Lectionary sermon for 14 February 2016 (Lent 1) on Luke 4: 1 – 13

“Shalom. This is Luke from Radio Palestine, on site in the wilderness, about to interview a very hungry man, Jesus, otherwise known by some of his admirers as the Messiah. So tell me Jesus, what have you been up to for the last forty days and forty nights?”

Except it wasn’t like that. And what is more it could never have been like that, not thirty years after the event.

For those of us used to reading newspapers and watching or listening to documentaries and interviews on radio or TV it is hard to remember that for some communities particularly those in the distant past, there were different methods of information gathering and dissemination.

In those days truths were conveyed via a mixture of reporting, hearsay commentary and storytelling, and in particular it would be very hard from the various gospels (only four of which eventually found their way into our Bible) to know exactly how much was fact, how much was first-hand knowledge, how much was rumour or folk law and how much was intended symbolism….in fact doesn’t that make it sound a little like getting information from the Internet today?

We note in passing that, unlike Mark’s brief version of the same event, from the strong similarity of Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the temptations, that at the very least they were using the same source material for this part…which the expert scholars tell us was part of the mysterious Quelle or “Q” source. What we don’t know is how many prior versions might have existed and how many retellings had shaped its form.

Yet I believe we all relate to this story of the temptations of Christ – and I would go so far as to claim we probably even know if only instinctively that it represents an important set of truths.

Perhaps we need to admit at the outset that Jesus had taken on a role far beyond anything we might imagine for ourselves and accordingly his temptations are different in degree if not in nature. Nevertheless it is hard to find one of the temptations in this passage that would not in some way relate to typical human ambitions and dilemmas.

Luke’s (and Matthew’s) chosen examples almost stress the humanness of Christ. This part of Luke shows us quite clearly that Jesus was not somehow magic and above being tempted. In the Book of Hebrews Ch 4 verse 15 we find an echo in the statement that: Jesus is one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are.

Despite the understandable wish of generations of followers wanting Jesus remembered with God-like powers aka Superman, a moment’s reflection would help us realize that if he did have such powers there should have been no genuine temptation in the first place. Furthermore, discovering that Jesus could be tempted as we are suggests, at least to the extent we hope to walk in his footsteps, his dilemmas might even foreshadow something of our own.

Perhaps we might remember that the temptation starts with Jesus first at his weakest. Forty days and forty nights is a long time to go without food – and right when he is the weakest, Satan offers him a chance for food.

There is of course a parallel with possessions. For most of us in the West we are surrounded by advertising encouraging us to believe we need consumer goods.

Our weakness comes when we develop a mind-set that others are getting ahead of us and that we lack the resources to keep up. That gleaming car which is not a car – but a status symbol is filmed with desirable people, admired because they have this particular car….an ego booster. The latest make-up…..You’re worth it…. And you know you’re worth it. The latest flat screen TV not just high definition but….. 3 D enabled, (a real ego-stroker that one)….and so on through the ever expanding list. Given that many of us develop an insatiable hunger for such possessions, accumulating more and more until the total goes far beyond any relation to what might reasonably be associated with basic needs, it seems somehow appropriate that today when we consider temptations, this should be the beginning of Lent.

[The poet] W.H. Auden defines prayer in this way. “To pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself.” As he goes on to say, whenever we so concentrate our attention—on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God—that we completely forget our own ego and desires, we are praying.”
In short we forget our own egos most easily when we turn our attention outside ourselves which is the recurring underlying theme of Jesus teaching.

In general terms I guess the recurring stark choice with which Jesus was faced was the ego-focused temptation of using power to achieve domination, fame and status as opposed to the self-sacrificing path which he eventually chose to walk. The Luke reading outlines the seductive alternatives that must have been before Jesus at the start of his mission and everything that the gospels tell us about his subsequent words and actions show very clearly that they are alternatives Jesus rejected. It also incidentally conveys a general truth that sooner or later we will all encounter for ourselves….namely that the best choices for life’s key decisions in the long run are often not the ones that pander to the promise of immediate reward.

It is true that the internal evidence of the temptations suggest that this story is more like a parable than a factual account. To take just one example William Barclay observed that given an approximately round world, no mountain would be sufficiently high for Jesus to see all the kingdoms of the world – no matter how high the devil was said to take Jesus.

It is also intriguing, but have you noticed the very temptations that Jesus is recorded as rejecting are often those very characteristics which some of his modern followers insist characterize what his life has come to mean.

At one extreme, I once heard of an amputee in New Zealand who was told by her Church friends that if she had enough faith her missing leg would start to re-grow. Similarly a friend who teaches blind pupils told me how on an outing with her pupils, one totally blind girl was approached by two tract-carrying young people who insisted their prayers would restore sight to the girl. The blind girl was initially very excited, then desolated when she remained blind.

Specifically, Luke tells of Jesus rejecting the path of attempting to work outside the laws of nature and for example refusing to attempt to turn stones into bread. This then raises the question of why so many insist that, despite what he is supposed to have said to the devil, Jesus was all about Nature defying miracle and that, instead of seeing Jesus multiplying bread and fish as a symbolic way of meeting needs, we must see it as actual magic, along with walking on water and fixing the weather with a word. Whether or not the belligerently credulous have thought it through to ask – well if Jesus could do and still does all these things – then how come the word to stop the disasters is deliberately withheld?

In a year when it is hot and dry, bush fires still rage in Australia, flood waters still rise, cancers still destroy lives, along with the happiness of the families of the afflicted, unexpected earthquakes and volcanoes still characterize the shifting plate boundaries of the Earth, and gravity still works when the sky-diver’s parachute fails to open.

For me, the Jesus way is what Jesus lived and taught – the way of costly sacrifice for others. The miracle in disaster then comes – not in magic prayers to avert the disaster – but in the miracle of ordinary people offering compassion to strangers.

More to the point if we accept that Jesus insists that stones-to-bread is not the path of his ministry why would anyone who claims to follow him, claim that using the name of Jesus to do the equivalent of turning stones to bread and using prayer to demonstrate the defiance of nature is what Jesus is all about.

But the more serious temptation for the many who are clearly not the Messiah, yet who claim the title of Christian leader, is not to so much to impress the wondering crowds with seriously strange rituals like getting in touch with the dead, driving out demons or laying ghosts to rest in haunted houses. Rather the real temptation is the age old siren whisper to use the Church to exercise power and to seek prestige. All too often, there is something about the deference shown to church titles which leads more readily to a seat at the top table than the notion of genuine servant-hood.

Because there is something in the human condition that likes to impress, I guess we would all prefer other to notice our successes rather than our failures. This is why so many CVs give a distorted view of a potential employee. Unfortunately it also makes it possible to fool even ourselves when it comes to demonstrating how well we are doing with our faith. For example if we are always tempted to remember those who have apparently miraculously recovered from a medical condition and relate that to the success of religious intervention. Honesty matters in faith and I would argue that we should also remember the many whose condition worsened despite prayer or faith healing. If we don’t remember the failures we are fooling ourselves as well as others about the nature of our faith.

At the end of the reading we find the devil leaving Jesus, but it is by no means clear that Jesus would have been able to put the temptations behind him in practice. John Howard Yoder in his book, The Politics of Jesus, is one, for example, who suggests that the temptations actually foreshadow key events in Jesus’ ministry where political temptations must have returned.

For example the loaves to fishes story in one of its different forms has the impressed crowds wanting to crown Jesus king. That Jesus was able to leave the scene unscathed after the cleansing the Temple, suggests that he may have had sufficient popular and moral support to organize a political movement. And the version of Gethsemane when he played with the notion of calling upon legions of angels suggests at least a passing mind-set for a Holy War.

So the awkward thing about such temptations is that they keep returning. In so far as we try to follow Jesus to some extent they are our recurring temptations also.

This season of Lent, we might remember that Jesus steadfastly resisted the easy desirable path to fame and fortune, preferring to walk the less trodden path. Would that we who follow, might gain the courage to do the same.

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Why Protest the TTPA?

At the very least we should concede the recent signing of the Trans- Pacific Partnership agreement for 12 Pacific trading nations trumpeted with such fanfare by the New Zealand Government offers the promise of clear advantages. On the other hand these advantages are only for some within the partnership. What however appears to have caught the government by surprise is: first the apparent fury of the agreement’s opponents – and second that the protestors should include those who appear unexpectedly well-informed.

A significant economic analysis paper entitled “Research paper: The Economics of the TPPA” has recently been posted on the TPP Legal website. This ought to be carefully considered if only because the authors and the reviewers have a reputation for knowing what they are talking about.

This paper was co-authored by Tim Hazledine, Professor of Economics from the University of Auckland Business; Rod Oram, business journalist and author; Geoff Bertram, Senior Associate at the Institute for Policy and Governance at Victoria University; and Barry Coates, researcher and former Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand. The peer reviewer was John Quiggin, an Australian Laureate Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland.

Consider the following excerpt. “It is striking how little the TPPA will deliver. Without the TPPA, our GDP will grow by 47% by 2030 at current growth rates. The TPPA would add only 0.9%”…. “Even that small benefit is a gross exaggeration. The modeling makes unfounded assumptions, and the real benefits will be far smaller. If the full costs were included, it is doubtful that there would be any net economic benefit to the New Zealand economy.”

At first sight, that anyone should want to oppose the lifting of trade barriers when virtually every government of the world appears united in claiming they would like to have better access to overseas markets is puzzling enough yet on reflection several major warning signs should have been obvious.

The first obvious red flag is that the World Trade Organization representing 161 of its member states has been totally frustrated in coming up with anything approaching a global trade arrangement, and it has been in the trade negotiation business since 2001.

The next problem is one of simple logic which has ethical consequences. Each nation is looking to improve its balance of trade so that it earns more from its exports than it spends on its imports. Just as within a nation the rich players finish up with the advantages because in the real world some nations have more going for them than others. Those with highly prized natural resources and well developed production are at a clear advantage whereas a country with a lack of resources and inefficient means of production simply falls further behind when the trade barriers are removed.

Because in New Zealand some of our exports are traditional money spinners it is natural that we assume the removal of protective subsidies in our overseas buying market sectors is the priority. We should note that where a partner trading nation has natural disadvantages in that same production area they feel a need to protect their producers. For example New Zealand would like to open up the Canadian market to our dairy products. Because our climate is milder than that encountered in Canada it is hard for Canada’s dairy farmers to be competitive without the barriers and subsidies and Canada has already been forced to respond to the proposal to remove a trade barrier to dairy by coming up with an substantial subsidy for its own dairy farmers by way of compensation.

When we extend that argument we should remember that there will need to be a trade-off for every deal within the agreement we manage to set into our legislation. Tim Grosser put this rather graphically when he referred to some dead rats we had to swallow on the way.   He diplomatically failed to refer to the dead rats we were offering to our current trading partners, which includes trading partners outside the proposed agreement.  The US as the biggest single economy in the TPPA has already made it clear that the only way they will be able to sell the agreement to the major players in their nation is to allow those powerful multinational sectors to impose their own trading conditions.

In the real economic world there is never a level playing field in that there are more sellers than buyers. A banana republic can’t sell its bananas unless it has the money to produce a superior disease free banana.

President Obama has taken considerable time even to get Congress to consider the Treaty and has only been able to bring it to the initial signing point by manipulating its structure in such a way that it wrests some control of the Pacific trading markets away from China. Because China has turned out to be one of our major trading partners and one where we currently trade with reduced tariffs, disadvantaging China can be expected to place a substantial proportion of our current trade more at risk. The other cloud on the horizon is that Hilary Clinton (a previous supporter of TPP) has been discovering that US voter’s support for the agreement is weak and as a consequence has changed her position and does not currently support the Partnership. If she then wins the Presidency, the expected two year process of pushing the required legislation through Congress and Senate would then become much more problematic.

Presumably customs and excise which currently adds over $11 billion to our GDP each year will require considerable adjustment as we remove those tariffs.

We need to be very clear that a direct consequence of completing legislation required by the terms of the Partnership will be to disadvantage the health systems for those in poorer areas of the Pacific. A spokesman from Doctors without Frontiers (MSF) Judit Rius Sanjuan, legal policy advisor at MSF has already warned that the TPPA sets a worrying precedent for future trade agreements. “The objective is to really create new monopolies for pharmaceutical companies and to strengthen and lengthen the monopolies they already have…At the end of the day, the big losers here are nations, ministers of health, and humanitarian treatment providers like MSF that work in developing countries.”

Sanjuan also goes on to remind us that MSF  is a heavy user of generics and notes that the yearly cost of treating one HIV/AIDS patient has dropped from something like $10,000 in 2000 to $100 today. Under TPPA Sanjuan expects these and other treatments to revert back to being unaffordably expensive.

Tim Grosser and John Key have already admitted there will be some inevitable rise in the costs of some medicines but say that, at least in the short term, local patients won’t be asked to cover such costs. However the real point is that when the generics for new drugs are banned, someone (ie the taxpayer!), has to shoulder the costs. In the poorer nations there is no pool of spare tax money to cover the costs and when the cheap alternatives are removed the patients simply go without.

We only need to look overseas to note how this might play out with a recent CEO of a major drug company being asked to explain to a public Government enquiry why one of their drugs had a 5000% profit. In the US the “Big Pharma” companies have already forced substantial extensions on the time before drug alternatives are allowed to be introduced and as a consequence in New Zealand patients are simply unable to afford the new life saving treatments. In Canada a major Drug Company (Eli Lilly) has been suing the Government in a $500 million lawsuit for loss of profits, for providing cheap alternatives for their drug Zyprexa. While it is hard for us in New Zealand to understand why a Drug Company would have such negotiating power, it is as well to remember that some of the larger companies would have budget turnovers approaching the size of New Zealand’s entire GDP.

The last minute and apparently unexpected exclusion of requirements on major tobacco trade from the wording of the Agreement flags a hint of just what a large set of multinationals can do.

I stress that I am trying to make sense of what is happening as a non expert. It could well be that I have forgotten some more important issues. Use the comment box at the end and have your say.

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Rethinking Sin

Although for most Christians the Bible remains an essential source document for faith, many of the earlier literalistic Biblical assumptions are challenged by new understandings of culture and new findings in science. The early myths of creation and a primitive and a naive cosmology allowed for an Earth centred Universe (cf a literal Genesis creation) but the inventions of telescopes and new ways of systematically sharing emerging knowledge forced a rapid and relatively widespread rethink of the mechanisms and structure of a vast Universe.

Just as notions of ethics, of laws and of understanding of religious concepts like “Sin” have continually changed throughout the period in which our current Bibles were being written, assembled and edited, we should not be too surprised to find our notions are always incomplete and subject to change as new information comes to hand.

Slavery, despite being supported by a number of scriptures, is now seen as outmoded by most Christians as are explanations for disasters until recent centuries as interpreted as acts of God. Whereas disease might at one time have been passed off as retribution for sinful human behaviour by a vengeful God, modern understanding from areas like genetics and microbiology are now much more commonly preferred. While there is considerable debate about the relative weighting of biological and environmental factors in choices relating to sexual preference and even xenophobia it is becoming increasingly clear that we are not equally free to make deliberate choices in such areas.

Some of this change in understanding has been slow in arriving if only because brain research is complicated and as a consequence it has taken a long time to lay to rest notions like evil spirits controlling behaviour.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the understanding of free will is found to be far more interdependent on a myriad of external and biochemical factors than was previously thought to be the case. Some of the consequent mind shifts have begun to undermine the most pervasive articles of faith, and this brief paper seeks to suggest how one of these faith assumptions, the concept of Sin, has to undergo considerable rethinking.

In centuries past it was assumed that Sin was any deliberate and chosen behaviour which somehow offended God and which, if not addressed by appropriate confession and religious response, would result in eternal punishment.

Although some sincere believers continue to hold to this view it predates an unfolding understanding of the myriad causes of behaviour.
A very quick overview of some of the main causes of behaviour suggests that many causes are not strictly controllable and certainly far from being deliberately chosen.

It is now relatively widely believed that because the human species shares much of the history and survival problems of related species that some of our species behavioural characteristics are firmly in-built to make it possible to survive in competition. For example, our brains are built around the same pattern as many other mammals and the inner part of the brain where we find the brain stem gives automatic responses to a range of conditions.

Like other mammals we respond to environmental triggers. The flight or fight response to danger is virtually automatic whether we have thought about it or not. Belligerent behaviour may seem undesirable in a modern community setting but as a behaviour which would have provided protection against potential enemies it would have been greatly valued by small tribal groups.

While society sees belligerence as undesirable for the smooth working of modern society it seems odd to assume a God who is often credited with the creation of the human species would want to punish such characteristics that helped the species survive through the ages. Even a modern society expects a proportion of its members to exhibit such warlike tendencies in response to external threats which is presumably why killing members of opposing nations in times of war is not considered sinful and even elevated to being seen as noble and essential.

Our species has survived because we take advantage of available food and some obesity is probably partly a consequence of a relatively new phenomenon of more food being available than would have been the case for our predecessors.

Again, the urge to procreate was essential for species survival, and again for many centuries, this behaviour must have been selected with few social controls since marriage is a comparatively modern concept. I am certainly not against modern laws designed to control those misusing sexual urges. I can understand a society now wishing to have associated behaviour under strict control. However I cannot understand why such an evolutionary advantageous set of behaviours should have been thought to have offended a God to the point of condemning those with such desires to eternal damnation.

Hopefully learned social responses can make society a happier and more secure setting for its members, but we also now know that natural genetic damage and/or external factors often result in behaviour outside an individual’s control. For example a child born with foetal alcohol syndrome is hardly responsible for a mother’s inappropriate choices. When the mother contracts a disease with implications for a developing child eg German measles, again it would seem curious if either the mother or the child should be blamed for the results.

We probably all know elderly people whose behaviour seems inappropriate as long term wear and tear to the brain removes the ability to control. Again it would seem strange if the inappropriate behaviour was seen as sinful and deserving of eternal punishment particularly where the damage is measurable and beyond the individual’s control. We now know that some aggression is directly related to some physiological brain changes.

A one clear behavioural example of this is fronto-temporal dementia. It is a neurological disorder (most often due to a specific mutation) in which disintegration of the frontal cortex occurs. Similarly tumours in the frontal cortex have been associated with some forms of paedophilia while imbalances of oestrogen and testosterone can result in aberrant sexual behaviour.

Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin (and a host of more recently discovered neurotransmitters) can alter behaviour and when the neurotransmitter mechanism is faulty or when it is misled by foreign material eg drugs or alcohol, addictions can be set in place. As we review what is now known about the biological and environmental associations with deviant behaviour, the notion of assuming that undesirable behaviour should be interpreted as intentionally chosen sin is far less plausible and further from simple resolution than the traditional church teachings imply. We now know that many of the reasoning processes occur in different parts of the brain to those affected by addiction and therefore addictions are not always successfully dealt with by reasoning or counselling.

Just as courses are now arranged for judges to show them how deviant behaviour is sometimes beyond the control of offenders, I would like to suggest that such information should increasingly shared with those in the Church who are expected to give guidance for those ministered by the Church. I also suspect that theologians need to seek a scientific review of the factors leading to deviant behaviour before instituting a series of studies to discover how much of traditional concepts of sin are still worth retaining.

Please note that this does not imply we don’t need laws or require legal sanctions to help control order in society.  In general our laws are introduced to discourage undesirable behaviour which threatens the smooth running of a community.   The fact that that we need laws in the first place is clear evidence that many in the community are at risk of offending against public order if left to their own devices.  In addition a Christian would presumably be anxious to incorporate the sort of principles Jesus taught into their chosen life style.   Where we may find it more difficult is first to reach consensus on which if any sins lie outside the legal system and second to reach agreement about what Divine judgement is supposed to mean.

Some Questions for Discussion
1. Is sin an appropriate label for homosexuality?
2. Do the clergy have a role to play in helping mitigate the damage caused by deviant behaviour?
3. Can sin be redefined in such a way as to take into account of modern developments in science?
4. How should the known causes of socially deviant behaviour be taken into account by the Justice system?

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A lectionary sermon for 7 February 2016 on Luke 5: 1-11

Years ago, as a volunteer high school teacher in New Britain, part of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, I used to watch and wonder at the Western evangelists who passed briefly through the towns and villages, apparently totally oblivious to the serious social and political issues facing the locals. I watched them handing out irrelevant tracts then move hurriedly on before they had a chance learn names or develop genuine friendships.

I even suspect those irritating evangelists of the type who harass total strangers with isolated Bible texts, promises of heaven and threats of hell, are not only unaware that they are irritating, they are also convinced that they are merely out to rescue those who are in the darkness and, as such, I guess they think of themselves obeying the teaching of Jesus in this morning’s lectionary gospel reading.   I cant help wondering how many have noted that most translations have Jesus saying that he would show his disciples how to become fishers of men and not that he was offering to tell them how to do it.

Luke is one of the best of all New Testament writers. By tradition he was both an artist and one concerned with health issues (a physician perhaps). Tradition only….? maybe ….but what we do find is that Luke can tell a great story and paint verbal pictures with consummate skill. Here he turns his pen to a partially symbolic story about Jesus and gives it some extra twists missed by other writers such as John.

But there is an important point at issue here. Here, Jesus, as so often in his dealings with those he meets, was not in the habit of peppering his targets with neat religious quotations, nor for the most part, does he seem to concentrate on the issue of their salvation. Even more surprisingly, nor he doesn’t seem in great hurry to affect a conversion. In today’s setting Jesus finds his disciples in the context of their daily work and involves himself with that context. He asks if he can borrow their boat as a floating rostrum – then with that task behind him – he gets involved with their fishing enterprise. There is even the sense that this earns him the right to invite the fishermen to share his world and his mission.

Involvement with context is at the heart of all meaningful interactions. We need to understand that all we meet each has their own history, their own worries, experiences and interests – in short their own context, because without this awareness, how else can we begin to communicate?

Today’s story is often used as an example of how Jesus used miracle, yet the fishing part of Luke’s story as a miracle is rather non-remarkable. Certainly when Jesus was out in the boat speaking there is no reason why he might not have spotted the whereabouts of the fish. A shadow in the water, a series of ripples?… it does not require special expertise to notice fish from a good vantage point. In any case, anyone who has tried fishing will know that luck can change in a most dramatic fashion without the need to invoke a miracle.

But if it comes to that, for that time a story with a literal meaning did not mean what it means today. The modern theologian, John Dominic Crossan, is fond of reminding beginning Bible scholars that it is first and foremost what the story meant to the audience for whom it was intended – the people of the day – not us that counts. In those days, as a host of scholars have since pointed out, (including the great St Augustine), literal meaning meant the part of the story that literally affects the listener.

I suspect these days we are likely to miss the implication of the injunction to fish for people, particularly if our own experiences of fishing have been placid affairs. Fishing today for most folk is relatively refined and gentle. Standing in the sunshine at the end of a wharf or sitting on a deck chair dangling a rod over a gently flowing river, or perhaps from the back of a pleasure launch using the right hooks, the best bait, the right weight line and where the only real hazard for most of today’s recreational fishermen is keeping a weather eye for the fishing inspector, hardly the same as the world of the fishermen of Galilee. Perhaps our tranquil image is why many today do not see the full intent of the analogy when it comes for fishing for people.

Many, if not most recreational fishermen would use a hook – but remember that recreational fishing of the sort we might indulge ourselves today is a far cry from what fishing meant in the days when Jesus was talking to fishermen at the side of the sea of Galilee. They would not have seen the act of fishing as an easy option. For the disciples, fishing would be physically demanding, even dangerous with the ever present problem of only partially sea worthy craft and – in the pre Met Office days – unpredictable storms.

To find out exactly what fishing for people means to us we could do worse than look to our own Church setting to see what it reflects. Jesus modelled fishing for people in the case of Zebedee and Company as meeting them in their every day context – and surely the fact that he had something to contribute to that context made his message entirely relevant. If we expect the fish to come to us in our Church setting rather than we to theirs it follows we are expecting others to discover our context rather than we theirs.

Jesus took it one step further. He not only went to where the fishermen were, he chose to frame his critical question in terms that related to their situation.

Thus if we see the story in terms of the setting of Jesus’ metaphor, we may begin to understand its value. To the fishermen Jesus’ chosen metaphor of fishing to catch people would have had an association easy to grasp. Fishing in Galilee meant fishing with a net. A net is flexible yet not discriminatory, stretching to enfold as many fish (and perhaps as many types) as possible.

Perhaps this part is a retelling of the resurrection story in John where the number of fish is declared as 153. This too is helpful, not as Jerome incorrectly put it because there were 153 different types of fish known at the time, but more simply because the inclusive net is designed for all types, and despite the stress, the net (which presumably stands for the Church) does not break.

Simon Peter and his mates would have understood fishing to be associated with nets. And the net must be taken to where the fish are – not the other way round. So if the fishing inspector should drop by to check on the catch what would he see? For all the talk of inclusiveness the range of people sitting in the seats of a typical congregation tends to speak for itself.

Apart from the net approach, there are other ways of catching fish. Some indigenous tribes in some parts of the world use poison to paralyse the fish. (Or should that be Poissons?) From the days of misspent youth I remember those (not in this instance me I hasten to add) who used what was euphemistically called a public works fly – in other words a plug of gelignite. I leave my listeners to imagine the religious equivalent.

It is not for me to choose the lectionary readings for today, but in one sense if the lectionary compilers were intending to set the scene for our fishing story they might better have chosen something from the Old Testament like 23-30 of Psalm 107: (NIV)

23 Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.

Remember Simon Peter and his mates were denied the possibility of using what we would now see as essential modern boat building techniques and machinery , not to mention non availability modern synthetic materials to make the fishing gear. This meant fishing for the first century professional fisherman meant hard and sometimes precarious work. The fishing for people option in that context, implies being prepared to take risks for uncertain returns.

Again our congregation in context speaks for itself. We look at our activities and ask are we taking risks to achieve our mission or are we more showing signs of the recreational fisherman – doing only that which comes easy?

There are also layers of meaning in the gospels. Luke at times could be quite subtle and scholars like Ched Myers claim that in Jesus’ call to be fishers of men he was using a phrase that the Hebrew prophets had been known to use as a euphemism for judgement on the rich. If this was Jesus underlying intention Jesus was in effect calling his disciples from among the common people so that they could join him in the struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.

As an isolated phrase either verbatim from those who heard Jesus deliver the challenge – or even words shaped by Luke to anticipate what followed, we shouldn’t get carried away by trying to second guess the intended meaning.

However we can notice two aspects of the story which suggest Ched Myers is on the right track. First the fishermen, who might have been expected to be highly resistant to the call to leave their nets clearly felt Jesus could understand them well enough to lead them. There was a mission that they related to – and as poor fishermen who probably resented the ways in which the uncaring controllers of society treated those like themselves, even a suggestion of overturning the situation would have resonated. And second, intended or not, Jesus mission did indeed overturn much of the established order, starting in fact as Ched Myers said, with the world of the disciple.

Even if Jesus’ words were misrepresented by Luke – or by the modern commentators, Myers draws our attention to what following Jesus would come to mean.

Almost two thousand years later we find the challenge to put aside the nets of our familiar world, so to speak, to join in the continuing mission to overturn the existing order of power and privilege. Clearly history teaches us that many will not heed this call. But when those fishermen first realized Jesus was relating to them…what was it: “they brought their boats into land, then they abandoned everything and followed him”. Jesus challenge to the fisherman now becomes our challenge. Our response is in what happens next.

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A quote to encourage thought…..

I came across the following on the Patheos site

“Fundamentalism is to Christianity what paint by numbers is to art.”

Reactions would be welcome!!

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Lectionary Sermon for 31 January 2016 (Epiphany 4) on Luke 4: 21-30

Today we find ourselves with a puzzle. We have Jesus, obviously an accepted and invited young preacher coming back to his own home patch, and more than that, we even hear that he had already been teaching in synagogues in the area, gaining a great reputation as a result.

In the introduction to this scene, we find Jesus described as speaking so well and so in tune with what the congregation of the synagogue wanted to hear, that we are told they were amazed at his words of grace – yet in the next minute – apparently in response to a couple of sentences, the congregation is so infuriated at what they are hearing, that they not only want him to stop – they actually pull him away from the teaching place – manhandle him to the edge of a cliff and try to throw him over the edge. How would that be for expressing an opinion at a trial service for a young preacher?!

Luke is a great story teller, but in the interest of honesty I would have to say he is not a particularly accurate historian or geographer. Nazareth is a village on a slope – not above a cliff, and there are no handy cliffs to throw anyone over. Perhaps this was Luke doing theology rather than literal history.

Can I also confess there is something wrong with the first part of today’s story which we encountered last week with Jesus recorded as reading from the scriptures yet coming up with what Luke records him as reading. One strong possibility was that, assuming Luke has conveyed the gist of an actual event, Jesus like many of his time was not strictly literate and may simply have been quoting from memory.

If as in last week’s lectionary passage he were actually reading from Isaiah, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourselves, the verses Luke claimed Jesus chose were far from consecutive and definitely in a different order. This is of course not a serious problem for today’s episode and far more interesting is pausing to ask exactly why in Luke’s telling of the story there should be the change in the mood of the crowd, because here there is an underlying issue that is remarkably contemporary when we think of the similarities with our own home settings.

You would think that Jesus was on safe ground by talking of Elijah and Elisha. After all Elijah, in particular, would have been considered the most significant of all the prophets when it came to foretelling the Messiah. It was not so much Jesus choosing to talk of Elijah and Elisha but the mood of his listeners would have started to change with his chosen uncomfortable examples.

To understand what happened next to the attitude of the congregation we need to remind ourselves that the Israelites associated their beliefs with a strong sense of a localized God who had guided their history as the chosen people – and further that all their history was bound up with a popular notion that God traditionally took their side against the troublesome enemies who surrounded them on every side. The people of Jesus day would for instance have approved of the story of Elijah dealing to the priests of Baal.

But no! What do we see here? Jesus in choosing to highlight this particular Elijah story when Elijah was sent to help a woman but not a Jewish one, would have been recounting a story which was repugnant to a majority, particularly those who had come to believe in a fervent and self interested nationalism supported by a totally partisan God who wanted them to prosper and all their enemies destroyed.

Even worse for the listeners, would have been Jesus’ second example starring Elisha. Jesus reminded his audience, Elisha had not cured any of the many lepers in Israel, but instead had healed the commander of the enemy army. The unacceptable notion that God would help an enemy of Israel prosper, particularly while ignoring those he should have been expected to heal, was directly counter to the main current thrust of what many Bible scholars tell us the majority of Jews currently believed at the time and we can well believe that this would infuriate those who believed that they alone were the chosen people.

If we attempt to bring the Elisha story up to date in a modern context perhaps we ought follow Tom Wright’s commentary and imagine Jesus standing before us telling us about God curing someone like Adolph Hitler. Or to bring it right up to now, if we heard God was using a famous religious leader to cure someone like the current leader of ISIS perhaps of AIDS while ignoring the plight of many Westerners with AIDS, would we be taking this as good news?

There was of course a deep and pervasive underlying problem which is almost universal in its expression and which Jesus seemed to be attempting to address. The Jewish faith, like many other faiths had developed for a community surrounded by enemies. That they should then have perceived their understanding of God as being partisan and exclusively interested in their well-being and care should not surprise us. Unfortunately as any student of the Psalms would tell you, one of the consequences to developing a self belief of being a chosen people was a belligerent attitude to people who belonged to tribes of traditional enemies.

When we read at the end of Psalm 137: – “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” we should hear in these words a sad reflection of the human condition. Just as fire-bombing Dresden, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dropping white phosphorous on Iraqi citizens in 1981, and causing very many infant deaths in Iraq by imposing sanctions, was regarded as regrettable but acceptable in more modern times, this is simply because as in days of old, such retribution was, and perhaps still is, considered as inevitable against one’s enemies.
It also goes without saying that such behaviour could hardly been further from Jesus’ typical teaching for showing compassion for a wide range of people and forgiving one’s enemies.

Unfortunately the collective self belief in exclusivity for the favoured few did not sit well with Jesus’ notion that believers should be seeking to develop attitudes of concern, not just for their own people but for all their neighbours. By reminding the people that the sort of Love he was teaching applied to those outside the Jewish faith Jesus was challenging a deeply held tradition. Should we be surprised that this indirect way of telling people they were wrong was unpopular with his congregation?

It is always a fair question to ask ourselves if we have really progressed since Jesus day. Are we for example now comfortable with the notion of treating those of other faiths and other cultures with equal consideration as our own, or do we feel our exclusivity and sense of rightness gives us something of an edge? I wonder for example if anyone here has heard the expression “I’m not a racist, but……”

Growing up in post second world war Christchurch I was very familiar with the expressed distrust of the Japs and the Krauts. Next it was the Commies and the Red Peril, and these days it is Islamic extremists. Even today I can’t imagine someone – even someone like Jesus – getting away with insisting that it is God’s nature to insist we give our enemies a fair deal.

Each nation has its own social history and invariably these histories include periods when belligerent myopia takes over which leaves embarrassing memories for those who claim to be living by the principles of their faith. The treatment of pacifists and the treatment of foreign nationals in times of national stress provide a barometer test of what happens in practice when the war clouds gather. In the First World War New Zealand pacifists were treated abominably for little more than decrying what modern historians now tell us was international stupidity.

I think also of Archbishop Liston for being tried for sedition on the grounds that he drew public attention to shameful behaviour of British troops in Ireland. Errol Buchan told me the story of a young man being arrested for giving a speech about pacifism outside our Church on a Saturday afternoon during the Second World War. The pacifist Ormond Burton lost his job as a Methodist minister in World War 2. We may not share his view of pacifism, but in terms of allowing him to speak his conscience we can at least ask if we should have allowed him his voice?

Unfortunately, despite optimistic and self flattering terms used to describe our own circumstances like:” multi cultural” and “inclusive”, there is limited evidence that these are deserved terms of self description. Even in liberal New Zealand, Church union founders on the inability of different yet related forms of Christianity to recognize the denominational claims of close cousins. Anglicans are reluctant to accept the ordination of Methodists as giving authority for administering the sacraments in their churches while Catholics and Anglicans view the authority structures of one another’s churches as incompatible.
In today’s drama, Jesus is confronting his audience (and us) with the notion that we can find value in the other – the foreigner. If we stop to think about it, the certainty that we have already arrived at the true faith, is an unfortunate way of cutting ourselves off from further development.

This notion of separating ourselves into exclusive camps is doubly unfortunate when we think of what we might learn from one another if we were to become more interdependent. Perhaps reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be helpful for those who find themselves in positions of Church leadership. In his book God has a Dream Archbishop Tutu reminds us we do not come into the world fully formed – and we are then shaped by what we learn from interactions with others. This makes us highly dependent on our interdependence, which Tutu introduces with the word Ubuntu from the Nguni languages. If we don’t realise this interdependence and cut ourselves off from all groups we don’t understand, we are in effect stunting our growth as persons. Does our faith have to offer anything to the people of the world or learn from others  if we don’t want to talk to 1.5 billion Muslims? Tutu argues that by finding the value in others, since none of us are born with a complete set of developed gifts – I can learn from your gifts – the gifts of others – as I would hope they might learn from mine.

I guess the reason why Luke records Jesus as in effect being run out of town was that he not only told the truth as he saw it regardless of the personal consequences, he stated he was totally identified with the message. If we are to assume that we would have give Jesus a fairer hearing, then at the very least let’s be honest about how we currently deal with those who are telling us truths we do not wish to hear. The real test of our sincerity in claiming we support Jesus for speaking unpopular truths – is to ask if we are prepared to speak out in the same way.

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Some thoughts on Euthanasia

The decision to allow for the termination of life has some interesting legal and ethical implications which require precise legislation. I suspect that with of the order of more than six out of ten New Zealanders supporting an end of life Choice for those who qualify and request it (Polls of public opinion relating to assisted dying appear to consistently show widespread public support for a change in the law).

As far back as August 1995 a majority of MPs (61 to 29) voted against the introduction into Parliament of Michael Laws Death with Dignity Bill.
A 1995 One Network News-Colmar Brunton poll issued found 62% of respondents were in favour of voluntary euthanasia, with 27% opposed and 10% undecided.
Mind you, although a Massey University Department of Marketing mail survey of 1000 New Zealanders, conducted in August and September 2002, found 73% supported assisted suicide for someone with a painful, incurable disease, this was only provided it was a doctor who assisted. NOTE Support dropped to 49% for suicide assisted by someone else, such as a close relative. Massey University (2003)

Such polls suggests the main issue is most certainly not one of gaining general support. Most, if not all, extended families would have been able to point to relatives who had specifically asked for a termination of life to be supported and in many such cases patients have only been able to avoid what appears to them to be avoidable suffering with quiet but technically illegal medical assistance. Most will also know of patients who have died after many months suffering.

Having personally known doctors who have become involved with such cases I understand that the termination method is usually to provide legally prescribed drugs at a maximum allowed level that is likely to lead to enhanced chances of termination eg maximum doses of morphine. In terms of the alternative, it seems to me that to allow relatives to assist in what is currently considered to be a suicide carries considerable risks if only because such non professional assistance may have unintended consequences.

In fact the situation where a hospice is able to provide terminal care, such is the level of support for the patient, that even the Hospice Association does not see the need for assisted termination.

Unfortunately to provide such specialized care is currently not what happens in the majority of end of life cases, and accordingly assisted termination should therefore be seen as a default option if the Government is going to remain unable to require the financial support to provide optimum care for the dying patient. In an ideal world then I would personally favour vastly improved levels of palliative care and would point to the apparent success of the Hospice care system. I suspect the Government will not come up with the required funding and accordingly suggest the next best fall-back position is to allow a medically controlled option of assisted termination but only where expert opinion is that a death with dignity option is not feasible, and where the patient believes assisted termination is the preferred option.

In actuality if it were only the patient’s views to be considered, in the current situation most terminally ill patients face, assuming they were still sufficiently in control of their thoughts and emotions to make such a decision, it would seem that such an assisted termination option seems quite reasonable.

Where an ethical problem arises, is when the patient is unduly influenced by relatives, medical staff or self appointed moral judges. In my recent past I was indirectly involved with the administration of a Retirement Village where I noticed that some relatives basically wanting the deteriorating patient to die as soon as possible to enable them to get their hands on an estate or to reduce the expenses on an eventual estate.   This should not be glossed over, particularly as in the Netherlands, where mercy killing is allowed, there has been a disturbing rise in the proportion of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, where presumably the decision is made with less concern for the patient’s wishes.

It also seems to me that, not unsurprisingly, some medical staff, are concerned for their personal standing, and in their need to follow the letter of the law, will often put the legality issues first and the well being of the patient’s ability to withstand suffering second.

It seems to me that with the variability that already exists between hospitals and parts of the same of hospitals and the resulting differences in the actions of different doctors and other medical staff I would wonder why legislation does not already allow for what happens in practice. I have also witnessed Church communities assuming their belief system should be the overriding consideration. Where Church views seem lacking in compassion, I suspect that this needs to be pointed out and if necessary, placed in front of some suitably qualified ethical committee for arbitration.

Some deteriorating patients have a horror of becoming totally dependent on carers to attend to personal needs and it is certainly true, that for some conditions, there is a substantial loss of dignity towards the end. Any new legislation should take this issue into consideration and in my view should be part of the assessment of a patient’s request for termination.

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