Lectionary Sermon for Sunday 20 September 2020 based on Matthew 20: 1 -16

There are some thought provoking truths in the stories and actions of those who are remembered in the history of our faith. However it occurs to me that a good part of the impact of each story depends on truth which comes to life for us when we realize the story teller lives by the words of that same truth.

Which brings us to today’s parable. It turns out that this particular parable is easily misinterpreted – sometime with unfortunate consequences.

The standard, and I suggest limited, way of looking at this reading from Matthew about the labourers and the vineyard is to use the story to gain insights about God. If for the owner of the vineyard you read God, then at one level the reading might be assumed to be telling us about the generous nature of God. The notion that turning to God’s truth shortly before the “roll is called up yonder” and still getting the same reward as those who had laboured in God’s service all one’s life no doubt at least holds out hope for the habitual sinner.

The only catch to this last minute recruitment story is that it rather misses what Jesus actually said. To think Jesus was using the story to teach about God is not just a shallow reading of the parable – it is even not paying attention to what Jesus was actually saying.

He does not in fact say God is like the landowner who goes out to hire labourers. What he actually says is that the kingdom of God is like a landowner …..

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

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

If we are serious about accepting the parable, perhaps it is asking us to offer our generosity, not just to our church leaders and established members…but caring just as much and offering just as much respect and assistance to those who have just turned up. I remember once asking a Church conference how many of those present came from churches where young people were given responsibility in their respective leaders’ meeting? I won’t tell you what the question revealed but perhaps you can guess.

I suspect that for established Christians in some types of Churches the parable might even run contrary to normal Church practice particularly if the Church in question is hierarchical in the sense that Church leaders are treated with great respect. My impression is that the newcomer to a hierarchical church is not treated in quite the same way that those who have gradually worked their way up the leadership ladder. Perhaps the implied moral of Jesus’ parable is not always popular because it teaches something which doesn’t quite fit with the way many people like to welcome newcomers to the faith.

For example for a period of several centuries some branches of Christianity taught that “the last shall be first” meant that just so long as you confessed just before your death it didn’t matter much what you did during your lifetime. The difficulty here is that this implies that religion has nothing to offer this life. There is also the problem that the next life, whatever that might mean, is largely a matter of speculation in that there are just about as many beliefs about the nature of what the word heaven is intended to mean as there are versions of Christianity.

Even although Jesus’ parable has been around a long time not all those who attend Churches necessarily see it as having anything to do with their behaviour.

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

My second example is a personal one. When I started teaching at Wesley College many years ago I used to take services regularly as a lay preacher at one particular small country Church. They were lovely folk – but never once did Shirley and I get invited to a congregation member’s house. What is more I noted that other visitors had the same reception – almost as if they had to have done the long service before qualifying for proper friendship. Unfortunately it didn’t immediately occur to us that we were just as free to offer hospitality. When we shifted to Papakura, Shirley and I went somewhat tentatively to a nearby Church on a Sunday morning where we were not only greeted and made to feel extremely welcome but we were also invited to a meal on the first day. Needless to say we reciprocated and started attending that Church seeing it as a place of friendship. Now years later I wonder what might have happened in the little country Church if my wife and I had done more to invite members of the congregation to our home.

My third example happened at another Church in our neighbourhood where I was told an elderly woman had arrived as a newcomer and after two or three weeks announced to the congregation that since she really knew nobody, she had divided the congregation up into manageable groups and was inviting first those with surnames A to L to her house for a pot luck meal. According to my informant this has had a transforming effect on the friendliness of the congregation.

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

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

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

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

I said at the outset that those who offer wise stories or thoughtful observations are much more likely to have impact if we know they are living their truth. I would like us then to think for a moment about Rabbi Hugo Grynn. Rabbi Grynn was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz where he had been sent as a small boy.

I know only one of his insights …. A key phrase “We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” He had won the right to speak that phrase because for most of his life he was one who lived this principle as a campaigner for refugee rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lectionary sermon for 13 September 2020 on Romans 14:1-12

A simple question…..Do your beliefs encourage you to be kind?

Stating we are following Jesus or his leading interpreters like Paul doesn’t mean we are all going to be uniformly kind. It is all very well to agree with St Paul or Jesus that love is central – but in reality this doesn’t necessarily tell us when and how this love should be expressed or even to whom this love should be directed.

It may even help to revisit the origin of the word “kindness”. I recently read an article by the novelist and writer Mike Riddell who pointed out the word “kindness” has a particular meaning in English because it is traced back to the old English “cynn” from whence we got the word “kin”. To treat people with kindness, then leads to the image of treating them as if they are members of our immediate family.

One of the sad things about Christianity is the ease with which some of those following the faith turn first to become intolerant of anyone who appears to be walking a slightly different path then treat them as outside the family. No doubt most of us would know of Irish Catholics versus Irish Protestants, Liberal Christians versus Southern Baptists, and even the Western Christian suspicion of Muslims despite them coming from a related Abrahamic faith.

Even within the first generation of those forming the Christian Church the number of such divisive beliefs was extraordinary. Here Paul was only addressing one particular Church community and I guess some of their divisions are somewhat different from our divisions today. On the other hand in Paul’s day, people appear to have been just as likely to reject people for legalistic reasons as we are today. We might note that although the points of difference Paul referred to now might seem to us to be trivial and peculiar to the church culture of the time, yet in their setting, the issues must have seemed great indeed.

Paul talks for example about the division meat eating caused. Remember that in those days the issue was not so much the attraction of vegetarianism but rather a reaction to the fact that it was difficult to ensure that meat had been killed according to religious tradition. Meat which even had a slight chance of being killed according to some other tradition was considered to be contaminated and unlawful to eat by those with a Jewish background. If the meat for example, had been sacrificed on a pagan altar, or not killed according to strict religious protocol, it was thought to go against sacred rule to eat it. For those living in Rome, the chances that purchased meat was killed according to Jewish law would have been much less than it would have been in Jerusalem.

Although we would find it hard to see what the fuss was today, remember the underlying issue was whether or not they should obey the laws in the only scripture they had at that point. The New Testament was still to be written and even the other scriptures were still a few years away from being formulated into what we often call the Old Testament (at the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD)

There were also disputes about holy days. Remember again we are talking Rome. There some of the new gentile converts to Christianity would have been far less attached to the Jewish sacred feasts and specific Holy days which were generally still followed by the early Christians who were Jewish. Conversely the non Jewish Gentile Christians would no doubt be wishing to retain some of their own more traditional days and festivals. Remember that both Christmas and Easter were originally non-Jewish and non-Christian feasts that got borrowed by the Christian Church and changed in meaning.

Paul was not so much saying the rules should be ignored. He was more suggesting that where the rules are dividing – we should look behind those rules to the principles and insights that unite us.

I guess one possible reason why Paul was far less attached to specific rules even if they came from scripture was that since becoming a Christian, Paul the missionary had been an inveterate traveller. Travel in strange places is great for realizing that outward customs come in many different forms yet many might simply be different outward manifestations of what are essentially the same ideals and values.

Paul rightly sees the danger in disputes within legalism. Insisting on different customs and rules can lead to hurtful criticisms and abuse. Paul identified such divisiveness as being very destructive to the emerging Church community. Seeing beyond the different observances of religious custom whether it be communion, baptism, rites of membership, or the insistence of certain wording of our creeds, Paul’s suggestion that instead we should focus on what Jesus stood for, gives us a sense of perspective taking us back to centrality of principles of compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.

If we are honest with ourselves we would have to say that many of the differences we find within our Church today wouldn’t even have been recognized as legitimate in Paul’s day because the culture and customs have changed so much. I have seen churches where people argue about what is essential by way of furniture forgetting that in Paul’s day, furniture for places of worship was largely absent and probably considered entirely irrelevant.

We have also seen Churches where they now prize stained glass windows portraying Bible scenes, whereas at one time it was considered inappropriate to have any images of human figures present in a place of worship. Women clergy are acceptable today in many Churches but in Paul’s day women were not even allowed to speak in Church and often were placed away from the men during worship. Consider for a moment a selection of issues that currently cause different opinions in the Church…….

For some it will be issues like whether or not homosexual ministers are acceptable to the Church, for others it might be how we find meaning in the Bible, whether or not there is a heaven, whether or not God can change the weather or someone’s illness if we pray…Whether or not Christians should drink alcohol… and so on.

Because we are all inclined to believe that our chosen faith is the best, we might also be uncomfortable with those who teach other versions of Christianity – thus for Protestants the teachings of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the Mormons and the Roman Catholics are all suspect – yet as soon as we hear Jesus calling us back to his essential principles these things seem somehow of little consequence. Yes, and for those of a very conservative faith, there may well be 613 rules comprising the law of the Old Testament.

We might for example use those rules selectively to deal to those we don’t like – and say we are enlisting God on our side. Yet Paul says we have to put the rule dividing differences to one side as we focus on what Jesus really was about. And what again was it that Jesus said?……..( This from Mark 12.29-31)….
The most important rule is, “Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. You’ve got to love the Lord your God with your whole being – with your whole heart and every ounce of energy.” And the second most important rule is, “You must love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself.” For those attempting to follow, no other rule is greater than these two.

With these words, Jesus abolishes religion of the sort which tries to cajole God into supporting whatever our current rules might be. He pioneers the way for Paul and, much later, our modern prophets reminding us that rule based faith is less important than the centrality of living love, kindness and compassion. If our version of Christianity causes us to separate ourselves from our wider community and not notice where things are going astray for our community and our world, why would we think our religion is relevant.

The upshot of Paul’s writing for us today is, I think, to recognize that the way our current rules and customs shape our religion in churches on Sunday may help us develop what to us are comfortable customs but in no way should they define how we are to be Christian

I suspect Christians are still best defined by a choice to love – rather than by obedience to religious laws (certainly Jesus seems to think so!); by a willingness to set aside the security of external ceremonies (well at least says Paul); and both imply the need to focus on issues where the principles of Jesus need a clear input.

Let us stop to consider any one of the big issues of the day. All is not well in this world. COVID invites us to answer if our health system is available for all. Is it America first? Or a family which encompasses all? Should we put our effort into conflict fueled by nationalism and religious zealots or care about a planet being laid to waste by greed.

The economists and scientists tell us that for the possible the first time in history there is enough food on the planet to feed all the population. Yet the international surveys tell us that there are many obese – as well as many who remain hungry. Those who are hungry are in effect being denied access to the food.

Almost a billion are seriously hungry – many to the point of starvation and in many countries (including New Zealand) there has been a growing gap between the rich and the poor. There may be a good number who attend Church – but surely the ones who are attending to the principles of Jesus are those who show by thought, word and action that they wish to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Allowing only minimal attention to rules of honesty would probably lead you to overlook the gap between the rich and the poor so here too in fact Paul is right to remind us that we need the over-riding principles.

It seems to me that the overriding principles that Jesus taught would provide a good guide as to what is acceptable whether it be moral decisions about helping the poor and the hungry – finding guidance for making decisions about what is acceptable behaviour for those with other interpretations – or even the question as to what is the most desirable way to interact with those whose journey in faith is different to our own.

It is inevitable that sooner or later we will encounter those who see life and faith differently to ourselves. Remember that others will only be attracted to our conclusions if they find something in our lives that attracts them. Derision is unlikely to win over someone from a rival faith.

Certainly we will always be tempted to focus on the differences.
Yet in the midst of the rivalries there may be a quiet insistent voice calling us to new possibilities as we meet in a spirit of love.

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Lectionary Sermon 6 September 2020 (Romans 13: 8-14)

During the week I re-encountered a disturbing Internet meme. There was the picture of an aid worker offering some milk to a starving child…. And the meme? “Helping hands are better than praying lips”!?! Today’s reading from Romans reminds us that behind our beliefs – that long action list of requirements of faith can all be unified under the heading of love. But if love is what our faith is centred on ….is it time to ask how we are doing?

During the recent lockdown a few of the Churches in my hometown city showed an active concern for the wider community. Some members of some Churches for example helped with food banks or sought out the elderly in the neighbourhood and offered to do shopping for them. But here is a thought.

Why is it that we talk of love in Church services, yet I suspect, rather too often, this is not necessarily shown by many of us (including me) through to our actions. The love we talk of is not always translational.

At the very least we should remind ourselves that prayer left as an unfeeling repeated formula of words is a waste of time.

Today’s reading from Romans reminds us love is not just a feeling – it is inexorably tied up with action. If you were to turn it round for a moment and think of ourselves being the potential recipients of love, we would be reminded just how dependent we are in looking beyond formula words to actions.

While we might not know about the motivation, we should at least recognize loving actions directed to us, and by the same token I guess we know when what we are being offered is not love. The motivation for love – or its opposite – hate – may well start with presumed feelings but surely it is the expression in words and actions that will determine how it is recognized. And it is that which is perceived which tells us what is in the other’s heart.

If I had to choose one key teaching that summarizes Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity may be, for me it would be his understanding that the only really important principle needed to put all other teachings into perspective would have to be the centrality of love. And more than that, he showed by the examples he used, that love is not simply a feeling.

Although in other places he talks of positive actions associated with love, here he mentions some negative commandments – things that you shouldn’t do to your neighbour. He chooses as his examples some of the more extreme – adultery, killing, stealing and of course the attitude of coveting which sets up jealousies which would rapidly destroy any chance of developing good relationships. And using lists like Paul’s examples in Romans should help us understand because it is the negative actions done to us which very quickly identify our neighbour as unloving – and conversely our words and actions send their own message. It goes without saying it is sometimes easier to recite the well known teaching about love than it is to find the teaching making a difference in our personal lives or for that matter in the lives of our self-identified Christian communities.

With elections once more in the offing keeping score of wrongs is once more taking centre stage, and I suspect self-interest governs more policy than any visible insistence that we show love to enemies. While we might for example note the current US administration “America First” has been accompanied by cutting back on international responsibilities, in practice not too many nations including mine give serious priority to aid.

Paul himself would have been keenly aware of the gulf between theory and practice. The injunction to love had its equivalent in the Talmud and Paul as a leading Jew would have known those words. By the time he got round to penning today’s words from his letter to the Romans he had realized just how important this practical love might be.

It was not always the case. Remember earlier Paul had also been something of a religious fanatic who had persecuted the early Christian movement and even executed some of the earliest followers of Jesus, thinking he was doing God’s will. After his Damascus experience, Paul seemed to be more interested in measuring himself against what we might now call the golden rule. If we now admire his words, perhaps we too need to reflect on how our current behaviour patterns and attitudes must seem to others.

Remember what Paul said in today’s reading from Romans had its equivalent in 1st Corinthians Ch 13. Remember too that Paul was writing not just for the individual but to encourage the emerging Churches as fully functioning communities. We are often reminded of ways our individual consciences need to be activated, but it is interesting to think what sort of letter we would write if we were addressing our own local Church community. What sorts of actions characterize our group? Would we be identified both as individuals and as a group as having loving actions?

The two notions of individual actions and group actions are inevitably mixed together and whether we like it or not, if enough examples of bad individual behaviour are noticed the whole group gets judged accordingly. Fortunately of course the obverse is true. If there are warm relationships and kind actions being noticed, it isn’t just members who feel good about their association with the group.

I even suspect we make judgments about whole nations in the same way. Unfortunately by the same token others are also judging us.

Don’t forget that a decision made to support punitive action whether it be in the Gaza strip or in places like Iran or Afghanistan – makes it inevitable that such punishment would be remembered by successive descendants of those who see themselves as victims. I confess a liking for the old saying to the effect that “Bombing a city has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants”.

Conversely decisions motivated by the intention to be kind and to offer generous assistance seem to lead to payback in the form of treaties and alliances.
Yes it is true the primacy of love is not yet a commonly accepted part of international relationships. The old maxim of: To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem resembles a nail- appears much more a part of the automatic response than following Paul and Jesus by offering kind actions towards any State that appears a threat. Yet the adoption of a compassionate option always has to start at the individual level.

This then might make the act of that Sunday Communion much more meaningful for such a congregation. Sharing the bread and grape juice, kneeling or standing beside someone you know you should care for, means you should also be prepared to invite them into your home for a meal served in a friendly setting – where there is laughter and story-telling and sympathy aplenty, which then makes the Communion setting one of gathering with genuine fellow travelers.

Contrast this with the other extreme. What if the communion celebration is with a group of virtual strangers who have never dreamt of inviting the others into their home – a group who might smile briefly at one another with a perfunctory greeting outside Church in the foyer – but who might have no genuine interest in one another. Surely this raises a question. Is sharing the Lord’s supper with such partial strangers really remembering Jesus, who like Paul, said in effect that love of God and love of neighbour was the organizing principle which put all other commandments into perspective?

Having said that I am not implying that those who share meals at home are therefore saints fit to take communion beside you – or that by kneeling yourself after offering hospitality you then become a better companion for communion. It is rather that adopting Paul’s suggestions as best you can makes both you and the community better than you might otherwise have been….. not necessarily perfect.

Remember although what Jesus and Paul offered should have been welcome common sense, the love injunction does not cure all situations. A person who forgives does not turn all potential enemies into friends – at least not in the real world. After all Jesus forgave – yet was crucified. Paul extended the hand of friendship to many but was still martyred in Rome. What however he did was to pass on the inspiration for churches to grow in positive ways to the benefit of many.

In practice of course, just as we as individuals start with characteristics of both the saint and the sinner, most Churches would have an obvious mixture of good and bad attitudes amongst the members in their congregations. I once heard someone say “I love all humankind. All my family are members and some of my wife’s family are too”.

And I guess this is part of the challenge. One almost universal human flaw is that we naturally relate best to those who are like us and particularly if we are at ease with their customs. Most of us have acquaintances who we find easy to love because they return kindness as a matter of course. In practice, others have never learnt that skill.

I want to suggest that Paul and Jesus are clearly agreed in identifying the key pre-eminence of the love principle – but I also want to suggest that it is an ideal that needs constant attention and even deliberate action that sometimes goes against our baser natural instincts.

What is at stake in effect is the very nature of the local church, and hopefully from there our community and even our nation.. Then, as now, Church membership is not sufficient to automatically reflect underlying attitudes and actions. Paul of course was writing to the early Christian Church at Rome with some advice on what principles were needed for their fledgling community.

I cannot be sure that should Paul have been considering our community he would have been drawn to the need for the same advice. With us we hope he might have noticed something different. Nevertheless the advice he gives sounds as though it might equally apply to a host of communities. The real catch is that there are two issues that no-one else can answer for us. The two questions that still remained to be answered are: first the question of self assessment. Do we consider that an observer might see in the way we live the characteristics of those who genuinely care for one another and care for those to whom we come into contact? And the second… if not…what would we have to change to be satisfied that love had come to take a more central role in the way we live?

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Lectionary Sermon for August 23, 2020 (Year A) Matthew 16: 13 – 20

You would think that, given the wide availability of the Bible and in particular the accessibility of the New Testament, it would be relatively easy to work out and agree on what Jesus was all about. You might even take the next step and assume that given most main-line churches in the West use that same New Testament as a major faith document and the prospect of a unifying message of love and compassion you might well expect that we would all be brothers and sisters in the same basic friendly fold. History says otherwise. It has taken me a long time to acknowledge just how much inappropriate fury has accompanied changes in understanding of basic Christian theology down through the ages.

One oddity is just how unkind and un-Christ-like the gatekeepers of competing traditions were to one another. For example the first English translations from the Latin and Greek were regarded as heresy because only the languages of the priests ,like Hebrew, Latin and Greek were considered holy enough for the Word of God. The irony of insisting on the execution by burning of some of the earlier translators seems particularly inappropriate particularly when the translators’ crime included rendering passages like “Love your neighbour as yourself” into the language of the common people.

Another issue rose when some Bible scholars pointed out suggested ways on how to apply theological directives in the Bible in a very different society. Here the irony is that new insights exposed differences in interpretation for some of the most famous passages in the Bible. Each time a new insight caught on, new outrages were “exposed” and supporters of the different views would grump off or be driven out to form their own branch of the church.

Jesus asks the question first for the simple objective answer. Who do men (and yes, now with our changed society, many at least in my country would now insist he implied the inclusion of women) Who then do they say that I am? Objective question…. And an objective question gets the objective answer: “they say you are John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. I guess what they were really saying to Jesus is that we can see you disturb people with your particular form of wisdom – therefore you are the equivalent of those similarly disturbing famous people gifted with the ability to confront with religious truth – speaking for God. Objective question….objective answer.

Trite answers simply won’t do for the important questions. I was once told of one of the most banal answers to a religious question at a party, when one of those dreadfully earnest young men cut through the buzzing happy conversations and loud music and asked another young man the unwelcome non-party question. “Are you saved?” The answer: “As a matter of fact I am, Honey. But you can have the next dance”. And in some ways it is probably fair enough as an answer because such a question should not be asked in a trite manner and likewise the answer has no significance if it is merely the expected formula recitation.

But the Jesus of the gospels didn’t appear to want shallow easy answers. Not just who do others say that I am? He wants the deeper subjective and tricky part answered. I am not even sure that when Peter answered he even quite knew what he was saying. Certainly, terms like the Christ – which is actually the Greek version of saying the Messiah can be understood in a variety of ways. The Jewish concept of Messiah was in fact the return of one of the great leaders of the past – King David or perhaps Elijah – and it also had clear military overtones. Israel – so many Jews thought the teaching went – was to be led by the Messiah to its rightful place as one of dominion over the other nations. Jesus with his embarrassing pacifism would not have fitted the Jewish concept of the Christ at all so it was probably a great step forward for Peter to pull back from certainty.

Everyone thinks they know Peter’s answer. “You are the Christ, the Son of God”. Except to be fair to Peter that isn’t actually what he is reported by Matthew as saying. The key word in Matthew’s gospel is the word sometimes carelessly translated as Son …the Greek word “Uios” That word doesn’t mean the male child at all. It means far more than that. It actually means heir, the descendant or the first born. I guess this may even be a hint that Jesus has inherited characteristics that we associate with God – but it may not be all the characteristics of God.

In any event the expression used was not just the Son of God … and for God certainly not necessarily the God to be encountered in the hereafter ….it was in effect the heir of the Living God. This is the God who is elusive and mysterious… and so hard for the Jews to describe or comprehend his power that they dare not use his name… yet it means also God of the here and now…the God which is life itself and the God whose presence whispers to us through the mysteries of space. Some scholars even suggest that because God was referred to as the I am in several places that when Jesus said who do you say that I am? he was underlining his connection with God – and even making a scholarly pun. I AM

Many of Jesus reported statements only reveal their meaning when they are seriously encountered with thought and deep reflection. How do you meet Jesus in the face of the poor? This cannot be answered at the shallow academic level according to some formula answer.. I suspect that only the one who takes Jesus claim seriously and genuinely reaches out to help a poor or disadvantaged person making proper human contact in the encounter will discover the answer at depth, because when you do reach out you are the one who comes away most blessed.

Another way of looking at Jesus question is in distinguishing between the version of Christianity which is about Jesus and the Christianity which is of Jesus. Learning about Jesus is the book knowledge. Who other people find Jesus to be is if you like, a catechism faith. When did he live?…where was he born?…what did he teach?…who did people say he was like?….how did he die?…if he died and got resurrected what is that meant to mean for us? These are the about questions…easily answered and asking little of us. On the other hand, showing with a whole life commitment that as Christians we are of Jesus, means that we are attempting to take notice of the less obvious and subjective side and do our best to live as he invited us by example to live.

There is a world of difference between Christianity being about Jesus and taking on the form of Christianity which is of Jesus.

Once the big polling organization in the US, the PEW research group, in one of their polls came to the surprising conclusion that many who say that they know about Jesus – and reportedly even many of those who say they are grateful to Jesus for promising to organize a happy mansion for them in the sky, are very uninterested in adopting the principles he taught. Indeed, we might even do well to remember in terms of history mass murderers like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Cambodian Pol Pot (and I guess more recently Anders Breivik in Norway), all boasted of their early religious training. They knew about Jesus. They claimed to admire Jesus. But the one thing they didn’t do is follow his teaching principles – particularly his teaching like loving their neighbour, forgiving their enemy, showing care for the disadvantaged and so on. They knew about Jesus but their actions were not of Jesus.

And they are not alone. There are many who behave as if they prefer their Son of God imprisoned as a beatific image in a stained glass window or better yet an ethereal being floating around heaven waiting for their inevitable appearance which they see as their right because they have got the right formula of faith sorted here on earth.

In reality we are forced to admit to ourselves this is not remotely true to Jesus’ teaching. Even the fragmentary gospel glimpses of Jesus in action have him putting all the emphasis on action, inviting us to share with him building the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We, who would be of the Christ we claim, need to be forgiving enemies, helping the bereaved in their distress, reaching out to touch the diseased, and treating the passing faces we encounter not as passing masks – but as real people with real feelings – waiting to be discovered as the real face of Christ. Jesus remember, is not merely the Son of God – but the inheritor of some human dimensions of the God who lives through Jesus and hopefully in part through us.

I once tried my hand at choosing an appropriate slogan for a Church notice-board. “True religion is lived not just professed.” It is probably OK as far as it goes, but did you spot its limitation. The bit I was overlooking was that religion comes in many forms and not all forms are in essence of Jesus. Perhaps I should have written more wordily but hopefully more unambiguously: “Called to faith, which, in this church, we hope is of Jesus not about Jesus”.

Being of Jesus in that sense may not even be an exclusively Christian expression.
Think about it.

So…..‘who do you say Jesus is?’ perhaps there is the beginning of a possible answer.

Jesus is the one who awakens us to a means of dealing with life in a way that lines up with the compassion principle associated with a dimly comprehended notion of God…… and here is the corollary…by the manner we live we will then show whether or not we are of this Christ.

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Lectionary sermon for 30 August 2020 on Matthew 16: 21-28

The Carried Cross in the Tick-Box Age

Turning then to the gospel today with its talk of carrying the cross, it looks like a hard ask. To be frank, it sometimes seems Jesus’ injunction that his followers should be “taking up their cross” hardly matches what all too often morphs into the practice of half-hearted standard “tick the box” Christianity today.

I hope we all noted that in the section of Matthew preceding todays reading that Peter has just been identified as the rock on which the Church would be built. So what happens next. Peter now warns his master that he must avoid the danger of going on to Jerusalem where his enemies were intending his death. Now Jesus rounds on Peter and calls him a stumbling block. In case you missed the allusion, the stumbling black was the ancient equivalent of a security system, the large rock deliberately hidden in the dark to cause the intruder to trip. But there is a lesson for us as well. If Peter, Jesus right hand man, could be a problem for Jesus, surely any of his present day followers – in other words any of us – could also be a problem for those following Jesus’message.

What should cause us to pause before claiming to be followers is that Jesus appeared to truly live his own message. In fact he also appeared to be very deliberate in accepting what must have seemed to what many of the disciples to have been seen as a doomed path.

Taking up your cross in Jesus’ day was a very vivid way of saying:” become so committed to Jesus’ cause that you are even prepared to face death of a particularly nasty kind rather than surrender your commitment to his teaching”.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, each of us faces a different history of threats. In real life we are presented with very different shares of tranquility and joy. We are not all facing down violent enemies, rushing into burning buildings to rescue children or coping with national or local disasters. Even a pandemic does not visit every family. On the other hand the gospel of love for neighbor is a constant reminder that the “Jesus way”… (or its equivalent across the religious spectrum) …may take different expressions but is always there as a challenge.

I guess for most Church members holding to the cross remains harmless rhetoric as long as the prospect of impending death is remote. But it may be worth remembering when Jesus spoke, it was a time where the people were not only under foreign military rule but a time where any form of civil unrest provided an excuse for military reprisal. It was not good to rock the boat.

To those first disciples, Jesus’ mission must have seemed more and more likely to end badly. The civil authorities were closely allied with church authorities and remember Jesus had been in effect accusing these authorities of not being true to what he referred to as his Father’s faith. From the establishment point of view, religious or civil dissent was likely to require severe punishment. We can understand Peter in particular being extremely uncomfortable with Jesus knowingly endangering himself in this way.

Jesus’ analogy certainly must have taken on vivid meaning for those in the early church who were indeed under constant danger of genuine repression and sometimes death. Matthew with presumably much more biographical material on Jesus than he actually used, may here have selected this passage for the express purpose of helping the resolve of those who would have been facing the threat of persecution at the very time he was writing.

The current pandemic is one best watched from a distance, yet we who claim to follow Jesus are always coming up against an awkward truth. Perhaps that was what American poet Archibald Macleish had in mind when he said “there are only two kinds of people, the pure and the responsible”.

In that division”, says Colin Morris, “the Church always stands amongst the responsible rather than the pure; the engaged rather than the detached; and amongst the red-blooded reckless rather than the anaemically dignified. And this because we follow Jesus who plunged into a Jordan soiled by a thousand bodies, lived amongst publicans and sinners, died alongside criminals and rose again out of a cemetery of decaying corpses.” (from Mankind my Church).

If we are truthful, in our local churches I suspect many of us have a strong urge to disengage from the responsible cross carriers and in our weaker moments do everything in our power to dissuade other Church members from any signs of what we like to treat as extremism. Instead there is a temptation to guide them towards standing well back from the action in the front line. Perhaps not unexpectedly this urge not to get too involved in following through on Christ’s teaching then tends to lead to confusion about what being a Christian actually stands for.

I am not so sure that claiming allegiance to Christ is necessarily clear cut.
Think for a moment about the different ways Christians set about carrying out their responsibilities as Church members within the huge variety of different denominations with distinctly different claims of belief and you may get my drift.

You may have come across Kosuke Koyama’s ‘No Handle on the Cross’ [SCM, London, 1976, p.7] where as he puts it: “There is no convenient way to carry a cross….if we put a handle on the cross to carry it as a businessman carries a briefcase, then the Christian faith has lost its ground. Jesus didn’t say ‘Take up your lunch box & follow me’”.

Yet perhaps on reflection it is not so much the wearing of the cross which is the problem because after all this can at least indicate to the observer with which group you wish others to know you associate. However where it might be criticized is if we wear the cross yet make a zero attempt to stand for something regardless of the cost. In this case the trinket cross loses its meaning. And worse, because other too see the hypocrisy, in the same way as the child molester priest undermines the position of other priests, the one whose badge is associated with hypocrisy makes it harder for others wearing the same badge to convey the intended message.

Because not everybody has their faith tested the same way I think it may be unwise to assume that when the chips are down we should be confident of our response. We read that Peter, identified by Jesus as the rock, after many months following Jesus backed down and denied Jesus … and in the same way more than one confident and gifted Church leader has fallen massively from grace when genuine temptation comes their way. How often do we read of some Church leader or elder accused of fraud or immoral behaviour? If such people can fall from grace perhaps the best we can do is to resolve to face whatever life throws our way that we at least will attempt to hold true to our chosen path. Whether or not we will manage the form of the cross we are asked to lift cannot be decided in advance.

Every now and then the faith starts to live again when someone steps out from the crowd and makes a brave stand on a Christ-type principle.

And here is another question. What issues does our Church currently raise on our behalf with the public and with the Government so clearly that everyone knows where our Church stands? Note when I say the Church, that is not just our leaders…. it is also you and me. If we can’t hear the Church speaking up on those Christ inspired issues we think are important, the uncomfortable question becomes: where is our voice? We too represent the Church.

There is an element of self-deception if we focus too much on hierarchies within the Church. Those for example who find as many superlatives as possible to describe Christ may have missed his emphasis on servant-hood. By overly stressing the divine nature of Jesus there is an implied trap whereby we are saying in effect it is up to this divine Jesus to sort out and look after the dilemmas we face. Surely it is not how well Jesus carries the cross for us which defines our personal Christian journey. Similarly if we look to the bishop or priest or minister to act on our behalf there is a risk that we will become minor bit players and mere observers of the Christian walk.

Where we are in this journey may be reflected in the issues that take our main focus. If the parish council or leaders meeting starts to become inwardly focused so that the meeting members are only raising issues which concern our congregation’s well-being and gives minimal attention to questions of justice and moral issues as they concern our love for neighbour, can I suggest that is not taking up the cross.

It is also unrealistic to see ourselves as caught up in an inevitable cycle of martyrdom. History teaches that only in certain places and at certain times will belief be brought into direct opposition to circumstances. Not all Christian stands of self sacrifice will involve protest. I know a couple who for many years have insisted on taking meals to the shut-ins and another who regularly volunteers for Citizens Advice Bureau. Another accompanies the elderly shopping. Those are some who inspire me. This is a long way from steadfastly facing the torturer or executioner. Yet the thing that these volunteers share with those forced into martyrdom is that they have given themselves wholeheartedly into serving where their heart leads.

There is also an underlying paradox. The notion of giving and self surrender is one dimension – but in the event it is not as negative as we might expect. The other dimension is that in giving we find our true selves.

There is a theological issue here that must be squarely faced. Many put the emphasis in Christianity on waiting for the second coming. If we turn to what Jesus actually was reported as saying, there is a strong implication that whatever is experienced does not need to wait for some distant second coming. For to those both treating Jesus as infallible and yet expecting a second coming of Jesus in our near future there is also a rather odd bit in this small cameo scene that is a source of discomfit . Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

If Jesus is correct in his teaching and in the truth of his prediction, it might be that Jesus will be experienced at a personal level when we throw ourselves to the task of finding out what carrying the cross means for each of us separately us in this day and age. In science, when we are presented with a testable hypothesis, the next step is to carry out the experiment to test what has been theorized. Can I suggest that, in this instance, the scientific approach suggests the real test is one that we must try for ourselves.

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Lectionary Sermon for August 16 2020 (Genesis 45: 1-15)

Forgiving the Unforgivable
It seems to me that family get-togethers, and that includes weddings, funerals and a whole range of celebration of milestones have a habit of veering off in unexpected directions.

Perhaps a new record was set a few days ago. I wonder if you saw that Lebanese bride photo-shoot in a recent news clip which went viral. As I remember it, a beautiful young doctor bride in Beirut, Lebanon was posing for the wedding photos in a picturesque corner of the city. The clip happened to catch the blast from the massive ammonium nitrate explosion arriving, wrecking the peaceful scene including devastating the adjoining reception area and even for good measure…the Bridal suite.

True this was real life drama, but we can hardly call it an unavoidable accident. There was a back story. We now learn that the authorities were at least partly to blame in that corruption and shortsighted decisions had not prevented the explosion despite several years of written warnings of the impending danger. This means the question is now that: quite apart from the devastation of much of the city of Beirut the key problem for all the citizens of Lebanon is not so much what caused many of the dwellings and businesses being ruined and people killed – but rather how the situation can now be resolved. Surely it cannot be left as a curious news item and as with any disaster it certainly won’t get sorted until the background problems are confronted and a positive way found forward

Like many of the stories in both and the Old and New Testaments it is not just that such anecdotes record situations where occasions have gone wrong. There always seems a human failure at the heart of the story.

But here is the puzzle. Why do you think it is so many of these stories are left as stories – and so rarely seen as behavior which might have something to do with us?

Let’s look again at the the story of Joseph and see what it might teach us today. And yes I am aware that many scholars claim this is not so much a true story as a parable like story with a deliberate theological message to help the Jews see that God’s hand was part of their story. If you like the easy out is to see it as an arranged story not so much about an event which just happened to take place, but rather a God-ordained event.

But what if we remember that like most of the stories in the Bible this set of circumstances being portrayed can be understood at many levels and this time I want us to look at the part of the story that portrays the characters as very real and very human, facing a dilemma.

Let me stress that like most real people, both Joseph and his brothers come across as flawed characters. Remember there was a sense in which Joseph brought his initial problems on himself. He tormented his brothers with his show-off behavior. He boasted and told them in no uncertain ways how much more important he was than them. He was not a good person in his boastful self promotion.

The brothers were not only resentful – they too were absolutely morally wrong when they had plotted to kill their brother. That they had sold him to the Egyptians instead hardly justifies their actions. These days we would call such an action human trafficking. The years of slavery and prison they left Joseph facing as a consequence would have been enough to fuel Joseph’s resentment and impotent rage to the limit.

There are many layers of meaning in this story. When we take up the story with today’s reading we see Joseph has now elevated himself by giving wise advice to the Pharaoh based on what we would probably claim these days to be giving apparently strange and what we would now call superstitious advice of someone claiming to be a medium who can interpret dreams and again if the story is to be treated as literally true – thereby actually saved the Pharaoh’s people and kingdom. The grateful Pharaoh has shown his gratitude and Joseph is unsurprisingly elevated to the position of trusted advisor.

Joseph is in effect now sitting pretty and no longer has any need of those family members who had turned against him. Nevertheless when his brothers unexpectedly turn up and he recognizes them as those who had abandoned him and in effect sold him into slavery. Now regardless whether this was a coincidence because famine had struck their home – or whether God was considered to have arranged the whole thing – rightfully they should have expected no mercy.

That he did not immediately reveal himself to his brothers almost suggests he is initially playing with them as a cat might play with a mouse. The elaborate trick to plant valuables on one of the brothers – then let them go so that he can have them arrested is at best something of a mixed message – and when he eventually shows himself as their long lost brother, under those circumstances we can well imagine that the brothers, far from being delighted, would have been horrified and extremely fearful. They had done the unforgivable – and now the tables were well and truly turned.

Then the true surprise. Not just forgiven, they are virtually rewarded. Joseph has taken his anger and transferred it to anger about their plight. We sometime pretend that anger has no place as a human emotion for those with a faith. Yet anger can be a great motivator. However the resolution of that anger often needs creative thought. Instead of being sent back to Canaan empty handed which would have been far more than they deserved, they find themselves being offered sanctuary land for pasture, a place for the Father as well as the brothers and the freedom to live relatively close to Joseph but sufficiently far from the Egyptian population, who as their natural enemies, might have made life difficult.

I guess in a way this discovery of the creative act is the real test of forgiveness. The words “I forgive you” are what most of us consider to equate to forgiveness, but they can still mask long term unease. When you have been genuinely wronged by another, shallow words may in fact not be enough to re-establish real relationships.

On the other hand the words are an integral part of action they might be seen as far more significant. But there is something else you may have noticed. When Joseph says “Now you must tell my father of all my splendour in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here.” There is still the basic weakness he had from the beginning. The pride and insistence if you like that the brothers should really notice he was someone of significance.

This is one of the things that many of the Old Testament characters display. They are in part flawed characters. Moses starts his leading the Israelites of Egypt with an act of murder. David rapes the wife of a friend then arranges to have her husband done away with.

A number of the prophets show great signs of reluctance to do that which they know God calls them to do. They are real in the sense that like us they have flaws in their character. Their faith then has no prerequisite of perfection, nor the demand that their actions are only effective if they are perfect.

The New Testament characters are little better. Some of the disciples squabble about who is the greatest among them, Peter is boastful and weak, they desert Jesus in his hour of need, Paul’s followers fall out among themselves. It is almost as if we are getting the message that the actions we call God’s will have to be accomplished by people who have weaknesses in their character – perhaps even like you and me.

That Joseph’s great act of forgiveness with his brothers is performed by a Joseph who is a flawed character in no way suggests he didn’t eventually do the right thing in his act of forgiveness. His actions were after all, right in line with Jesus teaching of “Forgive your enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-45)”.

Yet nor if we are ruthlessly honest would we say it was a solution which was perfect. Nevertheless the forgiveness was real and recognizable. Tensions which had been building could so easily have been resolved with a violent act. Joseph could have finished off the family and in that context brought the story of the people who later became the nation of Israel to a premature end.

A common error is to believe that the sort of love mentioned in the Bible – that which the Greeks called Agape – is merely a feeling. I am sure that some who come to Church share that misconception in believing that somehow having good feelings about people and situations is a complete virtue in itself. Why else would we sometimes feel good that in our prayers we had listed all our concerns, for the sick, for the poor, and for the victims of disaster? One learning from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that there is also not only a time for action, there are occasions where action is actually essential if a situation is to get any closer to resolution.

There is a postscript to this story. The story doesn’t just end with Joseph and Benjamin embracing in an emotion scene of reconciliation. I don’t know if you noticed but the other brothers hadn’t said anything to that point. The story finishes by saying “and Joseph and his brothers talked”. An act of forgiveness and reconciliation is only ever one stage of a journey. The significant act had indeed happened, but now as for us, the implications and continuing story must be played out for the forgiveness to find meaning.

And now the part that specifically speaks to us. The Lebanese fertilizer explosion is too serious in its consequence of a destroyed port and capital city together with a now broken political system for its desperate inhabitants to provide their own solutions. As with many such instances of disaster we in the wealthy West have resources which could help. We often hear it said that Jesus points us to the answers to many serious problems. Should we be now amongst those stepping forward to offer a way forward.

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Lectionary Sermon for August 9 on Genesis 37: 1-28

A SERMON FOR AUGUST 9 2020 on GENESIS 37: 1-28
This Sunday is sometimes called Peace Sunday when we are called to reflect on ways to bring Christ’s message of Peace into the realities of a fractured and dangerous world.

It is also something of a reality check because, time after time, we encounter real life situations – not just between nations, but in our community and even within our families where there seems to be little hope of a peaceful resolution. One of the alternate readings down for today might seem an odd way to approach such a topic but that story of Joseph and his coat of many colours might almost be interpreted as a parable about how to resolve impending violence in an imperfect world.

You will no doubt be familiar with the general gist of the beginning of Joseph’s story. An apparently bright, favoured son with a massive ego, flaunts his new coat in front of his brothers in effect rubbing their noses in the fact that he is the favoured one. As the one with the special cloak he can now demonstrate his father’s special blessing – and presumably show he is the one destined for the inheritance. We can probably understand that the brothers hated him for it.

The brothers are out and encounter Joseph one day. They already had become absolutely fed up with their brother’s show-boating and his insistence that his brothers acknowledge his importance. He has pushed them too far and they decide to kill him. Fortunately for Joseph, there was one brother who made all the difference and without that brother, Joseph’s whole significant future history would have ended right there.

Today, instead of rehearsing yet again all the details of the story – and it is a truly great story – I want us to stop to think for a moment about the situation this elder brother was facing. The brother’s name was Reuben. (Later as it happens he was said to be the leader of one of the twelve tribes of Israel) While Reuben understood the others’ anger Reuben’s problem was that he knew what the brothers were talking about doing was wrong.

In terms of counseling technique, Reuben was probably right up there with the best. Years ago I did a masters paper at University on counseling. As I remember it, with someone all fired up with rage… first you don’t stand in front of the angry one. That is confrontation. You stand beside them looking in the same direction as them. Rather than assume you already know where they are coming from, you next seek to get them to explain why they are angry. When they feel they are being heard then they are more able to entertain reasonable alternatives.

Reuben was not particularly moral in his solution, but given the alternative of standing by to watch certain murder he didn’t do too badly. He didn’t wait until the stones and knives came out and the killing began. He showed in effect he was looking in the same direction as his brothers when he correctly identified that Joseph was no longer welcome in the family and that his father would be unlikely to give up his favouritism until he believed Joseph was dead. Reuben’s alternative of putting Joseph in a hole and pretending to Joseph’s father that he died as a result of attack by wild animals is reported as Reuben’s attempt to play for time… but whatever else it is, it does set the stage for Joseph’s eventual reuniting with his brothers, years later in Egypt. And I guess the key thing to notice is that Reuben was prepared to take action, no matter how difficult, to reduce the possibility for violence.

I wonder if the real issue for us is that all too often when the bad action is about to be demonstrated there are so few prepared to step up and encourage a more ethical alternative. Perhaps some of you who know more about recent history can also reflect on how we in this particular Church have reacted to immoral actions in the community and even the nation.

What for example have we asked our Church leaders to say on our behalf about our nation’s high incidence of family violence during lock-down. Have we then made the attempt to support the women’s refuges.

Over recent weeks there have been a number of incidents where young people carrying weapons have been involved in violence on our streets. Now here is the question. Do we, as individuals claiming to follow Jesus, wait for the fight to break out before we call the police or do we like Reuben see if we can do our bit to make sure it doesn’t come to that?

Perhaps Buddhism could teach us something. One of the stories behind what we might call the mythology surrounding the story of the Buddha is the story of what happened when he met a notorious, murderous bandit in the woods. The Buddha was reportedly aware of the man’s past violent history but invited the man to meet him in the hope that he might find a way to turn the bandit from violence to peace. There are several versions of the story yet in all variants, I am guessing the Buddha does not behave like most of us probably would and remains very calm, centered and serene as he faces this sword-wielding, crazed killer.

In one of the versions of the story, just as the bandit lifts his sword to attack the Buddha, the Buddha says to him:

“If I must die then be good enough to fulfill my dying wish: The first part of my wish is :cut off the branch of the tree.”
One slash of the sword, and it was done!
What now?” asks the bandit.
Put it back again,” says the Buddha.

The bandit laughs. “You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.”
“On the contrary, it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. Even children can do that. The mighty know how to create and heal.”

And the story says the crazed robber was so taken by this, he turned from his violent ways – a completely reformed man.

Whether or not this story of Buddha or even the Joseph story was of an actual event seems to me to be beside the point. Both stories points to those things we call eternal truths – and they resonate for me because it seems to me that they speak to the human condition. Offering non violent alternatives are the beginning of healing and are far more significant acts than wounding and destroying.

Unfortunately when violence actually does occur it rarely corresponds with how the fantasy is supposed to turn out. On the movies in the action films the hero dispatches all the clearly bad baddies each with a well aimed bullet or clever Karate move and we don’t get to see what happens later with the very long suffering of the wounded. Nor do we see the despair of the killed person’s family and the years of anguish that follow.

It seems to me that peace-making in real life is rarely simple. I would suggest there is probably no adult present in a typical Church congregation who hasn’t seen examples of unjustified violence or hate sometime in their life. If we can bring ourselves to look at how the COVID virus is setting back opportunities for our Island neighbours and even in this country comments made about foreigners are often anything but friendly. While we are probably all agreed that Jesus gives us clear direction for lives lived as disciples, opportunities stepping forward like Reuben in real life are often missed.

And I guess if it comes to that the reality is that we are often faced with less than perfect alternatives when it comes to building a peaceful society. I admit it can quite legitimately be argued that pacifism is much more difficult when war has broken out and there are genuine enemies to deal with. If the mass killer has already started a killing spree or a terrorist is about to crash a plane into a skyscraper it may well be too late to do anything but take him (or her) out by any means you have at your disposal. But I guess I would like to argue that perhaps if we are truly attempting to follow a Christ inspired life we have to try to start our peace-making sooner rather than later when the crisis is upon us.

Perhaps this might even mean putting better alternatives to those talking of violence. It might also mean we should speak up when we hear others fulminating about new immigrants, about Muslims in the community, or about the need to close our borders to all foreigners. I would not like to leave the impression I know what to say to people who fear and even hate. On my internet site on occasion I find myself trying to find ways to reduce intolerance – and yes, frequently I fail. Yet I still think it is worth trying.

When it is obvious that the motivations for violence are distorted I believe it is necessary to speak up.

When we see children introduced to violent video-games there is reason for challenging the games’ values. We should be seeking to have the young meet those of other cultures and teach far more about values in others’ societies. When we encounter intolerance whether it be in our neighbourhood or through media such as the internet it is worth at least thinking of putting an alternative point of view. And yes I can confirm from personal experience that there will be those whose form of bigotry is so firmly set that nothing we say will make any apparent difference.

Neil H Swanson tells of the Russian youth who had become a conscientious objector to war through the reading of both Tolstoy and the New Testament, and was brought before a magistrate. With all the strength of sincere conviction he told the Judge of the life which loves its enemies, which does good to those who despitefully use it, which overcomes evil with good, and which refuses war.
Yes” said the Judge, “I understand. But you must be realistic. These laws you are talking about are the laws of the kingdom of God; and it has not yet come.

The young man straightened, and said, “Sir I recognize that it has not come for you, nor yet for Russia or the world. But the kingdom of God has come for me! I cannot go on hating and killing as though it has not come”.

I cannot be sure I would have the courage of that young man, or even the courage of Reuben speaking up against the other sons for the less violent alternative. Nor can I say with any certainty that I would know how to work towards a world in which there were fewer who hate. What however I can be more certain about is that there are many contributing causes of violence. If we claim the kingdom of God has come for us we must at least see it has something to do with the realities of the world in which we find ourselves.

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Lectionary Sermon for 2 August 2020 on Matthew 14: 13 – 21 (The Loaves and the Fishes)

The Loaves and Fishes Demystified.
Today’s story of the loaves and the fishes risks portraying Jesus as a Harry Potter-type magic God-filled figure, waving his hand like a stage magician and causing the mysterious multiplication of physical entities like loaves of bread and actual fishes.
Such a literal mental image is not helpful for three reasons. First of all it leaves the story entirely without the need for personal commitment to our equivalent situations. If meeting such a need – in this case, feeding the hungry was only to be accomplished by a level of deep God-like knowledge and even then only if it is applied in terms of what a visitor to this site once termed as operating beyond the job description of one’s personal pay grade, then we can only wonder and have no reason to expect any possibility that we too might be called upon for similar situations.

Second our own inability to suspend the laws of nature implies that our interpretation of Jesus’ form of magic action has nothing to do with our future actions in the sort of world we currently inhabit.

Should we be surprised that most educated readers find the magic version unbelievable? Loaves and fishes taken from a boy’s lunch don’t just multiply by themselves – at least not outside fairy tales. But if we forget ourselves for a moment and start to look a little further I wonder what we might see.

This brings us to the third and often overlooked feature of the parable being Jesus’ focus on the needs of the crowd. This focus lifts the people in the crowd to become those who matter.

So let’s look again.
So here we meet Jesus out for a walk …and all those curious people coming along too, to gawp….people….lots of people
Pre- COVID most city dwellers in a typical downtown could relate to crowded spaces. To see them as a crowd that is the easy bit. To notice their eyes, their aches and pains – to see them as persons – now that is unusual.

Yet with this particular crowd Jesus does something totally unexpected – and I am not talking about multiplying loaves and fishes. No, what Jesus does is every bit as strange – he notices that they are hungry. If you look at Jesus’ encounters with different people this is his standard trick – the approach that sets him apart. The people see a mean tax collector – Jesus looks closer and sees someone worthy of a name, Zaccheus.

And what is more an unhappy person. In another place the people see an untouchable leper – yet Jesus sees a person who suffers and wants the touch of human hand to heal. Again the disciples see a prostitute getting into Jesus’ personal space – Jesus sees her as Mary – again an individual with a name – a woman who can be welcomed.

One lesson we might all have done well to learn is that kindness often finishes up by rewarding self interest.

One ironic consequence of the current pandemic is that it turns out that noticing, then acting in a timely fashion to address needs of those around us, would have been acting in the best interests of all. The fact is that some poorer parts of some wealthy societies and even some entire populations have turned out to have been overwhelmed by the Coronavirus. Because modern communities are very mobile, more vulnerable sectors are not isolated from the rest and as the health experts remind us COVID-19 is an equal opportunity spreader.

In the United States for example a warning sign of hot-spot is a marked difference in deaths among poorer communities compared with their wealthier counterparts. Overcrowding, inadequate medical assistance and underlying untreated medical conditions then assist outbreaks of disease which in turn spreads the risk to neighbouring wealthy communities as well as making travel problematic for all. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that appropriate investment in to poorer communities would have been likely to have improved the outcomes.

May I suggest that rather than argue over how Jesus achieved the feeding of the crowds that day it might be rather more relevant to glance in the direction of today’s crowds of hungry and desperate and ask the question about how we might best respond. The modern day prophets in the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) tell us it is a continuing crisis that must be addressed. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

There are also at least 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. Remember our world where nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution.

Such figures year might seem so big they are capable of only eliciting dim incomprehension. Our miracle observed this morning might at least remind us that if we were to apply Jesus’ technique of noticing the mass as needy individuals –we might find ourselves looking beyond the categorization of unwelcome refugees and looking at such families, even those distant to us as being made up of individual people like you or me, facing despair and feeling exactly as we ourselves would feel if visited by the same tragedy.

So to return to the loaves and the fishes…..

The second part of this “miracle” is that Jesus doesn’t see himself, the one many have called Son of God, as the only one to whom the responsibility for the act of kindness should be left. In another gospel version of the same story He calls a boy to him to start the sharing process. In today’s Matthew version, it is the disciples he turns to. And this works in an unexpected way. It is a sad commentary that these days we not only prefer not to notice too much by way of needs, but that when such situations are forced upon us we don’t see ourselves as part of the answer to need.

I am sure that many of us are unconsciously drawn to the easy option of praying for God to fix all. I have heard the most sincere prayers in Church or in Bible study groups for God to address the needs of the hungry. But what is that worth without the genuine intention to get involved in meals on wheels or food parcel collection and distribution or bothering the local politician to raise questions about overseas aid? It is an interesting question as to how many things would remain on the prayer list if only the situations where we showed ourselves to be part of the solution were allowed to be mentioned. But whereas it is easy to ask a vague conception of God to deal with these issues like famine, war, injustice and loneliness by praying his blessing, if we believe that Jesus would have been concerned with our present context of contemporary need – perhaps he too would still be looking for the non-entity child …or for that matter someone as ordinary as us to join with him in sharing.

So we return now to reflect on those interesting discussions about whether or not the loaves and fishes story should be seen as genuine magic type miracle. My personal short answer as to whether or not there was super-natural magic actually involved is that in fact we can never know. An experiment is only a true experiment if it can be repeated and since we cannot know about the accuracy of Matthew’s reporting and since Jesus himself is not on hand to organize the repeat performance with all conditions the same, we cannot organize the repeat for more objective recording.
My personal preference – I guess partly a result of my science background is to say that as far as I can see there is no reason to invoke magic where none is required. As far as I know atoms do not reproduce themselves in bulk such that fishes and loaves appear as if by magic.

For me, I think it quite reasonable to say that the reason why the sharing miracle worked was that those present who did have food were moved by the disciples’ or the boy’s example to share. In this real world of ours even if multiplication of loaves by itself could occur the evidence is that this would simply mean that the few well fed would have used their position to take first dibs. Typically each time there is unexpected increase in resources mean the rich and the powerful taken an even bigger share.

As we model large scale what actually happens when some are born into lucky situations in this unjust world of nations we see the hungry have remained hungry. The real miracle then came not with multiplication but with division. Division of bread gets more into the hand of few. Division (especially willing division) is actually what builds community. Turning a selfish crowd into community is indeed the best part of Jesus’ miracle.

There were reportedly many hungry people that day – and any other day if their society was anything like ours, they would not have been fed. However that particular hungry crowd was what Jesus chose as his context calling for action. Matthew invites us to see whatever Jesus in fact did – by all accounts the people got fed and what is more – what to us might have been a crowd of the unthinking has been transformed (if only temporarily) into caring community – so Jesus has successfully addressed his context.

Our real world challenge is the still unequal distribution of resources and plenty and even access to medicines for those who are in need. Simple hand-outs may not even be the best long term answer because our sharing may need to include sharing the know-how and resources to grow and share the food so that at the end there will in fact be something left to gather. Can we lift our vision and start seeing from a new perspective?

In Church we claim Jesus is leading us. Monday may be the test of what we claim on Sunday!

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Lectionary Sermon (26 July 2020 ) Matthew 13:31-52 (The Mustard Seed)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed
It is not just that Jesus was a good story teller. Some of his parables carried a punch. If we know something of the background for today’s parable we may even find a challenge for ourselves today.

We might start by noting that the story appears a direct contradiction to that part of sacred Jewish law which was at the centre of traditional Jewish thinking.
In the book of Leviticus there are some farming rules and one of them is that, on pain of death, you must not sow more than one type of seed in a paddock. Listen to the excerpt from Chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus
you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed….

In those days grain was absolutely precious – and back then, without today’s Supermarkets, corner dairies, and convenience stores, what you grew was your very means of survival. So to give the grain the absolutely best chance of survival, weeds or competing crops were an absolute no-no.

Remember too, the mustard seed was actually the seed of a shrub considered to have little value. The thought that the farmer would have allowed it first to grow until it reached the size of a tree would have been absolutely unheard of – and in fact could have got the farmer into a huge amount of trouble.

For Jesus’ listeners something in the story implied an additional risk. The Romans had invaded – and conquered. The Romans knew what they were doing. They were ruthless. The crops were a source of tax and at least fifty percent of everything that grew was taken from the farmer for the benefit of the Roman Rulers. To deliberately allow something to grow instead – especially a useless weed like the mustard seed was an act of sedition – stealing from the tax gatherers – an act, if you like, of silent rebellion.

The Greek word for empire as in the Roman Empire is basileia. The Word Matthew has Jesus using is that very same word for kingdom, basileia, in the phrase the kingdom of God. Perhaps Jesus deliberately intended the contrast, the Roman Empire and God’s Empire. His words then conjured up the mustard growing as God’s empire rising up in the midst of Rome’s. True, certainly an unwelcome statement to the authorities.

Jesus’ choice of illustration is technically inaccurate if seen as literal. Mustard seeds are not literally the smallest of all seeds. For example orchid seeds are much smaller. Then again the mustard plant doesn’t in fact grow into a mighty tree – at best it is a largish shrub – and then only if you find a particular species of mustard. So it is not literal – but it is great imagery and wonderful story-telling for his chosen audience.

Because we live outside Jesus time, and outside the Jewish society of the time, there is something else that we might easily miss. When Jesus talks about the birds of the air finding their shelter in the branches of the mustard tree the surprise for the audience would not have been that the tree provided shelter. No, the surprise would have been that Jesus talked of the birds of the air because this was the standard Rabbinaical code phrase for the Gentile nations. To say that the “birds of the air” in other words, the Gentile nations, could find their shelter in the kingdom of God would have been something of a shock for the Jews of that time because the Jews saw themselves as separate – to the point of thinking that their God was theirs alone and had little to do with any other people.

Does that you remind you of any branch of the Christian church today? In a world where even to this day Christians are at least agreed that they are trying to follow Jesus history reminds us that the various branches of Christianity are typically very reluctant to allow the birds of the air a resting place in the tree they feel they now own.

The story has an inbuilt puzzle that speaks to us in the seed itself. The seed is small and relatively insignificant. When we remember the untouchable lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors – healing, accepting all at table with him, and remember too even a good proportion of his disciples were from the uneducated lowest of class, perhaps this mustard seed was at the least yet another signal for what people Jesus thought to be worth his time.

Now I know there are those who like absolute certainty – and yes – some of them are in the Church. These are the ones who love neat formulae of belief – believe every problem can be met by reciting the right prayer and finding the appropriate little Bible quotations –and for those I have some bad news.

Wonders, mysteries, genuine fears and doubts are all uncertainties. Yet they are also all part of the struggle to truth. The message Jesus was sharing here was that the Kingdom is one of almost random, mysterious growth. The growth, like a scattered weed, is “happen-stance”.

So is Jesus parable true to how it turned out? History certainly says it is true. Everything was against Jesus message getting through. Jesus – the leader of the new movement was crucified. Who could have predicted the Romans would drive the rebellious Jews out of Jerusalem along with the members of the fledgling tiny Christian sect. The traditional Jews didn’t want the Christians, and as it turned out the Christians were persecuted almost to the point of extinction by just about everyone including the Romans.

In some places they were driven to hide underground in caves or catacombs. Yet there were unplanned strange triggers for growth. The emperor Constantine looked at the Sun one day and claimed he could see a Christian symbol there with the words By this sign you shall conquer – and suddenly Constantine decided Christianity might be a good luck symbol worth supporting. Then another apparently random event – a Christian Bishop called Eusebius – not even a particularly nice man by all accounts, stepped into the picture. These days we might even call Eusebius a crawler for the way he sought to win the Emperor’s favour by writing a very biased history praising the deeds of the Emperor…. This Eusebius came to Constantine to complain that some of his fellow Bishops were picking on him and saying his beliefs were wrong and even that his favourite writings weren’t as good as some other Holy Writings.

The result…. Constantine called a Council at Nicaea in Asia Minor and made the Bishops sort out their beliefs, from which we got the formulation of the Trinity and the Nicene Creed. At this conference they were in effect working out what it meant to call Jesus the Son of God and continuing the argument about which Holy Books should be in the collection we now call the Bible. Without that conference, the beliefs and writings of the Church might have taken an entirely different shape and nature.

A few years later, the Emperor Theodosius decided to make Christianity compulsory and started persecuting those who didn’t sign up – again causing an unexpected lurch in Church history which some Church Historians claim was not exactly good for the historical nature of the Church as the “body of Christ”.
Listen to the words of Theodosius’ edict:

It is Our will that all the peoples We rule, shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans. We shall believe in the single Deity of Father Son and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.
We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians ….(
Now the heavy bit) …. The rest however, Whom We adjudge demented and insane shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of Churches, and they shall be smitten first of Divine Vengence and secondly by the vengence of out Our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement.”

(in other words he was saying God said it was OK to persecute the non-Christians…or those who preferred a different version. Where else might we have encountered such certainty?)

And repeatedly –– time after time there are those in the Church who have checked other seeds to determine which should planted and then consigned the mustard seeds and other doubtful weed producers to the rubbish heap …. And just as repeatedly the rubbish heap continues to show signs of growth.

The other curiosity was that growth was happening while so many in the Church were not concentrating on the growth part. Think for a moment of all those monks simply praying, meditating and doing nothing more than caring for travelers, the poor and the sick. What would a modern PR company make of that?

And yes, the Church continued to grow but in most disorganized and unexpected ways. It is now more than 1.6 billion and what a disparate group they are. We have liberals, conservatives, evangelicals, mystics, orthodox, liturgy bound and liturgy free. The Russian and Greek orthodox Churches finished up with a slightly different Bible and a different slant on some of the beliefs. And each of the now 38,000 denominations has its own history and chance starting point.

If we look for a moment at the Western part of the Christian Church, had King Henry the eighth not wanted to marry in a way that the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognise, the entire Anglican Church might never have got started. Had John Wesley not gone unwillingly to a chapel in Aldersgate Street one evening on 24 May 1738 he might never have had a conversion experience, and had that same John Wesley subsequently been a little more restrained in his preaching he might never have been asked to stop preaching in Anglican Churches and the Methodists might never have got started. Had William Booth not found the Methodists were reluctant to support him in his mission to the poor, the Salvation Army might never have got started…and so the Church continued to grow – with I guess different birds finding vantage points on different branches of this curious mustard plant.

A plant deliberately planted in carefully prepared ground might well have a predictable future but the kingdom of God according to Jesus is the weed with no special advantages that has to develop amongst others. But let us not also forget the weed, which he likened to the Kingdom of God in his parable, has the potential to grow in unexpected ways. ..

Jesus ever the good observer found potential in the mustard seed. He finds potential in the least promising and I guess if we claim to follow his ways we should be trying to do the same for those around us. If we see weaknesses in others, let us at least acknowledge that to cast such folk aside is not the way of the kingdom. If we can see our own hidden weaknesses we are not identifying anything that would ever disqualify us from following the one who always had time for the least…….. because of such is the Kingdom of God.

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Lectionary sermon for 19 July 2020 Matthew 13: 24-30,36-43


It is not very hard to see what Jesus was probably driving at when he told the story of the wheat and the weeds (tares?). The useful and valued wheat plants (presumably standing for true followers) are sufficiently similar in growth and even appearance to the the weeds to make premature sorting unwise. Perhaps we even need to reflect on which of the two we represent.

Because it is very human to judge those who don’t think and act the same as us, Jesus is right to caution us against prejudgment. Perhaps we also need reminding that our own group behavior matters as much as the response of others particularly in times of impending disaster.

There is nothing quite like an emerging pandemic to test the difference between our own stated and actual values.

We assumed that when the pandemic arrived presumably our collective effort as claimed followers of the Jesus way would have produced systems to look after the least able. We needed to assure ourselves that it is not our society where whole sections of the population would be unable to access hospitals and respirators. Yet aren’t the poorest nations in the world denied aid. My own nation spends a fraction of one percent on overseas aid – so are we really the best we can be when for the most part, those living unnoticed in refugee camps will be denied help from nations like ours now the COVID virus is arriving.

It is all very well to state the blindingly obvious that the times they are a changing. What is not nearly so clear is to decide what the changing times mean for our way of thinking package which includes our faith, our customs and our attitudes to one another.

Let’s think for a moment about just one of the more dramatic changes. I would suggest that one of the biggest shifts for many communities around the world is deciding what to do when confronted with those who come seeking refuge.
I would have to admit that if my own observations of my own community are anything to go by, as the sense of equilibrium is threatened, all too often our response comes across as unwarranted judgment.

If today’s gospel reading of the parable of the wheat and the weeds is still valid for the modern Christians, they would be hard put to square support for prejudging prospective immigrants with what today’s parable seems to be teaching.
Of all Jesus’ parables, this parable seems curiously appropriate for a modern age.
Jesus chose a farming analogy to make his point. The Greek word translated from Matthew is about “Zinzania” – the weed that fools you. The commentators suggest he was talking about is better known as darnel. Note that it is not the darnel itself which is poisonous. Darnel by itself is perfectly edible. The problem is that darnel is host to a fungus called the Ergot Smut fungus, which causes the ill-effects. Bread contaminated with this fungus is poisonous. Initially the sprouting darnel – the “zinzania” – looks superficially like wheat. Later on it does become more obvious – because the grain from the darnel is smaller and darker and the plant itself is shorter, yet in practice as any farmer would tell you, weeding a wheat paddock once growth is underway is damaging for the subsequent harvest time.

Back in Jesus’ time the standard solution was to reap above the height of the darnel –whereas these days, the wheat and weeds go through a thrasher that first removes the chaff from the wheat and run it over a sieve to allow the smaller Darnel to fall through and be cast off with the chaff. The deadly fungus goes away with the darnel.

Jesus’ main point was of course that, like the tares and the wheat, with people of claimed faith we cannot make an early judgment as to which are the real deal and which ones are the ones with the poison.

Although I suspect it is a well-known and widely shared story, there is always the temptation to assume that one’s own group are the ones with the real right to life whereas the others are the poison (or in faith terms the hypocrites). For example for Protestants there is an assumption that the Protestant faith of the moment is the right one and infinitely better than for example, the faith of the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Jehovah’s Witness, The Catholic or the Mormon.

Yet serious reflection makes us remember that any religious label will be no real guide to what the follower has understood and is starting to live.

Remember the parable teaches that it is not we who should be the judges of precisely who the developing poisonous seeds are represented by in his story and he suggests that rather leave the judgment of this to the harvest of final outcomes.

It seems reasonable to suggest if more followed Jesus’ advice perhaps there would be more by way of religious tolerance – fewer examples of religious genocide and far fewer examples of unpleasant attitudes towards those of other faith shown in places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, Nigeria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S. etc.and in fact if we really want to get down to it, a neighbourhood near you.

If more people accepted their religion as one path to understanding, but at the same time recognized that there are other religions which offer other insights of spiritual truth, perhaps there might be more acceptance of other systems of morality, other religious practices, etc. As one example despite their presumed shortcomings most religions do have followers whose beliefs seem to motivate people to lead better lives. Look at the very low crime rate in Saudi Arabia for example.

While we may lack empathy for those with other faiths we ourselves should not make the ready assumption that it is we who are the true growing ones and it is the others who contain the poison. After all if the true growing plants can be confused with the harmful weeds in the initial stages then the assumption that our lives are the desired outcome should not be too readily assumed. For example I have often heard it said that Islam is a bad religion – and one that leads to ill-treatment of women and the existence if suicide bombers. Yet if you read what many Muslims are saying, they are claiming that it is the Christians who are dangerous. It is certainly true that soldiers who are Christian have killed many innocent civilians in places like Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. We also have the evidence from numerous surveys from such experts as George Barna telling us that those identifying as Christian are not markedly different in their behaviour from those who do not call themselves Christian. Almost the same marriage breakdown rates, similar crime statistics and so on. At the very least this should give us cause to pause before claiming that we alone have our lives as they should be

You will also hear Church folk sling off at those they consider to be heretic – the conservative Christian view of Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons for example. The words the so-called heretics use are after all little different from the words we use – but those words are the easy part. The real test comes in what we do in response to the words we say that is important. For example we regularly get glimpses of the starving children in Africa in short segments of the TV news. If we are eating a nice dinner while we are watching – and doing nothing in response to what we are seeing – should we really be certain that it is only other hypocrites who need the judging. Should we therefore remain certain that it is the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Muslims who are in need of enlightenment.

Well who is right? Jesus is very clear in this allegory of the wheat and the weeds. No-one, he seems to be saying is sufficiently wise to prematurely sort out the good from the bad in another person’s heart. Frankly we do not know what is in another’s heart. Some for example get a raw deal in life. You may be born with a brain defect….a chemical imbalance which gives you a bad temper. What you become is a product of many starting points and many influences. Whether or not the outcome is the best possible is not for others to judge. That may well be a question for final judgment yes – but it is not our final judgement. I am reminded of the opening words of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether the station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”.

I am sure for many Christianity seems to be simply measured by which group you are connected with. Are you a Methodist – or a Roman Catholic – a Muslim or a Hindu – but if we know that, is that sufficient? Well, according to Jesus – actually no. And there are some very good reasons why his parable is justified. For a start statistics show clearly that most people stay more or less with the faith they are born into. If you happen to be born in Saudi Arabia to Muslim parents – you would almost certainly be brought up Muslim – whereas in the US Bible belt it would be almost as certainly be a conservative Christian. It would seem manifestly unjust if you were to take the blame for where you were born.

In any case, if it were Christianity you were born into while you may well accept the label of Christian yet this is no guarantee you would be following the entire spirit of Christianity. You may for example greatly admire a Christian – perhaps it was the one who introduced you to the Gospel…your mother – or perhaps your Sunday School teacher – and of course there is a place for wise teaching. But you know – sooner or later you have to decide how to order your own life. That your mother – or Sunday School Teacher or Bible class leader or Minister or wise friend happens to be a good Christian won’t necessarily help you when it comes to your own situational choices in later life

Yet the judgements made of others are all around us.

It is good to remind ourselves that sometimes we have blindness about ourselves. Perhaps we should finish with the following from a work called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
If someone isn’t what others want them to be, the others become angry. Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

If we insist on judging it could be that first we ought to start with ourselves.

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