they are there and treat those who call them back to their task with contempt or worse. When this happens the tasks are re-allotted to others – and a new Church is needed.

Think for example of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Martin Luther, ensuring prestige power and great wealth for the Church hierarchy. They had even hit upon the idea of selling places in heaven with the sale of what they called indulgences and had subverted the message of the gospel to the point where it had practically disappeared. Martin Luther increasingly discomfited by the Church failing to care about the harvest as delivered justice listed all the things he saw as being wrong and nailed up the list on the doors of the cathedral – the result was a total reformation – and the start of a new Church – the Protestant Church.

Yet here I am suggesting it is a story many times repeated. In the 18th century starting in 1738 John Wesley used his newfound faith experience to confront what had become an exclusive Anglican Church, a Church which had morphed into becoming a support of the wealthy. His preaching offended those who I suggest were uncomfortable in hearing his back to the basics social gospel – and his message was so unwelcome he was prevented from preaching in the Anglican churches. His taking his message outside where the people were is how the Methodist Church got underway.

We should now acknowledge that since the Methodists have been going for a good few years Methodists in their turn must be vigilant that issues like justice are not taking second place to Church maintenance and status.

One no doubt familiar contemporary parable is that of of the life saving station. (Found in Personal Evangelism 101 By Brent Hunter). In summary the parable goes something like this: In order to deal with the large number of shipwrecks on a particularly dangerous bit of coast some local people set up a rudimentary lifeboat shed and performed many rescues. Then as success attracted more donations, a better and more comfortable lifeboat station was built – so comfortable in fact that dripping survivors messed it up and were not really welcome.

On a cold blustery day it was now better to stay in the warmth and comfort of the lifeboat station – and the number of rescues tailed off. Eventually just a few noticed that no rescues were happening. The few protested and were told by the others that if they insisted that life saving was still important, there was nothing to stop them going down the coast and setting up for themselves. And they did set up their own tin shed a little way down the coast where the cycle repeated.

Now of course there are many lifeboat stations down the coast – most of which are comfortable club houses – yet most who are shipwrecked still drown.

It is not up to me to say where a nation-wide Church or even an individual congregation is in this cycle. The New Zealand Methodist Church in its Mission statement has a phrase “each member a minister” and I guess many of their fellow Christian congregations share this as an ideal. This is where Matthew’s recounting the parable has the potential to be a wake-up call. The parable has the potential to shake us from the comfortable familiarity of our weekly services or worse remind us we might be concerning ourselves with “what’s in it for me?” it is worth remembering that “Each member a minister” is a very perceptive phrase which is rather easily glossed over.

I guess this is another way of acknowledging that the buck doesn’t stop with a Pope or Archbishop or President of the Church conference or even the leader of the parish. The buck stops with you and me.

If we take this seriously it should not therefore simply be left to designated leaders to speak on the issue of justice as they feel like it. This is an issue where we as members, each as ministers, have to calmly and deliberately look at the evidence that we are still focused on justice, and if not, ask seriously what steps we will take..
It is simply not possible to tackle every single justice issue but to my way of thinking it may well be a case could be made that we no longer have the balance right.

The contemporary dimension of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is that the need for justice is just as important now as ever it was. There are very obvious and numerous examples where people are suffering terrible injustice. There are clearly those living without freedom and political rights.

The one eighth of the world’s population who are inadequately fed in a world where enough can be produced is to my way of thinking an injustice. I think the same could be said for those whose lives are made miserable by slave labour conditions, the child prostitutes, those stuck in refugee camps because nations like ours say we can do virtually nothing, or those rotting in prisons without right to a fair trial. The large percentage of young children even in this country living below the poverty line is also another issue which needs attention. Those denied medical assistance (cf treatment for virus attacks), or basic education, or even clean water also seek justice.

There are labourers working in the vineyards addressing such issues – but I would suggest to you that there are equally those whose actions show a total disregard for the harvest of justice. Can I suggest our annual church balance sheets and annual report on the Church projects for the year is one objective measure of a congregation’s emphasis on justice?

The parable is clear. If we insist that our own interests come first and leave helping with the just harvest as a more distant concern – should we now realize that the responsibility we are refusing would be better be left to some other people?

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