An Urge For a Limerick

Having spent rather too many hours recently on serious topics I wonder if it might be time for something lighter. I submit the following in the hope that others might continue in similar vein. (obscene verse would not be welcome!!)

The signs are the sea’s on the rise
Which Donald J Trump still denies
But despite all his bleats
And his confident tweets
He’s due for a damp wet surprise

Not that the strange man would care
Just wave his wee hands in the air
And then for a laugh
He’d blame his poor staff
Then off for a preen of his hair

But it may be too soon for a gloat
The hope is his Trumpness may float
True ideas may be rare
And he’s full of hot air…..
Puffed up he should bob like a boat

Posted in Donald Trump, Humor, Poetry | 1 Comment

Lectionary Sermon for 22 October 2017 (on Matthew 22: 15-22)


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

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

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

“I see myself,” the rich man replied.

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

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

Which brings us to today’s reading.
There are some phrases which are so familiar in English that just about everyone knows them. And I am guessing most here would be familiar with that familiar “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”. What we tend to forget is first why the phrase was probably said and why the second part – the one we usually miss out is actually more important for those who claim to be in Jesus’ camp..

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although they used honeyed words to start their conversation with Jesus, his questioners must have realised that no matter which way Jesus answered he would be giving the greatest offence to one or other of the two groups – and in fact leaving himself open to charges which in those days carried the death penalty.

Listen to them: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” That is the flattery bit. And now the no-win trap question….. “Is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?”

If he says “no” – he is to be reported to the Romans. That would be incitement to disobedience to the Romans who held ultimate authority. The Romans would have no compunction in sentencing him to death.
If he says “yes it is legal” – those against the occupation would publicise his reply, treat him as a traitor and at best he would lose his main support. It is truly a lose-lose situation.

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

Jesus asks for a coin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the emperor can make a claim for a coin that bears his image, then wouldn’t whatever we mean by God be entitled to claim what bears God’s image. But what bears the image of God? Here it may not be easy. I don’t for example think we should necessarily think of the Church as automatically representing God’s image. Maybe we should follow something more like Christ’s words when he said, “as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters you do it to me”. At the very least Jesus’ through his parables and actions portrays compassion and justice as key ideas. In the Old Testament we find God’s image in the poetry of Genesis …and I guess in creation. But if Christ’s face, and a response to a God of Love or God in Creation is to be seen in our words and actions this is not achieved by a simple label of “Methodist” or even “Christian”.

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

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

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Lectionary Sermon for 15 October 2017 (Matthew 22: 1-14)

Thoughts on Spitting Against Heaven

I have often puzzled about churches where the faith followed appears to have little to do with the reality of the world in which the followers find themselves. The temptation is to try to pursue one’s faith in such a way that it conforms to what the followers want in terms of their rewards and expected recognition of status.

I once heard of a Spanish proverb which roughly translated says: “he who spits against heaven, gets it in the eye”.

This morning’s story from Matthew seems a perfect illustration of that proverb.

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

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

This morning’s parable suggests that a story can or perhaps even should be altered to address current reality. The result may not seem an improvement if pleasant stories are your choice.

The outline of the story seems intended as a straight-forward retelling of approximately the same parable we encounter in Luke where reluctant wedding guests turned down their invitation and found their places taken by randomly chosen people from the highways and by-ways. Matthew’s retelling is somewhat unexpectedly rough round the edges and the changes made don’t leave us with much comfort.

Matthew is clearly dissatisfied with Luke’s version and embellishes the story – but unfortunately in the process paints a most unfortunate picture of the apparent nastiness of the master who in the parable appears to stand for God.  If Matthew’s idea of God appears to have evolved from Luke’s – perhaps we too should check our own image of God and wonder if it needs more work,

Remember the story from Luke is a favourite with preachers and it doesn’t take much examination to see why the Matthew version is often avoided altogether for a pulpit exposition.

Admittedly the story would be in keeping with the kings of the time who had to hold to their power with total force. This picture of God is far more Old Testament than New Testament. If this is the case since we now live in a different age perhaps we need to ask ourselves how we might rewrite and represent the story for our day and age.

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

Then as if the previous mayhem were not enough, he takes one poor guest, identifies him as improperly dressed, has him bound hand and foot then tossed out for the apparently minor crime of being improperly dressed.
So there are puzzles to solve. Why did the story need changing in the first place?

In the first place when the story first started to circulate there was a different setting in which it was probably heard.

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

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

Shutting your eyes to the poor, only works for so long. The French revolution and the Russian revolution are not mere parables and it is hard to pretend that the Arab Spring or the current attempted Islamic State uprising had nothing to do with disenchantment with those leaders who had forgotten to care for their people.

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

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

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

The notion then that those who might expect to have a seat at the top table suddenly finding themselves cast out to a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth may have more gritty reality than we might hope, particularly if we are more interested in preserving the goal of conventional symbols of wealth. William Barclay once put it that it is easy for a person to get so involved in the things of time that they have nothing left for the things of eternity.
This brings us to a part of the wedding feast parable which we find hard to comprehend unless we are aware of some local knowledge – namely why the guest who failed to put on the wedding robe got chucked out.

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

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

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

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

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Lectionary Sermon 8 October 2017 on Matthew 21:33-46

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

As with many of the New Testament stories, the key to unlock this allegory comes from earlier teaching. In this case the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah talks of the “well-beloved” as an image for God and talks of God’s pleasant planting in terms of his people. Isaiah’s vineyard refers of course to the 8 century BC people of Judah, but don’t forget Isaiah has earlier explained very clearly what the harvest is.

The people are expected to be an example – a shining light or beacon to the whole of humankind and in that context the harvest is behaviour in keeping with how the character of God was portrayed at the time, and here is the important part, with an emphasis on providing…….. justice. If we look back to the first chapter of Isaiah we even find this justice defined. In verse 17 he explains it in terms of rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow.

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

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

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

Yet Matthew records Jesus as saying even that killing the son won’t stop the God from his insistence on the harvest. Thereby comes the truth that would have been very upsetting to some in the audience. What of the tenants who had had their chance to deliver justice – to deliver the harvest and failed? They will be put to death by the owner of the vineyard and the vineyard given to others to take on the responsibility of the harvest.

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

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

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

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

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

And as I suggested it is a story many times repeated. John Wesley seeing what had become an exclusive Anglican Church, a Church which had morphed into becoming a support of the wealthy. His preaching offended those who I suggest were uncomfortable in hearing his back to the basics social gospel – and he was prevented from preaching in the Anglican churches. His taking his message outside where the people were is how the Methodist Church got underway.

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

One familiar contemporary parable is that of of the life saving station. (Found in Personal Evangelism 101 By Brent Hunter). In summary the parable goes something like this: In order to deal with the large number of shipwrecks on a particularly dangerous bit of coast some local people set up a rudimentary lifeboat shed and performed many rescues. Then as success attracted more donations a better and more comfortable lifeboat station was built – so comfortable in fact that dripping survivors messed it up and were not really welcome.

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

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

t is not up to me to say where a nation-wide Church or even an individual congregation is in this cycle. The New Zealand Methodist Church in its Mission statement has a phrase “each member a minister”. Rather than concern ourselves with “what’s in it for me?” it is worth remembering that “Each member a minister” is a very perceptive phrase which is rather easily glossed over. This I guess another way of acknowledging that the buck doesn’t stop with a Pope or Archbishop or President of the Church conference or even the leader of the parish. The buck stops with you and me.

If we take this seriously it should not therefore simply be left to designated leaders to speak on the issue of justice as they feel like it. This is an issue where we as members, each as ministers, have to calmly and deliberately look at the evidence that we are still focussed on justice, and if not, ask seriously what steps we will take..

It is simply not possible to tackle every single justice issue but to my way of thinking it may well be a case could be made that we no longer have the balance right.

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

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

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

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

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Ambassador Brown Seeks to Instruct New Zealanders

When Ambassador Scott Brown was appointed as the Trump representative here in New Zealand, his lack of experience in the issues that affected this country appeared a serious cause for concern. Certainly the current stand-off between his President and the North Korean President Kim Jong Un has the potential to destabilize the whole region around Korea but I would have thought Ambassador Brown was hardly in a position to tell New Zealanders that they don’t appear to understand the issues.

Hopefully Scott Brown has some history  of insisting that the US lead the way in nuclear disarmament – and perhaps he may well have written insightful articles about silly US gun laws which set the stage for numerous gun crimes such as the recent massacre in Las Vegas.   If so why does he not share the text of such insights so that we can see he has the credentials to offer us advice.

I would be interested to find out if Mr Brown’s understanding of the current situation allows him to acknowledge that our Government’s own investigations of past nuclear testing in the Pacific assembled plenty of evidence that the US and the UK deliberately endangered some Pacific Island communities with their nuclear bomb testing in places like the Marshall Islands.  More recently I thought it was New Zealand not the US protesting the bomb testing by the French. If Ambassador Brown is wanting us to join him in his rant against North Korea, is he now prepared to admit his country has been responsible for equally stupid and dangerous activities in the recent past?

It is now very clear that the official line from the US at the time of the US nuclear testing was to categorically deny the effects of such testing. Further, when public feeling against nuclear weapons had grown to such an extent that nuclear armed naval vessels were no longer welcome in our ports, surely even Mr Brown’s past silence on such issues would not have made it impossible for him to have since discovered that the US subsequently tried to pressurise this nation into changing its anti-nuclear stance.

There are some puzzles in the present situation. First the US has made every effort to continue modernizing its nuclear capability, has sold nuclear weapons and expertise to Israel and continued selling illegal weapons (eg fuel air explosives, barrel bombs etc) to various nations with a long history of political instability. For example we now know that the US not only sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein’s government but also helped them with technical advice when they used such weapons against the Kurds. Is it any wonder that we are now cautious when the US seeks our support for their next campaign?

Now we are expected to believe President Trump when he uses belligerent language to boast about the strength of his nuclear arsenal and further we are expected to be impressed when he threatens the North Korean President with stand-over tactics.   And why? because North Korea is daring to invest in the very weapons that President Trump says gives the US an edge.

Don’t forget New Zealand has no reason to trust the US when we, like many of our partner nations, now have incontrovertible evidence we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and for that matter similarly lied to about more recent programmes like extraordinary rendition. If the US is caught supporting torture, (and President Trump is on record as saying torture should be kept as an option) why does the US ambassador seem to want us to believe that the North Korean President needs stopping because he appears to condone torture.

(I would welcome comment or criticism from readers.   Use the option at the bottom of this article to express your view)

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Lectionary sermon for 1 October 2017 on Matthew 21: 23-32)

(Sorry – just back from an overseas trip – I posted this sermon on last week’s date.  I plead old age and a wandering mind)

Jesus’ parables are generally easy to follow but not all are simply vivid and memorable stories. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus, the master of creative story-telling, is typically recorded as telling each parable in a form that everyone listening could find something there with which to relate. That was the comfortable bit. But then, for a good number of the parables, with his listeners first following and then taking the bait, they would discover the hook.

The parable was not always just a story about someone else – it was sometimes a story directly and personally aimed at those who would listen. Even when we find the story told again two thousand years later, the barb on that hook is as sharp as ever. Jesus aimed this particular story about the two sons asked to work in the vineyard at those who in his day who were leading religious figures. The barb was that to point out that others like the lowest of society were ahead of those leaders in their faith. Might his parable retain the same bait – and same barbed hook today?

The parable again:
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

There is something artificial in the promises given for Church membership that has the potential to make Jesus’ parable of the two sons almost embarrassing. This is possibly one of the easiest parables to understand. Two sons are asked to help their father in the vineyard. One son promises – then fails to deliver on the promise. The other son says he won’t help – then does help. Which of the two does what his Father wants?….An absolute no- brainer. It isn’t the promise to help that counts – it is whether or not the help is delivered that matters.

Here in New Zealand we have just emerged from yet another election. And boy – did we hear some great promises. Race relations would improve. Each party was going to fix the economy, the social issues and the environment. The education system was going to be reformed. Trade was going to increase. The children were going to be looked after. Employment was going to improve. The health system would deliver and the elderly would have a better future. New Zealand would become a more caring society.

But did you like me notice three things missing?

The first was the promises from last time did not seem to have made much difference in the last governmental term. The second was that most promises seemed pretty well like those we heard last time. And thirdly – and perhaps most significantly – we the voters were not called upon to account for how we had helped the government achieve their goals on our behalf.

If we had been called to account, how might we have responded?

But rather than complain about the way the politicians had met their past promises wouldn’t it then be also somewhat embarrassing if Church members and even entire Churches and denominations were assessed, not on their assertions on entering membership, but rather on the evidence that they were delivering on the promises they had made.

Although Jesus’ detailed teachings are sometimes hard to interpret in a rapidly changing world, the principles are fairly articulated in most branches of the Church. Do you remember when, a few years ago, virtually all organizations including Churches were encouraged to come up with their mission statements?

Our Methodist Church took its task of setting up its own Mission Statement very seriously, developing it over more than one annual conference with numerous Synods in between and because I don’t want to embarrass anyone here this morning by asking how much of this they can recite from memory – I would just remind you that there are some magnificent intentions in this carefully crafted set of what in effect are our promises.

Without giving the whole of it in detail, we have at least agreed that not only are we going to proclaim the transforming love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and declared in the scriptures we are going to reflect that love in what we do. No doubt the preachers do a reasonable amount of proclaiming on our behalf but do our neighbours and those in the community see evidence we are reflecting this transforming Love?

We are going to challenge people to commitment in Christ. I am sure we are – but it is also a fair question to ask which people we have challenged in the last week – or even in the whole of the last month?

Remember we are going to be peacemakers between people both in the community and in the world. Well out in our community there are examples of violence on a daily basis. Our jails are full. Marriages are still falling apart. I am sure we are going to be peacemakers, but looking back over the last week – this last month where exactly has our peace-making effort been visible?

These statements you see, are in effect promises. We are saying what we are going to do. Under ecology for example we say we are going to care for creation. Presumably this has to mean something about handing on the world to the next generation in better condition than it was when we took over our stewardship.

Planting – rather than destroying native forests, cleaning our waterways rather than standing by and watch them be polluted, caring for our air and our soil and our endangered species. Having made and agreed with our statement of intent we can but hope that our planning as Church members includes action. So here is the question. Would others watching from the side be able to say that from what we see that our Church is concerned with ecology?

We are going to work for justice for any who are oppressed in our country (Aotearoa New Zealand)? Presumably this means that when new immigrants are getting a raw deal – or being denied entry because they are refugees rather than rich people – we will not only care, we will speak up. When did that speaking up happen?

Our promise on inclusiveness is that we will ensure the operation of our Church caters for all – so that our leaders meetings and worship will have visible representation by all groups, different cultures, newcomers as well as old hands, people of different sexual orientation, old and young. At one leadership course our District Superintendent asked how many of those present had young people fully involved in Church decision making… without going into detail I would have to say most present were a bit uncomfortable with the question.

And so we might continue to recall the promises we have in effect made. Those promises about Church unity, evangelism, cross cultural awareness.
But remember according to Jesus it was not just the ones who promised and failed to deliver – but he then went on to say that the ones who were not making the promise – but did in fact deliver on the test were the ones doing the Father’s will.

This is where there is possibly cause for embarrassment. We state we are concerned about ecology. If for example it is a group of young people not connected with the church who start to plant trees and clean up the environment, who will get identified as the group that is concerned about ecology?

If it is the United Nations or the Quakers who offer the courses in peace-making skills and sponsors the peace convention – is it them or the Methodists who are entitled to say they are concerned about peace-making?

Clearly we can’t all be predominantly peacemakers and ecologists and evangelists – and if it comes to that – in any case we are all at different stages of our journey. The elderly person on a walking frame cannot be expected to be a front line disaster volunteer, or a young teenager a disputes resolution mediator in a war zone, yet nor do we have the right to proclaim intentions unless somehow we follow through and ensure that somewhere in our organisation there are those who are delivering in these areas.

You can see at the very least the mission statement highlights Church family intentions – and if they are intentions that seem be intended as having no part in the present expression of the family life, they might be better temporarily set aside as inappropriate for public declaration rather than trumpeted for others to wonder at. Yet there is also a reality to acknowledge. In each of us there is something of the sinner as well as the saint, and as with Jonah, knowing what we should do is not necessarily the same as doing it.

When it comes to those mission statements the real trick is then not so much to abandon the parts of the mission statement we are not achieving and nor is it for that matter even setting our sights lower. The Mission statement is after all the agreed ideal and within most mission statements there are indeed fine ideals. What however may be missing is a starting point of ruthless self awareness and honesty. The mission statement can provide the essential points of reference. The quiet acknowledgement of those aspects of faith where we are falling short – and the genuine resolve to attempt to do better might be all that is required as the beginning of genuine mission.

I like retelling my favourite non Bible parable –admittedly with scant regard to the original form) from the Talmud.

Once there was an old Rabbi who got to the stage in life where he needed transport.

He decided to buy a donkey and went down to Honest Joseph’s donkey yard.
The latest models were out of his price range but in the trade-in section there was a rather shaggy and care-worn donkey with a somewhat moth eaten appearance and a matted mane. A price was struck and honest Joe was seen rubbing his hands as the rabbi and his new second hand donkey left the yard.

When the rabbi got home he called his friend over to have a look. He was initially sceptical but on closer inspection this donkey looked rather better than he did at first sight. The rabbi said, “All he really needs is a good brush!” And right then and there he started to brush the donkey. There was a particularly stubborn knot in the mane and when he took a closer look – there was an expensive jewel bracelet.

“Wow!”, went his friend. “Now you’re rich!”

“Oh no said the Rabbi. I bought the donkey – I did not buy the bracelet.
And despite his friend’s protests, it was off back to the donkey yard.
To say that Honest Joe was flabbergasted was an understatement.
His reaction was interesting.

“Your God must be a great God!”, he said.

To follow through on the ideals of our faith takes us to a new level. But more than that, it provides purpose and meaning to what otherwise might be meaningless promise. Who then would Jesus say is doing the master’s will?

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Lectionary Sermon for 17 September 2017 on Matthew 20: 1-16

We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” Rabbi Hugo Grynn

The standard, and I suggest limited, way of looking at this reading from Matthew about the labourers and the vineyard is to use it to gain insights about God. If for the owner of the vineyard you read God, then at one level the reading might be telling us about the generous nature of God. In practice this unfortunately leads to some fairly strange ideas about theology.

For example for a period of several centuries some branches of Christianity taught that “the last shall be first” meant that just so long as you confessed just before your death it didn’t matter much what you did during your lifetime. The difficulty here is that this implies that religion has nothing to offer this life. There is also the problem that since the next life, whatever that might mean, is largely a matter of speculation in that there are just about as many beliefs about the nature of what the word heaven is intended to mean as there are versions of Christianity. Some even take “the last shall be first” even more literally. Theodosius, the Roman Emperor who made it compulsory to become Christian and persecuted those who failed to convert was also famous for his thirteen statues he commissioned to represent the apostles.

You may already know that when he was asked why thirteen – instead of twelve – he explained that his was the thirteenth statue. When asked why his was the biggest of the statues he replied modestly – “the last shall be first”.

But not only is this a shallow reading of the parable – it is even not paying attention to what Jesus was actually saying. He does not in fact say God is like the landowner who goes out to hire labourers. What he actually says is that the kingdom of God is like a landowner …..

In Jesus teaching he seems to be implying that the kingdom of God is the situation we become part of when we accept the call to follow.

In other words referring to the kingdom of God, instead of God, is really placing us in the parable. After all, if in symbolic language we wish to identify with the kingdom of heaven, then the story may not so much tell us about God, but rather gives us a clue as to how we might treat others.

Even although Jesus’ parable has been around a long time there are few signs that all those who attend Churches see it as having anything to do with their behaviour.

I want to give three examples of Church congregations which demonstrate what can happen. The first is something told to me about one particular Church where a woman said that she had shared with another woman saying that after twelve years she felt she was just beginning to be accepted as part of the congregation. The woman she confided to responded that she had been attending for even longer and she still felt she was not quite accepted.

My second example is a personal one. When I started teaching at Wesley College many years ago, I used to take services regularly as a lay preacher at one particular small country Church. They were lovely folk – but never once did Shirley and I get invited to a congregation member’s house. What is more I noted that other visitors had the same reception – almost as if they had to have done the long service before qualifying for proper friendship.

When we shifted to Papakura, Shirley and I went somewhat tentatively to Church on a Sunday morning and were not only greeted and made to feel extremely welcome, we were also invited to a meal on the first day. Needless to say we reciprocated and started attending that Church as a place of friends. Now years later I wonder what might have happened in the little country Church I referred to earlier if my wife and I had done more to invite members of the congregation to our home.

My third example happened at a Church (not mine) in our neighbourhood when we lived in Epsom where I was told an elderly woman had arrived as a newcomer and after two or three weeks announced to the congregation that since she really knew nobody, she had divided the congregation up into manageable groups and was inviting first those with surnames A to L to her house for a pot luck meal. According to my informant this has had a transforming effect on the friendliness of the congregation.

Yet in every walk of life this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The kingdom of God is like……
Well it certainly can’t remain like words in a book – even clever words like the words of Jesus in a Bible. Stories and uplifting words can give encouragement but they are a poor substitute for the real thing: the lived faith.

If the kingdom of God is the equivalent of the open hearted landowner who does not demand extended evidence of extended genuine effort before giving a full measure in return, then perhaps one message we might receive from the parable is that is not so much a description of our entitlement – but rather guidance to us on how to treat others.

What would an election be like if those who claimed to be Christian chose their political affiliation first and foremost on how the policies looked after not so much our own interests but rather the interests of those who were the most vulnerable, the late comers to our communities. Whether or not we are aware of Jesus words in the parable is not then the point. Rather the issue is: would this attitude Jesus identified of treating even latecomers with due concern and consideration whether they had recently arrived or had been here for the long term be what others would notice in our behaviour..

To be truthful I am not sure whether this parable represents workable economics in the narrow sense of the word, but there are other values in life which we instinctively know matter more than the exchange of money.

I started my talk this morning with a quote from one person whose views I value in this respect namely Rabbi Hugo Grynn. Rabbi Grynn was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz where he had been sent as a small boy.

His key insight was a single phase “We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” He had won the right to speak those words because he was until his relatively recent death a few years ago as one who lived this principle as a campaigner for refugee rights.

From Auschwitz Hugo Grynn moved to the United Kingdom, where he worked first to become a Rabbi and from that point to become one of the United Kingdom’s most respected spiritual leaders, writers and broadcasters. He was entitled to his view because in his life it was clear he cared about those who deserved nothing from him.

What of us and our dealings with people to whom we owe nothing. When we reflect on how we are going with such people, what do we see? How are we are towards people such as, the very old, the very young, the retarded, those who don’t sound educated or who appear to be new immigrants, the strangers, those who have fallen from grace – alcoholics – and yes the unemployed…..those still waiting for employment chances at the end of the day because they weren’t seen as employable in the first selection. Would others see those kingdom characteristics in us?

If Jesus shows by his dealings with those who represented the undeserving that in the kingdom of God there is a place for such people – then we too – if we claim membership in the kingdom of God, should also be making our offer to the people to whom we owe nothing.

As a guiding principle it is not only of value because it affords dignity and worth to all people regardless of their circumstance; but more than this it is of value because it as a by-product we may just discover authentic meaning and purpose whatever we might previously have thought about our status and power.

In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, the landowner is thoughtful of the undeserving – first of all in choosing workers originally passed over – but then in giving those workers more than they technically deserved. The people who were in fact owed virtually nothing.

Even if it is not what we might have done – we can sense the basic goodness in such an approach. But then the story of Christianity through the centuries is one of handing on the mantle. The landowner and the labourers story is a story of the kingdom of God to which we too might aspire. How will we in our turn make our offer to people to whom we owe nothing.

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