Lectionary Sermon for 20 October 2019 on Luke 18:1-8 (Proper 24C / Ordinary 29C / Pentecost +22)

Although much of our Church calendar and much of our local planning is based on a whole variety of anniversaries – whether they be anniversaries of Bible events or even individual anniversaries of past milestones specific to individual Church congregations, there is always one very important part of each occasion to remember. True we can bask in the knowledge that those who went before did some pretty impressive stuff. They introduced challenging ideas, confronted the people of their time with some implications of the gospel, identified problems that needed addressed and gave us great examples to follow.

But here is the catch. Future Church history depends on what we as a Church choose now to do. It is not sufficient to simply celebrate the choices and actions of what others before us chose to do for their time. I admit it is true that it is no accident that some Churches last a long time – some well past one hundred years….particularly when our predecessors showed wisdom in the actions and in their vision. But it is equally true that other Churches limp along for a good while just drifting and then quietly fizzle out. So which choices will this congregation be making at their next anniversary.

Can I suggest that it is surprisingly easy to miss the opportunities in front of us. I even wonder if this might be because we tend to be almost deliberately blind to what is happening around us because we might be disturbed.

In the gospel reading this morning, there is the story of the unjust judge. A curious story – particularly if we only see it talking to those in Jesus’ time. But like most parable stories it gets to have some bite if we were for example to see ourselves sharing the callous attitude of the unjust judge blind to those like the victim widow seeking justice. And there are many victims in a modern community.

In the Gospel introduction to the story of the persistent widow we learn that this story has a particular purpose, namely to meet the fears of Jesus’ followers as they face the up-coming struggle against the adversity that looms.

Although the story might appear to refer to a relatively minor issue of justice for a wronged widow of no consequence, in verse one we learn that the real issue for the widow is staying true to the principles of God’s justice in the face of despair.

I don’t agree with the common trivial interpretation namely to imply that any intercession will eventually be rewarded if whatever we mean by God is hassled enough by repeated requests, no matter what the requests might be. This takes us into very shaky territory.

It seems to me that there are several problems for the God bothering approach for trivial concerns. First, it paints a very unflattering and, dare I say, implausible picture of God, and in view of what little we know about the mysterious forces of the universe, also a curiously irrelevant image of whatever might be behind this creation.

What is more, it is one that does not seem to correlate with the world as we know it. Despite the needs of the Church picnic, what was it the prophet once put it, the rain still falls on the just and the unjust. Prayed for children still die when the earthquake flattens their house, or when terminal cancer defeats the efforts of the best nurses or skilled oncologists. Sailors can still be still lost at sea when the boat is leaky and the storm rages.

Second by taking the view that God behind our metaphors will eventually listen to persistent petitions about our wishes shifts the responsibility away from the people and divests it with God. We could only pray for the safety of a fisherman, or we can also buy him a life jacket and insist he wears it.
I believe there are much more constructive ways to learn from this particular parable.

In the first place I have no problem with the notion that we should follow Jesus in drawing attention to the plight of the humble widow. In our attitudes to those on the edge of society, we can learn from Jesus telling his stories about needs of those caught in such situations. If the poor man at the rich man’s gate, the blind beggar, the tax collector hiding up a tree, the leper who was a Samaritan, or here, the widow seeking justice, all have a place in Jesus’ scheme of things, we as his followers should share his concern for the marginalized.

Second, whatever our preferred metaphors for the God we follow might be, to assume that an unjust judge is an appropriate image to represent a God associated with creation and the forces of Love does not suggest a good match. If on the other hand we were to turn the image around so that we, as representatives of the God encountered in Love, begin to see that our past actions may have found us behaving like the unjust judge, then perhaps the parable reminds us that eventually our unjustified deafness to the petitions of those like the widow must change.

In a way our chosen interpretation of this parable depends on our theology of prayer. We can hardly claim Luke’s Jesus did not think prayer was important in that in several places Luke talks of Jesus going away to pray. Yet Jesus himself did not use these prayers to transfer responsibility to God. Rather, and in the face of plenty of potential discouragement, and that even from those who he was relying on to help with his mission, he is recorded as using the prayer for strength for getting on with the task. For Jesus, prayer seemed to be the means of clarifying thought and seeking strength so that he might continue with his concern for the powerless, as well as persisting with his concern that society start to develop attitudes of forgiveness, humility and a desire for justice for the downtrodden.

This is very different from the easy out, the persistent asking for favours and the desire that our God will become the one to enrich us and solve the problems that are rightfully ours to face. Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that the way we approach God in prayer, and indeed the way we live out our faith, reveals what our image of God has become. Talking to God as if in our mind’s eye “He” has become a haughty distant ruler takes us further away from a Jesus who taught that we must be the message. The God-likeness that Loader notices in Jesus’ teaching and not just in this passage, is fundamentally about self giving and responsiveness to the needs of those around us, and above all, about love and care.

Working for justice is indeed a genuine concern of legitimate religion. I am reminded of John Morley who once made the observation that “religion has many dialects, many diverse connections, but it has one true voice, the voice of human pity, of mercy, of patient justice…”

There is of course a puzzle, particularly if we see the coming of God’s kingdom as an event – and specifically one on the verge of happening. And it is an issue that must be squarely faced. Despite Jesus words, the kingdom did not seem to arrive for his listeners at the time, and most certainly not in the form of a Hollywood type Armageddon. And in every generation since there have been some convinced that it is now to their generation he was referring – and in every generation there is disappointment.

On the other hand it does seem to me that in another context, that of the Lord’s Prayer, the line about the kingdom ran something like: Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done –and then the bit we sometimes forget, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Well, I can’t exactly justify what I am going to say next by reference to scholars I have read, but since I happen to believe it – and that somewhat uncertainly – I am going to say it anyway. I think for the justice to be delivered on earth, first we have to realize that ultimately justice is something which depends on those of us on earth. My friend Rev Prince Devanadan pointed out to me that there are many prayers for peace and very few peacemakers. Jesus is said to have commented “Blessed are the Peacemakers ….” He didnt say “blessed are the peace pray-ers”

Perhaps then this justice of the coming Kingdom is not an event for all at one instance, but rather something that can only begin to arrive as each one of us listen to the pleas around us and start to deliver the justice, not only to the widows but to all who cry out.

For those of you who travel you will have encountered rich churches in lands where there are many poor. You would have seen the results of persecution based on faith disagreements. You may have encountered examples of death-camps, the consequences of religious conflict. In no way are those sad examples a steadfast seeking of justice, but rather an active denial of the very principles Jesus was seeking to instil. It is also equally unjust when Jews were sent to concentration camps and for our context when the Muslims at the mosque were attacked in Christchurch.

On the other hand we also came across those who had retained their focus on principles taught by Jesus. Those religious orders who maintained a mission to the poor throughout the centuries, humble servants of the Christ they understood and followed, and those who brought peace to warring peoples. We encountered Church members who might not have even thought themselves to be religious, but who showed the true voice of that religion in their actions of pity, and the listening ear they lent to all they encountered in trouble. In terms of the principles Jesus taught as the Justice of God, we don’t gain credence by announcing to others which denomination or Church has our nominal affiliation. Rather we demonstrate our willingness to give priority to God’s justice by a steadfast holding to the course.

We have a community where injustice persists. We accept an absolute minimum number of refugees. There are plenty living without homes or inadequate homes.

In New Zealand, a child is admitted to hospital every two days with injuries arising from assault, neglect, or maltreatment. Half of these children are under 5.

Anniversaries provide a great incentive to consider past progress and set future plans.  If our future is partly ours to begin, perhaps our anniversary is as good as any place for a reset.

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Lectionary Sermon for 13 October 2019 on Luke 17:11-19

I am guessing that any unexpected healing, particularly faith healing, would attract attention for the “wow” effect, yet there is something a little more unexpected in today’s gospel.

Martin Luther for one, saw past the surface “wow” magic of today’s gospel extract and instead seemed to think of it as one of those pivotal stories right at the heart of what the faith is supposed to represent. Some of you may for example know that when Martin Luther was addressing the amazing changes in understanding and belief that characterized the church reforms of the sixteenth century, someone once challenged him to describe the characteristics of true worship. His reply? “…the tenth leper turning back”.

I want to share something of what I suspect Luther saw.

True that, as a story, today’s gospel reading may not even hold up as a literal truth. After all at least some Bible historians tell us that there was no area between Galilee and Samaria where the story might have been set since the two areas had a common boundary and Luke, writing well after the event, was known to have made other geographical blunders. The other problem is again like a number of other stories about Jesus there were no independent witnesses, which raises the awkward question about how the story was recorded in the first place.

On the other hand Luke appears to have a good grasp of the intention of Jesus’ teaching and an equally good case can be made for Luke not so much reporting this event as an eye-witness ,but rather telling this story with a clear theological message with the underlying intention of bringing us closer to the essential heart of what Christianity is supposed to be about.

When it comes to healing, healing is not quite the same as being made whole again. Most of us have probably had a whole range of accidents and illnesses by the time we reach adulthood if not certainly by the time we reach old age. Yet although we have recovered from most of these, we all show scars, signs of skin damage, while radiation damage from sunlight and chemicals in our environment continue to take a toll and an electron microscope would record chromosome damage as well.

There is for example, a good chance that some here might have had pneumonia at some time in their life and although recovered to the extent they no longer show the symptoms yet their lungs will now show the signature of some long-term damage. Even diseases like leprosy if left untreated usually eventually burn themselves out – but sadly, if not treated early enough, there will be serious nerve damage and while the disease is still active the numbness in the limbs often means minor infections are not recognized before they can set in often producing gross deformity and even loss of fingers or toes.

But even if the physical healing is apparently complete, the more serious dimension, the psychological aspect also needs attention. For some, healing miracles have more meaning if they are interpreted in a parable sense but even if we are intended to read this as a literal reporting it is still more readily understood when we see that this story is directing us to a healing event that goes beyond physical healing.

This is not to say that physical healing does not matter.

Can I share the case of  Geshe Chakawa and his experiences in 12 Century Tibet?
Actually that particular story started even earlier when a man called Atisha from India had visited Indonesia where he learned of a form of healing which addressed the idea of enlightenment which in turn he then took to Tibet where he started using it as a form of healing. This healing took the name Tonglen.

In the 12 Century a man called Geshe Chakawa recorded his own success with the Tonglen method and according to Buddhist lore, Chakawa claimed good success with his students – a majority of whom were lepers.

The method is still used today which brings me to my reading about a Buddhist nun – a woman called Pema Chodron. This Buddhist nun, speaks of Tonglen taught nowadays in hospice settings and other situations where there is no hope of cure. The idea she says is not so much that it can physically heal incurable forms of cancer or diseases like AIDS but rather because it seems to heal the spirit.

The story in this morning’s Gospel reading – the story of the healing of the ten lepers is a story that seems to me also addresses that special form of healing, the healing of the Spirit. Certainly it is a story that has problems from a modern perspective – but it still deserves our careful attention.

Back to the gospel story. Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem in an area between Galilee and Samaria is recorded as meeting 10 lepers. Jesus heals them (presumably in the bodily sense) and sends them off to have the healing confirmed by a priest in accordance with the law. They all set off, but one, who happened to be the Samaritan in the group, returns to thank Jesus, and Jesus tells him (at least according to some translations) that his faith has made him whole.

So, with that in mind, looking at the setting for the message, it is actually helpful to us to realize that the story is indeed set in a middle ground, for that is where many of us must start. A sort of metaphorical mid ground between a Galilee representing the people who are supposed to be the people of God and a Samaria representing those whose beliefs are sufficiently suspect to disqualify them as bona fide people of faith. Perhaps to you, this sounds suspiciously like an appropriate setting for those with good intentions but sufficient weaknesses to make them appear like many of us today.

Secondly we note the ordinariness of this particular healing miracle takes away much of its mystery. Ten lepers might equally be ten with any of a multitude of aliments or miseries. And yes, regardless of how we might prefer to make sense of miracles, we too are often released from at least some of our miseries by the ordinary intervention of people who care. And don’t forget, just as Jesus instructed his apparently cured lepers to seek a standard formal recognition of the healing – we too should be warned to do our checks according to standard practice.

So you think you have been cured of alcoholism, or of cancer or of some psychological misfortune like paranoia or loneliness – don’t assume the problem has gone away. Get yourself checked out.

And don’t think that just because nine of the lepers were not there to thank Jesus for his intervention that they were somehow being thoughtless or unfaithful. After all, didn’t Jesus apparently help all ten, then ask them to show themselves to the priest in accordance with the law? Thus when Jesus asks the tenth leper who comes back to thank him, “Where are the other nine?” It would presumably have been in order to reply: “They are merely off to show themselves to the priest – and come to think of it, is that not what you told them to do?”

It was all to do with that tenth leper .What was it about this man that Martin Luther was so important? What lifts his actions to the point where Jesus can tell him his faith has made him whole.

Note that Jesus’ words give the credit, not to Jesus, or for that matter to any external force, but rather say quite literally that what ever has happened has been a result of something that emanates within. Jesus did not for instance say: “my faith“, or even, “my blessing has made you whole!” But rather “Your faith has made you whole“.

Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the question for us is not Jesus’ question: ‘where are the other nine?’ but ‘where is the tenth?’…And if it comes to that …Would that be us??

Where (she asks) is the one who follows the heart instead of the instructions?

A good question indeed to ask ourselves because which of these we would have been likely to have been – and which we will intend to be may start to reveal what is most important to each one of us..

Presumably what ever had just happened to the nine lepers also happened to the tenth leper – and there is no indication in the story that there was a difference between the lepers in the physical healing. Yet the tenth leper appears to have seen the situation rather differently. He followed his heart. This seeing things differently in some ways might also be said to be the heart of faith and certainly as Luther saw it, was also the attitude at the heart of true worship.

The thinking of humans its takes meaning and force only when the thought is defined enough to be represented by words. Ideas do not crystallize until we put them into words, so the tenth leper – in all probability struggling to work out what has happened to him, encounters some insight as he delves inward and puts it into his own words to give thanks.

In the story Jesus asks the grateful one – and where are the others? Yet noticing that the other healed ones had not shared that moment of insight, or even agreeing with some of the commentators in their interpretation is not sufficient to take us all the way. Just because the tenth leper had identified the need to thank the one behind his healing, his thanks does not absolve the others.

I guess another way of saying the same thing is that just because someone else is engaged in true worship, it would not follow that we too can ride on their coat-tails. Saying AMEN to someone else’s prayer does not necessarily mean it is our prayer.

Perhaps we should learn from this because true worship in the sense that Luther referred to is so very different from simply being present, or for that matter nodding assent to other people’s familiar words and phrases and somehow believing that in so doing we are taking part in genuine worship.

In Luther’s framework, true worship then, is not following the rules of faith.

Rather it seems more akin to starting by looking back among the increasingly swirling memories to find there the things for which we truly give thanks, particularly those that we associate with what we understand Jesus to stand for…. and then, as best we can, finding there the words that make us whole. If we can allow ourselves to follow our hearts rather than the customs of belief maybe it is only then we might come close to true worship indeed.

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Lectionary sermon for 6 October 2019 on Luke 17: 5-10

A Big Enough Mustard Seed?
One comparatively new phenomenon is that with the assistance of modern travel we live in an age where new religions jostle for our attention, yet there is little evidence that many of our cities or government policies are being transformed for the better as a result. One conveniently overlooked aspect of Christianity is the little amount we should need by way of theology before we can start the task of living the faith. The excuse of waiting for each branch of the faith to sort out and refine a carefully shaped set of faith statements before getting on with the living bit has always had its temptations.

I guess one problem for most of us is that consequences of our upbringing and predispositions are usually fairly well set by the time they emerge from their adolescence. And most of us don’t have to dig too deep to notice shortcomings in the way most of us live very different lives from that implied by the any of the main faiths those in our community might claim. We are probably not surprised to learn that biological drives leave the human with certain blind-spots and weaknesses. Perhaps we should also probably admit that our history has shaped our politics and our prior experiences have helped set limits on our religious and social views.

It is easier to see in others. Just try to reshape someone’s thinking about traditional enemies or try praising the policies of rival religious or political groupings and you will begin to see just how much people have become victim of circumstances. Maybe this is why Jesus’ basic teaching still gets an unfriendly reception when it is used to challenge any popular excuse for prejudice.

One assumption of standard evolutionary theory is that in order to get an edge over potential competitors, each individual and each cooperating group of individuals has a desire to accumulate resources, behaving as if driven by a notion that there is a scarcity of resources. No doubt each individual or group who succeeds in taking more than a fair share of resources gains power and advantage over potential rivals. The down side is that this also results in attitudes of selfishness and acquisitiveness and makes society uncomfortable for those who miss out in the race for accumulation.

When the gospel message of forsaking all for the chance to work for values like compassion, this is counter-cultural and sooner or later there is a clash between, on one hand, the large number who have natural propensities for selfishness and on the other those with a genuine gospel desire to care for others in the wider community and world.

Even a little bit of faith is resented if it challenges cherished prejudice. As a simple example of how the ethics of Christianity can encounter widespread opposition, a few years back (in 2007) there was a story in the news about a Christian group using shopping malls in the US as a venue for a painted poster depicting a group of significant leaders having their feet washed by Jesus. There amongst the leaders was Osama bin Laden also having his feet washed. The poster had been prepared for a Christian conference by an artist named Lars Justinen from the Justinen Creative Group. Under this picture there were a variety of captions like “Follow the Leader,” and “Jesus – Still Too Radical?”

Despite the well-known nature of the story of Jesus being prepared to wash the feet of Judas as well as the feet of other disciples and despite the relatively widespread contemporary Church membership suggesting that many in the community would be expected to accept the teaching of Jesus, the notion of having Jesus wash the feet of a real life contemporary enemy was evidently too much for the general public. No sooner were the posters placed, there was a flood of angry phone calls and letters which in fairly short order persuaded the managers of the Malls to remove the posters.

If the gospel is understood to be a reshaping of possibilities it is at least understandable that people get nervous about what this might mean in practice. I can for example begin to understand why the disciples were recorded as almost panicking when Jesus asked them to forgive time after time. I guess they were horrified at his example of the Good Samaritan (ie the heretic) in one of his parables – and they probably experienced much trepidation when he asked them to avoid doing the least thing to endanger the faith of the young. They would have been only too aware that human nature does not call them to such behaviour. So they asked Jesus for more faith.

We can almost hear the scorn in Jesus’ voice in his reply. If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea – and it would obey you. But there is a puzzle. No-one has that sort of faith…… do they? – or are we missing something?

The strange simile of the mustard seed takes on more meaning when it is remembered that the mustard plant was a pernicious weed for those early Palestinian farmers. Birds would ingest the seeds – yet not quite digest them before passing them out. The weeds would grow uninvited and very difficult to eradicate. Suggesting faith ought to be somehow like that, growing wild and largely uncontrolled conjures up notions of a faith that takes on its own life.

Perhaps it was the wrong idea about faith in the first place to ask for more, particularly as a means of gaining power. Remember much of Jesus’ teaching is not so much about faith as a talisman but rather of faith as a way of seeing things in a new light.

Rex Hunt for example quotes his own theology mentor, Henry Nelson Wieman, as pointing out that faith is not a verbal statement. It is a way of life, which gives a different perspective. And what is meant by this perspective?

C S Lewis gives us something to think about when he states: I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

To think through to the possible consequences of Lewis’s metaphor: When we look through a window it is not the size of the window that counts, but rather what we see through the window. Focusing on the window or even to want more windows is rather to miss the point. Perhaps for the Christian, faith also shapes the general attitudes to life. As one mystic Rabindranath Tagore put it: Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.

Part of the confusion about seeking more faith might be related to our desire to seek faith that goes with our present attitudes rather than looking at allowing ourselves the possibility of faith directed behaviour. I guess we have all seen those claiming to be born again looking and sounding suspiciously like the one there before the born-again experience! Because there is a danger that we will dignify our baser attitudes with our less honourable faith assumptions, from time to time we should also check on how we might better live our faith.

Jesus as reported by the gospel writers, sometimes has an unnerving habit of first making his listeners feel they are totally with him in thought, then introducing a new twist that causes them to rethink, sometimes in most uncomfortable ways. Today’s passage is one of those occasions. For those familiar with the gospel message Jesus’ comments about how to treat one’s slave seems almost opposite to his standard message of consideration and humility. Nevertheless we can probably concede that for Jesus’ time at least, many of his audience would have assumed his suggested treatment of a slave would be most appropriate.

Of course for that time his listeners would not have expected a slave in from the fields to join the master for a meal. The standard thinking of the day would be that the slave’s first responsibility was to the master and therefore to tell the slave to prepare the master’s meal before allowing the slave to eat may not have been Jesus’ standard gospel – but it was almost certainly standard first century expectation.

Then suddenly Jesus turns it around. It is not the other – the slave – who needs to realise their sense of obligation- it is we ourselves who need to develop the sense of obligation. What was it that Jesus in this passage said? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ˜We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”

Perhaps this is the seeing in a new light that CS Lewis was referring to. If only we can place ourselves in the position of being those who are servants to others, then issues like forgiving many times should be a natural consequence. On the other hand if we insist on seeing ourselves as superior to the one being forgiven there will be clear limits to the amount of slack we are prepared to cut. No amount of faith we are given will enable us to see those we regard as inferior as worth going the extra mile for.

And it is problem that is still with us. The notion of some people being superior to others bedevils any attempts to develop genuine relationships. Keeping refugees out of our nation, particularly when our allies have been supplying the bombs to destroy their towns and cities seems a direct contradiction to the gospel of love for neighbours yet the Churches are typically remarkably quiet about insisting this essential expression of the Jesus message is expressed.

So last month, which issues did your Church choose? …..and this month?

That is an open question which depends on what we as a Church and what we as individual Christians will notice as part of our perspective generated by our faith. Of course we are not strong enough to tackle such problems alone, yet nor can we pretend that our response depends on somehow first getting more faith.

C S Lewis believed in Christianity because it helped him see things in a new way. His faith, I guess like our faith, may have been limited – even mustard seed sized. Yet he still saw life in a new way. Sunday after Sunday we reflect on our own mustard seed sized faith, yet the question should never be: have we got enough faith? The question which ultimately will affect our life decisions is simply this.

What do we now see as a result of our faith that we did not see before? – and if part of the path is now illuminated for our next few steps, will we take those steps?

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Lectionary Sermon for 29 September 2019 on Luke 16: 19 – 31

The Eye roll for the Collective Blind Spot
The literal meaning of the word blind spot is that each eye needs a spot in the light detecting part of the eye, the retina, where the optic nerve leaves the eye. This mean there is a small hole in the vision at that point where there is  a missing bit. The reason why we usually don’t notice it is because the part of the back of the brain where the image is processed paints in a missing bit.

But had you ever noted that some young people can identify imperfections we prefer to leave as painted over illusions. (delusions?).

One of my younger grandchildren recently asked how old I was. I told her “75”. “And how old is Gran?” was the next question. “73” Then perhaps in the hope of retaining some self respect I asked…. “Did you think Gran looked older than me? “Oh no!” said Aria firmly. “I can see your head through your hair!” Out of the mouths of babes!!

And during the week did you see the young climate activist Greta Thunberg looking on with disgust when the President of the United States walked past an otherwise receptive crowd. The President’s camera statement included the bit where he said he loved fresh air and clean water. This might have been standard political correctness but the 16 year old teenage eye roll said what many should have been thinking in that that the President’s encouraging fossil fuel use and removing regulations on air pollution gave lie to his clean air and water claim.

Early on in the book of Genesis, the writer has God confronting Cain to ask him what has happened to his brother. Cain replies indignantly “Am I my brother’s keeper?” A good part of the Bible and in particular much of the recorded teaching of Jesus could be interpreted as addressing itself to God’s implied answer which is of course a resounding “Yes!” And I guess we dont need to be told that we should be sisters’ keeper as well. Yet I want to suggest it is also a message which does not seem to be heeded by much of Christendom.

Consider the following three propositions. First the encyclopaedias and Wikipedia give statistics that make it clear that there are more calling themselves Christians than there are followers of any other major religion. Second in virtually every country (including this country New Zealand) where there is a majority calling themselves Christian, there is a substantial gap between the rich and the poor. And third – and I agree there are clear exceptions – yet I want to suggest there are relatively few Christians prepared to insist on action about the plight of the poor.

Today’s lesson about a man who had no intention of being his brother’s keeper could not be much more direct. On one hand we have the one without a keeper, the poor man at the gate of a rich man. The symbolism is clear enough.

We have Dives who is only named as such in some translations in the title of the passage and whose name is not even considered worth noting in the body of this version of the text in the Gospel of Luke. (Some of you may well know that Dives is Latin for “rich man”).

Here this particular rich man is presented as someone unable to find any empathy or responsibility for a poor man, even one as close as his gate. For Luke, the rich man is not worth a name in his own right, nor does he need one because his position and fortune proscribe what we might now call his platinum card status. Since his own every need is met by the first century equivalent of getting out the plastic credit card it probably doesn’t even occur to him that anyone might have basic needs beyond their own abilities to meet. Nor does it seem to occur to him that even in his own case there will come a time when the flourish of the credit card or scrawled signature will have no meaning and can offer no help.

The poor man, named appropriately “Lazarus” (ie Greek for “God is my help”) is in a serious state. Ignored by the only person who might have made a difference, starving, covered in sores, lacking even the energy needed to stop the dogs licking his sores, Lazarus, the unsuccessful beggar eventually dies, and is carried by angels to be with Abraham in heaven. And then the twist to the story, the rich man, finding himself to be mortal despite the security of his riches, also dies.

The story does not say so, but we might even imagine the wealthy man was surprised that instead of having his riches respected, he finds himself being tormented in Hades. Across the abyss he sees Lazarus with Abraham and Dives, then calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus across with some water to cool his tongue from the torture of the searing heat of Hades.

Abraham points out that the time for making contact is now well past and the gulf between them is too vast. Dives then asks if Lazarus might instead be sent to his five brothers that at the very least they might be warned in time to change their way of life before it is too late. Abraham replies by reminding Dives that since the brothers have already had the teachings of Moses and the prophets to consider, it would therefore be a waste of time – and further that he claimed that even if someone should rise from the dead (which presumably was meant to refer to Jesus), even that would not be enough to those who were not prepared to notice.

A superficial impression might be that the rich man is in Hades because he is rich, yet don’t forget the Old Testament also refers to the wealth of Abraham who is here described as being in heaven with Lazarus. A more plausible interpretation is that the rich man is in Hades because he never noticed Lazarus or saw that his wealth gave him the opportunity to reach out to Lazarus.

But for all its drama, the central message of this story is not dependent on the form final judgment will take.

The gospel message is often given a complex over-layering of abstruse theology but at its simplest and most comprehensible the gospel is simply the message that we are all interconnected and need to look out for one another as a consequence. The rich man’s failure was that he fails to see his part in this interconnection and by his actions separates himself from what Jesus appears to teach as being the Kingdom of God.

Reality teaches that there are clear limits of practicality to what each person, or even each church, can achieve in solving the very real problems of fair distribution of resources. Even with the best will in the world even the very rich could not necessarily make a substantive difference for the very many poor of this world and indeed it is not realistic to think they might do otherwise.

In any event, from birth to the grave, the typical person will have thousands of influences working to make a difference one way or the other.

Yet reflect on your own life. If you are typical I guess most of the many adults in your formative years had little effect, but every now and again I guess there was someone who managed to make a difference. And this difference was why? For me, the very few of my teachers who made a difference were those who appeared to care for me as an individual. And isn’t this what gospel is supposed to be about?

This is essentially the same advice that might have been given to the rich man with the poor man at his gate. Helping the poor man does not necessarily equate to giving a hand out. Indeed the perfunctory coin tossed in passing may not make a positive difference in that even the poor have weaknesses which can be encouraged. I wonder how many in a typical congregation, have had the experience of giving the apparently deserving beggar a coin only to see the beggar head off to the nearest pub or bottle shop

Perhaps what is better is to see the beggar as a real person and engage with him or her at a genuine level. Buying them a sandwich or chatting with them to discover where the real problems lie may be closer to the ethical commitment required.

Perhaps the real problem in interpreting the parable for today is that the beggar at the gate is not necessarily going to be easy to notice in the first place. The bewildered new immigrant or friendless new-comer to our community will not necessarily be obvious. Muslims, Sikhs, Asians, and Somalis are frequently scorned in our community and it is a sign of the times that the small number of genuine refugees accepted into this country are now being encouraged to head to communities where there are reasonable numbers of the same ethnic or religious grouping. Before this policy was adopted I am told by the refugee placement folk that the new refugees had greater than expected suicide and depression rates. In some ways this may also suggest something about the present resident prepared to ignore those at their gate.

For all our boasts of tolerance New Zealand is way down the middle of the pack when it comes to affording new-comers residency. In plain English we prefer to offer our blind-spot to their plight and hope that they will go elsewhere. New Zealand is not one of the more hospitable destinations.

The poor who are closer are those already in our midst. Those who lack confidence and financial independence may not be beggars in the conventional sense of the word but there is no shortage of those who are apparently able to turn a blind eye to their plight. We think for instance of the wealthy landlords price gouging rents knowing full well that their over-priced properties are properties of last resort for those who lack evidence of security. We think of those who illegally employ those who are awaiting work permits – and pay them far less than the legal minimum. We think of town and city councils closing night shelters without offering better alternatives.

Each of us will have to make our own decisions about who we can support and who we must fail to support. However, as those who wish to align ourselves with the gospel, even if we don’t all finish up helping the same people we are still under an obligation to open our eyes to those sitting outside our individual gates.

Like Cain we may be wanting to reject any possibility that we might be expected to be our brother or for that matter our sister’s keeper. Yet we can’t have it both ways. We cannot on one hand assume total independence and total lack of responsibility for others and yet on the other hand as individuals or as a church say we follow a God who is depicted in our sacred literature as asking where our brother and sister might be – and a Saviour who tells the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

Who has been sitting outside yours – and my gate lately?

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Lectionary sermon 22 September 2019 on Luke 16:1-13 (Year C)

This week I was sent an Email on behalf of my four year old granddaughter. She had asked for my opinion on whether or not God had teeth! Caught off guard, the best I could think of by way of immediate reply was that I wondered if perhaps God had teeth so that he could deal to the bad guys and further, that I guessed that because it was God, he probably brushed his teeth morning and night and as a result would have really great teeth! I added I would check with my minister since he was paid to answer questions like that! Suffice it to say that minister did not agree! But the truth is, when it comes to speculation about what most people mean when they talk about God or any of the other great mysteries of the world it is safer to err on the side of caution.

Regardless of the deep God Talk sometimes suggested in Sunday sermons, day-to-day decisions are more often made in terms of our everyday realities. Therefore when it comes to parables and other Biblical teachings perhaps before thinking of high blown theology we should first check to see if there are more basic issues we are being called to consider.

I have seen today’s parable of the unjust steward interpreted in several ways but for me the best interpretation is most often one which speaks to our own contemporary situation.

Whereas a saint might have the greatest difficulty with today’s parable, real life sinners might even admit a hint of secret relief that here at least there is some hope for the many embarrassed by memories of awkward and real embarrassment in their personal life. Because this parable has a likely general meaning for large groups with murky pasts as well as the more usual interpretation aimed at the individual maybe here there are messages for our nation as well as those working out an individual personal faith journey.

Luke’s original audience of first century Jews would have been likely to understand the characters as addressing their situation as a nation. For them the master in the story was God entrusting his servant Israel to take on the extra responsibilities as a chosen people. By the time Luke was setting the story down it was becoming all too clear that the Jews, now facing disaster, had mishandled this stewardship and had become arrogant and high handed with their neighbours.

In this sense perhaps Jesus was using an imaginative way to remind the Jews that the realities of their situation meant there would be a day of reckoning which, at the time of writing, had already started.. Since there was no way to undo the past damage, the most hopeful thing they could now do as a people was to pull back from the rigid rules they had set and start behaving in a much more reasonable and responsible way towards the very people they had previously openly disparaged. This may not entirely recover the situation in time to avoid the on-coming calamity but had a reasonable chance of winning them some much needed friends.

This suggests one way we too might start looking at the parable. Among the self-claimed Christian nations there are a number whose past history suggests that like the Israelites they too have had times when as colonists they have taken upon themselves the role of a chosen people -and in the process gone seriously astray. Colonists typically confuse the difference between assuming responsibility for those being colonised and the alternative of simply using strength to take advantage of weaker neighbours.

The history of most colonial powers is one of exploiting subject people for the colonists’ advantage. For example, the British and French in Africa, the Spanish in South America and both the Western and Communist powers in the Middle East should have much to confess by way of past domineering exploitation.

Yes, the colonists have enjoyed many advantages as a consequence, but many peoples, native to the territory being exploited, finish up losing their birth-right. Think here of the number of indigenous peoples whose social statistics now place them at the bottom of their communities. The aborigines in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, the North American Indians in the United States, the Palestinians in Israel – the list goes on.

The cycle of history is such that a subjugated people will typically build a sense of resentment to the point where they rise up against its self-appointed masters. Either that or a more powerful nation will arrive to take over. The Jews – themselves turned from colonizers to a people being subjugated in turn by the Romans- had a particular problem. By the time they rose up against the Romans they lacked the military strength to win the day. What was worse their previous attitudes of superiority over those with whom they had shared their general territory over the years (eg the Samaritans) meant that if anything their plight was even welcomed by their neighbours who had no reason to be grateful to the Jews.

Even strongest nations sooner or later find themselves besieged. Arnold Toynbee in his Study of History described 17 major civilisations which came and in turn were destroyed – and these were only the major ones. What is more common is territory shared by different cultural and ethnic groups and where some groups assume superiority over others. In this country (New Zealand) by way of example, the British were happy to take land and resources from the indigenous Maori.

Recent immigration patterns have brought more diverse groups of immigrants to New Zealand and each group is not necessarily anxious to preserve past patterns of privilege for those of British stock. Since we can’t pretend past injustices have not been perpetrated, nor that a simple apology will suffice, we have to face the real possibility that our final harvest will be reaping a whirlwind.

Like the Israelites we can expect no better treatment from others from that which has already been done in our name. This may not be judgement in the literal biblical sense but nevertheless it is a reality which has played itself out many times in different regions over the last few decades. The parable suggests there is not much we can do about past history but at the very least, we have little alternative to doing what we can to use the few resources left to us to make friends.

It is true that allowing the parable to speak to our group conscience is likely to leave us feeling very uncomfortable. But it is not only a group responsibility which is addressed. Remember the other standard approach to the parable is to look at the story from our individual viewpoints. Here too there may be discomfit.

The original Greek for household manager is “oikonomos” – from which we get our word “economy.” Literally, oikonomia – economics – is managing God’s household. To forget that the household is just for our own benefit is another way of saying our personal management risks selfish distortion.

One concern we should have today is that what was initially identified as dishonesty by Jesus is now common practice in our world of commerce.
Although Jesus states the manager is dishonest, perhaps we might remember that the main cause of dishonesty is that he has been charging interest on loans, which under Jewish law, was forbidden. In that sense there is probably not a bank or finance company in our nation that is not guilty of the same offence. More seriously, year after year, the court records show that many in our community have been guilty of taking more than their entitlement.

The notion of partial forgiveness of debt has an interesting connection with Christianity when we remember the place in the Lord’s prayer where the words –” forgive us our debts as we forgive others” is often loosely translated as “forgive us our trespasses” or just as vaguely “our sins“, yet the original Greek seems to have retained the original sense of forgiving debts as financial obligations.

On a personal note, I find this is helpful in giving a hard and realistic edge to what might otherwise be an empty expression. It is easy to use expressions like “I forgive you” when no consequent actions are required, but since financial obligations can only be forgiven by releasing the debtor from their debt, the forgiveness has real meaning.

Leaving aside for the moment the highly contentious issue of what God’s judgement might or might not involve there is a much more basic level whereby even in old age, we lose the ability to use our money and tactical advantages wisely, we might as well make use of what time we have left to restore what can be restored in whatever compromised situation we find ourselves to be.

And modern life is inevitably compromised. There is no guarantee that even those who tithe for Church offering have made their money by entirely honest means or ethical investments. Retirement savings are often invested with large organisations who may well be looking after shareholders and management ahead of the interests of the customers they serve.

For those of us paid what we consider to be a fair wage for a fair day’s work there is also the shadow hanging over us that much of this income can be traced back to trading practices in a world where there is anything but a “level playing field” for third word nations.

The phrase attributed by Luke to Jesus “You cannot serve God and Mammon” may lose something in the complexity of modern society, yet the basic ethical dilemma remains. There would be few even in the Church who are sufficiently pure in their motives to have set aside personal desires to focus entirely on serving their God and their neighbours but where the balance has gone too far in the other direction we can be in danger of losing any genuine claim on discipleship.

Realistically it is unlikely that we are ever able to free ourselves entirely from the attraction of Mammon. Yet to the extent our money and possessions offer us advantage over our fellows there is potential for long term trouble. Again idealistic solutions are probably out of reach. Jesus in his parable seems to be suggesting that when we find ourselves compromised we should at least use all our ingenuity to find ways of making it easier for those who we have made our debtors. Those who have had to borrow to survive, those who struggle to subsist, let alone progress, those who exist on a pittance that we might have cheap clothing and imported produce in our shops are all dependent on our present and future choices.

There are real sins in the shadows of our world. I guess many will know the Greek story of how Zeus gave his wedding present of a box to Pandora with instructions that it never be opened. Pandora’s husband, unable to resist a peek, opened the box and all the evils of the world escaped and have bedevilled every society ever since. Yet even there all was not entirely lost. The last to emerge from the box was not an evil – it was the spirit of hope. It might be foolish indeed to pretend that the evils are not present, either as characteristics of our society or as personal characteristics. When however we see the hope along with the evil, perhaps this is when we should begin to act.

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LECTIONARY SERMON 15 September 2019 on Luke 15:1-10

If I asked you what is the best way to respond to Jesus and his story of the missing sheep, how would you reply.  To start us thinking, let me tell you another parable, one that I believe unexpectedly relates to the challenge of Jesus’ story. This particular story is not one of the well known parables and from one certainly admittedly not from the Bible.

This story I now want to share might more correctly be called a myth and is about Moses and his flute. The Bible scholars here will know that at one stage Moses was a shepherd, and it is said that it was as a shepherd that Moses learnt to play the flute. And he was famous for it. The other shepherds would gather to listen to his beautiful music.

Well as you know, Moses also became a very significant leader and, when he died, the story has it that those who had followed him wanted to remember him in the best possible way. When they looked through the few possessions he had, they came across his flute. Just a plain looking wooden flute… Yes it was well made – and certainly one that produced beautiful notes – but perhaps a bit ordinary looking to celebrate the memory of such a great man.

But then one of his followers hit upon this great idea. He suggested they should pretty up the flute to honour Moses…transform it even.

So they called the silversmith and he set to his task using all his professional skill. He painstakingly coated the flute with silver and cut beautiful patterns into the shiny metal. And Moses’ followers loved the result. Then someone remembered the goldsmith who was also called …and being a true artist he found ways of working in the gold with the silver pattern, with pictures and filigree work and the final result was absolutely stunning.

Oh yes…..There was a slight catch. Because the finger holes were now much smaller and the wood no longer vibrated no-one could get a sound from it. Beauty yes…it was now A1… But Music? Forget it.

Now think of the history of what has happened to the message of Jesus, if you like the message is in effect the transforming music of Jesus. Today his melody is a simple story of the lost sheep to remind us that our fellowship, our meals …and I guess our friendship should be shared with everyone – and that we should make the effort to include even the lost or most undeserving.

Well history tells us that each Church has chosen different ways to decorate Jesus’ message. The setting includes ornate pulpits, impressive wall hangings and stained glass windows.  A beautiful lectern on which to place the impressive Bible.  Think of all those thoughtful prayers –yes- delivered on our behalf –maybe – but addressed to the Almighty God.

And yes, some who pray have chosen to allow themselves to be caught up with speaking in tongues, some wave their arms. At other churches some kneel while others sit head bowed, eyes shut. Some have to have their heads covered. Some Presbyterians process the Bible in at the beginning of the service. Some Anglican congregations stand for the gospel reading. Some ministers or priests improve the feeling of worship by scattering Holy water, or waving incense….and don’t get me wrong. All of these ways may well be ways of highlighting the message, and as such they are fine – except…..unless of course we were to have forgotten to listen to and act on the message about real life situations that we believe we are expecting in our prayers.

Remember if we were in effect to decorate the source of inspiration but then not respond to the message we might be missing what Jesus was teaching. Is it fair to ask if sometimes we finish up by acting as if there is no need to listen or to allow the message to affect our behaviour and response in our day to day world. Is that the equivalent of being like Moses’ followers in the flute story …..unintentionally guilty of stopping the tune being played.

This brings Jesus teaching into our present. Jesus should still disturb if we listen to the challenge of his parables. Like Jesus are we treating those who fall from grace as already being of value, and in particular of value to the point where we are happy to seek out their company – or are we perhaps like the nit pickers and fundamentalists of his day. In other words do we want the sinners to reform before we consider they are worth our time?

We can seem to have all the theoretical positions in the world, but the ultimate test is in acknowledging which parts we incorporate into our thoughts and actions. I guess part of the answer to how much we truly value in these parables is in who we are currently prepared to entertain, and in whose company we ourselves are found.

This is where we encounter the real bite in the story of the lost sheep.
So Jesus poses the question, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Well if your community is anything like mine, I would suggest the answer may well be….. practically no-one!

The lost in our day and age are often left lost. This is why the gap between the rich and the poor steadily grows. This is why prisoner rehabilitation is left woefully short of resources. This is why there has been diminishing Government support for anti-household-violence schemes and the lack of interest in accepting more refugees. The President of the United States has even pointed out that the recent hurricane refugees from the Bahamas need not assume the United States would offer a place of refuge. What does that say about self-claimed Christian leadership.

Child poverty in our own country of New Zealand has reached uncomfortable levels over the last few years and the international rates of slavery and child prostitution in many countries are showing no signs of diminishing. It must be admitted that at best these are only probable indicators of a prevailing disinterest in those who have lost their way. At the same time it would also be true that if there were more in our community caring about the lost we could be more confident that our society would be the happier for the concern.

There is a huge difference between our acknowledging Jesus’ words and actions by listening to such accounts read in our churches – and the alternative of bringing ourselves to the point where we share his ideals by our own actions. Luke portrays a Jesus who engages with the fundamental Jewish precept that Heaven and Earth are supposed to reflect one another as a whole. If we can only make the leap to realize that parable can also offer personal challenge then maybe we can find ways of living our response.

When we pay a visit to the town what we see depends on where we choose to look. In the same way, if we choose to stand looking at the word pictures of parables as mildly interesting portrayals of Jesus’ expressions of thought – that is exactly what we will see. If, on the other hand, we stand expectantly seeking guidance for our personal journeys in living the answers to the parables, we are far more likely to notice both their offence and their challenge. The choice of where to stand as always is ours.

We can find wisdom in unexpected places and I don’t k now if you have ever had the opportunity to dig into any of the Harry Potter books. Here is one perceptive quote: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Our question then of ourselves as we leave this service and get back to mixing with others is simply this. Where are we with our choices?

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The Joys of Spring

(Sorry, you cant expect me to be serious all the time!!)

O God, don’t say that Spring is here!
The very word can trigger fear
The effing weeds all start to grow
The sodding lawn now needs a mow
The mower will refuse to start
…and the shop won’t stock the part
And anyway… the sweet spring showers
Seem now set in for many hours.

I know Lord, Spring is really sprung
The bugs do bite and cows poop dung
The happy lambs all jump and bleat
Little do they know they’re meat
The noisy birds sing in the fern
My sneaky cat just waits his turn
Now excuse me while I wipe my shoe
For Spring epitomizes pooh.

The rain, it wets both wise and dumb
But surely both deserve more Sun
Yes, lilies in the field look great
But all my slugs just scorn the bait
Green fly infest now every bud
And rose’s thorn has just drawn blood
Canker, borer, rot I see.
Bloody Spring…Oh woe is me.

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