Lectionary sermon for 18 November 2018 on Mark 13: 1-8

A few years back I recall a TV interview with a man who had survived 11 lightning strikes and lived to tell the tale. The lightning victim’s explanation was that God must therefore have some special purpose for him. I am afraid my cynical reaction was to assume that if whatever that man meant by “God” was involved, a more likely purpose seemed to have been using the man for target practice.

More seriously, I am continually astounded by the number of people who can talk with authority God’s mind – not only being able to explain to the rest of us divine reasons for natural disasters – but usually in terms of group punishment for some other people’s imagined God-offending behaviour. Even more remarkable are the doom-saying prophets who have it on divine authority that everyone (apart of course from the prophet approved believers) is for it in big and terrible ways.

Which brings us to today’s gospel message in Mark where Jesus is cautioning his listeners against the dangers of listening to false prophets.  History suggests since Jesus first spoke those words there has been no shortage of contenders for the false prophet classification.

Prior to President Trump, the open distrust of President Obama from a few zealots in the Bible belt states of the US was such that each time a mega storm, flood or wild-fire hit the US it became predictable that a number of self-appointed prophets should immediately post articles on the Internet, attributing the latest natural disaster as a sign of the end times.

Via the Internet I now learn that current disasters of fire in California and the odd hurricane or earthquake is God punishing people for lax attitudes to gay marriage and abortion.

With so many past prophecies, it is easy to record the failures of the self appointed prophets. The Mayan Calendar closed off on December 12, 2012 but the world went on. Remember Pastor Harold Camping, whose personally guaranteed predictions about the end of the world convinced a good number to sell their houses and await the end or three separate occasions, yet despite the hype, the end failed to materialize. Other failures included numerous Jehovah’s Witness prophecies over the last century as well as some of the Seventh Day Adventist prophecies and many, many more dating back to Bible days.

That my eyes still turn heavenward at the present offerings should not necessarily be taken to mean that I am astounded and impressed by the latest warnings. When Jesus said there will be many false prophets, his words should be heeded if only because history has since proved him right many times over. Yet the certainty with which many well meaning and no doubt sincere zealots keep climbing into the ring to replace earlier failed prognosticators might at least give us pause for thought.

It is of course very easy to be drawn to such prophecies and many sincere and otherwise mainstream people have, from time to time, been sucked into assuming that this time it is for real and people need to be warned. While it is not exactly an historical secret I would not for example be surprised that Methodist minister training down- plays the slightly embarrassing memory that first Charles Wesley and then his brother John both incorrectly predicted different and wrong dates for the end of the world.

It is certainly not the case that all prophets are dangerously astray and when Paul reminds us that some do have the gift of prophecy we should remember that through the ages prophets have provided invaluable service both to society in general and to the Church in particular.

To quote one man whose own reputation as a modern prophet is well deserved, Colin Morris:
“There are men and women in the modern church who are worthy to be named in the same breath as those Hebrew wild men of the Old Testament. They see things steadily and see them whole while the rest of us thrash around treating the world as a cheap watch – to be subject to inexpert investigation until all the pieces lie in front of us, defying our efforts to put them back together.” (from Colin Morris, Mankind My Church ,P42)

However before we rush to identify those so worthy, we might do well to remember that Old Testament prophets were mainly concerned with drawing attention to the characteristics of their age and showing how their nation was demonstrating behaviour which went against the principles of goodness and justice. Their prophecies were grounded in painful realities which they faced squarely- often after much serious soul searching – before making their uncompromising warnings – often in the face of genuine danger to personal reputation and even sometimes their lives.
It does occur to me that there may be some signs that might help us distinguish the genuine from the misguided.

When it comes to those claiming to be speaking in the name of their religion, many of the false prophets I have met seem fixated on finding answers to complex contemporary problems by using the Bible for quotations of the sort the great missionary CT Studd once called neat little Bible confectionary. Unfortunately the Bible is not designed as a one volume Readers Digest of instant answers to life’s genuine dilemmas. And let’s face it. There are more than enough well meaning church folk blundering into bad advice with well meaning but thoughtless analysis.

That does not mean that the Bible is irrelevant – but to the genuine prophet, attention is drawn not so much the answers but more to the questions the Bible invites us to ask – and there not so much about scriptures but about our realities.

For example, Mark in his selection of what needed to be recorded from Jesus would have been most keenly aware of the disaster which had already befallen the Temple by the time he wrote his words. To Mark, Jesus’ words were not so much dealing with the implications of what was still to come, as the current dilemmas the disciples were likely to be encountering at the time of writing.

As Mark was writing his gospel there was a backdrop of real horror. The Jews had risen up against the Roman invaders – who had responded by destroying the Temple, sacking the city, torturing and executing thousands and if the historian commentators had it right, at the very time Mark assembled his gospel the Romans would have been in the process of driving those left from the city and from the land. The real message in Jesus words were not to the readers some with dire warning about something still to come. It was a description of something that had already happened. And rather than recording these words as prophecy – Jesus message in the thirteenth chapter of Mark – was one of hope and comfort for the nervous and dispirited.

It is hard to be certain in what sense Jesus was talking about the Son of Man coming. Yet when Jesus talks of his impending world of unfolding terror we can see that for Mark at least, this was far more than Jesus talking about some mysterious unpredictable horrors.

Trial and betrayal. (Verse 9 – 13) Mark knew about this – it had happened. Desecration and fleeing refugees (verse 14 – 20)…. He might as easily been writing the weekend newspaper political column. False hopes and predictions.(verse 21 – 23) The talk in turbulent times is inevitably of false hopes and predictions.

Some were reading the signs and calling this the finish. What did Jesus say? Ignore the false hopes. Don’t listen to the false prophets. Keep your faith in good times and bad. The implication for his contemporary listeners was simply that the temple may have been destroyed but the Church is still alive.

History tells us that the problems facing the human race are likely to be with us for many years to come. Foolish decisions destroying habitats and dispossessing communities stretch back into the mists of time and we need look no further than the Pacific and now Europe where there are refugees aplenty.

The wars Jesus referred to may well have changed in nature – but two thousand years later they are no less distressing to those affected. The spectres of hunger, injustice and fear are there for those of us who will only look. In short, 2000 years of Christianity do not and have not provided respite or protection from the ravages of the horsemen of the apocalypse.

It may even be that the most constructive way of facing disaster is to focus on the rebuild. I remember talking this through with a young minister whose church building had been destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake. When I asked him how he and his congregation was coping, he said “Great. Now the church has fallen down we are rediscovering what Church really means.”

At present, for me and my family there is plenty of security. Unlike the situation for some victims our home is intact. There is money in the bank. Most of my family are enjoying good health. We are surrounded by friends and family and we have a supportive church congregation. Yet if we read the signs we would need to be living in some other-worldly cocoon not to be aware that our situation is vastly different to many in the world. And we need our prophets to be forcing us to realize that not only are those in such situations facing grim realities – but that these are our neighbours. As self-claimed Christians, can we honestly pretend that these are our neighbours to be loved as ourselves – as our faith proclaims – at the same time we show by our actions we are unconcerned?

For those of us concerned primarily with our own settings – and how those settings affect us, our need is not for prophets who have the same myopic view. As a wise person once observed, to be wrapped up in yourself is a very small parcel. This is perhaps why the false prophet looking at his or her own immediate community disasters and projecting them on to the whole world for signs of impending doom seems so irrelevant,

The true prophet can see the bigger picture. I suspect a true prophet might remind us we are not only living in a post Christian world – but that we should be adjusting our goals accordingly.

I know that the term post-Christian is potentially upsetting to the Christian who faithfully attends Church each week – yet I think there is a serious truth to be faced.

New Zealand currently has an appalling set of statistics for a country with such a high place in the OECD ranking showing an increasing large proportion of children living in poverty – 11% in 1986 and 25% today – with all the attendant problems of disease and deprivation. Now an OECD record for youth suicide….

We as church members could well ignore the problems, since for many of us they occur outside our immediate family circle. And yes we might focus only on our immediate church families and local communities – but to do so would make us entirely irrelevant to this serious situation.

Those who presently remind us of the statistics may be showing us how a prophet should be approaching the situation. Telling the plain and uncomfortable truth helps us see our setting as it really is and identifies more clearly the places where we can apply the fruits of our faith.

True we are embedded in a situation where genuine problems will continue to affect us and our neighbours. Some of these are very serious indeed. But the places of terror and dark foreboding continually recede and re-emerge. That is part of the human condition. We kid ourselves if we don’t admit the frequent failures of those who predict the final cataclysm in what comes next and are equally blind if we pretend that only the events which directly affect ourselves are the ones that matter. If we are listening to Jesus in his message we will know it is not blind panic or blissful ignorance we are called to. Rather it is the notion we can face the worst that our future holds with the mystery of hope and the certain knowledge that actions born of love have more to offer than despair.

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Lectionary Sermon for 11 November 2018 on Mark 12: 38 – 44

OUR ACTIONS SAY WHAT ?

Rather more years ago than I care to remember I was asked to be part of the team to select applicants for ministry in the Methodist Church. An experienced minister was chairing our team and he gave me some interesting advice which, at first hearing, was quite unexpected. On subsequent reflection his caution made perfect sense but see what you think.

I was expecting to be told to watch out for communication skills and theological knowledge, I guess because after all I had been thinking they would be looking for ministers who are expected to be up front, to be confident, intelligent and to be able to hold attention. Not a bit of it. Our chairperson told me the number one concern is evidence of the ability to show empathy. He said watch what the candidate does when he or she is not in the formal sessions. Have they got time to talk with the people who don’t matter? And do they show care about things that matter to other people. Would they for example have time to care about the cleaner, the caretaker or the gardener?

I wonder if others here might also find this advice unexpected in terms of what we find important in ministry. And for that matter what was important to Jesus?

Each of the gospel writers had their own preferences for their stories of Jesus. No doubt the author of Mark chose his anecdotes from amongst the many possible memories of Jesus, but I suspect part of his choice would have been slanted for example by already knowing that by the time he wrote his gospel the Temple had already fallen.

As with a number of the New Testament writers, Mark seems anxious to convey the notion that action carries with it its own judgment. The calamity of the fall of the Temple might therefore be explained in Mark’s view, if God seemed to have sufficient reason to believe his people had deserved the punishment. My guess is this would presumably make Mark very sensitive to anything Jesus might have done to draw attention to inappropriate behaviour in the Temple precincts.

But there is something else. In the field of observation, as Louis Pasteur once put it, chance only favours the prepared mind. Which brings us to today’s gospel account of Jesus with his disciples at the Temple. Jesus with vision, no doubt sharpened by his gospel of justice and compassion, looks at the daily ritual at the Temple – a ritual what is more that had years and perhaps even centuries of patterns of recognized and expected behaviour. Jesus unsurprisingly perhaps, given the main themes of his teaching, notices some things which had probably largely escaped the attention of the daily witnesses to the familiar sights.

First he looks at the gowned and tasselled teachers of the law posing for the crowd. In Jesus’ day, a long gown – totally impractical and restrictive to the movements of the common worker – was a mark of the respected scholar – and that the gown swept the ground, marking the wearer as someone above working at labour, carried its own message of importance.

Following the Book of Numbers Ch 15, verse 38 the tassels at the edge of the religious teacher’s outer robe were the traditional mark of the one set aside as a man of God – yet today’s commentators say that by the time of Jesus, many the tassels had grown in prominence as an ostentatious declaration of piety. These were the tassels of the Rabbis and, just as today’s religious titles carry deference and respect, even the word Rabbi translates as “My great one”. To be addressed as Rabbi would no doubt have been pleasing to the one who carried the title.

The Rabbi would not only expect deference in speech, but also in action. Prominent seats were reserved for the Rabbis at the front of the congregation in the synagogues. In the Synagogue, in front of the Ark, where the sacred scriptures were held, the Rabbis would sit facing the congregation where they might be seen and hopefully be admired. At feasts the most prominent guests would be seated at a top table with the most important closest to the centre, and religious leaders would expect to find their place near the centre at such a gathering.

Such overt behaviour for effect would indeed make a mockery of the religion the Rabbis claimed to represent, but the additional accusation Jesus was making was more serious. This was in fact a more serious charge that they “devoured” the widows’ houses. Like some ethnic churches that officially claim to have ministers so dedicated that they work for no pay, the truth was that they took advantage of the vulnerability of some of the weakest in the community, including the widows, pressuring them to the point that in fact the teachers of the law could become wealthy.

We may argue about the degree to which Mark edited the recalled words and records of Jesus’ actions as he responded the actions of the Rabbis, but there is little doubt that the entire thrust of the gospel record shows us a Jesus totally opposed to those expressing faith by claiming privilege. That Jesus went beyond noticing what others preferred not to notice and actually challenged what he could see happening is also fair enough. He himself reportedly taught and demonstrated what it means to live by servant-hood and by so doing, won the right to question those who rather sought honour in actions directly opposed to servant-hood. It is also a timely reminder to us that we can hardly criticize what we see today unless others can see the alternative in us.

What made Jesus different from the others present in today’s gospel setting then had two parts. First, his was the prepared mind that could notice such hypocrisy. Second, and perhaps more importantly, he had won the right to question what he saw by living the alternative.

If we are honest with ourselves about our own society we ought to be able to relate to a situation whereby some are elevated to status and title which goes far beyond logic or necessity. The mega salaries offered to society’s identified elite and the excessive deference shown to those in the public eye is curious given the range of behaviour some of our celebrities exhibit. Today we are probably so used to the concept of honouring leaders and celebrities whether they be in the Church, in politics, in sport or even in show business that we are hardly in a position to see ourselves as more enlightened than people were in the days of Christ.

Remember however that Jesus was coming to what some might see as a chance observation with a highly prepared mind. By way of preparing our minds also, perhaps we might start by reflecting on what characteristics a Church should show if it were following the teaching of Jesus. What might we expect to see for example if our Church was focussed on obtaining justice for those being discriminated against, or perhaps focussed on ensuring love for our neighbours? What might this mean for our programmes, our meeting agenda, and what we expect from our leaders? It is not the first century Jerusalem Temple or what happens in distant places like Tonga which should concern us the most. It is our own setting and our own relationships.

Regardless of what standards other groups in the wider community might expect from themselves, it seems to me that the Church, and for the Church read us, is under an obligation to reflect the teachings of the one the Church members claim to follow.

During this last week my wife and I had a meal with a much travelled couple and among their many anecdotes they talked of visiting a family in a Southern US community with a strong reputation for Church attendance.  I won’t name the State. Our friends happened to ask their hosts why it was that in a State with plenty of blacks that they had not noticed any blacks in the local town community.     The man of the house told them with obvious satisfaction that each time a black was spotted in town , he and his mates would get their guns and pay a visit to tell them to move on.   And it works! he declared.    Our friends did not share this man’s satisfaction.   Now think for a moment about the Church attendance in that town.

Certainly on a technicality, presumably although it was it was clearly against Jesus’ teaching of servant-hood  had these red-necks been charged in court they might argue  in this case no actual crime of violence is committed, yet surely the spirit of the Christ teachings is still is being denied.  Can they still claim to be Christian?

Perhaps here, it is that the claimed faith does not sometimes match the expected behaviour. Through the centuries there has been much discussion and debate about what people should believe. When however we think of where Jesus placed his emphasis, it was not so much belief but applied faith that seemed to draw his attention. A belief is something – often worked out by others – that is accepted because to the believer it seems reasonable enough to be true. A belief in that sense can also be academic, disconnected from personal reality and even artificial. We can believe a plank across a river is strong enough to hold our weight. We only demonstrate faith in the plank when we trust ourselves to take the first steps on that plank. Admiring the plank can only ever be an expression of untried faith.

It is good that Mark finds Jesus following his criticisms of the behaviour of the teachers of the law with his observations of the widow and her mite for the offering. The attitudes he encourages are not simply the preserve of the Church leaders or the wealthy and the powerful. While our community is so structured that our celebrities are the ones who draw society’s adulation, Jesus reminds us that in his world of upside down values, it is the giving heart which counts, even if it is the heart of the most humble and unprepossessing in our community.

I would like to finish by asking us all mentally to step back a pace and wonder to ourselves what Jesus might have noticed if by chance he happened upon this community – and even more specifically if he happened upon us as individuals. Would he see in us the one who posed for others – or the one who genuinely lived for others?

Abu Bakr the father in law of Muhammad, once prayed a prayer that for its reflective insight sounds almost as if it came from such an encounter.

Yes I know that we don’t often look for truth in another’s religion, but think carefully about these words and see if they might also speak to you.
Abu Bakr’s prayer……..
“I thank you Lord for knowing me better than I know myself
And for letting me know myself better than others know me.
Make me, I ask You then, better than they suppose
And forgive me for what they do not know.”
AMEN

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Lectionary Sermon for 4 November 2018 on Mark 12: 28 – 34

The Love Puzzle: When we look at the almost world wide universal lack of welcome for refugees from war zones – or the reluctance on the part of the peoples of the world to work for a fair distribution of resources and justice, it becomes a bit of a puzzle as to why those admired texts on love found in virtually every major religion have so little influence on day to day living. Since as Colin Morris once pointed out, “love is the sub text in virtually every sermon”, we might even wonder if religion tries to have followers admire such central teachings rather feel the need to live their beliefs.

Those of us who think of ourselves as Christian would be wrong to think Jesus’ famous commandments about love are unique to New Testament Christianity. We should note for example that even in the Old Testament the same injunctions occur in several equivalent forms. When Jesus is quoted as saying the Lord our God is one Lord , and you must Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and your whole soul and your whole mind and your whole strength – he was clearly repeating the first part of what the Jews called the Shema.

This was a quotation from Deuteronomy 6: 4 from the beginning of the key passages from scripture chosen to be contained in the phylacteries – the little leather boxes to be strapped on to the forehead and on the wrist when the devout Jew was at prayer. The Shema was also placed in a small cylindrical box called the Mezuzah which was – and in fact often still is placed particularly on the front door and sometimes on every door in a Jewish house to remind the Jew of their God every time they pass through that door.

That the Shema is central to the expression of Jewish faith is well known. The Shema was on the Jews’ lips as they passed through the doors of the Nazi Crematoria in the holocaust, as it had been as their ancestors faced persecution, torture and the stake across Europe in earlier generations.

I admit that just because we find this in Deuteronomy we should not assume that therefore it must be good. Deuteronomy may well have had a place for reminding Jews that they were people of a faith, but we would do well to remember that in part it was a faith for a different age and a different setting.

Certainly there is the magnificent statement about whole hearted love for God, yet in other places Deuteronomy takes us to dark and disturbing places. There for example you would find very un-Christian like suggested actions to take against anyone who changes their faith (Deuteronomy 6:13), or who suffered injury to their private parts(23:1), or if you had the misfortune to be born a Girgashite (7:1-6).

But this is not to say the Deuteronomy has nothing else to offer. Jesus is reported as being able to find verses from Deuteronomy to ward off temptation (Matthew4: 1-11). In other places Deuteronomy is far in advance of its time in expressions for compassion for animals (22:1-4,6-7) and in its compassion for the poor (24:10-22)

So yes, there is an Old Testament commandment about loving God but it is less clear from Deuteronomy or even from Jesus’ rephrase exactly how Jesus’ listeners were expected to go about showing their love for this God. Given that elsewhere Jesus is dismissive of those who profess faith with their words yet whose actions are apparently more about preserving image and being self serving, it is for example hard to believe Jesus intends us to show our love merely by repetitions of phrases like “we worship you” or “Your name be praised”. In one sense, Jesus’ immediate shift to the second commandment reminds us that there is a whole life attitude required.

If God is creator, then we surely we must show a response by caring about this creation in our actions…which we now do how?……..

If we love a God of Love – then surely what is most required is that we respond with actions that reflect this love. And if you don’t mind my asking… do we? In other words if the poor and the disadvantaged and dispossessed who have encountered our Church were asked – encountered us as were to be asked? Would they describe us from our actions as those who clearly love our neighbours?

Colin Morris in his Things Shaken, Things Unshaken addresses that question of where this teaching fits today.

“What relevance”, he asks “can that bald cliché, God is love, have to the hectic world of politics and international relations? –

Then he answers:

Well, the root of many of society’s problems is to be found not in technical, political and economic issues but in a lack of trust and mutual respect between its members. It is easy to look at others without actually seeing them. We see a stereotype shaped by our prejudices and ignorance. Love gives us the power of imagination to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see how our actions look from the other side of the tracks, South of the equator or on the wrong side of the breadline.”

When Jesus coupled the first Commandment with the second Commandment – this time from Leviticus Chapter 19 verse 18 ; “You shall love your neighbour as yourself “– there was however a subtle reinterpretation with the way Jesus used the Leviticus quote. I guess that when the words had originally been recorded by the writer of Leviticus, the reference to neighbours was specifically intended as an attitude to community neighbours, or if you like, fellow Jews. Much of the early codifying of law was about strengthening and supporting the Jewish community – and as part of this strengthening – was to separate those who did not belong.

Bluntly some of the other laws again in those early books of the Bible, showed that it was not only permissible but positively encouraged to show dislike for those outside the community. For example some of the scriptures took positive delight in the destruction of rivals. The importance of love for one’s fellow Jews was placed alongside strictures like classing eating with Egyptians as an abomination, recognising those with slanted eyes as cursed, and calling for the wholesale slaughter of opponents as in Psalm 137 where verse 9 reads: “ Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock” .

Jesus took an entirely different line. Jesus not only showed by word and action that he intended neighbours to be interpreted more widely, in other places showing loving one’s neighbours included loving even those with other beliefs – like his parable of the Good Samaritan and his encounter with the woman at the well. Again his examples showed he was not just calling for words but love expressed

Perhaps we need to guard against assuming that Christianity has sole rights to this as a philosophy.

I rather like the Greek attitude expressed by the mathematical genius and philosopher Pythagorus who, in answer to the question “Who is your neighbour?” replied, “Your other I” Treating the other as being equally deserving of your attention as yourself is of course what Jesus was saying in Love your neighbour as yourself.

While it is easy to think of love in the abstract, in practice of course it is incredibly difficult to love those we get closest to. Right through the Bible there are stories of sibling rivalry, jealousies over imagined and sometime real unequal treatment, difficulties in trying to forgive rivals and just plain dislike of those who have different gifts or backgrounds. Has much changed over the centuries? As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it: “What is it that God asks of us? It is simply that we make an effort to be loving to one another, even when we do not feel like loving”.

In practice – and I guess it is because as we become closer to others they get to know our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we sometimes find ourselves growing impatient to the point where our emotions get the better of us. This even applies to those who are married. If marriage depended on the day-to-day continued good feelings about one’s partner, I suspect there are very few marriages that would survive. And as for our enemies?… What is this about loving our enemies? Love?… We, don’t even like them!

But listen again more carefully. Nowhere in the Bible does it say we have to like our enemy – or like our neighbour. You see, we may not have much control over our feelings, particularly when we feel resentful. A poorly functioning liver can be enough to make us irritable. When we are tired, we get less patient. But any or all of these feelings can be set aside when, as an act of will-power, we deliberately set out to act lovingly.

Even Pauls famous “Love is…” list in first Corinthians Chapter 13 is not a list of feelings , it is a list of actions of the will.
Love is patient…..this means act patiently
Love is kind …. do acts of kindness
Love keeps no score of wrongs……put the wrongs out of our minds, not because we are trying to feel the love, but rather because we know which actions are loving.

Don’t expect to feel that the difficult workmate is really like your brother or sister, because if you are waiting for that feeling, I have news for you. It may be a long wait. But if you are going to treat your workmate as a sister or brother this will change the relationship.

One of the sad things in the modern world is that the word Justice has become corrupted to mean retribution. Because of the resentment this sets in train, retribution rarely seems to bring about an improvement. When the Bible talks of justice it is far more concerned with distributive justice – the acts necessary to see that everybody have a fair deal. It doesn’t take too much thought to realise which of these two notions of justice is more related to an expression of what Jesus refers to love of neighbour.

To use the old Bible language, it may ultimately depend on whether or not we want our actions to result in good or in bad. In this universe we live in we are surrounded by natural consequences. Every action has consequences. To return to Bishop Tutu in his book God has a Dream (Pp 80 81)

A good deed doesn’t just evaporate and disappear. Its consequences saturate the universe and the goodness that happens somewhere, anywhere, helps in the transfiguration of the ugliness. But also it is true that a bad deed – or what the Bible calls sin – just doesn’t evaporate and disappear, its consequences saturate the universe too”.

I believe that Jesus here was on to something. There may be no shortage of laws and tricky teachings in the Bible but ultimately we have to decide which of the principles are going to set the direction of our lives. Jesus chooses two which can act as guiding beacons. Perhaps like the teacher of the law we can see how loving God whose expression is creation and love – in effect with our whole being – and loving our neighbour as ourselves, give the other teachings a key perspective. If then we can take these principles and lift them from the pages of the Bible to the pages of our life, our hospitality, attitude to enemies …even our voting choices– perhaps we too might draw closer to the kingdom.

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Trump Mark Two

It is a great shame for Mr Trump’s current credibility that he has insisted on making some of his more bizarre past threats and boasts in front of the TV cameras. Certainly in the wake of the recent letter bomb scares, and realizing, perhaps belatedly, that this time one of his registered Republican supporters had gone so far that it was likely to endanger the Republican cause in the mid-terms, the letter bombs simply had to be condemned. And to give him his due, at long last Mr Trump was very clear. “No nation can succeed that tolerates violence, or the threat of violence, as a method of political intimidation, coercion or control”. The nation heard him say it and I guess many of us, as part of the global audience, would echo his words. “And so say all of us” was my personal reaction.

Unfortunately for Mr Trump, anyone with the wit to use the internet search engines can access a treasure trove of Mr Trump’s calls for violence against his critics. These threats were aimed at those who questioned his policies, those like journalists and news-casters who recorded and publicised his intemperate rants and even included whole nations whose policies did not favour his individual interpretation of acceptable military action. In his 2016 campaign he is on record for saying he considered that there was a place for torture of terrorists which included targeting the families of terrorists. He went on to praise the President of the Philippines for instigating killing drug addicts and drug sellers.

On the local scene, one video shows Mr Trump encouraging his supporters to “knock the crap” out of protestors and hecklers at his political events, and I would imagine many in the community will recall his recent diatribe congratulating a political candidate for “body slamming” a reporter. He not only promised to pay the legal bills for anyone who physically attacked a protestor at any one of his rallies, but on another occasion said he would like to punch a protestor in the face.

I guess many will remember back to when Mr Trump was clearly reluctant to condemn the violence at that extraordinary alt right demonstration, and prevaricated for some days until forced to acknowledge that the KKK supporters may have gone too far.

Fortunately now Mr Trump has clarified how he wishes everyone to assess his expressed attitudes. Here it is again, and it is a quote, not fake news.
“No nation can succeed that tolerates violence, or the threat of violence as a method of political intimidation, coercion or control”. Well the evidence is as clear as the newsreels can make it. Mr Trump has shown over the last two years that he personally tolerates violence, he threatens violence and supports the threat of violence as a means of establishing control even at his election appearances. He now says in effect that if the nation as a whole adopts what he has been advocating, not once but many times, the nation will not succeed. And he presumably wants the US voting public to take this piece of wisdom into consideration when they fill out those voting forms. Golly, we live in interesting times.

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Lectionary sermon for 28 October 2018 on Mark 10: 46 – 52

I realize that, at least by convention, homework exercises should be reserved for the end of the lesson. Today I want to reverse this and invite those of you with access to the internet to find out over the next week why the US state of Idaho has the unfortunate reputation for the most deaths amongst young people offered faith healing as an alternative to medical intervention. Like it or not, faith healing is always going to raise serious questions in terms of what it offers – particularly when it is offered as a substitute for tested treatment based on medical research – and perhaps it is even more suspect when it claims to defy the expected laws of nature.

But before rushing to defend the faith healer who claims to cure cancer or alternately condemn those who offer faith healing without confirmed testing perhaps we should step back a little and look again at the story of Jesus healing the blind man.

Certainly at first hearing, this miracle of the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus is not the sort of story that we should rush to bring to the attention of a blind person with no hope of medical options! These days while cataracts can be removed, retinas transplanted and some pretty impressive eye surgery can offer hope – blindness is still only overcome by intervention for some conditions.

The fact is that some people are irretrievably blind in the physical sense. A faulty optic nerve, a destroyed retina, or even worse eyes totally destroyed in an accident are not somehow amenable to a quick fix. In the same way that faith healing does not restore missing limbs, faith healing would not normally be expected to replace an eye or replace a damaged optic nerve. For people with such disabilities, to believe that Jesus could restore sight at a word or at a touch, yet further to discover that their blindness is not also eligible to be cured by faith in the power of Jesus, simply tells them that either their faith isn’t up to scratch – or perhaps worse that they are irrelevant in the Christian family.

But perhaps we should start by acknowledging the standard way of writing religious truth in Jesus’ day was by means of story telling – or even parable

The theologian Bill Loader suggests a more helpful way of looking at this passage. In his commentary on this reading he reminds us of its symbolic purpose. We might for instance notice that this middle section of Mark refers us to the time when Jesus ministry is changing and he and the disciples are coming down from the North in Galilee and beginning the descent towards Jerusalem where execution awaits. Three times – once in chapter eight verse 31, in chapter 9 verse 31 and in chapter 10 verse 33 Jesus states that he will suffer as the Son of Man – and that he will be rejected.

The disciples are presented as those blind to what Jesus is up to. If nothing else, this encounter between Jesus and Bartimaeus shows that, despite their constant daily interactions with Jesus, the disciples were blind to Jesus’ purpose and unable to see his values. The whole of this section is bookended by two healing miracles to do with blindness – the first in Chapter 8 verses 22-26 – and then at the other end today’s account in Chapter 10: 46 – 52.

As Loader points out, the disciples and Jesus presumably both see exactly the same man, yet there is a world of difference in their perception. Similarly, the blind beggar and the others in the crowd know Jesus is coming, yet Bartimaeus is the one who acts.

The name Bartimaeus is also likely to be intended to have symbolic significance (bar = son of and Timaeus meaning the worthy one). Here we have this blind beggar – so desperate for help that he calls out “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me”. Son of David? – what is this? Son of David is the title of the Messiah – and though blind, Bartimaeus is seeing in Jesus something that Jesus’ disciples are unable to notice. In some ways, for a blind man Bartimaeus is portrayed as one who has noticed quite a bit. Jesus is passing. Bartimaeus not only knows this but he sees this as his opportunity, perhaps his only opportunity. He sees Jesus as someone who might make a difference to his life.

And perhaps most important of all, unlike many who encounter Jesus, Bartimaeus sees Jesus as one worth following – and not just in theory. At the end of the story, he actually joins him on the journey.

I imagine you have worked out by now that the disciples’ blindness is blindness of the heart. There was a clamour of voices pleading for Jesus attention but when it came to the loud pleadings of the blind beggar, the disciples (and I guess most of the crowd) looked at the unwashed, blind, wretched man and just assumed he was unworthy of Jesus attention.
Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus – the disciples tell him to zip it. They tell this blind beggar he is a nobody. Foolish in retrospect maybe, yet I don’t think we should rush too quickly to judgment on the disciples.

There has long been something in the human condition that makes us prefer the preferred vision of Jesus imprisoned in the splendour of a stained glass window where he can be celebrated with lofty organ music and loud expressions of praise rather than making a serious attempt to follow the Jesus who made friends with dirty blind beggars and who is not above taking us down to the squalor to find his face in the faces of the homeless and desperate.

For those of us tempted to go along with the superior judgment theme and see in others’ misfortune the judgment of God, perhaps we might remember that for Jesus there was no hint of that – at least not in this story. It was not “Bartimaeus, you ought to be asking yourself why God has visited you with this blindness!” But rather it was, “Bartimaeus – what do you want me to do for you?” It seems that if Jesus can notice the needs of this, a most wretched man, then maybe, just maybe, for those of us who want to make his journey our journey, we are similarly called to his form of seeing and noticing.

Jesus can hear this voice of the blind beggar among the clamor and in his response shows that, to him at least, Bartimaeus is seen as being entirely worth bothering with. The question for our conscience is: will we in our turn be similarly moved?

To some extent there is also a question of perception. Because you see we are all blind to some extent. The scientist in me wants to remind you that every animal has a different range of perceptions at to what is out there in the world. Dogs for example can pick out smells far better than we can, an eagle can see distant objects much better than we do, the bat of course is famous for using sound to help echo-locate objects in virtual darkness. Humans can only see something like 30% of the light in the spectrum from the sun and under the water whales and dolphins are far better than we are at sensing vibration. Pigeons navigate by using the Earth’s magnetic field. Even physically, our sight is limited.

In several places the Bible talks of another level of perception which is only available to the spiritually alive.

John puts it this way: “ no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”. (John 3:3) That sounds a bit like Paul with his: “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, for they are spiritually discerned”. (1Corinthians: 2:14)

These days, many might assume Paul’s words imply a pious religiosity which is other worldly, yet reflecting on Mark’s version of Jesus’ meeting with Bartimaeus, a much more down to earth approach is also implied. This may indeed be spiritual discernment, but at the very least it is not discernment which is pulpit bound.

Remember in Mark’s story the disciples only saw a nuisance of a man. Jesus perception is attuned to seeing Bartimaeus as someone worth helping.
It would be dishonest to try to portray Christianity as an answer to all the woes of the world.

In reality we live in a world where bad things do happen – and sometimes to very good people. Earthquakes, Tsunamis, volcanoes, house-fires, road and air accidents, ships going down at sea, children being scalded or drowning in swimming pools, babies being born crippled or blind – and so on and on through a very long list. Christianity will not make our world a safe place. Yet what can make something of a difference, is our perception of how we can help and our perception of how we see our neighbours.

When the earthquakes severely damaged much of Christchurch, to me one of the signs of restored sight was the way many people immediately rallied to help their neighbours. Those who made cups of tea for the shocked survivors, the students who cleaned the streets, those who fed the frightened animals, checked on the elderly, volunteered to help in the public shelters…surely these were those who saw their fellows as they really were.
What is a little more worrying, are those who can gather in a Church for worship and praise, yet apparently totally dissociate themselves from the needs that are clear to those able to see. Surely this too is a form of blindness.

Bartimaeus saw what Jesus might represent even before his physical vision cleared. But the real test for the once blind beggar came when Jesus dismissed him with the word “Go”. No doubt he then had many choices of how to respond, the same sort of choices if it comes to that, we too must make. The real measure of what he now saw before him was that Bartimaeus chose to make Jesus’ journey his own.

In some ways this story will have more chance of speaking to us if we look to its challenge as a parable. As in most parables, we then have the chance of selecting what it might mean for our own understanding and future.

If that is Jesus who approaches to deal with our form of blindness, how will the story end for us?

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WHAT PRESIDENT TRUMP FORGOT TO MENTION

Although I follow what President Trump is trying to persuade us to be his real reason for pulling out of the current long-standing INF nuclear treaty with Russia, it is more than a little worry that we are left to puzzle why he comes across as one who talks as if he is unaware of what most people with a passing interest in such matters would be expected to know.  Given his access to advisors it is hard to accept that he simply doesn’t understand the implications of the background to what he now wants America and the rest of us to believe. Alternately perhaps some might hope he is aware of the underlying issues and merely does not consider it is worth bothering the people with the detail. The following details all come from mainstream media (plus one snippet from Huffington Post)   If any of my readers want exact references please ask.

First, America already enjoys a nuclear advantage over its next strongest rivals. According to the Federation of American Scientists the US currently have 6,800 nuclear warheads, Russia has 7,000 warheads (but many are smaller than those in the US), the UK has 215 warheads, France 300 warheads, Pakistan 140 warheads, North Korea (estimated 15 warheads) , China 270 warheads, India 130 warheads.   (figures quoted in Time Feb 12)

What is now conveniently unstated is that before such current nuclear agreements, eg the now 31 year old INF (Intermediate range Nuclear Forces Treaty) the arms race was dangerously close to breaking point. Some warheads had been lost eg on crashed planes, sunk nuclear submarines and there was even one suspected stolen “suitcase bomb” from a Russian facility. (see my own publication Verification – a Primer) There were too many false alarms and security of nuclear material had become impossible to guarantee. That China were able to test a nuclear weapon before they had the means to produce enough fissile material should worry anyone who can remember Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Even now the traditional tactic of bullying an enemy into submission seems inappropriate when aggravation merely increases the dangers. There is for example the story of Iran which had only won a degree of caution on the part of nations who had previously exploited oil and mineral resources at will when Iran showed signs of getting its own nuclear capability. An imperfect but apparently fairly effective treaty with its adversaries kept the nuclear genie in the bottle – until Mr Trump abruptly took the Iran out of the treaty arrangement and despite protests from the other treaty partners announced a return to sanctions on Iran, together with threats aimed at any nation which did not join in the sanctions. What the US president may have overlooked is that one of Iran’s best friends is Pakistan who in return for oil may well wish to offer a nuclear warhead or two. Certainly nations like Israel used outside help to develop its own nuclear stock pile?

Mr Trump had already announced during his last election campaign that he believed that the best way to lessen the dangers to America would be to increase the lead America already enjoyed in the nuclear deterrent race by modernizing, expanding and advertising its ability to overwhelm and annihilate any potential enemies. The puzzle here is that his advisors should have stressed to him what had gone on before the current treaty arrangements had been signed.  A further concern is that no one appears to have told him that just as Russia has gone against the intentions of the INF treaty with its development of some cruise missile developments, a similar concern can be directed to the US if they had been intending to follow through with Mr Trump’s election promises on the modernisation of the US nuclear weaponry.

The US had for example accepted under the terms of the treaty that they should not test any new nukes and until very recently the vast testing ground 90 miles North West of Las Vegas in Nevada has been in stand-down mode. Late last year President Trump had ordered that a short notice nuclear test should be organized to test a new type of nuclear weapon and the White House had specifically stated that this would be for “political purposes” (cf Time  February 12)

The President has also signed off on an order for $1.2 trillion to overhaul the entire complex and modernise the weapons. On July 20th 2017 he reprimanded the Pentagon Staff for holding back on plans to increase the nuclear arsenal. Later a set of 64 page draft plans were made public early 2018 which included two new sea launched weapons, one designed for a small atomic warhead suitable for battlefield use and other weapons designed for“first use strategy” . These were released in the public domain in January 2018 by Huffington Post.

More importantly, at least in view of the present statement about Russian failures to abide by the letter of the agreement, on February 12 2018 Time Magazine reported that the February Pentagon budget called for funding of a new missile which if developed and tested would clearly contravene the terms of the current Treaty.

Unfortunately Mr Trump is keeping rather quiet about what appears to be the real reason why the US is uncomfortable with the INF. The problem is that China was not involved in the current treaty and as a consequence, from the US point of view, if the Treaty is not renegotiated to allow for the proposed US nuclear weapons development, China could conceivably get ahead of the US in terms of nuclear technology.  Given this serious problem that the US should now suddenly and conveniently notice a long-standing failure on the part of Russia might even at best appear a coincidence!

In any event the Trump Administration statements on Russian violations of the treaty ring a little hollow in view of the current US developments in nuclear weapons technology and delivery systems. Just to take one of many examples, while the Russians have been developing cruise missile technology for delivery of nuclear weapons, the US has been developing a parallel technology of drone delivery. Since drones were not planned or developed at the time of the original Treaty it is hardly surprising their development was not excluded by the Treaty.

If I were part of the US voting public (and I must stress as a New Zealand citizen, I am not)at the very least I might even be asking why the NATO experts and so many of the leaders of the allied nations are asking the US to reconsider the current proposed course of action.

 

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Lectionary Sermon for 21 October 2018 on Mark 10: 35 – 45

The other day my wife and I heard a distinguished theologian describe a visit to one of those Islands in the Pacific, Tuvalu, where every so often storm surges inundate the Island. He described how when such a storm is on the way, mothers place children in those polystyrene bins that the Australians call “eskies” and we call chilly bins. At least this gives the babies a chance of avoiding drowning. He told us how the hotel where he had been staying was also flooded from time to time and that he felt more secure because his bedroom was in the second story.

Then he posed a tricky question. Clearly the Islanders were not those involved in some of the actions that might be thought of as messing up the climate, and maybe affecting the storm surges. But who, the theologian asked, should care about what was happening to the Island? And if it comes to that, would the Islander who asked the question: “are you my neighbour?” better off to be asking a Christian or a non Christian, asking that question of a minister – a bishop – a lay member of a Church – or for that matter someone who doesn’t even believe the right stuff?

Surely to that Islander, the neighbour is the one who does something to help while title, religious affiliation, formal beliefs or any one of a number of measures of self–importance count for very little.

When we pick up today’s gospel story, Jesus’ answer to the disciples is not surprising. Here we have Jesus with a good part of his mission behind him, with anywhere up to three years on the roads, his disciples in tow, watching him living out his compassion, with his focus on the poor, the victims of injustice and the socially rejected – and making plain his total opposition to shows of power and artificial piety. Remember his warnings to those who seek the limelight in the name of religion – but then – perhaps right when he least expects it, from his own camp so to speak, these brothers James and John suddenly get it into their heads that the time for their place in the sun might have arrived.

Saying they were wrong is one thing, but in view of what society teaches about power and respect, we need to be careful about identifying just exactly why it is they were wrong.

I don’t think James and John were doing anything much different to those of us today, who think because we have happened upon a particular church, to have become familiar with a particular set of doctrines and have heard what seems to us to be the right message, that this somehow makes us more worthy people. If it comes to that, it brings to mind the sort of discussion on the validity of beliefs that I used to hear (and I confess, sometimes took part in) – as an undergraduate at University. Raised voices and sometimes even anger that others cannot recognize our obvious truth – and yet a total blindness to noticing we were not being our message.

The disciples could hardly claim they were unaware what Jesus had been teaching. To the extent Jesus was like other itinerant preachers, he may well have preached variants on the same themes a number of times. As would be the case in many churches where there are regular congregation members with the same preacher week after week, the disciples could not help become familiar with his ideas at least at a theoretical level. Since the gospels were not written by Jesus, it was presumably the disciples, remembering as best they could, those many times retold stories and parables, stories that shaped the subsequent records and formed the basis for the gospels. Yet here is the important issue. Familiarity with the message does not mean that it has taken root in the heart.

A televangelist may have a viewing audience of thousands and a clear gospel message but if the newspapers are to be believed, more than one televangelist, despite knowing the right words to say has been guilty of fraud or sexual impropriety.

A priest can have studied the scriptures at the highest level and still be guilty of child molestation.

The Norwegian mass murderer claimed strong conservative Christian beliefs, just as the suicide bomber can claim to be true to the teachings of the Koran.

But being able to recite some key stories and teachings of Jesus is only ever at best a small part of the Christian journey and certainly is not some sort of talisman that automatically wards off other baser instincts. Happening upon – and even passing on the gospel message does not make us more worthy.

So we come back to the Zebedee brothers – no doubt admiring of Jesus – and yet with an unexpected gap in their understanding of what he represented.

I don’t think we are in a position to be too hard on them. There is hardly a group in society that does not set up visible hierarchies. Certainly it happens in Churches, which is why there is a Pope and his Cardinals, An Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishops, and Church Presidents, clergy with different ranks and responsibilities, and even various forms of lay leadership in leaders meetings and their denominational equivalents. Perhaps it also needs spelling out that James and John in their desire for more power were probably far from unusual and their ambitions might even seem natural and sensible to many.

For example, power is clearly needed to accomplish any purpose, so it wasn’t the pursuit of power per se that was inappropriate. Yet power is relative and comes in many forms. The power to give meaning and purpose to life is hardly the same as the power to dispatch the rebel. What Jesus was in essence saying when he rebuked James and John, was that they were seeking a totally inappropriate form of power to go with his teaching. As he put it, they did not know what they were asking.

Some like Caesar Augustus derived their power from military might and political influence, and the respect Augustus won was a respect partly born out of seeing how he dealt with those who crossed him. Strangely however, this is a curiously ephemeral power. The dictator or general may be able to wreak tremendous damage to his foes yet Empires designed to live a thousand years often sink as fast as they appear. Remember the thousand year Reich that Hitler was trying to establish in 1935.

After a most dramatic rise and many, many spectacular battles involving a good part of the people of the world – ten years later all that was left was the rubble and dead bodies.

Shortly after Hitler’s downfall Stalin’s massive power disappeared almost as quickly despite the millions he had murdered in Siberia.

On the other hand, the genuinely humble religious leader may be totally at the mercy of his or her enemies but curiously their message of forgiveness, compassion and actions of servant-hood may live on for millennia. When Jesus walked the dusty paths of Palestine, the world was almost totally unaware. Only three of the contemporary historians even mentioned him and then only in passing, and in not in a particularly flattering way. Yet through the centuries his quiet influence has grown until nearly the whole world is aware of his message. And this is not true simply of Jesus. Those early saints whose lives could not have been more humble have sometimes started orders of followers that still continue to exert their quiet influence centuries later whereas in that same time many mighty kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen – some almost without trace. In terms of influence – isn’t what Jesus and the saints represent real power?

It is also a message which is taking a long time for many to comprehend. I remember back in 2012 there was certainly satisfaction that recent sanctions against Iran were destroying that country’s economy. Now Mr Trump says that failed policy is worth a second try. Military incursions and sanctions are standard Western responses to any nation threatening Western interests. Yet there is a fine line to be drawn. As another pacifist mystic leader from another religion, Mahatma Gandhi once put it: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Why is it that our church doesn’t push the same message. Jesus with his preferred course of action – forgiving 70 times 7 – is not favoured as part of any nation’s current international policies.

Perhaps those who believe Jesus to the point where they wish to follow his teachings should be up front. Surely the Jesus way at least suggests sooner or later the protagonists in any conflict or stand-off must come round to thinking that forgiveness, understanding and care for one another provides a much more stable long term solution to any long term confrontation, whether it be between super-powers or even only between family members estranged by a dimly remembered family feud.

While most of us can probably recognise the eternal truth of what Jesus was saying, his words about servant-hood may make us a mite uneasy if we think of them addressed to ourselves rather than just to James and John. To paraphrase Stephen Prothero in his essay Separate Truths: to move too easily from a religion that only acknowledges its gentle mystics and awe inspiring Church architecture yet turn a blind eye to the very human faults of self serving ambition and bigotry is simply not honest – any more than it would be to admire the almsgiving and disciplined worship in Islam without acknowledging the suicide bombers and fanatics. As Prothero put it, we need to understand religious people as they are – not just at the best but also at their worst. If we claim to follow Jesus, we ourselves are self-classified as religious people and honesty should help us recognise our internal struggles between the saint and the sinner.

There is a mind-shift required from setting aside personal advancement – or being inward focussed -to the notion of attempting to live a life of servant-hood – in other words starting to care more about others than oneself. This is radical and even counter intuitive – but is almost certainly at the heart of the Christian challenge. We are programmed at birth to seek our own advantage. In nature this individual self seeking might mean the difference between life and death. And to be fair many never move past this inward focus. But Jesus came teaching a faith designed to benefit the whole community rather than the individual. For this to happen, it is not theoretical learning that is required. Rather what Jesus calls servant-hood is a shift from active self-interest to genuinely thinking first about others ….starting to treat our neighbours as every bit as important as ourselves.

Some of us no doubt learn this message of servant-hood when we first encounter Christ, or perhaps when we meet someone who conveys this same sense of care by word and action. For others of us (and I place myself with this group) the moment of enlightenment may takes years – or even remain an unattainable mystery. Remember the Sons of Zebedee were only guilty of a very human and dominant weakness, that of self concern. Since we probably know ourselves best of all – and since we know there is something of both the saint and the sinner in each of us, the question is ….where are we on that continuum? And for this coming week when the challenge to be a neighbour occurs, will it be servant-hood or self interest that shapes our thinking?

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