The Righteous Mr Trump

Sorry Mr Trump, I know it was a great speech justifying the strike on Syria, but I’m not buying it. For heavens sake Mr President, just for once, read the international press. Surely some sycophant White House advisor might have hinted to you that the US has been funding (and at times even using) illegal weapons with great abandon in the Middle East. When Saudi Arabia has used barrel bombs in Yemen …and in Syria too… (some with chlorine),or used cluster munitions banned by almost every nation except the US, or white phosphorus, surely Mr President you knew that some of those munitions carried the made in the US label, and at the very least were subsidized by the US …ahem…. via your White House.

Yes we agree that anyone who deliberately causes the death of innocents is indeed open to the charge of behaving like an animal. I guess, way back, that is why I protested the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and for that matter why I protested supply of Sarin to one Saddam Hussein who was at the time a friend of the US and having trouble with the Kurds. And now, surely, even someone like yourself, Mr President, who has at last caught up with the horrors of World War One gas warfare might have also noticed that untold civilians also died in hideous suffering as a result of the US invasion in Iraq sold to the world as the US looking for those weapons of mass destruction. In that invasion white phosphorus, fuel air explosives and depleted Uranium were used with great enthusiasm.

If you truly care about attacks on hospitals Mr Trump, why have heads not rolled when hospitals in Afghanistan are accidentally bombed by US planes? Heads certainly roll in the White House for much less. Why does the US continue to sell white phosphorus to Israel where it is now reluctantly admitted to have been used against Palestinians?

Forget Twitter Mr President… try Googling “Amnesty International” or “Use of Illegal weapons”!

Here is just one sample paragraph from one Amnesty International report summary.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition has also used cluster munitions, lethal explosive weapons banned under international law. When launched cluster bombs release dozens – sometimes hundreds – of small “bomblets”, which often lie unexploded and can cause horrific injuries long after the initial attack. Amnesty International has documented the coalition’s use of at least four different types of cluster munitions, including US, UK and Brazilian manufactured models.”

Perhaps it is true that anyone who breaks the international agreements needs a short sharp lesson but unless the response is even handed is it surprising some observers might call it hypocrisy?

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Call out the Cavalry! Not without further thought…

Oh my! President Trump expects supporters and allies to applaud him in his efforts to punish President Assad, (together with Russia and the Iran) for their combined and despicable use of Chemical weapons against defenceless civilians in rebel held territory. The trouble is that not all observers share Mr Trump’s disregard for recent history.

First, anyone with any memory of recent US overt involvement in the Middle East need go no further back than the US presenting overwhelming and totally believable evidence to “prove” that the Iraqis were hiding chemical weapons and storing weapons of mass destruction. Should Mr Trump be surprised that other nations now appear cautious if not a mite cynical. Where was Mr Trump a few years back when it transpired that the evidence we had watched presented to the UN turned out to be a spectacular and carefully stage-managed work of fiction? Yes Saddam Hussein had previously used Chemical weapons eg Sarin and Mustard Gas against the Kurds but it turned out that two US air-force officers with training in Chemical weapons had helped the Iraqis in this particular war crime.  When it came to the crunch weapons of mass destruction were notably absent.

It is also hard to believe that Mr Trump would not expect a cautious response from those who now remember the US leadership have a record of being less than open about their own use of UN non approved weapons. It is for example hard to forget that when the US did finally enter Iraq it is a matter of confirmed history that many civilians died and that many of the weapons used by the US are now classified as weapons of terror. Remember the white phosphorus, the depleted Uranium shells and the fuel air explosives.

Certainly ISIS has turned out to be a problem in Syria and elsewhere but some of us have read the histories which show how mismanagement overseen by the US in Iraq made a substantial contribution to the rise of ISIS.

President Trump is of course correct in saying that illegal weapons were used in Syria by Assad and his allies but surely someone in his rapidly changing set of advisors should have told him that some of those barrel bombs were also by courtesy of the Saudis and in turn these were funded and supplied by the US and their friends.

Of course we are concerned that children and civilian targets have been suffering tremendously but we also have heard Mr Trump declare that the US is cutting back on the rebuilding and repair and is clearly less welcoming of those fleeing the war zones.

The other problem is that it is very hard to complain about the actions of enemies when we remember that in nearby theatres of war our side are similarly compromised. Maybe Mr Trump has a point that there is a touch of the animal in the ruthless Assad. But a few years back weren’t the US and their main allies using Syria for the very same prisons where torture or even disappearance could be arranged as part of the now shameful memory of the so called rendition programme.

One of the clearest examples of inappropriate US assistance is seen in Yemen.

Since early 2015, USA and UK have in effect been sponsoring the infliction of devastating civilian suffering in Yemen as the end result of multibillion-dollar arms transfers to Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International pointed out in March 2017 in an article readily accessible on the net (“Yemen: Multibillion-dollar arms sales by USA and UK reveal shameful contradiction with aid efforts.”) that the results of the use of these arms vastly overshadowed any humanitarian efforts carried out by Saudi Arabia.

It is part of the official record that since that particular conflict began two years ago in March 2015, the US and UK have together transferred more than US$5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia which from that point has been leading the military coalition in Yemen. That five billion is more than 10 times the estimated US$450 million that the US State Department and the UK’s Department for International Development have spent or budgeted to spend in aid to Yemen over the past two years.

In the Amnesty International report Lynn Maalouf Deputy Director for Research at Amnesty International’s Beirut regional office explained it as follows: “Two years of conflict have forced three million people to flee their homes, shattered the lives of thousands of civilians and left Yemen facing a humanitarian disaster with more than 18 million in desperate need of assistance. Yet despite the millions of dollars’ worth of international assistance allocated to the country, many states have contributed to the suffering of the Yemeni people by continuing to supply billions of dollars’ worth of arms,”

The irony is hard to escape. Lynn Maalouf again: “Weapons supplied in the past by states such as the UK and USA have been used to commit gross violations and helped to precipitate a humanitarian catastrophe. These governments have continued to authorize such arms transfers at the same time as providing aid to alleviate the very crisis they have helped to create. Yemeni civilians continue to pay the price of these brazenly hypocritical arms supplies.”

So yes the US should be concerned that some of the very same Chemical weapons they have helped develop have fallen in to the wrong hands. But why are they not similarly concerned that far from leading efforts to disarm, Trump’s US is now reigniting the race to develop further weapons of mass destruction?

Of course Mr Trump is correct to show concern that nations such as Iran and North Korea are claiming the need to develop their own nuclear weapons but surely when the US is engaging in its own nuclear proliferation programme and is threatening these same countries who are particularly vulnerable without their own weapons it is hard to see how this represents the moral high ground.

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Lectionary Sermon for Easter 2, Year B, 8 April 2018 on John 20: 19 – 31

Thomas the Who?

Thomas has an incredible amount of bad press over the years and I would go so far to suggest, an undeserved bad press.  The expression:“a doubting Thomas” has come to be thought almost a term of derision.  Yet even the little we know about someone who is only mentioned three times in the gospels – and then only by the writer of the Gospel of John, should make us pause before leaping to judgment and saying Thomas should be remembered for being Thomas the doubter.

The first time we hear his name it is in the form of a risk taker. Remember the scene. You will find it in John Chapter 11. Jesus had previously had a hard time in Judea – the crowd had taken up stones to deal to him, so when he suggested going back to Judea to where Lazarus had been reported as having died, it is hardly surprising the disciples tried to dissuade him Jesus.  We can certainly imagine they were worried that next time, in Judea if they they had been seen with Jesus, they too might be at risk.

When Thomas has his say, there is no sign of a timid doubter. “Let us go with Jesus to Judea and be prepared to die with him”. Well, if it is true that the greatest love one can show is to lay down one’s life for a friend, then it really is as a risk-taking friend not a doubter that Thomas said “we’ll support you in going back to Judea”.

By the time John started to write his gospel you need to understand that Thomas had already written his gospel even if it didn’t make the final cut of New Testament books. The Gospel of Thomas was apparently earlier than the four gospels in the New Testament and according to the scholars we can see evidence that Mark borrowed some of Thomas’s writings and added a bit to his record of what Thomas records Jesus saying. Thomas also picked up on some things from Jesus that were quite different from those selected by John. Some of the scholars even suggest that John appeared to stress Thomas’s deficiencies to imply that John’s was the more reliable gospel. Perhaps this is why John notes that Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus showed himself to the other disciples, leaving the impression that he wasn’t in the in-group.               

Pointing out Thomas expressed doubt when listening to their testimony when the disciples tell Thomas Jesus has come back to life might suggest a lack of faith, yet I suspect many would find this perfectly reasonable. Dead people are not expected to come back to life and we should remember Thomas only has the other disciples’ word that it has happened. I for one can understand his scepticism. If I had watched someone die then perhaps a day later gone off to a funeral home to pay my respects I frankly admit I would be most unlikely to accept someone’s word for it that the body was no longer at the home because they had come back to life. That was after all in effect what Thomas was told by the others.

But the story of Thomas does not end with his doubts. John records him as meeting Jesus a few days later with the words “My Lord and my God”, but we do Thomas a disservice if we use even this as a measure of his faith. In reality it is not so much what a person says, but what they are in thoughts and actions that are their faith.  Remember that this same Thomas was now sufficiently confident in his faith to go on to start the Church in South India where he was eventually martyred.

Since those who tell us of religious ideas are in effect offering us life changing choices and since there are many such offers in a modern world it is sensible to at least ask if the belief is likely to be worth following before making our own risky choice. Given that we are never able to see what the representative of faith is actually thinking we can at least make a reasonable judgement of their claims based on their actions, or if you like the fruits of their belief, and use this as a guide.

What would convince you? I think for example of the man popularly known as the Prof, Lord Cherwell, who was at one time Professor of Physics at Oxford and during World War two a scientific advisor for Winston Churchill. One problem Churchill gave the Prof was to see if he could come up with an answer for fighter planes spinning into the ground and crashing. The tight turns of the dog fights often resulted in these out of control spins.
Well the Prof put his analytic mind to the problem. First of all he addressed the physics. He worked out exactly what was happening from the theory of aerodynamics – then devised exactly what the pilot might do once the spiral had started. The catch was that although it seemed to work in theory, to show that the solution would work for a real spin was extremely risky. If he were wrong the pilot would die.

Lord Cherwell had a remarkable solution. He took flying lessons, then as soon as he was able, he took the plane up to a height, put it into a spinning dive, then to get out of the spin applied his theoretical solution – it worked. Then just to be certain he went up again, this time putting it into an anti-clockwise spin, to show that the solution was just as effective the other way. Because he trusted sufficiently in his solution and could show it worked, pilots were convinced and many lives were no doubt saved as a consequence.

The focus on actions can also tell us when the truth is less plausible.

Reflect for a moment on the hugely popular Bible thumping Trinity Broadcasting network based in California. The TBN message that God rewards with prosperity those who are prepared to give to His work – ie sending money to TBN has indeed produced ostentatious rewards for the Network founders and top executives on a scale only matched by the life styles of top Hollywood stars and the glittering in your face splendour of Las Vegas. When however the money all seems directed at the organisers with their private jets and luxury cars we should, and indeed must, ask the question about how this fits with Jesus’ message of humility, of servant-hood and showing love to the least of our brethren.

Contemporary histories suggest that Thomas was sufficiently confident in his experience that he went from there to do great things. He is recorded as taking his message to Persia, then on to South India where tradition says he started the Church of South India where he was finally martyred.

Harry Williams in his book The True Wilderness is quoted as saying: “I resolved that I would not preach about any aspect of Christian belief unless it had become part of my own lifeblood. For I realised that the Christian truth I tried to proclaim would speak to those who listened only to the degree to which it was an expression of my own identity.”
This to me speaks of the same integrity that Thomas lived. Not for Thomas a credulous acceptance of others’ claims without first checking the claims out for himself. But more importantly, not for him either the life of vacuous words once he was sufficiently convinced. Thomas showed that beliefs are to be lived.

The early Christians appear to have understood the realities of how faith is meant to impact on life. They had a special word for it. They called it “pistis”. Pistis is not properly translated as meaning faith. Rather it is more like: trusting, abandoning or even venturing. To have Pistis in Christ certainly didn’t merely mean that Christ was there in some mysterious way. Rather it meant the slender hope that the reality Jesus represented might also have value and truth for the ones who trusted him enough to follow.

For Christians, the arguments about whether or not we might think God exists have little meaning away from what Jesus showed this God to mean. Because these days our first hand experience of witness comes via other people it is worth remembering that from the days of the early Church obtaining inspiration is not only based on what can be learned from studying Christ, but also via those in each generation who have been prepared to follow Jesus. And yes, what gives the inspiration is the attraction of lives lived with integrity.

No doubt the disciples each took a different path to their eventual pistis. And in an age where there is much of value in different forms of Christianity as well as much to generate caution, it might even be that we have need of the Thomases of our day to insist that we not be led astray by transparent fraud as well as needing those prepared to trust and follow without question or evidence. Yet no matter the path, and no matter the initial degree of doubt, the real test of lives lived in the spirit is whether or not we are truthful both to ourselves and others.

It is intriguing that although in the debates about which books should be included in the Bible, the Bishop of Lyon, Irenaeus had dismissed the gospel of Thomas as an “abyss of madness and blasphemy against Christ”, yet when Thomas’s long lost book finally resurfaced amongst the caves at Nag Hammadi, the modern bible scholar Elaine Pagels, far from finding madness and blasphemy found Thomas recording sayings of Jesus in a way which she found resonating with her belief. For example from the gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you will bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Pagels explained that for her: “..the strength of this saying is that it does not tell us what to believe but challenges us to discover what lies hidden within ourselves; and, with a shock of recognition, I realized that this perspective seemed to me to be self-evidently true.”

Thomas we read is eventually persuaded by the evidence of his eyes, yet we must remember that for Thomas this was a persuasion not so much to a creed as to an awakened life. Just as Thomas was able by his encounter to discover a strength within to witness and lead in an eventual journey of adventure, our individual doubts need not stop us from the journey.

It is true that there is a sophisticated form of cynicism that claims that Christianity is merely a subjective theory to fill psychological needs. What ultimately confounds that theory is encountering the transformed lives. No mere theory can ultimately stand against an individual prepared to work wholeheartedly for the transformation of the world. Thomas who doubted grew into someone who could make a difference.

If that can happen for doubting Thomas, perhaps it might happen for you or me.

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A Lectionary Sermon for Easter Sunday 1 April 2018, based on John 20 1-18

I wonder how many preachers would be prepared to read Peter Rollin’s monologue at their Easter day service.   It starts….
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think.”

Then a dramatic pause:………………. and continue…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system. However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed”.

Now the Sermon:   Risen in what Sense?

One of the marks of the mature Christian is when they get to the point where they start to trust their own thinking and experience enough to live their response. Easter provides a good test of this mark of growth.

In some ways it has never really been a question of how believable or acceptable the resurrection story is to a genuine Christian. The more interesting question is why Church members are not uniformly transformed by their claimed knowledge of the resurrection. If we look at typical behaviour of Christians today, we should at least acknowledge that some show by their actions they are uncertain as to what it all means. Celebrating in joyful worship we may well be on Easter Sunday – yet for many of us, the very next day it is back to total normality and on to the Easter sales.

Although most Christians are happy to respond to the Easter Greeting – “Christ is risen!” with “He is risen indeed!”, all is by no means clear.

Today I wish to face what some critics say as squarely and as honestly as possible. You should be assured at the outset that although I am aware of these problems I personally believe there is very important truth in the resurrection that resonates with my experience and one I believe gives a good basis for a life based on faith. Yet I also believe that if a faith is worth having it should be sufficiently robust to survive honest doubts.

It is fine to start simply with the gospel accounts, reading each one separately and using the Church three year cycle of the lectionary almost as an excuse to avoid seeing how the accounts stack up against one another. But as our faith matures, there is also a case for comparing the accounts and then allowing ourselves become open to relevant knowledge from other sources.

So to work….
We start with an observation from Justice Haim Cohn, a prominent contemporary Jewish scholar who draws our attention to some obvious problems in accepting the veracity of the account of Jesus’ evening trial in the house of the High Priest. Justice Cohn claims that the traditional story of Jesus’ trial is inconsistent with custom. First according to Jewish law and custom, the Sanhedrin were not allowed to exercise jurisdiction in the High Priest’s house or for that matter anywhere outside the Courthouse and Temple precinct. No session of the criminal court was permissible after nightfall. Passover or Pesach would not have provided the setting since no criminal trial was permissible on a feast day or the eve of a feast day. In view of the formalistic and rigorous attitude to the law, for which the Pharisees were well known, a conviction must be proceeded by two truthful and reliable witnesses and in fact the charge of blasphemy was inapplicable since it was closely defined as pronouncing the ineffable name of God, the tetragrammaton, which under Jewish law might only be pronounced once a year on the Day of Atonement – and then only by the High Priest in the Kodesh Kodashim, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple.

Next we look more closely at how the gospel accounts stack up against each other. The gospel accounts are fine if read separately – but downright confusing if they are assembled together. The difficulties are now well known and are standard teaching in many theological training institutions. Because by tradition and the three year church lectionary cycle the stories are not usually read on the same day in Church, accordingly the contradictions are less well known by typical church members apart from the more serious Bible scholars among them. For example there are different reportedly eye witness accounts with different last words on the cross. There are different versions of what was encountered at the empty tomb and who the witnesses met there. Right from the outset the gospel writers seem to have struggled to come up with a consistent and clear account of the empty tomb.

Let’s be honest. Given the requirements of news reporters today, the gospels lacked the precision and accuracy now expected of national news reporters and appear closer today with what we might more commonly associate with the tabloids. Matthew, for example has many graves opening and dead people walking around. Matthew 27 verses 52 and 53 says “There was an earthquake, the rocks split and the graves opened, and many of God’s people rose from sleep , and coming out of their graves after his resurrection, they entered the Holy City where many saw them”. Many resurrected? Really?

Strangely the other gospel writers appeared to have missed this earth shaking scene altogether and contemporary historians seem oblivious to that extraordinary newsworthy event. Mark as the writer most contemporary with the events, far from supporting Matthew’s account, attempted to close off his account before the resurrection evidence was even mentioned. The last twelve verses of Mark are widely believed by scholars to have been added much later by other authors to bring Mark’s gospel into line with the resurrection details mentioned in the other gospels. The earliest complete manuscripts of Mark’s gospel were missing these verses and the style of writing including letter formation suggests that the missing verses were added at least two hundred years after the original gospel was first composed.

Then we get to the gospel detail. Certainly contradictions in the reported versions have caused much debate about the validity of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion and the resurrection. For example: Jesus’ last words were?
Matt.27:46,50: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” …Jesus, when he cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.”

Or was it: Luke 23:46: “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit:” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.”

Then in John’s version John 19:30: “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished:” and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.”

And for that matter who did his followers actually see at the sepulchre?
Mark 16:5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
Luke 24:4 And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:
John 20:12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.

Next we move to the events immediately after the resurrection.
According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Mary Magdalene was among the group of women who were told by angels at the empty tomb that Jesus had risen “even as he said,” and Luke went as far as to say that when the women heard this, “they remembered his words” (24:9). Such statements as these can be put together with Matthew’s claim that the women encountered Jesus, even held him, and worshipped him as they were running from the tomb to tell the disciples what they had seen, Matt 28:9 This presumably indicates the women were already convinced that Jesus has risen from the dead when they left the tomb. Yet when Mary actually meets Jesus she not only doesn’t recognize him, she tells him that his body is missing from the tomb and she doesn’t know where it has been put.

It is true that some of the minor differences in the accounts eg Was it angels or men in the tomb? How many in the tomb? Who was it who encountered Jesus afterwards? etc may indeed be little more than the typical versions of reporters struggling to remember what they believed they had been told well after the event, but at the very least it would be dishonest to say there was no room for doubt.

Now for the bit requiring clear thought. I would claim that despite the problems there was something very significant about the resurrection. This to my way of thinking was no matter how confusing the accounts now seem in retrospect, something was happening soon after Jesus crucifixion to transform some who had been close to Jesus from being frightened, highly dependent frail humans, into disciples prepared to strike out on their own, passing on Jesus’ teaching and being sufficiently inspirational to draw others to his cause. Perhaps we also need to acknowledge that not all showed these signs of life. If we assign this change to “resurrection”, as far as some were concerned, resurrection must have happened for them in some way even if it should be also allowed a metaphorical sense.

Biologically I have no idea what resurrection actually meant. Was Jesus properly dead when taken down off the cross? Was the story exaggerated through the next few decades? Truthfully, although I know what I would like to believe – I have no way of proving what I hope to be true. Yet what is absolutely beyond question is that death did not finish Jesus and his message. What is also true is that some – notice I say some – not all – were brought to a new dimension of life in the process.

I guess many of you would have heard of the resurrection plant. One of the most dramatic of these – (because there are several different plants given the same colloquial name) is the Jericho rose. When it runs out of water as it can do in the desert, it pulls up its roots and looks as if it has shrivelled up and died. But it is only hibernating. And according to one reference I read, the Jericho Rose can exist in the desiccated form for up to fifty years.

It allows the wind to blow it along in its shrivelled state until it somehow senses water. (You’ll have to ask my wife the Latin name for the plant – and ask Prince Charles what to say to one when you see one being blown along the road! He talks to plants. ) Finally having sensed water the resurrection plant puts down its roots and starts growing again.

You might well focus on the state of Jesus from crucifixion to resurrection and believe it is important to believe the detail. For what it is worth I happen to think it is far more important to individually offer the sort of environment to allow Jesus to take root in our life. Simply stopping and celebrating the detail of that first resurrection is not sufficient for me because knowing about it wouldn’t necessarily change me. In fact I know people who have passed exams in that sort of detail without allowing what Jesus stood for to take root in their lives. One of the gospel accounts has the disciples saying in summary that they had heard the women had told them Jesus was no longer in the tomb but they had a dinner appointment at Emmaus so they were heading to Emmaus instead of following up the story.

Should we seek Jesus in the empty tomb? That leaves it at history and confusing history at that. Luke’s account has Jesus asking “why do you seek him among the dead”. If he is not perceived amongst the living – sure that includes among people like us – then why would resurrection matter? In other words simply hearing about it won’t necessarily make a difference.

Metaphorically speaking, I think it is only when I allow the resurrection to come alive for me that I will be able to actually show love for my fellows. Maybe then the resurrection plant can teach us something.

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Lectionary Sermon for March 11 2018 Lent 4b on John 3: 14-21

THE STRUGGLE FOR TRUTH
Sorting out real truth has always been more difficult than quoting a few key Bible verses. The Nicodemus story reminds us that truth typically only begins to take shape when an individual goes out of their way to seek the truth.

So Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night – and we are given to understand that there would be strong motivation for him to keep the visit secret. After all Jesus would hardly have been accepted by the orthodox group that Nicodemus represents. Nevertheless Nicodemus comes seeking the truth about Jesus.

The Greek word for truth means “making obvious the unknown”. But there is something else which is often overlooked. Truth in practice is uncovered a little (often a very little) at a time.

This I believe is true in both science and religion. Think about it. In science the Greek philosopher Democritus postulated many years ago that matter might be made of small discrete particles called atoms. There has been a long and uncertain path of discovery ever since with many blind alleyways, twists, and turns before the scientists could actually photograph shadows of these atoms and gradually work out the complex ways in which they are assembled. And what wonders of energy and creation have been uncovered in the process, a process which was marked by famous experiments such as those of Lord Rutherford and still continues with the Large Hadron Collider and a host of experimental breakthroughs.

Think what we may have missed if the scientists had said:
“ Democritus has told us all we need to know about atoms”.
In religion we see a similar tortuous and gradual uncovering of truth…whether it be the truth about God, or specifically to Christians: the truth about Jesus and the truth about what it means to believe and follow Jesus.

Think what we would have missed if we ever said:
“I know some verses in the Bible that tell me all that I need to know about Jesus”.

The notion of God may have started in human understanding as a virtual tribal token, one of many Gods, and yet through the centuries our perception has gradually changed and grown from what was first thought to be a local, unpredictable and at times vindictive Spirit to the beginnings of understanding of something more mysterious with shadowy glimpses to what might lie beyond and as part of a vast creation. In the course of our quest for truth about such matters, we have also encountered a love principle which promises meaning to human existence.

This morning’s reading contains that wonderful poetic verse (John 3:16) that introduces us to one dimension of the Love principle which the King James version renders as: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

This is of course a huge step forward from the Old Testament God portrayed in places like Genesis and the Psalms – yet history teaches us that even this famous verse has not proved to be the final arrival point – and certainly not one which always enables us to live at peace with our neighbours and be at one with creation. In fact, let’s be frank, this particular verse, John 3: 16 taken in its most superficial meaning may well have been more responsible as an excuse for violence and unkindness perpetrated in the name of Jesus than any other verse of the Bible.

Whosoever believes in him shall not perish. A casual encounter with this part of the verse allows us to think….. Aha …..therefore anyone will perish if they don’t believe, therefore with that much at stake let us force them to belief…. and of course by belief, we mean our sort of belief!

History teaches for example that this verse has provided an excuse for saying since the Muslims and Jews won’t believe in Jesus and are dangerous to salvation because they are not teaching the Christian truth – very well then, let us make life difficult for them until they are forced to believe. !? This provided the excuse for the Crusades where the Muslim unbelievers were put to the sword by the thousand. This is also partly why for centuries there were pogroms against the Jews right through Europe – massacres, house burnings, removing their legal rights … and indeed it is even claimed by some commentators that the lack of sympathy for the Jews was why it took so long to mobilize action against the Nazi concentration death camps.

A few years ago on a trip to Europe, Shirley and I visited one massacre site where, towards the end of the second world war, several hundred from the local Jewish ghetto had been tied together in pairs and pushed into the river to drown. We were shown the spot on the bank of the Danube in the so called Christian city of Budapest, and the Jewish guide asked: “Where were all the good people?” Given the high attendance rate in the Churches in Budapest, it was a fair question.

Then there were those a few hundred years ago who said the Catholics won’t believe in Jesus the same way as we as Protestants do. Destroy their Churches as protestants did in England, murder the Catholics as was done by Huguenot soldiers in France until the Huguenots in their turn were massacred on the orders of the King of France in 1572 (with, I might add, the king leaning out the window of the Louvre and firing casual pot shots at any Huguenot in the streets below with his arquebus).

As we move closer to the present the pattern seems little different. Fight the Catholics on the streets as the Protestants did in Northern Ireland, chant rude songs about children who went to Catholic schools in Christchurch as I was taught to do as a child…( although perhaps I might just confess as an aside we rather enjoyed the cone fight we had all those years ago in the pine forest when the Catholic Sunday school turned up to the same beach reserve as our Durham Street Methodist Sunday school for their annual picnic).

More seriously, this assumption that only verbal agreement with one’s own version of faith gives eternal life becomes a serious distortion in the hands of the missionaries who historically have often assumed that any culture, other than their own, needs to be destroyed as quickly as possible. Nor should we assume that such thinking is a thing of the past. In the last few years I have heard evangelical missionaries talk about the evil of Hinduism, and of Islam and even of Buddhism. I have also taught in New Britain where some of the missionaries insisted on introducing a Western culture as well as a Victorian religion.

I have also witnessed the callous indifference to the physical plight of people by some of these same missionaries who acted as if, since only eternal salvation matters for the heathen, we can therefore ignore less important things like hunger, disease and injustice.

Yet even although the verse says: whosoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life, it is only at the most superficial level that this belief could be thought of as a creedal statement. Announcing that one is saved is hardly the same as living as a believer. Jesus elsewhere makes it very clear what it means to believe in him. “ In so far as you do it to the least of your neighbours you do it unto me”. Surely this means that to believe in Jesus means adopting and following his ways.

Jesus was accused of eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. Very well then, presumably believing in him means caring about those in society who are different to us. Jesus also taught that those not recognized as having the right religious credentials can be the ones living in accordance with his teachings. If this can be applied to Samaritans – then surely it equally applies to Hindus or Muslims. This time of Lent, traditionally a time of self examination is a good time to ask ourselves honestly if we can see evidence that we are taking his words seriously by the way we are living.

A superficial reading of John 3: 16 also causes us to overlook how the verse starts. For God so loved the world – it doesn’t say, the Western protestant world – nor even only the human part of the world.

Believing in Jesus, who for us personifies this love for the world, may then mean we have to genuinely start caring about those of other races and other creeds. If the world is more than just the human race – then perhaps belief also means we should be insisting on caring for creation with its precarious ecosystems and millions of interacting life forms.

It is clear that Jesus only gets part of his message across to Nicodemus. A few verses earlier Jesus talks about being born again and Nicodemus makes it clear he has not understood. As Jesus says in reply : if I have spoken to you about earthly things and you do not believe me, how will you believe me if I speak to you about heavenly things.

He has a point. If we cannot get the basics of Jesus’ teaching, with his down to earth message about how we should be interacting with one another and further if we don’t have the vital experience of living this life in practice. Without the life witness there is little point to rushing to pretend esoteric intellectual certainties about theological implications of salvation. Berating unbelievers with dimly understood theological words instead of offering genuine friendship and compassion is hardly demonstrating belief in Jesus’ way.

So Nicodemus didn’t quite get it. However make no mistake about it, Nicodemus may not have understood all in Jesus’ message, but he is at least partly on the way. As John tells it Nicodemus stays in the background but as a secret disciple serious enough about being a follower to be one who brings a scented resin to tend to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

Perhaps there is something of Nicodemus in all of us. Just as Nicodemus came in the shadow of darkness, not all parts of our thinking and deeds are always brought into the light. Light is not always welcome, particularly in areas where the conscience is not entirely clear. Light can be disturbing and some only notice the shadows it brings. Perhaps this is why some good people seem to produce a reaction of anger in others as their light shows other people as they really are. We all have blind spots about ourselves and others which cause us to rush to premature judgement and miss the potential in ourselves and others.

William Barclay in his Daily Bible on today’s gospel, uses the story of a man visiting and art gallery to look at the Old Masters hanging there. After a guided tour with an attendant of some of these works of genius the man announced to his guide. “Well I don’t think much of your old paintings
The attendant’s quiet reply… “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are.”

Verses such as John 3:16 are indeed masterpieces – but our assessment of their meaning and potential may uncover new layers of truth if we will but look. AMEN

Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated. Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.

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Lectionary Sermon for 18 March 2018 Lent 5 Year B (On John 12: 20 -33)

One difficulty I have with religious visitors is my own prejudice.  Many of them seem bent on enlisting me to a view that says all who do not share the visitors’ view of the Bible and the visitors’ sect are doomed to burn in hell. There they assure me, will go the Catholics, the Muslims, the Hindus and alas even my own denomination members. Prejudice about those with different backgrounds and religion is not a new phenomenon and can I be bold enough to admit this includes the attitudes of a good number in my own Church.

So some Greeks – who of course would have been Gentiles as far as Jesus’ Jewish disciples were concerned, came with a request – “Sir we would like to see Jesus”. So what does Phillip do. You can almost hear him thinking. “Foreigners – not like us. Probably foreigners with strange beliefs. Certainly not the sort who would fit in with us…..”

So is Philip very different from a good number of us of us in the Church today. I can imagine him saying to himself, “Well, it’s not for me to introduce these sorts of strangers to Jesus…. So I’ll find someone, someone who can act as an agent on my behalf”.

In this case, Andrew. After all it was Andrew who has invited others to meet Jesus…. If we had been in Philip’s place today, might we have referred the foreign strangers to the minister or Parish Steward?

We shouldn’t be too surprised at Philip’s reaction. After all, from what we know of churches today would a group of mainline Protestants be in a hurry to invite a Muslim, a Jehovah’s witness, a Russian Orthodox or even a Catholic into their inner circle? Maybe if they took the words from the example Jesus set they should – but would they? – or more to the point would we?

As it happens, I’m guessing it might have struck the disciples as being strange or even a bit bizarre that the Greeks should even be there. Gentiles were not part of the inner circle, so why were they there? One commentator J H Bernard notes that since the account of Jesus clearing the Temple reminds us that event would have occurred in the Gentiles courtyard, and he speculates that perhaps these particular Greeks may have even witnessed this event and been sufficiently intrigued to seek out the man responsible for this daring act.

In this reading we are reminded that is as if we are being reminded that with Lent almost behind us Jesus can now be lifted up now that the dawn of the time has arrived….. when in Jesus’ words , “I can draw everyone to myself” . If Jesus can make himself open to the Greeks, perhaps we too should be wondering how we can make those who are strangers to us feel as though they belong. We might note also in passing that he seems to be treating them as if they were already disciples. Jesus certainly doesn’t make allowances for the Greeks as foreigners or waste time on conversational niceties.

So do we see Jesus making it easy for these newcomers? As that TV character used to say, “I should cocoa!”

Jesus too, leaves these would be disciples with the same difficult, costly and potentially damaging choice he offers his followers. What he says in effect, whether it be to the fishermen disciples at their nets, the rich young ruler, those he challenged to pick up their cross – or in this case the casual enquirers who were Greeks…. this is not merely a half hearted choice which allows you to keep to your old way of life. “Whoever serves me must follow me.”

I guess this has always been the challenge. Our own declarations count for little. We can announce we are Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics – but whether we are new to the faith, even would-be followers like the Greeks, or for many of us, members of a particular Church with many years of membership behind us… it is not our status that counts but whether or not we are following the way that Jesus set out in front of his disciples.

By using his allusion of the seed that has to separate itself from its parent plant – in effect to die to its old self before it can set off its new life, Jesus confronts them with an uncompromising alternative. Soren Kierkegaard would probably identify it as the key feature of existentialism – the leap of faith.
………..the leap that no one can do for you.

I suspect that Jesus’ message is typically down–played and treated with caution by modern society and even by much of the corporate Church.

Modern society is based on the concept of success and the achievement of status through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. To set these aside is to reject what is commonly accepted as the only sensible way to live. Even in the corporate Church, the notion of individual response without someone to organise it on our behalf is just not how we operate.

While this no doubt gives us the assurance we are not acting alone, there is a conservatism, and frequently an inertia, particularly when there is an assumption that we require the Church to act as broker before we can respond to how our conscience appears to lead.

Robert Funk sees typical religion as unfortunately something brokered by a whole raft of people on our behalf. The Archbishop or Church president selects and ordains the senior leaders, the senior church folk (often Bishops) ordain the clergy – and the clergy act as an intermediary between the congregation and the divine. And just in case we are expecting action on the issues that concern us, there is usually a ponderous committee structure to navigate. While we have clearly become more democratic in our processes, we should be honest enough to see the end result is that the Church no longer typically gives clear lead on issues of conscience.

I guess that is not new.
In the Second World War for example, in Germany it was only the individuals acting alone who could bring themselves to stand against Hitler. Those individuals were not waiting for their actions to be mediated for them. Less than 10% of the Lutheran Church clergy spoke out and as it happens, the Roman Catholic Church is continuing to defend itself on a frequently expressed charge that if anything they supported the Nazis.

On the world scene, the traditional Church denominations were also initially reluctant to speak against slavery, more recently the mainline Churches were painfully slow in that the biggest Churches still appear reluctant to see women in significant leadership roles. Today they continue to say little about the arms trade. Peace makers may be blessed in the sermon on the Mount, but in reality they have not always been visible as part of Church leadership in some of the nastier conflicts. An army chaplain, blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a Japanese city, may not represent one of the Church’s finer moments. In this country, despite the record growing gap between the rich and the poor, the Church response has been reactive rather than proactive and if anything muted and restrained.

Individually however we do see within our Churches a small number of determined brave individuals anxious to move forward even without official backing, prepared to follow where their conscience leads. Since we should never forget that in the last analysis the Church is us, we can and should be inspired that we have amongst us those unafraid to question government policy, those prepared to speak up for refugees and minorities, those unafraid to work with the gangs, the addicts and the homeless. We continue to be inspired by those prepared to volunteer in disaster zones, those who insist on supporting Christian World service and those of our Church folk prepared to go into War zones as aid workers.

When we look at the way Jesus interacted with those he met we notice he continually pushed them to take personal responsibility. It is also my impression he tended not to insist those healed that God had done it for them – or that he had interceded on their behalf. Rather instead he acknowledged their personal faith, or actions in seeking his help. It was as if he represented a non brokered faith … a faith in which the shouldering of a personal cross is the test of an individual response.

The seed analogy is vivid and helpful. A seed still attached to the parent plant can only whither and decay. The seed freed to germinate and take root can give rise to new life. Certainly the parent plant – in our case even the parent Church has an essential part of our life cycle. Yet even there the parent Church should be continually allowing and even encouraging the seed to break free to give rise to genuine new life.

Jesus talks of the confrontation as one he in particular must face for himself. He sees the paradox of finding life through death, release through suffering, in effect the dawn after the night. Some of the terminology he uses strongly suggests his premonition of the dark despair he is understood to have faced in the garden of Gethsemane. As always with John it is hard to disentangle the theology from the factual record.

Some of the allusions are easy to grasp. When Jesus talks of he (and she?!) who loves his (or her?!) life will lose it Jesus is not of course talking of a sense of the worth of life – but rather the attractions of a shallow pursuit of that which comes easy… yet there is still mystery. The notion of hating your life to win eternal life is a difficult thought-provoking paradox and perhaps related to the historical fact that by the death of the martyrs the Church itself apparently grew. Yet in what sense the life continues is much harder to put into words. Modern cosmology has in effect put paid to notions of heaven being up there and hell down there as places, and the certainty with which some describe the hereafter (particularly at funerals) is hard to justify since many of the descriptions are contradictory and mutually exclusive.

What we can however be sure of is that a sense of what Jesus stood for has continued to have a lasting significance and regardless of the manner of his execution his message and the Spirit of what he stood for lives on, but not in the ether. Rather it is in the responses and deeds of those who win the right to be called followers by how they respond to the way of Jesus. Will that include those like us?

By contrast perhaps we might finish with an historical anecdote.
There are several versions of the story about the King Xerxes about to invade Greece. One version says that before they crossed the Hellespont River he had his mighty Persian army drawn up so that he might review them. He smiled in great satisfaction at their magnificence – then his officers noticed suddenly he had tears in his eyes. “What troubles you?” they asked.

“I was just thinking that in one hundred years not a single one of these fine soldiers will be alive. Nothing will remain”.

Xerxes’ words should remind us that each of us have a relatively brief time in which we can respond to the gospel. And dont forget that when it comes to following Christ each generation needs to ensure the mission is handed on to the next generation. We can’t depend on what previous disciples did in the past – glorying only in the deeds of a previous generation of Christians. Newcomers or old-hands, the test is always the challenge of living the faith.

The essence of Christianity was not necessarily finished when Jesus was lifted up on his cross. It continues to live if we make it live, but finding meaning in his message with our own seed is the chapter still to be written.

 Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit).To avoid subsequent copyright problems some acknowledgment would be appreciated. Although these sermons appear to be visited regularly, because the purpose of this site is to encourage thought, it would be helpful to others if you were to leave comments, suggestions of alternative illustrations, or corrections.

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 3 b March 4, 2018 (John Ch 2 : 13-22 Clearing the Temple)

Would our chosen trappings of religion pass the Jesus test?

How much of our religion really matters and how much would be what the philosopher A.N. Whitehead dismissed as trappings?

Reflect on what Whitehead saw when he looked at the Church.  According to Whitehead “Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, Bibles, codes of behaviour are the trappings of religion, in passing forms.”

I guess I would even suggest a few more. How about denominationalism, Church hierarchies, vestments, archaic superstitions, formalized ceremonies and heresy hunts?

Notice that none of these has to be particularly harmful by itself if kept in strict moderation and I am sure that many would assume trappings help us gain a degree of perspective and focus on our faith. But there is a problem when the trappings take over and we forget what the gospel is supposed to be about.

One of the key incidents in the Jesus story is surely his attack on one aspect of the trappings that affected his people of the time, the event of the clearing of the Temple.

Did you notice that John places the clearing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – whereas Matthew Mark and Luke see this as towards the end during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. There is good argument for both. In John’s record of the significant events in Jesus’ ministry, by placing it at the start of his mission, it underlines Jesus’ uncompromising honesty and courage. It also sets the scene for his eventual collision course with the establishment. For Matthew Mark and Luke it is no less significant yet is presented as an important part of the climax of his ministry and as with John, explains perfectly why the temple leadership would have been unable to tolerate his challenge.

For what it is worth I happen to suspect although John makes a good theological point, it is less likely the event would have happened at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because from that point he would have been a marked man and not free to continue with his ministry.

Of far more importance is why Jesus might have come into conflict with the temple authorities in the first place. Let’s look again at the setting.
Remember the Temple was constructed to reflect the Jews cultural pecking order. In the centre was a small room – the Holy of Holies. God was in that space. Even the High Priest was only allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year.

Next came the courtyard of the priests.

Outside that was the courtyard for male adult Jews….
Next was the courtyard for Jewish women, then finally the courtyard for the gentiles. It was in this courtyard that the money changers and animal traders were to be found.

As with the way modern Muslims still require sheep to be killed, the custom of sacrifice had been laid down in the ancient scriptures and had gradually become formalized and ritualized until it was almost an obsession.

That there should be money changers in the Temple was hardly surprising. Because travellers and pilgrims would come from afar for the Passover festival, it would have been most impractical for all of them to carry their own animals for sacrifice. Accordingly the temple officials would supply a number of the animals for sacrifice. But there was a catch. Because the animals had been chosen for sacrifice, ordinary non Jewish money was considered too base for the purchase of the animals for religious purpose.

The pilgrims were required to exchange their non Jewish money for the required coins to pay for the sacrifice. If they were paying at the standard rate of half a shekel per person as laid down by the Talmud, this was expensive enough since half a shekel was the equivalent of two days wage.

Even exchanging shekels for half shekels would be a cost because the money changers were expected to take some profit. Even worse was when non Jewish coins were brought to exchange for the Jewish shekels. The exorbitant exchange rate had grown over the years until it had become open profiteering.

The other way in which corruption had taken over was that only perfect animals could be sacrificed. For those choosing to bring their own animals for sacrifice, there were special inspectors called mumcheh, who for an appropriate amount would inspect your animal – but alas the custom had changed over the years so that virtually no animal from the outside would pass this inspection and the pilgrim would be required to buy a temple animal for sacrifice. Are you surprised this turned out to be expensive? A pair of doves sold at the Temple cost the equivalent of 24 days work.

That the Temple had become excessively wealthy through this sacrifice money and money exchange was not in dispute. Even some years previously when Crassus captured Jerusalem in 54 BC the historians said that he took the equivalent of something like 5 million dollars in today’s money from the Temple without anywhere near exhausting the wealth.

Jesus then had cause to be upset.

Exploiting the poor was of course an extreme and glaring injustice, particularly when done in the name of God.

Jesus probably shared the revulsion of a number of the prophets who had pointed out time after time that it wasn’t sacrifices but rather changed hearts which were required. So we recall Isaiah with his: To what purpose are your numerous sacrifices to me? Said the Lord …..bring no more your vain oblations. (Isaiah 1: 11-17) . Gentiles were allowed and even expected to get as close as possible to the Temple to offer their prayer – but it was in the gentiles’ courtyard that the cacophony of sound, with the bleating of sheep – bellowing of frightened calves – the shouts of those bargaining. No doubt the raised voices of those disputing their treatment at the hands of the money lenders would all combine. This in effect made a mockery of any attempt of the gentiles to offer prayer. Given Jesus’ reported sympathies for gentiles, this may have given further reason for his indignation.

You have probably heard the old story about the man who died and went to the gates of heaven. There he met St Peter and asked to be shown around. St Peter showed him the many courtyards. “This one he said is for the good Buddhists, this one is for the Muslims, over there is the courtyard for the Hindus” – and so on.

“What about that very high walled courtyard over there where I can hear singing and organ music coming from?”, the man asked. “Well that’s where the Christians are,” said St Peter – “but I wonder if I might ask you to be very quiet outside their wall. You see they think they are the only ones here”.

To know with certainty about heaven is beyond my pay grade yet I suspect that story fairly describes many people’s attitude not only towards Christianity, but even towards their particular version of Christian faith. At the last high school where I taught I once had some exclusive Brethren pupils whose parents would not allow them to eat lunch with the other children. I might have been able to feel superior towards them for their prejudice except that at primary school I can remember chanting a rhyme aimed at the Catholic children required to go to a separate Catholic school.

Jesus driving out the money lenders only becomes awkward when we think of some of the modern trappings which always risk growing in significance until they make a mockery of our faith.

Take religious art. Placing the occasional icon – or even stained glass window in a place of worship as a focus for thoughtful religious response is another way of reminding ourselves that events remembered in the history of the faith matter significantly. To continue to collect such items until the place of worship is groaning with opulence is bordering on the obscene particularly when the Church acts as if it is blind to poverty in the community and in the world. I remember being shown a small section of the Vatican museum in Rome by a guide and being told that if a visitor was to spend ten seconds in front of each priceless work of art it would take something like ten years to see all the works of art owned by the Vatican.

Perhaps by some mental gymnastics this can be reconciled with Jesus injunction to take no thought for the morrow – and the bit about not storing up treasures on Earth … but we might ask ourselves if Jesus would really have been pleased at such a display of opulence.

Religious clothing for Church leaders is another area which might cause us to stumble. I certainly can follow that there is significance in the stole, a simple strip of material intended as the mark of ordination and intended as the symbolic version of the yoke of servant hood. Somehow however this has morphed through the centuries. The stole has become more elegantly embroidered and the simple gown into gowns of jewelled and brocaded splendour to the point where the notion of the humble servant somehow becomes lost in the visual trappings of power and significance.

It is odd isn’t it that it is hard to imagine Jesus arrayed like an archbishop in a Cathedral.

Dare I suggest that even Church ceremonies like communion need a time of re-evaluation. This simple shared meal, by which Jesus disciples were ask to remember him, so often can become formalized so that the leaders become the star turn. For some churches only the initiated may partake and so the simple act of remembrance evolves to a highly formalized and stylized marathon of liturgy where the notion of a shared meal is submerged with high sounding religious jargon. More to the point, if we think of communion as a stand-alone ceremony yet never get round to offering hospitality to strangers, have we really grasped what Jesus was on about? Remember that Jesus was often accused of eating with the undesirables. If we truly want to be reminded of what he stood for, can we act as if some are not worthy to share real meals?

I don’t think for one moment that there was a particular instant when the Jews in their efforts to please God would have been aware that their customs had gone too far. The Temple ceremonies became corrupt gradually over a period of some hundreds of years. In the same way, oh so gradually, an obsession with buildings and with the minutiae of Church administration can take over our meetings until the day perhaps we finally realize that mission and issues of justice and Christian responsibility have become tacked on the end of our agenda merely as a token, and it is then that there comes a need to clear our own temple.

Lent is the traditional time for self-examination. Today on this third Sunday of Lent we might do well to pause to wonder if we too are in danger of losing our sense of focus. Perhaps, even here, there is a need to check the practices of what for us passes as today’s Temple. AMEN

( Feel free to use as much of this material as you choose for your own purposes (but not for profit). Note too, I am always short of ideas – and know that others have better insights and illustrations. Why not share them in the comments below?)

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