A Lectionary Sermon for 4 October 2015 on Mark Ch 10 : 2 – 16

Divorce in the First Century
One of the most thoughtless and hard hearted ways to use scriptures is to take verses away from their context and use the words as proof texts to judge others.

Unfortunately there is no shortage of those who would quote the Bible and use the quotations to condemn a wide range of behaviours that traditionally offend the self righteous. Today’s reading for example is a favourite of those who feel it their duty to condemn those whose marriages fall apart. In today’s reading Jesus is being tackled by the Pharisees on that most tricky of subjects – divorce and remarriage. Yet make no mistake about it. Here Jesus is not necessarily speaking to our generation or our social framework. Marriage in Jesus setting is not the same as marriage in our city in the 21st century – or even in our local community today. Nor was divorce in Jesus’ day what we would still call divorce. And still less are Jesus’ questioners, the Pharisees, even actually seeking guidance on their own marriages.

Yes, today a young couple might go to a priest or minister for advice about marriage. And yes, for those with a marriage in trouble, there are traditionally many who can give advice. These days there are also marriage guidance counsellors aplenty and lawyers who spend their whole professional careers carefully ensuring that when the marriage does fail, as for instance in Hollywood where with more than 75% divorce rate, marriages are almost expected to fail – and in that setting, both the client and the lawyer might expect maximum advantage.

But divorce in Jesus’ setting is in no way what the majority might encounter today. What is more, in Mark’s gospel, what the Pharisees appear to be doing, is deliberately setting out to trap Jesus. The Pharisees don’t come across as genuinely wanting guidance. What they do want is blood. It seems probable that ideally in their eyes the best outcome of their questioning might be to have Jesus trapped by his own words – and then perhaps beaten or even nailed to a cross.

As they seek – or insist – on answers for such debates, it is clear that they want to trap him. The law in their day was complicated with minute details and the Pharisees, perhaps rightly, presumed that Jesus would have been hard put to know which clauses ruled on the really tricky issues. It is likely that amongst his questioners were a number, who like our modern day experts in litigation, were well able to use the minutiae to satisfy their personal agenda. In Jesus’ day according to a number of the commentators, marriage had become lax with all the conditions tilted very heavily in favour of the man.

For example a man who was married in Jesus’ day and living as a Palestinian Jew – and who perhaps one day happened upon someone a little more desirable than his current wife, could simply cast his wife,( his possession), aside by the simple expedient of saying a simple formula which in Pharisee speak went like this On the……….day of the month……… in the year …….. I …………son of …………. (the father’s name since the mother didn’t count)….. and by whatsoever name I am called in this place………native of the town of ……acting of my free will, and without any coercion , do repudiate, send back and put away ….you (insert the wife’s name) daughter of ( and here you put in the name of your wife’s mother which both identifies your wife and stresses her inferiority to you) then the husband adds….and until this present time my wife. There were a few more words, but that was essentially it.

There is something else too. Since for most rabbis this declaration of divorce only officially had one reason – that of “uncleanness” on the part of the wife, the divorce was a polite way of saying she had been unfaithful, and divorcing your wife was therefore also an unspoken public accusation she was guilty of the crime of adultery. Since the law for the most part only allowed one cause for divorce – divorce assumed that cause. ( Deuteronomy Chapter 4 verse one). This left the community free to stone her to death if they had a mind to. But let me stress that no matter what the husband were up to – even if it were domestic violence or adultery – the woman was not allowed to seek a divorce on her own behalf. She was the man’s possession. Her only hope would be to ask her husband to free her by making the formula statement. And to obtain a divorce, that is all he had to do. No need for justification – divorce was its own justification. A simple statement by the husband and lo, they were no longer married.

Remember too, the divorce was nothing like our law of insisting on an equal division of property – or perhaps more and more commonly these days – a division according to the terms of the prenuptial agreement.

For the most part, in Jesus time the divorced woman was totally without hope. If she was lucky she would not be stoned and some relatives might take her in despite her shame – but all too often she would become a society pariah – reduced to begging or prostitution for survival.

If we then go back to what Jesus says about adultery, the second part of his statement….. that “if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery….” this added nothing new to the situation because in Jesus day, divorce assumed adultery on the part of the woman anyway. What was however quite novel was the obverse statement. “Whoever puts away his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her”. The radical bit was in the implication that the man has an equal responsibility for the well being of the marriage.

If you notice what Jesus was doing, he was shifting away from the tricky wordplay about the law back to the principles behind the law. Marriage he presented as total and genuine commitment to one another, and more importantly, commitment on both sides.

So the Pharisees had come to Jesus to ask their trap questions BUT his answers, particularly the bit about the man’s position, would have left them feeling uncomfortable. At least let us be careful. Their topic may well have been marriage yet it is not really what marriage means here and now. And their divorce is not our divorce.

Another point that we would do well to remember is that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew living in a Jewish society. His words in reply cannot then be used to make pronouncements on situations far removed from this setting. He is not talking of divorce in Hollywood or Auckland. Nor for the record should we use his words for direct judgement on gay marriage or for that matter that other increasingly common situation still sometimes called “ living in sin”. Nevertheless he does appear to be drawing attention to a useful principle that could benefit many relationships in his reply.

Jesus’ notion of commitment to one another would indeed provide a strong basis for marriage and a variety of relationships and even today, as an attitude, mutual commitment would certainly reduce the possibility of a modern time divorce. But that is not to say we should pretend the world is different to our reality. In this city, as is the case right through our nation and our church congregations, divorce is still a fact of life. Marriages and de-facto relationships do fail and sometimes tragically.

Even if our citizens and friends were themselves single minded about the sincerity of their commitment to their partner, unless the partner can also bring the same degree of commitment, stress and even marriage breakdown can and does occur. We can be grateful that years of wise law making have removed some of the worst excesses of what might happen to those caught in such situations often beyond their control, but can I suggest judgement of others is not what it is all about. There is implied judgement it is true, but I hear Jesus calling for his listeners to look to their own values and actions, not someone else’s.

Jesus is wise to draw attention to the need for mutual commitment, and by implication to the absolute need to avoid the breakdown of the marriage, yet in any marriage or one of its many different modern equivalent forms, only the couple themselves will know how this plays out in practice. Putting it bluntly, it is not someone else’s relationships which are our concern, it is our own. Even if we know Jesus was recorded as talking to an audience with different motives and within an entirely different setting we can still take his over-riding principles as ask ourselves how we are using such principles in our own lives.

The attitudes that Jesus talks about seem anything but rule-bound. There is unfortunately a way of approaching others which is to do with conventions and rules. If society conventions happen to rule against some form of relationships, this can get in the way of the natural warmth of interactions with the technical transgressors. This way whole classes of people can be socially shunned. Homosexuals, women wearing traditional Muslim dress, neatly scrubbed and suited young men on bicycles wearing Mormon badges, Sikh men wearing turbans, orthodox Jews and in fact anyone who does not instantly fit in with the social expectations of one’s own social group can be dismissed. In Jesus day this would include divorced women and even children. In many instances Jesus is recorded as overturning this attitude, whether it be the tax collector, the prostitute, the tax collector, the many times married woman with the wrong religion at the well Jesus was modelling his teaching.

Back then children were often socially shunned and not always considered to be worthy of consideration until puberty when they were able to become synagogue members with the Bar Mitzvah and the equivalent ceremony for girls. It would have been considered bad form to allow children near anyone important, including teachers and rabbis.
Today’s reading records parents bringing their children to Jesus to be touched in blessing. That Jesus stopped his disciples from the accepted custom of keeping children from anyone important is again a helpful model for our own attitudes. “It was not only let the children come to me for to such as these the Kingdom of God belongs…..” but then he goes that one step further and says in effect that the attitude of these children is what we all need.

It is not rules or conventions that will ultimately transform our relationships and our pilgrimage, but rather an open hearted and even childlike openness to one another. The question then is not for others but for ourselves. Can we approach others with a child-like openness, for as Jesus reminds us, it is only for such pilgrims that the kingdom of God will come to have meaning.

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The overall intention of this site is to encourage thought. Since my particular path in life has been influenced by my background in science, education, politics, religion (which for me has come to mean liberal or progressive Christianity) and a strong interest in distributive justice, these issues have influenced my choice of topics.

One current project has been developing a set of lectionary sermons to cover the three year lectionary cycle. Although there is now a sermon for each Sunday for each year I am now editing the earlier sermons to bring them up to date. Since I am assured that some read these sermons each week, if the reader notes errors made or considers further points should be made, feel free to add comments for other readers to consider.

If the reader is interested in some of the more controversial issues there are for example articles on the Science of Global warming, homosexuality, Islamic attitudes to violence, Middle East politics eg History of Iran etc In some instances the comments at the end are of more value than the initial article.

For those interested in Biblical topics, you may wish to start by looking at Biblical Literalism (“Shaping God”) and others on metaphors in the Bible (“The God that Limps” and “Metaphorically speaking) and theology”.

If you prefer lighter reading you may like to look at “The Battle of the Bards” – my poetry war with a very humorous atheist poet, or articles like The End Times – This time it’s serious – again.
There are also articles on the sociology that shapes religion (eg Was Durkheim right?) and others on the interface of Science and Religion.

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Lectionary sermon for 27 September 2015 on Mark 9: 38-50

Donald Trump has recently outraged his critics by failing to correct a man at an election crowd rally who claimed a major problem in the US is the presence of Muslims (among whom he included President Obama as well as those who he said were setting up terrorist training camps!)

But before we get too judgemental about Donald Trump let us admit the expressed prejudice is not unique to a lunatic fringe sector of the US Republican party. Earlier this week in Papakura, South Auckland, New Zealand an angry bank security guard was explaining to me that the only reason why the Springbok World Cup Rugby team had lost to Japan was that the Springboks were forced for political reasons to include a quota of blacks in their team. Surely that too is prejudice.

I would go further and wonder if the unwelcome reception some religious visitors receive on the doorsteps of this town is not also a form of prejudice.

There is something about the human psyche which seems to have us delight in identifying those who don’t quite fit our particular insider group. No doubt the social psychologists would explain this phenomenon as a way of investing in the social insurance which comes as a byproduct of knowing exactly who one’s friends and supporters are. Which brings us to today’s gospel.

In today’s reading from Mark for example, we find the disciples complaining to Jesus about some who are apparently trying to claim working in Jesus name without being part of the inner circle of disciples. While we know the writer of this passage is apparently writing years after the event, the sheer likelihood of such an attitude being shown by the disciples suggests highly plausible reporting.

Jesus will have none of their expressed concern. “He who is not against us is for us”. We might do well to reflect that these words suggest an openness to include others which is far from modern day norms. According to Robert Roth, an insecure community or even an insecure nation suggests by its dealings with others the direct opposite. “He who is not with us is against us” is a more typical standard approach.

Thus we find a superpower acting harshly with trade barriers and other exclusions against those who are reluctant to show direct support for the superpower’s political stance. No doubt you will have also noticed that where commodities like oil are involved, trade partnerships with other than one’s own bloc is traditionally described as a warning sign and is sometimes enough to attract some form of embargo.

At a more local level we find it difficult to have anything to do with those identified as different. This happens where religious affiliation is used to judge others in advance. For example, as Protestants we are not traditionally very good in acknowledging pacifism in Jehovah’s witnesses, social action from the Seventh Day Adventist church or positive family programmes from the Church of Latter Day Saints. We may run our own Church charities seeing this as Christianity in action, yet prefer to remain entirely ignorant about say the followers of Islam who place a high priority on almsgiving.

Notice, here in Mark’s account, Jesus is focusing on the actions of the strangers who have offended the disciples by taking actions involving healing. He draws attention to these actions and finds in them confirmation that these strangers are essentially sharing his own mission.

Perhaps it is only Mark’s choice of which words to recall, but in Mark’s account Jesus then immediately goes on to talk of those who place stumbling blocks in the way of what he calls “the little ones who believe in me”. Here it is by no means certain he is talking of children and might equally be talking of placing obstacles in the way of the vulnerable newcomers to the faith. By his juxtaposition of ideas, Jesus seems to be saying that to worry about people who are doing good works, yet who are not officially signed up members of the inner group is placing a totally unacceptable and unnecessary stumbling block in the way of potential followers.

“Stumbling blocks” would have been better understood in Jesus day when the night could be dangerously dark, and referred (in this case metaphorically) to either naturally or deliberately placed rocks or large pieces of wood which might trip up the unwary in the dark. The word Skandalon – (or in this case Mark is using the form Skandalizo) – both of which are words from which we get the word scandal. Using these words suggest Jesus’ disgust at the thought people might use such tricks to trip the unwary up.

The suspicion with which a given human group regards those who don’t quite share one’s own religious preferences has been part of the human scene since the historical record began. Where the different religions differ more markedly, the response to those of other faiths can be even more extreme. In the news over recent days we learn that once again, protests over religion in the Middle East have turned violent.

When mobs attack embassies with cries like “Death to America”, or “kill the Christians” we would do well to check on the history that has led them to that point. Although many would have us believe this is entirely a consequence of the violence and terrorism which now almost seems a part of modern Islam, we might also do well to remember that the current waves of violence are at least partly a response to high handed interference by the Western superpowers.

Of course the current violence against the American embassies is totally reprehensible (even if in fairness it seems understandable) and it is certainly far from the tolerant words of Jesus about forgiving one’s enemies and showing love for neighbour. Yet if we looked back on our history and found there past enemies coming to take our resources or change our governments are we certain we really would have behaved differently.

Certainly it is legitimate to ask if whether in fact current events in the Middle East show Islam is a religion following precepts of justice and love? Furthermore as some who claim membership in the Christian Church are fond of reminding us Jesus said that He alone was the way to the Father (John 14:6), and that He alone revealed the Father (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22).

But did you notice? If Jesus is the way – that when he tells us to have nothing to do with separating off those who are not members of our particular group – in fact calling this action “placing stumbling blocks” – we are hardly following his way by identifying the heresy of those who will not join us. To be precise, the Jesus way is to say “those who are not against us are for us”.

Yes, we have reached the point where some tell us they are against us – but we should also ask ourselves how, in turn, we might look to them. Might we not by recent actions in modern history seem to be against them. Sending reconstruction investment to Afghanistan and Iraq must be seen as positive yet the issue for the local people must include asking at whose hands did the destruction come in the first place?

At the end of the passage Jesus makes the unexpected connection between salt and fire. Some commentators suggest that here he is probably referring to the fact that salt was used where the fire was for a sacrifice. A sacrifice is made at personal cost. Perhaps this is why we should particularly note Jesus finishing this section with the words “if salt has lost its saltiness how can you season it….. Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” If we look at others and label their witness as unacceptable because they do not have the right credentials, they in their turn will be looking at the salt we display in our lives. Jesus seems to be saying it is our salt rather than someone else’s salt that needs attention.

Rather than focus on the extremist Islamic protestors who are currently claiming the latest film from the West is an unacceptable insult to the prophet, perhaps we need to be asking what it is about past and recent Western Christian actions in the Middle East that causes the Radical Islamists to overlook our salt.

Are we for example satisfied that bombing civilians by mistake when trying to kill terrorists conveys to the local population that what we represent is in their best interests? How will embargos on food and medicines aimed at governments who are non cooperative with policies we favour demonstrate to the locals we are not against the local population? When we think of the natural indignation in the West of a few thousand al Qaeda caused deaths we might at least pause for thought at the words of the then Secretary of State Madeline Albright when she claimed in a 1998 CBS 60 minutes interview that the embargos causing the loss of half a million Iraqi children was “a price worth paying” for keeping the pressure on Bagdad.

An alternative view was offered by the Secretary General of the Arab league H E Amre Moussa who in 2002 put it this way:
“…The situation in the Middle East is not a situation related to terrorism, as some want to believe. It is a case of foreign military occupation and all the military repercussions built on it that causes agitation, anger and frustration. This definitely has the highest priority in the eyes of all Arabs.” (H E Amre Moussa 2002 http://www.arableagueonline.org)

Such issues inevitably affect the way others see us. Although religion is not customarily seen as part of our international politics, since there are relatively high proportions claiming affiliation with the Christian church in the West, those who deal with the West make the assumption that Western politics is reflecting Western religion. As long as we make similar assumptions about those in Islamic countries we can hardly expect different treatment for ourselves.

Fortunately for our consciences, it is left to our politicians rather than ourselves to make the international policies which may at first glance seem to absolve us from direct responsibility. It is nevertheless the sign of a population’s wish if an international policy is continued over a long period of time and it can only do so if we either approve it or chose to keep quiet about our feelings.

One of the implications of Jesus’ suggestion that we look to our own salt must surely mean we should consider our personal responsibilities and actions. If our religion is to have meaning at all, surely it must affect all our relationships – at a personal level, at local church level, at community, at national and even international level.
Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another”. If we follow his suggestion, what might that mean for us and those we meet?

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Lectionary Sermon for 20 September 2015 on James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

When I was doing my 5 year stint as lay minister at Epsom Church, one day one of my parishioners assured me that if and when she won the big prize in Lotto she would give me $1 million for the Church. This reminded me of a time when I had been teaching high school some years previously and a mother of one of my pupils did in fact win the major prize for Lotto. Being a sincere Christian, after dealing with some outstanding debts and setting aside enough for her children’s further education, the mother did actually give the balance of the prize to the pastor of her church to pay for a new Church building. Since the colossal cheque was made out in his name, alas the temptation was too great for the pastor and he absconded with the lot.

It would of course be only hypothetical, but if unexpected fortune actually came your way, – perhaps a bequest – can you be certain you would handle the new situation in strict accordance with the finest Christian principles? I suspect using an unexpected good fortune almost exclusively for the benefit of others is less common than we might hope. I am reminded that in the US a few years back there was an admittedly unscientific survey exercise conducted some time ago as part of a broadcast program: The hypothetical question posed to the survey sample went as follows: Which is better? The power of flight, or the power of invisibility?

Then the question went on: Think about that question for a moment and decide which you would choose. Would you rather be able to fly or be able to become invisible? And what would you do with your newfound powers? Would you be a superhero, or super-selfish? Just before I tell you – what is your best guess as to how the respondents would be likely to respond?

In the event, the author of the survey – John Hodgman – appeared genuinely surprised. No matter which of the two magical powers was chosen, the overwhelming response was that the power should be used for entirely selfish reasons. Those who imagined themselves now able to be invisible saw themselves as now able to do things like spy on bedrooms and shower rooms – to steal fine clothes from department stores and money from banks – to spy on friends, and to listen to others talking about the invisible one.

Some were after free services – not I might add Church services – rather free movie and show admission, free plane rides.

Again almost without exception, those who wanted to choose the ability to fly were certainly not intending super-hero deeds like rescuing people from ledges on burning buildings. One specifically even explained why to be a superhero would need to be rejected because it might be potentially dangerous. Not for him the dangers of being burnt rescuing a small child from the fire. Rather more desirable was being seen to arrive at public places in dramatic fashion – and building a reputation for being seen as having superhuman abilities.

Well what does wisdom suggest? If we were to follow James we would have to admit that following of purely selfish instincts is exactly what he meant by false wisdom.

James has something of an undeserved reputation for over-simplification. I suspect this is because he makes many of us uncomfortable in his contrasts between the way the gospel would have us live and what we do in practice. For example within our Church services, many might be expected to hear much about faith but from my own past experiences, I suspect all too often we focus on the parts of faith removed from day to day realities.

For our own generation and setting, James’ list of characteristics of what he calls false wisdom is uncomfortably close to the ways in which we seem to structure our society. Jealousies and selfish ambition drive many popular realities and the whole advertising industry is predicated on presenting images of the way we can fulfill these ambitions. If the media are to be believed, the so-called good life is a life in which the trappings of success are measured by our clothes, our furniture and household possessions, our cars, our house and even our choice of toiletries. We may talk glibly of a life of service to others, but in practice we reward those who achieve status and power. Certainly we live in a different world to that of James, yet it doesn’t take too much imagination to recognize in the values which drive our society today, the same conflict that James points to in the clash between God’s values and the values of the world.

James is being counter-cultural for us today when he says that in order to achieve the good life we need to approach our tasks with the spirit of meekness. Pure, peaceable, gentle, ready to yield….. hardly a description of what drives this or any other developed nation. Is it any more what drives our religious institutions? This is not to say he is advocating that Jesus’ followers become doormats. Much of this reading implies that James is nudging us towards focusing on a positive form of justice that Dom Crossan likes to call distributive justice – whereby instead of organizing retribution for potential rivals, our focus should rather be on the fair distribution of resources. This is not how our nation as a whole responds in practice – I think we have been measured at number 87 in terms of being prepared to accept refugees.

Certainly at least in part both our Church and our political leaders demonstrate selfish ambition – and frequently display jealousies – both traits of what James calls false wisdom, but we have little justification for separating ourselves from our leaders. We can sneer at the Dean of Nelson Cathedral for recently setting up a Church service for Religious tolerance – then forbidding the choir to sing an item as part of the call to worship because it was based on an Islamic call to prayer. But before we laugh too loudly the question is: how do we make Muslims welcome in this country – let alone in this Church?

Subtle discrimination, ambition and jealousies at every level seem part of the churches I have got to know. I suspect, ambitions and petty jealousies are a fact of life in all community institutions and organizations. However when we say the Church does or does not act on its principles, we would do well to remember this is our church as well as the church of our leaders. There is a very real sense in which we are the Church. In the same way we might remember that when we say our politicians are favouring those with the money and influence surely they are simply pandering to what the surveys tell us drive the voters. Aren’t we also among those voters?

The number of words we use to talk about our faith is not where it is at. Certainly teaching may start with words. Yet ambitions and jealousies may also just as easily produce a veritable welter of words. But identifying, or worse blathering on about our hopes and dreams, is only at best an indication of a hopeful intention to start moving forward. James implies that we are only likely to see signs of true wisdom when we can see the evidence of the simple and humble acts which tell us we are actually under way.

James is not being impractical. It may be unexpected advice but the wisdom of humility is not necessarily ineffective. One of my favourite political quotes came from one of Abraham Lincoln’s election campaigns when a particularly acid tongued opponent accused Lincoln of being two faced. Lincoln’s reply: “Do you think if I had two faces I would be wearing this one?” Do you think we could call that self-effacing? And if it comes to that, would it really have helped Lincoln to reply to his detractor with a worse insult? He did after all win the election.

….or to change the metaphor…..
On the Southern motorway out of our city there are warning signs to truck drivers on the lower bridges. Every now and again, a truck driver with a high sided truck will risk it and there have been a number of occasions when a truck has become wedged and apparently inextricably so, under one of these bridges. Rather than destroy either the truck or the bridge the solution is invariably the same. They let the air out of the tyres. By analogy, the notion of deflating our egos to avoid further damage after a serious verbal collision may indeed be part of the saving wisdom required.

James says – and we would have to say he can point to plenty of supporting evidence – that false wisdom can in effect be recognized by what it produces: conflicts, people thinking they are better than others – and acting as if they have nothing to learn from others. To quote William Barclay: ‘There is a kind of person who is undoubtedly clever, with an acute brain and a skilful tongue. But his (or her?) effect, nevertheless, in any committee, in any church, in any group is to cause trouble and to disturb personal relationships. It’s a sobering thing to remember that the wisdom that he (or she?) possesses is devilish rather than divine.”

James has a solution which is dependent on accepting a philosophical premise from left field. James is nothing if not paradoxical. His message…..You cannot get the good life if you seek it. Rather the good life is the incidental consequence of seeking true wisdom.
Seek true wisdom says James and the good life will follow.

The other paradox is that….. again according to James…. when we let our thinking be shaped by the impression we are above others, we are actually below them since the true wisdom comes from above.

There is a subtle point made by James at the beginning of Ch 4 where he shows that he has noticed that a common form of attitudinal violence to others is building oneself up by the destructive process of putting others down.

In his commentary on this section from James, Bill Loader suggests that some Christians seem happy to express hate even although they dress up what they are doing with artificial justification. He also notes that the violence can have various rhetorical forms and by no means implies physical violence.

The other main teaching in this passage informs us about James’ understanding of the concept of God. God as far as James is concerned is nothing more nor less than the concept of acting in love. James stresses self giving and recognizing that others too need space to grow.

As we start to relate to others with generosity, humility and consideration we become closer to God – for these same characteristics are part of what we mean when we say God is Love.

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Lectionary Sermon for 13 September 2015 on James 3 :1-12 Pr 19 B

Over this last week I listened to some talkback radio to learn to what some people thought of the refugee crisis. Some of the callers expressed emotion and even prejudice. Certainly a good number were expressing dislike of foreigners, some callers abused those public figures calling for compassion and without going into detail I reckon a newcomer to the country would not come away with the impression we are a particularly tolerant bunch. Now a question……. If you had been a refugee listening, how would the negative words make you feel?

Virtually every human emotion can be triggered with the right words. Even for those of us who would like to consider ourselves to be reasonably kind, having kind feelings wont quite cut it. It is as well to remember that kind or even unkind thoughts are difficult or even impossible to convey until they are put into words or actions.

Words can also paint pictures and the images evoked by these words are sometimes enough to cause us to take extreme action. For example, the words we encounter might help us decide when to take to the street with placards and even when to go to war. The words we encounter also tell us when others care about us.

The words we hear, or even simply read on the internet can cause us to fear or to envy. In a modern variant, text messages can bully – even cause a young person to take their own life but at their best, words can inspire or give hope. Words can also express prejudice or help shape our unconscious prejudices.
To paraphrase Patrick Rothfuss: “Words can light fires in the mind. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
At first hearing, today’s reading from James’ may suggest exaggeration. What was it he said?:

“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

The first part is clear. After all, there is no doubt about the real damage a genuine fire can do from small beginnings. And it is not just forests. On September 2 in the year 1666 a small fire broke out in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane in London. With the close proximity of wooden buildings, and in many cases, buildings waterproofed with tar and pitch, the fire began to spread until it turned to an inferno. Something like 80 % of that city was destroyed including 52 Trade or Guild halls, numerous churches, including the spiritual hub of St Pauls, and at least 13,000 homes. In the years since this fire was only one among many. When James talks of a spark destroying a forest there are more than ample examples from the recent summer in California from which to choose.

But what about the part where James turns to a more extreme metaphor? He starts with the image of creation, then with verse 6 turns from the earthly forest fire to the eternal fires of Gehenna. There are of course a number of images of hell in the Bible and because they are partly contradictory there is almost no reason to expect any one of them to be literally true. Translated hell in the NRSV, Gehenna is the valley where garbage is dumped and burned on the south side of Jerusalem. In apocalyptic literature the Gehenna is further used as a metaphor for evil, and there are some references to the devil living in this most evil of places. So James is going as far as to suggest an unbridled tongue, inflamed by the power of evil, might even destroy the whole of creation and those who have seen those photos of Hiroshima might believe it.

Some of you will know of the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. This is of course the famous 5 or 6 hour dramatic presentation of Jesus’ last week on earth, performed every decade for centuries by local villagers to mark the end of the plague. Certainly it is famous and obviously appreciated by the many pilgrims who have seen it since.  Dominic Crossan in his book The Power of Parable reminds us that one of the play’s most famous admirers was Adolf Hitler who after seeing the play twice, once before 1930 when he was elected and again in 1934, later wrote:

“It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate, a Roman so racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole mire and muck of Jewry

….Words to spark a fire indeed. Six million Jews were systematically murdered and of course more lives were lost than that. Someone has calculated for every single word in Hitler’s long and emotionally charged book, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II.

Clearly we need to talk, and we need to write, just as we need to listen and read. Yet James does well to remind us this communication needs a good deal of care. James is accurate at least in potential when he talks of the tongue being of restless evil and full of poison.
And it is not just the ones that history identifies as monsters: the Adolf Hitlers and Joseph Stalins of this world. At various times in history the power of words has unleashed unspeakable hate crimes even when those uttering the words no doubt believed themselves to have the best of intentions. What is perhaps more surprising is the number of what might otherwise have been considered ordinary sincere people who are persuaded by these messages of hate.

For example, soon after the advances in printing by the invention of the Gutenberg Press some well meaning Church leaders concerned about various misfortunes striking their communities wrote and had printed leaflets quoting some of the more obscure and potentially hate filled parts of the Bible telling people how to identify witches in their midst. As a result many innocent women were drowned or burned. You will no doubt have heard of the subsequent witch trials in Salem and even today in some parts of Africa those claimed to be witches are still executed.

Sometimes it may also be that we need to use words to change someone’s course of action to avert evil. We might imagine an extreme situation when a person contemplating suicide is standing on the ledge of a high building, or more commonly, one who has left a face book message to say they are thinking of ending it all. Here the right words on the part of a person trying to help will be critical. Those of us who have had to deal with an alcoholic family member or someone who is about to set off to drive a car while clearly under the influence of drugs or alcohol will also know how difficult it is to find the right words to avert a serious problem. When emergency services like ambulance or fire brigade are called, precise and careful directions can make the difference between life and death. Without verbal communication it is extremely difficult to change what someone happens to be doing at the time.

As John Lennon once put it:“When you’re drowning you don’t think, I would be incredibly pleased if someone would notice I’m drowning and come and rescue me. You just scream.”
If you were trying to find something that distinguishes humans from other members of the animal kingdom, one of the clearest differences comes in the way we communicate. In James’ day this would have been dominated with the spoken word but these days it is also the written word and more and more the words supported by pictorial images which also help communication and shape our minds and our behaviour. But with our developing skill of communication there comes a real responsibility. Just as our feelings and emotions can be shaped particularly by what we hear, what we say can do the same to others.

Remember too, James’ comments are not just addressed to leaders. In fact here is practical everyday advice for many. He acknowledges that here is an issue we are all going to have a problem with. He says plainly in verse 2 “For all of us make many mistakes” But that awareness of our potential to make blunders in our speech should at least give us pause before speaking. James suggests this is the clue for how to get our lives on track. It is also in line with Jesus advice that what comes out of the mouth reflects what is in the heart. It is almost as if Sin might begin in the mind – but it is only when it is articulated, that it takes shape.

There is a principle in science that nothing is created or destroyed – it only changes in form. Once the sound is out there, it cannot be put back. The word once heard cannot be unheard – just as a word once written and read stays read.

I came across a plaque the other day that read: “God keep one hand on my shoulder and the other over my mouth” I wish I would think about this more often for my own words.
Yet just as unkind or thoughtless words can lead to much unhappiness, wise and kind words can continue to have an effect long after they are spoken. James reckons if we can get this right, everything else will fall into place as well.

Clearly this does not mean we should never speak up. If anything, even more serious than the fault of stirring up misunderstanding and unkindness which destroys families, communities and even whole nations, is that while this happens, so many will be standing by and allowing it to happen which surely is worse. One of the saddest aspects of the lead up to the Second World War was the way in which many otherwise good people stood by and pretended not to notice when ill-feeling was being stirred up against the Jews.
Similar issues occur today. One of the more unfortunate consequences of the way modern economies have developed is the way some have prospered tremendously while others have been marginalized and allowed to drift back into poverty. In short, there are some issues on which voices need to be raised.

Even at the local contemporary level, think for a moment how many children have had to endure violence and how many, many, acts of unkindness have passed unchecked because their neighbours and family friends stood by and said nothing. Yet the basic rule (which is akin to the so called golden rule) is that behind all our significant speech decisions is that love is the basic underlying principle.

There is a Saudi Arabian proverb that says:
Four things come not back: The spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.
We have before us today the question of whether or not we need to heed what James puts before us and reset the control of our words and actions. For each of us the choices are going to be different. What choices will we have to make as we consider his words in the coming days to come?

A Note to the reader:  At present I am trying to correct and up-date the complete set of 3 Years’ lectionary sermons on this site.   Because the site is visited by readers from all over the world I am aware that the various posts would be more useful if others were contributing.All the sermons and articles would benefit from additional comments and questions from readers.  I am not a specialist in all the topics and others will have better illustrations than the ones offered here.   Note:  in your comments you don’t have to agree with my bit, but please remember the aim of the site is to encourage thought.

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The Limitations of Theology

Although the study of Theology introduces the thoughtful Christian to some novel and often helpful ways of looking at faith issues, the sheer range of theological propositions assumed by different Christians and different conclusions across denominations, not to mention the changes in theological teachings down through the centuries, should warn any serious student against assuming any current theological teaching is somehow commonly accepted as of right while at the same time being understood to be complete and immutable. What do the scholars tell us God is like? It depends which scholar you ask. Which Bible teachings still apply today? Um……..Well perhaps not the entire 613 list of Old Testament Commandments. There aren’t enough stones.

Although theology by tradition is loosely defined as the study of God, if we are guided by the various journals of theology, many of the articles appear to attempt to systematize particular versions of faith rather than seek evidence based knowledge about whatever God is thought to be like or is intended to represent. An added problem is that we are not very good at listening to those whose insights run counter to our preferred faith position.

Some of the presumptions are supported by large numbers of followers but the degree of certainty in theological ideas often seems totally unrelated to objective evidence. Is our life really a consequence of predestination or should we feel we have a choice? Why do many Catholics accept that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the literal body and blood of Jesus? And why do some insist on the literal nature of the Virgin birth or the assumption of Mary (the bodily ascension of Mary) to heaven.

Part of the range of attitudes to theological attitudes comes about because people arrive with expectations based on their own past background experiences. Those steeped in history would approach a Biblical text like the Book of Revelation looking for historical markers. Knowing the events that were the background to the writer’s situation the figures like the beast would then be expected to stand for someone like a persecuting Emperor already known to the writer. Prior events like the dispersal of Jews from Jerusalem would be seen as part of the story. Those, sometimes called preterists would see present events of the author’s time leading to a conclusion in which the bad guys would get their just deserts and those currently involved in a struggle for survival would be encouraged by notions of a just reward in heaven. Some of the more extreme futurists of the type who, even today, are currently fascinated by the prospects of some sort of Armageddon heralding the return of Jesus,hold to the Book of Revelation as an urgent call to attend to the signs of the approaching end.   These are very different to those looking at the book as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil and who see Revelation as providing a set of symbolic and idealistic markers to guide us through the key issues of life.

Again the weakness of many of these interpretations is that without allowing for a reality check we can allow our theological interpretations to multiply and to remain in the realm of total fantasy.

When, just a few years ago, a group of 30 top Catholic theologians gathered in Rome to discuss the vexed puzzle of why a loving God would countenance babies dying before baptism and have them facing limbo instead of going to heaven, a cynical observer from another faith could be excused for wondering how on earth they thought their deliberations had meaning.

Yet such untested speculation is not unique to the Catholics. For example unquestioning acceptance of untested prophecy about yet to be observed phenomena associated with end times , total reliance on different contradictory scriptural sources (eg the Bible versus the Koran) and insistence that speculation about what might happen after death will somehow morph into what will actually happen regardless of the evidence are all beyond any normal form of testing. As Richard Holloway put it in his book Looking in the Distance (p 9)

“The root of the difficulty lies in the nature of the claims religions make about matters that are beyond verification. This uncertainty which lies at the heart of all religious systems, famously produces compensating protestations of absolute certainty about matters that are intrinsically unknowable.”

Although in earlier years the comparatively small number of educated and authoritative religious leaders encouraged poorly educated followers to accept whatever those in power identified as unquestionable truths, settling religious truth by edict is now much more problematic. Quite apart from the increasing number of potential religious critics as a consequence of improved education, the inevitable encounter with alternative ideas as modern folk travel and those who now find ready access to the internet combine to open old ideas to more question.

Although some Church adherents claim the problems go away if we treat the Bible as the inspired and literalistic word of God from cover to cover, a more measured approach might suggest first we have to disentangle the teachings of the Bible from the various cultures and styles of writing from which the scriptures emerged. The pre-scientific notions of the world and the heavens may allow for a literal Genesis cosmology and a literal acceptance of stories like the Great flood and the miracles in the Bible, but modern education means that an increasing proportion of the population now accept mainstream scientific understandings and eventually are forced to abandon a literalist position.

Some guided by past theology have continued to refuse to allow inconvenient truths to get in the way of what the theologians of a previous day thought to be as a set of inspired revelations. Perhaps the problem for many of us is that we are so used to thinking of theology as a subject which excludes standard ways of establishing knowledge we forget even to try.

Because it is always easier to criticize others than apply the same standards to ourselves, think for a moment about the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both the Mormons and the JWs strongly discourage their followers from reading outside the literature approved by the leaders of their respective faiths. This means that many of their followers are genuinely unaware of critical objections which are readily accessible to any modern scholar trained in modern methods of literature search.

In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses many articles sponsored by the Watchtower Association make some dramatic claims about what is promised in the Bible relating to judgement and selection for heaven, yet the same articles downplay past examples of failed JW prophecy. Those “dis-fellowshipped” for questioning prophecy are not reinstated when the prophecy fails to materialise.

The Latter Day Saints derive much of their teaching from the Book of Mormon and other supporting documents like the Book of Abraham. There are two difficulties with the books. The first is that archaeology does not support the description of the New World history as set out in their faith documents. The second is the Joseph Smith who claimed to have produced an inspired translation of some Egyptian Papyrii fragments to give the Book of Abraham has a radically different translation to that given by a number of Egyptian scholars who insist that the fragments were mistranslated by Smith and instead were standard instructions for laying out the dead. The reader can check out the Wikipedia article on the Book of Abraham outlining such criticisms for themselves but the point I would like to emphasise is that since the Mormon Missionaries with whom I have discussed the matter, appear unaware of the criticisms on such a key document, I can only assume they are steered away from looking at criticism of their faith. Similarly when at last a young Mormon is presented to the Temple for the ceremony bringing them into full membership, they appear unprepared for the ritual which is so clearly Masonic in its formulation and therefore unaware that the ritual has an ancient basis which must have been borrowed by Joseph Smith and the other founders of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

While it is easy to criticise those like the Mormons and JWs for not having a faith that squares with observable reality, it is fair to ask if those of us who are not Mormons or JWs have a theology which is somehow more objective, trustworthy and more helpful to the advantage of the human race.

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A Beautiful Message of Life

RE: [KaivitiKoro – Dua Vata:54673] Fwd: A beautiful message of life
This was sent to me the other day – forwarded by Roy Thomas
Subject: Fw: [KaivitiKoro – Dua Vata:54673] Fwd: A beautiful message of life

As we grow older, and hence wiser, we slowly realize that wearing a $300 or$30 watch, they both tell the same time.
Whether we carry a $300 or $30 wallet/handbag, the amount of money inside is the same;

Whether we drink a bottle of $30 or $3 wine, the vomiting is the same; Whether the house we live in is 30 or 300 sq.m the loneliness is the same.
Hopefully, one day we will realize, true inner happiness does not come from the material things of this world.

Whether we fly first or economy class, if the plane goes down,we go down with it.

Therefore, I hope we realize, when we have mates, buddies and old friends, brothers and sisters, who we chat with, laugh with, talk with, have sing songs with, talk about north-south-east-west or heaven and earth, that is true happiness!!

1. Don’t educate your children to be rich. Educate them to be happy so when they grow up they will know the value of things, not the price.
2. From London: “Eat your food as your medicines. Otherwise you have to eat medicines as your food.”
3. The One who loves you will never leave you because even if there are 100 reasons to give up they will find one reason to hold on.
4. There is a big difference between a human being and being human. Only a few really understand it.
5. You are loved when you are born. You will be loved when you die. In
between, you have to manage!

If you just want to walk fast, walk alone, but if you want to walk far, walk together!


Maintain them in all stages of life and enjoy healthy life.

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