Unfortunately (and we hope coincidentally) the just announced withdrawal of the US from the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) looks suspiciously like an attempt to avoid scrutiny for America’s own mounting list of human rights embarrassments. The self-perception of citizens of the US that America is still widely admired for its moral leadership is not born out by the recent international polls. Certainly by most of the common measures, for the last few years, the US has slipped in its reputation on most issues of human rights.

Yes, most observers would agree that some of the UN members of the UNHRC have regimes which have bad human rights records. However, for many of these, some progress has been made. International agreements have modified some of the worst abuses and unwelcome publicity via constant scrutiny courtesy of the UNHRC is precisely why it is important that the key offenders be answerable as members of the Commission.

Because it is outside the day-to-day experiences of most Americans, and because wealth insulates the wealthy from having to face up to the consequences of ill treatment of the marginalized, it is very likely the majority have genuinely not noticed what is happening on the growing fringes of their society.  While I would agree the US is still much safer for minorities than in some corners of the world the signs of a change in direction are alarming.

Reflect on the following.

In the US the rate of incarceration is now the highest amongst all first and second-world nations. On any given day the recorded number of those imprisoned is now confirmed to be of the order of 2.3 million people in state and federal prisons and jails, which also works out to be the world’s largest reported incarcerated population. While it is heartening that some States were sufficiently concerned to introduce reforms on incarceration at State and Congressional level, the members of the UN concern is that such reforms are not gaining White House support. Although a bipartisan proposal for sentencing and corrections reform has been gaining momentum in Congress, the Trump administration appears reluctant to give the proposal indication of support.

There is of course the recent embarrassing discovery that the US rendition programme is apparently re-emerging which should also give pause for thought e.g. having US enemies dealt to with by torture and execution in Yemen. When the US then pulls out of the UNHRC on the grounds some of its fellow members have dodgy Human Rights records forgive me if I raise an eyebrow!!

Nearly 50,000 youth aged 17 or younger are held in juvenile prisons or other confinement facilities on any given day in the US, and approximately 5,000 more are incarcerated in adult jails or prisons. Another feature is the sentencing of children to life sentences although some states are starting to discontinue this practice. Every year, 200,000 people under 18 have contact with the adult criminal system, with many children tried automatically as adults. If it were any other country I suspect many might suggest that this is a characteristic of a police state.

President Trump has targeted refugees and immigrants, calling them criminals and security threats. Treating them as criminals is in direct violation of the widely accepted International agreement that refugees and illegal immigrants arriving at the border fleeing situations where security or health are at stake, may not be so-treated.   The proportion of crimes committed by immigrants shows on average they are better citizens than those born into permanent citizenship.

Another irony is that by sending weapons to areas of dispute and organizing the bombing of villages and towns (e.g. to war torn Syria or even weapons into crime ridden areas like parts of South America and even parts of Mexico) means a proportion of the civilian populations are forced to flee. When the number one instigator of the weapons and bombs keeps those same refugees at bay, is it surprising some are beginning to notice? No wonder too the US government found international scrutiny embarrassing when Mr Trump directed separation of children from their parents at the border even keeping some of the children in cages.

In the United Nations The Trump government seemed not to notice that using the excuse of not wanting to sit on the same group which included those whose had a bad human rights record rings hollow when there was every sign that at home Mr Trump and his supporters had emboldened racist politics by equivocating on white nationalism; and consistently championed anti-Muslim ideas and policies. Furthermore, Mr Trump speaking of the value of torture in his Election campaign, and subsequently making admiring noises about the Presidents of North Korea and the Philippines when there was world-wide condemnation of their ruthless treatment of those identified as criminals (eg drug addicts in the Philippines), made most UN members uneasy.

UN member nations have also noticed the Trump administration has embraced policies that roll back access to reproductive health care for women and championed health insurance changes that deny many more Americans access to affordable health care. What is even more surprising remembering the civil rights improvements in the US of a few years back, recent law changes in the US have undermined police accountability for abuse. Trump has also expressed disdain for any independent media criticism and has tried to stack the federal courts with those less likely to some of his anti-civil rights actions.

By overtly ignoring the plight of the Palestinians in Israel, by praising dictators and by forcing those like the North American Indians to accept damage to their environment in the interests of mining Mr Trump signals the need for the rest of the nations of the world to put the US under closer watch.

The individuals most likely to suffer abuse in the United States—including members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, and prisoners—are often least able to defend their rights in court or via the political process. Many vulnerable groups endured renewed attacks on their rights during the last year. Other longstanding US laws and practices—particularly related to criminal and juvenile justice, immigration, and national security—continued to violate internationally recognized human rights.

Of course it is true that the US has been frustrated that Israel has been repeatedly blocked in the UN in their attempts to take over more of Palestine, yet the real question remains as to why the US is supporting the powerful Israeli group in Israel and appears so blind to the disproportionate suffering of the Palestinians. Yes, I know that Israel’s point is that they have to keep their population safe, yet to an independent observer it seems that the disproportionate death toll at the end of each year shows who is in most need of security.

I guess I am arguing in the above that based on my own admittedly limited data collection the US does not have the current reputation to justify Mr Trump’s “Holier than thou” justification for pulling the US out of the UNHRC.  If I am overlooking important evidence to the contrary I am hoping one of my readers will use the comment box below to show me where my argument has gone astray.

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Lectionary sermon for 24 June 2018 (Year b) on Mark 4:35-41 and 1 Samuel 17 (1a,4-11,19-23,32-49)

Believe it or Not
Among the tricky questions about the Bible that keep coming back to haunt church-goers are two that seem to recur. The first issue seems almost comfortingly academic. Are the Bible accounts of the more unbelievable stories and events true in the sense that they happened as recorded or alternately?  Alternately are they more there to shape our thinking and inspire us? But there is a second question and one we may well wish was not raised. If we are inspired, what are we going to do that is different?

The two stories that the lectionary challenges us to consider today may well have more than a little of the hint of the unbelievable, but I want to suggest the real reason for their value is because both stories touch on genuine insight into the human condition. It is a very human failing to pretend to ourselves that there is no foe and no fear we will not face – yet in reality when the challenge is significant or when danger begins to threaten, our first instinct is to do anything to make the problem go away. The message from each of the situations we are looking at today seems to be that if instead we face the problem, there is always the possibility that situation might be answered in most unexpected and positive ways.

To the modern Western mind both lectionary stories present a common problem. Since they both report events which are, at best, extremely unusual and at worst simply unbelievable, the temptation is to turn off at that point and dismiss them as being of no-value fairy stories. And to be brutally honest many modern commentators would certainly argue that the stories we will be looking at are unlikely to have occurred as reported, yet even if they are only treated as parable or myth, I suggest there is something we can learn here from each.

We will start with the boating trip. On a calm day boating is a great experience. But anyone who knows large lakes or the sea also knows that if the barometer suddenly drops, or if the air is funnelled down through the ravines or valleys towards water, the wind can mount, sometimes literally within minutes, and then of course the waves build. The so called Sea of Galilee is prone to such strong sudden winds and I would imagine, particularly in those days, the traditional old style fishing boats would not be particularly seaworthy or safe in such conditions. I guess that the fishing boat chosen as the vessel for the disciples trip would not come anywhere near any modern certification for sea-worthiness. We have reason to suspect from history and from the discovery of the remains of boats from that time, that it would have been an open boat, too low in the water to cope with large waves and with its planks held together caulked with pitch and in all probability held together with doubtful nails and lashed cords.

The Sea of Galilee, or more accurately the lake, has geological features that make it common for such winds to suddenly rise. I suspect this is why when we read of Jesus and the fishermen on the lake they are usually described as keeping close to the shore. This time Jesus has asked them to attempt something a little more risky – particularly at night – and that is to set out for the other side.

So now the wind rises and as the waves mount, these men – some of whom appear to have been seasoned fishermen – panic. This is more than a passing danger. Too far out to turn back they awaken Jesus apparently angry that he is sleeping instead of sharing in their situation. Then as quickly as it came – apparently in response to Jesus’ words – the storm dies.

The disciples bewilderment – and we might guess perhaps even their shame for their previous panic – leaves them with the question. Who is this man and does he really command wind and water to obey? Please note in the story it is an unanswered question left hanging and we too are left with the same puzzle.

I know that when this story is debated, the first thinly disguised rhetorical question from the critics is typically: could Jesus really control nature? For the record, at least as far as I am concerned, I often align myself with such critics because I am definitely not a Bible literalist, but on reflection surely this is not the real point of the story.

Certainly we could explain it away saying one of the standard weather observations is that a storm quick to rise is often quick to pass, so we might well believe that such a storm would die of its own accord, whether directed to do so or not. Yet for me the real issue is that Jesus is recorded as showing calmness in the face of the storm to the point of sleeping while all about him was panic …..and ultimately, however it happened, his calmness wins through.

Some here today will have seen the essence of that same calming miracle when for example an experienced paramedic arrives at the scene of some terrible accident – and seemingly oblivious to the panic and confusion of the worried onlookers, quietly and firmly takes control of the accident scene and before your eyes you can see everyone begin to relax.

But don’t forget there is a second story.

In this scene we have the Israelites are drawn up in battle formation with their traditional enemies the Philistines facing them. Probably neither side was particularly looking forward to the near certainty that many would not survive to the end of the day. Then a possible way out….. As was sometimes the custom for survival an alternative was put to them. Send out a champion to do battle with our champion and decide the result by proxy. The only catch was that the Philistine champion was a fearsome prospect. In such circumstances would you have offered to be the challenger? I know I wouldn’t. Although I would like to think I would step up if I saw some thug making threats, in reality I am not sure I would be brave enough.

Goliath of Gath was indeed a giant. If the story is to be believed without exaggeration, then Goliath was a fearsome giant indeed……nine foot tall, if I have the arithmetic correct. But when Goliath was strutting his stuff in front of Saul’s army and no-one was prepared to fight him, there is something you may have missed. King Saul himself was also something of a giant among his people according to the Bible measuring seven foot.

The fact that Saul, possibly the only one who might have had a chance against the Philistine giant, was also chicken, must have seemed on the one hand to be understandable, but on the other, acutely embarrassing to the Israelites.

That the shepherd boy David was prepared to step forward in his place, armed only with a sling, was not only unexpected and brave, it was also an event which in the Bible account was a turning point in the fortunes of the two men. From that point on, David, the giant slayer who had been armed with nothing but a sling saw his fortunes increase while Saul, for all his impressive appearance, saw his status begin to diminish in the eyes of his followers.

Of course both of these stories miss something if we focus on how believable they are. I suspect more than a few here today would have reservations yet even if we do eventually decide whether or not they are a true record then, as historical accounts, they would only instruct as one- time events. If on the other hand, we can also see their symbolic meaning, then we can notice a more contemporary connection.

It is not only disciples in a boat facing the terrors of a storm or soldiers on a battlefield who can know fear or panic. Each one of us sooner or later is bound to know great sorrow or moments of panic if we are to truly live. To love is, sooner or later, to risk the loss of at least one close to us. Accidents do happen. It is not just earthquakes and fires that can catch us unawares. The dangers we may unexpectedly face may vary greatly but moments of danger there most assuredly will be. To believe that facing these moments squarely, armed with nothing more than the assurance that we can find a way through and knowing that nothing can separate us from this mysterious relationship we call the love of God gives a meaning to life which points to hope.

So what have we noted?

We read that the disciples panicked when the waves rose, yet discovered there was something about the strange nature of Christ that could calm them despite the worst the storm could offer. Perhaps the symbolism teaches us that when the panic inducing situation faces us that we too might find for us the storm abates when we turn to what in our journey we have found Christ to mean for us.

We read that when David encountered the horror of the Philistine giant Goliath he was able to prevail using only the skills he already possessed. Clearly the war between the Philistines and the men of Saul is long since over. Yet there are still bullying situations where we find people who matter to us being threatened by forces beyond their strength to overcome. Might it be that we too can find within our own feeble resources the skills to be champions on others’ behalf.

I am reasonably certain that none of us will command the weather like Jesus is said to have done, nor should we expect some David to appear on our behalf to kill the giant who threatens others, yet I believe we have potential to contribute to peace in the midst of our personal storms, or for that matter put ourselves on the line when called to do so.

Some storms have nothing to do with water… and some who face the storms or the dangerous enemies on behalf of others are not found in the pages of the Bible. One of the bravest in our time who knows exactly what it is to put her life on the line is that extraordinary Pakistani schoolgirl (Malala Yousafzai)– and subsequently at age 17 made it as the youngest ever Nobel Peace prize winner. She was honoured for standing up against those who used force to stop girls in Pakistan from getting an education. After receiving many death threats she continued publicizing the cause for girls’ education and even survived a Taleban assassination attempt. She refused to let the danger prevent her message getting through and continued publicizing her message in every forum she could reach right up to the United Nations.

The literalist quest to put every effort into establishing historical certainty of the more extraordinary Bible stories may well be beyond the reach of the best of scholars. Nor is there a clear answer to the disciples’ question. “Who is this man?” And what is more, living a life based on facing challenge head-on and meeting those tempest problems of doubt and worry can ultimately carry no guarantee. What we do learn from Jesus however is that just as Jesus was able to instil eventual trust in his disciples, others too have found in Christ a peace that can speak to all manner of storms and challenge. The real test will be for each of us to discover our own personal encounter with the one whose boat we claim to share.

(Note: In these sermons, since there is now a complete lectionary set, I often rework the sermon from three years back. Since I have been assured that some read the sermons to stimulate their thinking, it would be helpful to new visitors if readers would leave their own suggested comments, illustrations or alternative interpretations for others to consider).

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The US under the leadership of President Trump appears to be reflected in a massive slide in global confidence in the standing of the US. The Pew polls based on a variety of international markers have shown a serious drop in support for President Trump as a world leader across most of the developed world. While the withdrawal from support for the Paris Accord on global warming combined with the change of direction in the EPA to downplay environmental concerns may have played well at home with industrialists and shareholders in mining and various energy related ventures it does not sit well with those who see a greater need for environmental protection and had been expecting the US to continue in an environmental leadership role.

The recent shift away from support for US policies in the United Nations (eg the UN votes on Palestinian Issue) suggests the overt downgrading of US support for the UN in turn affected how the US is regarded by some other nations. The regard for the US as a leader of NATO has similarly slipped and the recent debacle at the G7 summit reinforces the public perception that the US is being side-lined as a preferred trading partner for its clumsy abuse of its partners.

Each of Mr Trump’s so-called “signature policies” are typically rejected by substantial numbers of non US observers. For example one sample set of polls (Pew, Spring 2017) set approval for the build a wall with Mexico project at 16% for and 76% against. Withdrawal from Trade agreements stood at 18% for, 76% against. Withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal 34% for, 49% against. Tighter restrictions on Muslims entering the US drew 32% for, 62% against. Withdrawal from International Climate Change agreements 19% for, 71% against.

A recent Gallup Poll of 134 countries showed for example that although under President Obama support for the US as a leader stood at 48% – after a year of Donald Trump this had dropped to 30%. This is the lowest level Gallup has recorded in the last ten years and is not only just a slump , but actually takes it below China (at 31%) and surrenders the first place to Germany now at 41% of the sample.

Trump’s version of “America First” policies has also apparently eroded support at home remembering that at the time of his first anniversary of leadership Trump had the lowest average approval of any elected President after one year in office.

Another aspect of the perception of the US is indicated in the growing divisions within the nation. The string of Trump led vitriolic statements directed to those who in Congress who dare question White House policy looks from the outside to be counterproductive and instead seems to foster unprecedented protests and a marked declining trust in public institutions.

While the main policies pushed by Mr Trump share features like looking after US interests first, it is also becoming apparent that extreme nationalism does not appeal to the entire GOP support base. For example the separation of children from their illegal immigrant parents at the Mexican border unleashed a storm of protest which saw some republicans in Congress express some of the same concerns as the Democrats.

One conventional measure of trust is the annual ranking review conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit. That review looks at sixty different measures of electoral process, press freedom, expressed confidence in public institutions, freedoms etc. With nationwide protests against new policies, serious questions raised about legal process and election tampering and a major discrepancy between the popular vote and the vote of the Electoral College it is hardly likely that the post 2016 election results would not have raised questions. Attitudes to disadvantaged groups, religious and racial intolerance and a marked hardening of policies on immigration seemed to challenge traditional views of the US as a free and democratic society.

Traditionally a few years back, the US had been scoring as a full democracy although even before the last Presidential election there had been a noticeable decrease in confidence. Now, for the second year in a row the US, with a score of 7.98 out of 10 the US is now firmly classified as a “flawed democracy”. Those remaining as full democracies evidently include nations like the UK, Norway, Ireland and Spain while the US now finds itself in the company of nations like Italy, Chile and Mexico and in fact with the same rank as Italy (21%).

While I believe we should acknowledge the unwavering support for Mr Trump among his supporters in the “Red” States, some of the chosen Trump policies actually set up these states for future economic hardship. Look at some of the more obvious examples. The pressure put on the Europe with the US proposed tariffs on cars have resulted a push-back tariff on Kentucky bourbon (no doubt chosen because Kentucky is one of the Trump strongholds). Mexico is responding to its tariff imposition by sourcing alternative markets for its Soy bean (which will no doubt benefit Russia and Brazil) and both China and Canada have similarly chosen to target US agriculture in response to Mr Trump’s latest tariffs.

The simplistic notion that a powerful rich country like the US can simply bully poorer nations into making better deals (i.e. better for the US) has not gone well outside the US and to take just one obvious example, the TPP nations, upon learning that the US wanted to abandon their TPP proposed free trade system, have simply gone ahead without the US and are now looking to set up a better deal with China.

Some commentators have suggested that as the inexperienced Trump team discover by trial and error how to arrive at preferred outcomes there should be a gradual improvement in international perception. On the other hand humans everywhere traditionally show a marked unwillingness to accept criticism and it is unlikely that those criticised by Mr Trump will easily forget and forgive. Again using recent events as a marker, when an angry Canadian Parliament met to discuss Mr Trump’s post G7 criticism of Canadian Trade policies in general and Mr Trudeau in particular there was a totally unanimous (and very rare) cross party opposition to Mr Trump’s stated position.

It is probably too early to work out the long term consequences of Mr Trump’s tax reforms which left much more money in the pockets of the rich and increased the debt levels to an extent that many Federal supplied services are now forced to be cut. The drop in tax intake produces a self-imposed jump in debt which in turn feeds into trade pressures and takes the US into uncharted territory. It is certainly premature to speculate on how the tariff wars are going to work out, but the complex relationships between trade and national debt are unlikely to be familiar territory to a President whose main economics experience has been the wheeling and dealing in real estate.

(Reactions to this article would be appreciated)

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Evaluating the Trump – Kim Jong Un Show

I guess like most of the viewing audience I should at least concede that I was watching a significant event in Singapore when I saw President Trump basking in his moment of glory. Yet as he gave his self -congratulatory account of what had just transpired, it started to dawn on me that that the President’s by now famous naivety appeared to have blinded him to some rather serious problems. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely the President’s fault. Disarmament is not a significant part of his background.

There was also a curious mismatch between Mr Trump’s effusive praise of Kim Jong Un and the widespread international understanding of the North Korean President’s brutal treatment of his own people in the so called death camps not to mention the highly publicised murder of two close relatives.  The praise of President Kim must have jarred with some of the International audience when they remembered that a few days ago Mr Trump was heaping scorn on some of the G7 participants who were supposed to be US allies.

At best we might excuse some of Mr Trump’s knowledge gaps and diplomatic clumsiness by his reluctance to seek experienced advice.      His famous disinclination to read serious books on history and international affairs might help explain the very obvious absence of basic historical background knowledge of the previous antecedents to the current Korean impasse on the part of President Trump. Unfortunately having invited the world’s Press to watch and presumably analyse at leisure all the faults were now all on show for the world to see. Perhaps even more worryingly, Mr Trump revealed an embarrassing lack of understanding of how denuclearisation works and clearly had failed to have prior consultation with South Korea, China and even his own military advisers about the balance of military power in the area.

Although my own knowledge of nuclear weapons is now well out of date since I was commissioned in 1994 by the Auckland Branch of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and the Peace and Disarmament Trust to write a primer on Verification, I would have thought that sending a President into such a significant meeting without some basics was unwise to say the least.

For example Mr Trump had either not been told or alternately pretended ignorance about the course of the North Korean weapons testing. It does not take a very deep study of the subject to know that because full scale nuclear tests typically consume very hard won nuclear fuel eg Plutonium, the tests are typically only performed as nuclear fission or fusion reactions when new types of weapons are being tested.

But here is the point. Once the testing site programme is concluded, typically no further weapons are wasted. Thus for example, the Israelis only performed a handful of tests before closing their testing site. Having apparently concluded their testing to the point where they had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, the North Koreans did entirely as expected and announced they were shutting down their testing facilities. Mr Trump announced it was due to him and his diplomacy!!!

If President Trump had either invited (or perhaps listened) to his weapons advisors he would have known that like the US, the North Koreans were now at the stage where most of their testing would continue as computer simulations.

Although the President was quite correct in saying that to have the two Presidents together was a significant step forward, the perception that it would lead to peace in the area – or even that it was a step further towards denuclearisation is simply a pure guess. At best we should concede we should hope that the Singapore meeting has led to a lessening of the tensions between North and South Korea and at least has opened the possibility for some sort of future nuclear disarmament in the Peninsula.

Those who have kept up with the faltering steps towards peace between the two Koreas will know that this time the real circuit breaker was the President of South Korea who, last February, had offered places in the Winter Olympics Korean team to a North Korean group of competitors and had set up a preliminary Peace Conference in April between the North and South Korean delegations. As might have been expected this led to some ambiguously hopeful statements about the oft-promised denuclearisation.

The 25 April outcome had used an identical disappointing vague statement to that now just used in the Trump/ Kim Jong Un Singapore meeting, that North Korea would work towards complete denuclearisation but with absolutely no indication how this would be achieved. We should remember the 25 April statement had been roundly condemned by disarmament experts because firstly, it was not calling for permanent and verifiable denuclearisation, nor was it saying who would be verifying the progress.

Since the Americans should have known about the earlier storm of protest, given that they had had some weeks since April to put together a more realistic proposal, the fact that they were no further ahead after the meeting at Singapore suggests either Mr Trump was out manoeuvred by President Kim or worse, that the North Koreans were not serious in their offer.

Mr Trump is of course being economic with the truth when he claims this is the best progress made in the recent past. For example anyone with an elementary reading of recent history should have known that prior to 1993 North Korea had been committed (at least on paper) to the UN arranged declaration in the Non Proliferation Treaty.

Just for the record, check out the following brief review of some of the outcomes of past treaty discussions between North Korea and the US led delegations.

1993: The US intelligence had claimed that North Korea had enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear warheads. North Korea then gave notice of its intent to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty despite being an earlier signatory, After discussions with the United States at the United Nations they agreed to suspend this decision.

1994: Jimmy Carter became the first former U.S. president to visit North Korea, where he helped lay the ground for diplomatic talks to progress the temporary impasse. Following Carter’s visit, the Clinton administration and North Korea signed an “Agreed Framework” to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program. Pyongyang agreed to freeze construction of nuclear reactors and production of plutonium in exchange for aid, fuel shipments, and other economic benefits.

2000: A senior North Korean military leader Jo Myong Rok, visited Washington for a meeting with President Bill Clinton following positive signs in Pyongyang’s talks with South Korea. This was followed by a visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang. Her meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was intended to expand the Agreed Framework and prepare for a potential visit by President Bill Clinton. Unfortunately these talks were unsuccessful.

2002: The Agreed Framework set up under Clinton finally broke down. President George W. Bush, who had taken a harder-line stance on Pyongyang than his predecessor, had accused North Korea of cheating by secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment program. North Korea responded by accusing the United States of backing out of its end of the deal.

2003: Following the collapse of the Agreed Framework and North Korea’s withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, China hosted the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Russia for a succession of talks with North Korea which became known as the six-party talks. At these talks, Pyongyang insisted it would not be giving up its nuclear weapons program.

2006: North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, re-sparking the simmering diplomatic crisis.

2009: The six-party talks were abandoned following a North Korean refusal to grant international inspectors permission to visit sites in North Korea. Despite the clear lack of progress, former President Bill Clinton visited North Korea successfully negotiated the release of two imprisoned American journalists.

2011: Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea since 1994, died amid President Barack Obama’s administration’s efforts to revive peace talks. His son, Kim Jong Un, took power.

2012: President Obama tried to push Pyongyang to the negotiating table by ratcheting up sanctions. Possibly in an effort to convey strength both to his own people and to the international community Kim Jong Un refused to authorise a final deal that would have halted North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and which should have allowed in international inspectors in exchange for U.S. aid. Meanwhile, North Korea continued to show strong signs of development in its nuclear weapons program.  We can only suspect that President Kim realized that further into the nuclear programme, North Korea would be seen as having a stronger negotiating position.

2016 – 2017: Newly elected President Donald Trump made a great show of threats against North Korea, threatening to rain down “fire and fury” if it continued to escalate tensions with the United States. North Korea responded with the test-firing of a series of ballistic missiles, and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

2018 In February North Korea had sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics – followed by an unexpected conference April between the two Presidents of North and South Korea. The President of South Korea subsequently persuaded President Trump back to the negotiating table.

Had President Trump managed to make a brief factual comment to the public at the conclusion of his meeting with President Kim he might have avoided what will probably turn out to be an embarrassing series of easily checked errors in his post conference meeting with the world’s press.

One simple example came when he talked of the North Koreans testing their biggest bomb.   Mr Trump explained the blast produced an 8.8 Richter scale earthquake and went on to say that he had never even heard of an earthquake that reached 8 on the scale.    In the first place the earthquake signal happened to be 6.3 on the scale and in the second place virtually every 12 grade high school student should have heard of measured earthquakes which were bigger than 8 on the scale.   It is hard to believe that even poorly qualified advisers would have deliberately misled Mr Trump with garbled information of this level.

Please don’t hear me saying that progress has not been significant in the Trump/ Kim Jong Un meeting.   After all the two were exchanging wild threats up to a few months ago.   What still needs explanation is why Mr Trump is so insistent that the brief meeting has been so positive when there are so many unknowns.

At the very least the following now requires urgent clarification.
1. What is China’s reaction to the reorganized politics of a North Korea on their doorstep. Eg would they countenance a US Presence on their border?
2. How are other nearby nations affected by the consequent shift in balance of power.
3. Does reducing the threats to North Korea’s security make South Korea more vulnerable?
4. What proposals are going to be implemented to ensure that North Korea does not continue its human rights violations?
5. Is the US similarly prepared to downgrade its military capability in the area?
6. Since verification is generally accepted to be the action of investigating compliance with Treaty obligations by means of evidence gathered by a variety of techniques and institutional means, given that President Trump is downgrading the US military presence in the area (somewhat to the surprise we should add of the President of South Korea) it would be interesting to see how the evidence for verification is to be gathered and what would be required to verify the still unwritten treaty.
7. If it is necessary to reduce the North Korean nuclear capacity what about other Nuclear powers in equally unstable areas? E.g. Israel, Pakistan etc. etc. (but don’t mention the US!!!!!!)

For those who enjoy irony, there must be a certain urge to smile just a little when we remember that much further down the track we will be facing convoluted safeguards with North Korea which may well have to resemble the verification complexities of the sort imposed by that other well known denuclearisation treaty with a country called Iran, that treaty President Trump so …um…admired?      However at least one powerful nation will be breathing a small sigh of relief in that the US had been using Korea in part as an excuse to need to have a display of military power to keep China from flexing too much muscle in the region.    President Trump’s promise to bring the military home will free China to extend its area of control.   I refuse to believe that President Trump was unaware of this consequence and am confident that any day now we can expect a tweet storm to explain this latest shift in US policy.

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Lectionary Sermon for 17 June 2018 Year B Mark 4, 26-34

It is not often we can say Jesus told a parable which seems to have particular meaning for our time. Today’ gospel from the lectionary certainly generates discussion, yet I wonder if indeed what is often debated misses one of Jesus’ main points. Our parable for today is the story of the Mustard seed. Let’s think for a moment about what is most often said about the parable then turn to the more interesting teaching from the story.

As far as I can tell, most often this story is seized on by those who are anxious to point out to Bible literalists that whoever Jesus was, he was simply incorrect in his description of the mustard seed, both from the size of the described seed and in his description of the plant formed. As the scientifically literate critics are fond of pointing out, from what we know today, at least on this issue, far from being omniscient, Jesus most certainly had it wrong when he reportedly talked of the mustard seed being the smallest of seeds and what’s more it most certainly is not a seed that grows into a mighty tree. Orchids and a host of other plant forms whether they be from flowers, shrubs or trees have much smaller seeds, and yes, anyone who has encountered the mighty redwood or giant Kauri knows full well that these trees totally dwarf the humble set of shrubs classified as the mustard.

True, it is hard to argue with the modern Bible critics. Mustard seeds are readily available from plant nurseries and they are indeed totally unlike the dust-sized seeds of some other well known shrubs and trees. And to clinch the critics’ case, all the textbooks say the Mustard shrub rarely grows more than 12 foot tall.

Yet surely when Jesus told this parable, the truths he was trying to convey were never intended to stand or fall on the scientifically accuracy of the story. Sorting out the intellectual truth of our faith is not nearly as important as finding what our faith means when it is lived.

When for example Jesus drew attention to the humble beginnings of the Mustard he may well have been hoping his listeners might at least later remember that from his first teaching something more significant …a new form of faith would grow.

As it happens even today seeds are indeed only dimly understood and although each year the scientists discover more, there seems always more to discover about each tiny part of a small seed, especially the parts carrying all the genetic information to grow a shrub big enough for birds to nestle in its branches. Life itself is infinitely strange.

Certainly for most of us that seeds have this dramatic potential to grow into something complex and wonderful is essentially beyond our current understanding, no matter how much we might think we now know about Chromosomes, DNA and gene expression. It should also be a little humbling to realise that it is not just those who follow the Christian faith that can find a faith analogy in a seed.

You may have heard the Chinese story which, by tradition, was first told by the Buddha. There are different versions but one story goes something like this.
…….Once upon a time there was a mother whose son became ill and died. The mother was beside herself with grief. Unable to face living with the heavy burden of sadness, in desperation she went to a wise man.

The wise man listened sympathetically, thought for a moment and said.
“I think the answer to your problem will be a special kind of mustard seed. What you must do is this.

Find some home where they have not known the grief you have experienced, then collect a mustard seed from the garden and bring it back to me. I will then show you how to deal with your grief.”
Strange advice the woman thought….but on the other hand….. he is known to be a wise man, so she set off on this unusual quest.

The first house she chose was that of a rich family, a huge house with large well kept grounds. She explained her quest to the woman who answered the door. Is this by any chance a house where there has been no such grief as the grief I have experienced in losing my son? The woman who had opened the door, burst into tears. “You couldn’t have come to a worse place. Grief? Let me tell you about grief.” And she began to explain the total tragedy her family had suffered over recent months.

The woman who had lost her son listened, amazed that someone so rich might have encountered such a disaster. On the other hand she thought to herself, perhaps my experience makes me the sort of person who might understand. So she stayed a while, counselled the sad rich woman, then when the rich woman appeared able to cope a little better, off she went on her journey again.

I think you may have already guessed. The next house was exactly the same. A nice house on the outside yet another real story of unhappy experiences – and once again she left but only after helping as best she could. And then on to the next, again a house visited by grief – and the next.

But here is the curious consequence. Gradually – imperceptibly she became more and more focussed on the task of helping others and more and more forgetful of her own unhappiness.

She had started with a quest for a seed – a mustard seed and her journey brought her to the point where though her grief was still there as a memory – something else was growing in its place.

The mustard seed illustration, as Jesus told it, is also a story where the truth emerges in unexpected ways. Finding wonder in that which is tiny and seemingly insignificant is as good a place as any to start. I remember coming across my grandfather’s microscope in a cupboard one day. At my father’s suggestion I collected some muddy water from the edge of a creek that ran through a nearby park. This opened up a world of wonder for me, discovering a myriad of strange life forms in a single drop.

I could now begin to understand the poet William Blake finding a universe in a grain of sand. Later I was to encounter increasingly more powerful microscopes, electron microscopes, and even weird tunnelling microscopes which pictured individual atoms. And if this wasn’t enough, an introduction to modern physics brought me in contact with the science of astronomy showing the Earth itself to be a place of insignificant size when measured against the vast Cosmos, yet also a place of incredible wonder.

Next we find the puzzle of developing life. As far back as the 1950s scientists were examining what was then thought to be the primordial atmosphere, letting sparks excite a mixture of gases thought to be present when the Earth first formed an atmosphere. Amino acids formed in the scientists’ glass vessels and gradually, since then, other scientists unlocked the beginnings of the mystery of the way these molecules joined together to make replicating proteins. It is a journey of discovery, yet one where only the first tentative steps have been taken.

Something else Jesus’ parable might cause us to reflect, is that life is basically precarious and left to itself although the seed may have great potential, not all mustard seeds grow in the same way. Some seeds fail even to germinate and sometimes the shrub is tiny and misshapen. Again the kingdom of heaven image seems apt. The seed may be a gift with unexpected miracle to be released but I guess those of us who take on the role of gardeners can also have our part to play, which after all is what we do when we accept the challenge to follow in Jesus footsteps.

Unfortunately, because not everyone is keen on growth that takes unexpected turns, there is also a form of gardening which produces what Leslie Brandt once referred to as “bonsai” Christians. You probably know that a bonsai tree is a miniature version of a larger tree which is deliberately altered by cutting or tying its tap root so that it can be a small, decorative addition to a cultivated garden, rather than the tree nature intended it to be.

In terms of Christians I guess the tap root analogy is the one that allows direct contact with the main teachings of Jesus. A bonsai Christian then is one that would prefer to function without the challenge. Given a call to mission, the bonsai Christian would prefer to return to the comfort of the familiar music and listening to familiar prayer. The bonsai Christian will seek the setting of the rich wooded pews, the carved Church furniture, the sonorous organ, – or perhaps seek the modern entertainment style worship of the large crowd and technologically savvy preacher who knows how to work the crowd. A religion perhaps that pampers and comforts has an attraction for the bonsai Christian rather one than challenges and even provokes. Yet is this really what we are born for?

The mustard seed must be allowed to grow. This growth may not leave us undisturbed. Like many of his parables there are also strange twists, and parts we might miss if we do not look closely enough.

For example, the part where Jesus refers to the variety of birds sheltering in the branches can be taken as first glance simply as an indication of the size of the mustard shrub, yet we should also remember that the variety of birds was the standard code of the Pharisees for referring to those who lived as foreign neighbours to the Jews. That the mustard plant is referred to as offering the birds shelter then becomes a way of saying that the kingdom of God has something to offer those of different faith, culture and race.

For the early Christians, many of whom were Jews, this would have been a significant and even disturbing teaching. In view of the way in which, even today, there is much prejudice expressed towards those of different faiths, the mustard plant giving shelter to the birds of the world is a salutary reminder. Just as Jesus on a number of occasions found ways to highlight the potential of gentiles and Samaritans, perhaps in this age of belligerent religion we too should be acknowledging the potential for a place for those who do not share our background and faith. St Paul finds a slightly different perspective when he talks of the branch of the gentiles being grafted onto the plant to replace the branch which was dying.

I guess for many of us, our start in the kingdom may have been as small and insignificant as baptism as an infant. Yet don’t forget Jesus saw potential in the tiny form of the mustard seed. After all, Jesus saw the potential in some remarkably unlikely followers who, as his first disciples, found themselves entrusted with the next stage of growth. Might it be that, with the help of this parable, we too might see that despite our humble small beginnings we too are needed as the kingdom continues its mysterious growth. AMEN

(Regular visitors to this site would have noted that lectionary sermons are frequent reworked and updated. Because the writer is limited to his own reading and experience, additions, corrections and different viewpoints are always welcome. Feel free to respond to each sermon in the comments box below.)

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Trump versus the Economists

A short time ago, over a thousand (actually 1,140) economists sent President Trump a letter. They were clearly appalled at President Trump’s economic protectionism, his tough and erratic rhetoric on the Trade requirements of the US and in particular, his apparent willingness to repeat the very same mistakes the US made in the 1930s. They saw Mr Trump’s present stated policy on tariffs very close to the ill-fated 1930 protectionist Smoot Hawley Tariff Act which is now widely agreed to have been a key factor in the economic chaos which ensued. Since in their view those mistakes had been instrumental in plunging much of the world into deep recession they saw it as vital that Mr Trump changed course.

Today, Americans face a host of new protectionist activity, including threats to withdraw from trade agreements, misguided calls for new tariffs in response to trade imbalances, and the imposition of tariffs on washing machines, solar components, and even steel and aluminium used by US manufacturers.”

The authors of the letter noted: “Congress did not take economists’ advice in 1930, and Americans across the country paid the price. The undersigned economists and teachers of economics strongly urge you not to repeat that mistake. Much has changed since 1930 – for example, trade is now significantly more important to our economy – but the fundamental economic principles as explained at the time have not… (gone away)….”

Unfortunately, although Mr Trump seems to delight in threatening to dismantle the last few decades of Trade agreements, as other economists have been stressing, Mr Trump apparently neither understands the current arrangements and agreements now in place, nor it seems, even the basics of economics. He certainly bends the truth when he “quotes” trade figures and fails to understand the place of services as well as goods in the balance sheet. In one irony it turns out that when all the trade tariffs are averaged and weighted Canada has a much lower weighted mean tariff figure than that of the US. (the reader can check the WTO averages to get the summary figures).   According to the Trump version, the lack of manufacturing jobs is because trading partners have taken over the manufacture. On the other hand most economists point to automation as a more serious issue.

The US public should not be surprised that Trump in effect trying to advantage the US by placing tariffs on overseas exports is not likely to win cooperation or friends. For example Mr Trump created so much anger amongst the trading partners of the US that on his recent tour to Europe virtually every leader was protesting the US actions and resulted in the more significant trading partners threatening reprisals by placing their own tariffs on US goods and services and seeking alternative sources for key US exports like Soy Bean.

One of the worrying warning signs of trade breakdown is one of the apparent probable consequences of forcing more short term value into the strong US dollar.    The current  scenario  means a rise in the US dollar has two apparently inevitable consequences.    One is that it places strain on the US trading nations because their currencies have lost purchasing power for US goods and services.  The second is that the Trading partners for the US are going to experience severe strain on their own exchange. Either less is then purchased by the partners or the weaker trading partners will experience crippling inflation.

Perhaps the most baffling lack of understanding on the part of President Trump was that he did not seem to understand that reacting to an established deficit by reducing taxes by 1.5 trillion dollars to assist the wealthy in the US might free up some money in the very short term but ultimately feeds the size of the deficit. Giving people cash in hand does not help much when the prices of the goods they seek to buy will cost more.  Yes you can shift money around but first look to see exactly who is advantaged and more importantly who will now be disadvantaged.   It is curious that someone like Trump who claims a degree in economics acts as if he has never even heard of the Pareto Principle let alone known how it is normally applied.  (OK I guess it was only an undergraduate degree from Wharton – but one focussed on Real estate and Trump’s implication it was an honours degree is curiously missing from the lists provided by the College!)

The letter to Trump was signed by Nobel laureates including Oliver Hart, James Heckman, Roger Myerson, Irvin Roth and Richard Thaler, as well as James Miller, budget director to Ronald Reagan, and Jason Furman, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors to Barack Obama.

The American economist, Jeffrey Sachs, didn’t mince his words when he provided a commentary for CNN on Friday night. He called Trump delusional, psychopathic and a “threat to the nation and the world.” Remembering that Sachs is world renown professor from Columbia University who heads its Center for Sustainable Development and also serves as an adviser at the United Nations, perhaps we should listen. Trump’s “so-called policies are not really policies,” he claimed. “Trade wars are on, off, on hold, on again, within the span of days. … Foreign companies are sanctioned today and rescued the next. … Global agreements and rules are ripped to shreds. Trump’s garbled syntax and disorganized thoughts are impossible to follow.” Sachs called the tariffs on exports from Mexico, Canada and the European Union part of a “psychopath’s trade war

As it happens I would also like to add my own postscript. Over the last few years the US has been the most powerful economic nation in the world. As a citizen of a more vulnerable nation I struggle to see why rearranging our trade to ensure the wealthy in the US move further up the ladder is in our interests. Given this strange new Trumpian world I would wonder why we don’t simply concentrate on building trade ties with those who are more likely to respect our present and future trade agreements.

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Lectionary sermon for 10 June 2018 Year b, Mark 3 : 20 – 35

Given the angry arguments that divide many of today’s self-claimed champions of Christianity, perhaps we too need to learn from today’s gospel. Yes, there are some helpful guide-lines in Biblical teachings but as Bruce Epperly once pointed out, if you watch Jesus at work then there are times when human need sometimes supersedes religious prescription.

Just before this gospel passage Mark presented us with a story which has Jesus facing a man with a withered arm and according to tradition Jesus should not have attempted healing on the Sabbath. Jesus sees the man’s need as being more urgent than the need to conform to expected behaviour and instead offers help.I guess in a way this also explains Jesus’ rather dismissive attitude to family when other more pressing matters were taking his attention.

So was Jesus anti-family? The crowd was gathered around him, he was preaching to them and some came to him with a message, your brothers and mother are outside and they wish to see you. And what does Jesus say? , “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about on those who were sitting around him Jesus said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35).

As far as Jesus was concerned, to show commitment to following his way was more important than family conventions. Do you remember when a potential disciple was once invited to follow Jesus the reluctant disciple suggested his family obligations as a barrier. The story is in Matthew 8:21-22: Here it is: “Another of the disciples said to Jesus, “Sovereign, let me first go and bury my father. But Jesus said to him, Follow me; and let the dead bury the dead.”

At first sight this suggests almost a callous disregard for family, but other reported situations in Jesus’ life certainly don’t support that view. For example Luke 2:39-52 tells how Jesus as a child respected his parents and remained subject to them. There was another incident where Jesus rebukes his mother for something she wants him to do but goes ahead and does it anyway. The fact that his mother was still on the scene in the reported description of the crucifixion and that Jesus commends her care to his beloved disciple suggests that Jesus had never given up on family obligations.

So if Jesus still cared about his family, what is he really on about when he suggests those in the crowd are his real family?

Families are sometimes peculiar in real life. At worst they can become enclaves of power and self-protection and even hate. You might for example be able to think of family dynasties that get into politics or gain excessive wealth. Families can become extremely inwardly focussed. One of the reasons why the gap between the rich in the poor can so easily widen is because families give so much attention to looking after their own.

Of course a parent cares about the start in life their child gets. If the parent happens to be rich and can buy the best education at the best school it is normal for a parent to think first and foremost of their own child. If you want your child to make his or her way in the world and you happen to own a large business why not start them with a management role and even a house and car. Is it any wonder that to start an unhelpful or alternately a useful family connection might either condemn you to a life of a loser caught in poverty or alternately support that ensures your path to riches and power? Can I suggest that if we had a society where the driving force was focused on care for neighbours these extremes of wealth and poverty would be far less?

One of the most difficult lessons in following the Christian path is to realize that our loyalties must extend further than to our immediate circle of close friends and family. Jesus’ message is not so much that we forget our care for our close family as it is we should widen the family circle to include those who are our neighbours and even those for whom we find we have little in common. That Jesus could find family connection with a happen-chance collection of a crowd then is modelling for how we too should approach the neighbour, the stranger, the one who at first sight appears to have a totally alien way of life.

For Jesus then, it was not so much the rejection of mother and brothers, it was rather his shift in focus to see that others with no necessary biological family or tribal ties were equally deserving of his time and concern. It is true that this is not how most in the world would approach others. Most wars and disputes, even between rival groups who claim different religious affiliation, arise precisely because it is natural to think that those within the circle – whether it be biological family – those who share our particular view of belief, language and even nation – are the only ones deserving of our attention, support and compassion.

When the shift of focus comes it can be remarkably healing and helpful. For example the Salvation Army move outside their ranks to minister to the poor and the derelict in society and thereby less the pain. As a consequence these Salvation Army workers are understood to be a force for good in society. Similarly the social action of the mainline Church city missions, the Quaker emphasis on peace making, the workers for the ecumenical movement, and otside the formal Church….        But dont assume it is only the Church living the gospel. Think Oxfam, service clubs, Doctors without Borders … Surely here also the essence of Jesus’ teaching in action. And if it comes to that what do others see when they see the ways we live our lives?

For many of us, we have to live in the uncertain divide between Church and the world. The world daily confronts us with genuine problems where the focus can easily become myopic and inward centred. A port strike where the workers focus on their family and the need to preserve rights – while the owners of the port concentrate on the need to maximize profits for their family of share holders. It takes a very special sort of negotiator to genuinely worry about the needs of the other.

Our political responsibilities can also be turned outward. An unfortunate modern development is when a strong wealthy country is prepared to pauper another country in order to gain further economic advantage. Hitting a poor nation with tariffs in order to gain more control of their oil may seem good economics from the point of the view of the more powerful trade partner – surely the human cost is definitely out of step with Jesus’ teaching and life’s work. But do we care enough to protest?

It is understandable that we direct our politicians to focus virtually exclusively on our own interests, which of course is why the people in some third world countries find our attitudes to be callous and unfair. However for those of us claiming to follow Jesus there is always an uncomfortable question in the background. If we are following Jesus, can we turn a blind eye to the needs of our foreign neighbour, or can we get away with assuming all is well when our prayers make mention of the disadvantaged only when we are safely isolated from our neighbour in Church on a Sunday?

The focus on ourselves causes us to miss seeing the others’ viewpoint. Those who don’t have a relative slowly dying in pain can be thoughtless in imposing rules about preserving life at all costs. Those whose daughter has not been raped or whose wife is not carrying a child diagnosed with the certainty of birth with dreadful brain problems can be much more self-righteous about being anti-abortion than those who not only can relate but are even forced to relate to those facing unpleasant reality.

Some of the issues are highly charged with emotion. There is now a body of research for example showing that homosexuality is not a free option for some. Since there is some research showing a discernible brain structure difference between those who are known to have homosexual behaviour and heterosexuals – and since we also now know that certain environmental backgrounds can increase the likelihood of homosexual behaviour, it then seems less acceptable to condemn someone for adopting a form of living not shared by a majority in the community.

Behaviour outside our own family or circle of understanding is easy to condemn.
I see in today’s scripture a genuine revolution in thinking that is at the heart of the gospel.
This does not of course mean anything goes. Jesus says for example that those who do the will of God are his sister and brothers. Some of those will be literal family members. Let’s not forget that our conventional labels dont count for much. The label of family member or club associate or even Church affiliate is not what gives the automatic recognition of the place in the Christian group or family. More important is the adoption and practice of those values that Jesus values so highly. The values and actions of tolerance, or compassion, of concern for neighbours, of love for those who are different – these are the things that bring us to the point where we can call ourselves members of Christ’s family.

This would greatly help our appreciation of other religions. The trouble with a religion of course is that we notice the best in the theory of our religion and the worst in the practice others’ religion. This is no contest. So for example, instead of noticing the vast majority of peaceful Muslims, we are encouraged to notice the Islamic fundamentalists, the suicide bombers and ISIS terrorists.

This does not excuse us when we contrast these things with Christianity as a religion of love. The irony is that the Islamists notice the warlike attitudes and modern day Crusades of the Christian nations to Islamic countries with their invasions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the horror weapons of white phosphorus and depleted uranium, our side’s exploitation of oil. Can we also see the Islamic view of the Christians apparent lack of charity, which offends against Zakat …one of the five pillars of Islam. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we found more ways to talk and share with those we see as our traditional enemies in faith?

In Jesus day some of the problems were a little different than those we face today. In Jesus day it was normal for parents select their children’s mates. Women were property and had no freedom in choosing their partners. Jesus may not have entirely removed that tradition but he did at least elevate women from property to persons to partners in ministry. His empathy to respect and honour little children may now seem relatively commonplace but in the record we see Jesus moving towards many of the freedoms we take for granted today.

Unfortunately although many parts of society have improved, the underlying problem of self and family circle focus are still with us. Yet Jesus’ words remain waiting our response. Those who do the will of the one Jesus called Father are Jesus real brothers and sister. Is that us?

We get a clue how this might be recognised in practice from Paul. According to Paul, whenever the Spirit of Jesus comes into your life, the first evidence is your love for people. In Paul’s words: “The fruit of the Spirit is love.” (Gal. 5:22).

This then becomes our test. If we are indeed in tune with Jesus’ idea of family, when people look at our lives and our interactions, is this fruit of love in response to the faith we claim to follow the behaviour they will see?


(Apologies to my readers:   By mistake I accidently got one Sunday out and posted this for last week!!! Mea Culpa.   )

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