Lectionary sermon for 26 February 2017 on Matthew 6: 24 – 34 Year A

There is one curious omission in the current arguments for and against Donald Trump being the answer to making America great again. Virtually no-one seems interested in what really counts as greatness.

Staying with the Trump image, one dimension of past American greatness is the manner in which the country was built on offering freedom and opportunity to dispirited refugees. Yet when Emma Lazarus penned her poem to be placed on an inner plaque on the base of the statue of liberty the part that reads: “………Give me your tired, your poor,  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….” to the best of my knowledge this was not followed by the line – “and I will make sure they are subjected to extreme vetting”. Surely what counts as greatness is found in the way outsiders perceive the nation they encounter.

Given that Christianity is given so much credit for what is supposed to drive US politics is it fair to ask if true greatness should be reflected in way that population responds to ideals of the type taught by Jesus and other inspired leaders. And what is more, surely if true greatness is perceived in such behaviour, that same greatness should be able to transcend geographical boundaries and should be sought by all nations…ours included.

As soon as we start to reflect on the main teachings of those like Jesus we ought to start wondering if somehow current politicians have missed the boat. Make the country rich? Destroy the competition? Smash the enemies? Ridicule the critics? Don’t forget this same Trump philosophy motivates many worldwide. But here is the catch for aspiring Christians. We don’t hear Jesus saying anything like that.

I freely admit there are many who behave as if all we are required to do as Christians is say “Amen” to prayers, sing hymns and choruses of praise and ask God to bless us.

Perhaps for the same reason, through the centuries, those claiming to follow Christ have seemed to focus on the comfort of supportive religion with notions of eternal life, the shepherd carrying the lost sheep and the promises of what lies beyond suffering. Is it surprising we are attracted to familiar images which tug at our heartstrings, rather than those awkward bits which require a reorientation of what we actually do in our day to day lives.

As Thomas a Kempis once famously put it:
Jesus has many lovers of His kingdom of heaven, but he has few bearers of His Cross. Many desire His consolation, but few desire His tribulation.

If anything, for the middle and upper classes of the 21st Century there are even more reasons for selective hearing of the gospel.

One verse in today’s gospel reading is particularly awkward for those of us who collect possessions and orient our lives towards earning and using what we accumulate for our own advantage. Here it is: the Gospel of Matthew, chapter six, verse 24 and Jesus is speaking:

24“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

I am hardly the best to comment on that verse.   I need to stress that in common with many in our society I too am one who has suffered for a good part of my life from that insidious disease called affluenza, a disease which according to one account I read was described with these symptoms:

1. Stress, overwork, shopping and debt caused by dogged pursuit of the sort of aspirations paraded daily before us in the TV, radio and now the internet advertising.
2. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from one’s efforts to keep up with the Joneses.3. An unsustainable addiction to personal economic growth.

As one with a comfortable home, a two car family, money in the bank and a pension I need to be very cautious before lecturing others about the need to be setting aside their wealth. Nevertheless it occurs to me that the caution about possessions and money is also part of the gospel we ignore at our peril.

Some time back I met a man who had written an app for his smart phone which was making him a tidy profit each week. The app analysed the close of share trading each week, factored in the declared purchasing and sale of stock by CEOs and he was able to respond to a steady growing profit with an automatic buy while a steady loss gave him an automatic sell. No problems in that as a formula for making money, yet I sensed a possible moral problem when he further told me that it didn’t matter to him how the company was making its money. As far as he was concerned ethical investment was a total irrelevance. For him, companies getting profits from blood diamonds or asset stripping or arms sales were just as valid as a company that invested in trading basic food products or encouraged fair trade products.

It rather reminded me of a comment by Bertrand de Jouvenel in 1973 when he said:
I am frightened when I see intellectuals work out cost benefit analyses which justify what the people in power are determined to do, rather than judge the correctness of their actions. It is important for intellectuals to assess not only what could be done, but what should be done”.

When Jesus said no-one can serve two masters, although we might protest this is an over-simplification, there is also a metaphorical sense in which whatever we choose to direct us when we are setting our priorities provides a window into our very souls. Even if it is rare to find a society entirely free from affluenza it is rather easy to know when we are in the presence of someone who puts people before profits.
Remember a few weeks back in the news. What about the concerns of a few native American Indians concerned about the environmental damage of a pipeline versus how much money can be gained by the shareholders of the oil carried by the pipeline? Should a follower of Jesus vote with the wealthy shareholders or first look to the concerns of the poor affected by the pipeline? Should I support Trade-Aid?….in other words should my trade deals provide mutual benefit for me and my trading partner? – or should I live for me and my country first (and beggar my neighbour)?

I guess we have all met caring people both in Church congregations and in community organisations who notice and are prepared to respond to the needs of those around them. We become very aware of this when there is a downturn in the economy. Managers and senior staff who do their level best to minimise harm for their staff are very different to those who dismiss according to set formulae or with an exclusive attention to the profit line.

Notice too that Jesus seems totally uninterested in status or position in a faith community when he makes his observation. At various times in history even Church leaders have accepted wealth and possessions as a right and over recent years we have occasionally had the unedifying sight of some Tele-evangelists and Charismatic Church leaders amassing huge personal fortunes while some among their followers are expected to mortgage homes to support their leaders’ lifestyle.

There is also the issue of blocking out the parts of the message we don’t wish to hear. I have always wondered at preachers who choose preaching texts exclusively from favourite verses rather than from something a little more systematic. It is easy to escape personal self examination if we avoid some of the more searching scriptures. A rather more subtle form of avoidance is to choose less worrying translations.

For example in the section of Matthew before today’s reading there is the famous Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer, those who don’t wish their financial conscience to be troubled can easily avoid the line which the Greek gives as ( 6:13) “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”

Even a cursory look at this line looks very much like a call for some practical form of using circumstances to determine debt relief. This makes some sense if we are not always driven by money and particularly when class divisions are taken into account. Being in too much of a hurry to turn this line: “forgive our debts…..” into that rather obscure religious admonition, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” which actually risks letting us off the hook, particularly we are most unlikely to spot examples of trespasses in our day-to-day lives whereas many of us are actually owed money.

Being freed from the current obsession with money and turning our attention to matters of more eternal value might also help us find more meaning in those verses that follow.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith?

And what did Jesus mean by this change of tack. Bird watching? Lily contemplation – and even checking out the grass….. Surely he wasn’t asking us to become twitchers or flower pressers?

Well perhaps not, but when we read “Look at the birds of the air” he is reminding us that there is something to be seen and wondered at. The Greek scholars say the term Matthew records as “Look” means “look carefully”. We are perhaps being reminded that nature should not be taken casually and that as any biologist could tell you, there are wonders there that put any mere accumulation of riches well and truly in the shade. In a way this is simply a continuation of Jesus main theme of this sermon. Get your lives in perspective he appears to be saying. Ultimately what you think is important and what you are tempted to chase may well turn out to be trivial in the extreme.

In an age where there is wholesale destruction of ancient forests, vast plantings of single crops and strip-mining on huge scale, not looking carefully may yet prove to be a mistake of colossal proportions. Nature should never be taken casually if only because virtually every species has a finite life before a shortage of resources or disease wipes out that species. Homo sapiens is a species too. If human-kind is to continue to progress then perhaps we should turn back to the Sermon on the Mount for life-preserving perspective.

Sometimes we notice the obvious rather late. General Omar Bradley, on looking back over the Second World War, made an observation we might need to take rather more seriously if we are to reflect the spirit of Jesus’ teaching:
We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.” General Omar Bradley, November 10, 1948

Today as we do our own looking back, is the greatness we seek really money and power, and are we yet ethical infants in matters that really count? …. Or was Jesus onto something?

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Lectionary sermon for 19 February 2017 on Matthew 5:38-48

When it comes to following Jesus, sorting out the detail of belief may have to take second place to reorienting our attitudes and actions, particularly if we are expecting to be numbered among those who think of themselves as potential disciples.

Karen Armstrong, perhaps best known for her work with the inter-faith “Charter of Compassion”, did great service to comparative religion when she showed that the modern tendency to line up religion with preferred intellectual beliefs is a relatively new religious enthusiasm in which creedal beliefs have come to include what she calls “self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of ,one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian”.

In Karen Armstrong’s now famous TED talk way back in February 2008, Armstrong contrasts this endless guesswork about the unknowable with the early Christian notion of belief in which the original intention was rather to commit or engage oneself first to a new way of behaving, and with the hope that from this engagement with the experience, that religious truth would gradually emerge. In that sense, she claims, religious doctrine is intended to be a call to action. When we act in response to such a call, she says, the doctrine starts to make sense.

In this context Jesus’ teaching suddenly takes on an element of total challenge. It is remarkably easy to accept intellectually that Jesus said certain things in his teaching but unwise to then continue expanding our knowledge about what else he and his disciples said without ever pausing to move to that next stage of commitment. This is to miss out on discipleship. Even more to the point, if we only note his teaching in passing, then promptly move out from this teaching to seek further increasingly irrelevant abstractions of faith, we may be committing to a journey that can finish up by having nothing to do with progress in life related faith.

If you want evidence that this can happen, reflect for a moment on typical congregational attitudes towards those who have decided on a different set of beliefs. Time after time Church Union talks founder on differences of trivial abstraction. Bill Loader is perceptive when in his commentary on today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew he says that many people find satisfaction and even solidarity (or should that be communion) in common hate. The community unease in the presence of those whose religious dress is visible confirmation of a different creed, the discomfort of dealing with Saturday morning religious visitors on our doorsteps, trying to ignore street beggars or even listening with approval to the typical radio talk-back insistence that wrong doers get punished with the full weight of the law, should all be reminders that as a community, whatever we may think we are doing, we may not be following Jesus injunction about loving enemies and turning the other cheek.

Of course we have to be realistic enough to distinguish between what we should try to make happen and what is likely to work out in practice. Even a democracy is only as good as a majority will allow it to be, and when our society is threatened by those who don’t share our agreed code of practice we are not necessarily going to persuade others towards notions of forgiveness and compassion. The police will still be using pepper spray and batons when reason fails, and the courts will still require confidence tricksters and shady dealers to make good their promises and face their debts.

It is true that if we do act on Jesus’ words we will encounter some problems. In the real world, dispute resolution is often complex and frustrating, so if we wish to follow Jesus teaching we must always be prepared for partial or even sometimes complete failure. On the other hand we should be clear that that, attractive as it clearly is to many in the community, cutting through this process with quick, or as some would prefer, extreme punishment may well seem much simpler yet it is far removed from what Jesus was advocating.

It is also true that revenge is far easier to sell as a concept than forgiveness. It is much easier to march off to war in response to threatened acts of aggression, than sit down in an act of proffered friendship with a recognised enemy. However, taking a longer term view, as Gautama, better known as the Buddha, pointed out, the so-called wheel of suffering only revolves faster in response to each and every act of retaliation. Further, he said, the wheel begins to turn more slowly when instead of evil, good is returned.

Despite some who would argue that the Bible provides the rules for living, the practicalities mean that ultimately how we interpret the teachings is still up to us. However we can hardly say we are following Jesus in today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount when we act as if we will have nothing to do with those who do not share our faith or background. We note Jesus was quite unambiguous when he said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” or a little further on where he says: “47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

I concede there is a constant tension between on one hand how we seem to be programmed in our dealing with others and the behaviour Jesus seems to be calling for. It may even be a question of where we choose to put our priorities.

Since I have used Karen Armstrong’s thinking in the preparation of what I am sharing today I might also share her reflection of how she found the reaction to her message. She said:

When I’m speaking to congregations about compassion, I sometimes see a mutinous expression crossing some of their faces, because religion — a lot of religious people prefer to be right, rather than compassionate”.

Yet there is some urgency if we are going to reclaim religion as a good in society and in the world. Unfortunately religion is readily hijacked to mark the fault line for whatever tensions are building between peoples in the world. Of course it is easy to join in the Western condemnation of Islamic suicide bombers who attempt to justify their acts of barbarity by cherry picking Qur’anic verses to fit the current atrocities.

But don’t forget as Christians we have been enjoined to keep no score of wrongs. Quoting Armstrong yet again:
“Where instead of taking Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies, don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using scripture as a way of arguing with other people, as a way of putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things”.

You may find this hard to believe, particularly given the level of hate and vicious revenge that is evident in many nations even today, but religious principles can and do make a difference. A few hundred years before Christ, even the term “an eye for an eye” represented a step forward from the total revenge once exacted before the Israelites enacted the so called law of Moses. Before that time, virtually any crime might exact the death penalty. When Jesus said – you were taught “An eye for and eye…..but I say unto you……. he was saying in effect that lessening the penalty to only punish to the extent of the crime was only part way there. Moving beyond the legalism of an eye for an eye is hopefully a mark of those who are trying to follow the Christ.

Robert P Tucker in a sermon entitled An Eye for an Eye tells a story that captured my imagination.

“In 1956, the adoptive parents of a 7-year-old boy were told by their doctor that their son had glaucoma, a terribly painful disease. The doctor said that he was sorry, but that there was nothing he could do: the diseased eye would have to be removed. Out of her desperate concern that her son’s future not be damaged by so great a handicap, the mother begged the doctor to take one of her own good eyes and transplant it into the boy. She collapsed in tears when the doctor explained that such an exchange was not possible. Neither the doctor nor the mother knew that the boy had been able (through the opening of an unclosed door) to see and hear all of their conversation—but, I did; (said Robert Tucker) and ever after that, the words, “an eye for an eye,” have made me think of love, not hate.”

We are living in a world where for many, an eye for an eye still means punishment with satisfying minimal revenge. Yet whatever their other defects may be, there are those amongst us who have already caught on to the spirit of teaching of compassion and forgiveness which is indeed found at the centre of the major religions and is at the very heart of the Christian message.

Unfortunately the humble saints who catch onto that message are often ignored and we might even question how realistic such actions are in a real world with real problems. On the other hand we have a choice before us. Will we give priority to the teaching we understand Jesus claimed to be important, or will we give our first priority to what custom decrees? Our actions are our answer. If Karen Armstrong has it right, when we commit to such actions, our beliefs may find their true meaning.

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Trump and The Soybean Puzzle

Can someone (a Trump supporter maybe) from the US Mid West explain why President Trump’s notion of putting a heavy tariff on goods from China is going to help the sale of US Soybean to China?

The Mid West voters have been traditional supporters of Republicans for several decades and the biggest swing to the Republicans from the Democrats was particularly marked for Donald Trump in Iowa in the recent elections. This would not have been a particular surprise.  No  doubt the prospects of reduced taxes and a loosening of environmental restrictions offered the prospect of rapid improvement to the business prospects for farming sector. As President Trump’s Agribusiness policies have clarified, the farm sector appears to have a recent unpleasant late awakening as the prospect of Trump’s trade wars begin to take shape. Basically the first part of the problem is this.   Trump’s rejecting the TPP has already removed the prospect of the increase of $4.4 billion dollars which had been calculated for Agribusiness as a result of the increased trade markets for US agricultural products under TPP.

The Chinese as a major export destination (particularly for Soy) are currently facing the prospect of trade barriers and will almost certainly respond with their own barriers if the somewhat unpredictable Trump carries through with his threat. If that wasn’t enough, Donald Trump has stated he wants to torpedo the current NAFTA arrangement which is widely agreed to have provided a welcome boost to the agribusiness.  A range of key farm sector stakeholders (including the American Soybean Association, the Dry Bean Council and the North American Meat Institute have already sent a letter pleading with the President not to torpedo NAFTA.

So what do we have?

Fact – China has stated they will respond to trade barriers with their own reprisals.
Fact – the US has a huge market for Soybean in China.
Fact – Brazil, like the US, has a surplus of Soybean and is competing with the US as a major exporter.

Why does the Trump Government assume that trade barriers against the China will not mean China will then start to turn to Brazil for its Soybean supply?  How would that help the Mid West?

In any case Mexico (a major importer of corn from the US eg $US 2.4 billion in 2015) has already responded to direct threats from Trump with a clear signal it is about to debate a Bill to source its corn from elsewhere.

This morning Graeme Wheeler, Governor of the New Zealand Reserve Bank made a public statement that President Trump’s protectionist economic policies, if enacted, are going to be  a disaster for World Trade.   Even assuming there will be a short-term advantage to the US in setting up trade barriers, surely long term, US exporters are going to find their trade partners will look elsewhere, and even if they don’t, how will placing taxes on incoming goods not raise the prices of those goods for US consumers?      What am I missing?

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Lectionary Sermon February 12 2017 Epiphany 6 A (St Valentine’s Sunday) on Matthew 5: 21 – 37

Richard Holloway, a past Moderator of the Church of Scotland, now perhaps better known as a modern thinker and radical religious writer, once likened the Christian Church to an ancient galleon, now moving very slowly, encumbered with centuries of encrustations on its hull.

Although Richard Holloway’s interpretation resonates with many features of much of the church it occurred to me there are two further parallels worth checking out. To me, the Church is now very fragmented and a more accurate analogy is a whole fleet of vessels of varying age and style all attempting to work their way down a poorly mapped coast.

Unfortunately many of the sailors and passengers assume that Richard Holloway’s centuries of encrustations are essential to the success of the voyage.

Looking back to the early history of our faith, perhaps this was always inevitable. Just as the Israelites borrowed from surrounding cultures and as their circumstances changed, new influences have been superimposed on the old, each leaving its own layers of tradition and practice.

In today’s reading we find Jesus, recognised by many today as the Messiah, breaking with this tradition and offering a form of what we might now call situational ethics. History tells us it was a comparatively short time before, once again, followers of the new faith started adding their own layers of interpretation to what Jesus taught and despite his emphasis on living the faith, his followers opted for placing the emphasis on styles of worship.

What Jesus offered with his teaching was not so much a rejection of the old but rather a new way of looking at tradition that enabled his followers to regain a sense of travelling with perspective and direction. The nearest thing we have to a summary of his teaching was in the Sermon on the Mount.

Today’s lesson is helpful because here in that sermon, Jesus is taking some standard religious laws and customs and is explaining that they mean nothing unless they are accompanied with the right sort of attitude to those around them.

I would suggest two points might be made. First his message would have seemed almost shocking to the traditionalists in his audience who saw the law and traditions as Holy, and what is more, complete and immutable. By launching into a series of statements which had the general form “You have learned….. but I say to you now …..” he was  putting his own spin on the teachings he was using as example.

Jesus words probably horrified the traditionalists because it is most unlikely that they would have expected Jesus to have the right to assume the authority needed to alter tradition in any way whatsoever.

The second point is just my opinion, but I want to suggest that a consequence of picking up on Jesus’ general theme is that that since our attitudes to one another provide perspective to interpret the law for particular situations – this means that even the examples Jesus chose might need rethinking if the situation for those around us is different to that of his listeners.

His first example is a particular case in point. Jesus correctly points out that not committing murder may be a standard teaching but it is also one that doesn’t go far enough. If we are nursing anger against our neighbours, he suggested, or abusing or even simply sneering at them, we also require judging. This first part is fair enough and indeed it might be argued that if our attitude was right towards them in the first place, no harm, including murder would have taken place.

But if our faith is to be our own faith, simply cobbling together what we remember of Jesus’ teaching on murder and following it slavishly, will not cover many of our modern situations. For example modern warfare may have morphed into murder without us noticing. Many of the wars in the past have been between soldiers with soldiers as the main casualties. Since modern warfare has a much higher proportion of civilian casualty we should at least ask the question if there is a danger of becoming accessories to murder if we support a modern war.

Another newer related issue is that the right-to-life supporters are starting to insist we resist abortion on the grounds that killing the unborn as potential humans is equivalent to murder. But before we rush to lend our support to that campaign think again what Jesus was saying about attitudes. If a teenage mother to be, whose only crime was to be raped, or a mother carrying a child known to be likely to be born with a serious mental defect, or a mother living in absolute poverty are all also our neighbours surely to simply insist that they carry the child to full term without dealing adequately with their personal concerns is not in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.

Another situation which modern medical practice introduces a new set of ethical considerations in the termination of a life by what is often called mercy killing or euthanasia. Before leaping to judgment on this one, again we must remind ourselves that our world is now very different to that of Jesus and his disciples. One of the consequences of modern medicine is that many people are kept alive by medical intervention – and often long past the point where they might be said to have quality of life. The set of questions that deserve the attention of modern Christians relate to how best to approach that particular dilemma without forgetting we are talking about our neighbours.

Nor should we ignore the implication of Jesus’ requirement that we desist from harbouring grudges or anger, and the reminder that we should not abuse or even sneer at those who aggrieve us. Perhaps easier said than done, yet if we are following through on the attitudes part of the Sermon on the Mount, we may need to remind ourselves that although it is our choice to follow Jesus, having taken up that challenge, we can hardly say we will follow without following the spirit of his essential teaching.

For example if we were to step back to reflect on what more actions our Church community should be taking to ease the lot of new immigrants, how better we might show we welcome those of different culture or faith into our community. If better we might make minorities feel when they join us as guests in our Church functions and in our homes, we may be coming closer to saying Amen to this part of Jesus’ teaching.

“When you are bringing your gift to the altar”, Jesus went on to say ….Well again for many of us, we now live in a different age. We no longer buy pigeons in the Temple Courtyard to sacrifice on the altar. But this does not mean we should simply ignore what Jesus is saying.

The gift we may be bringing is often nothing more than a token offering for the collection plate. Yet Jesus’ teaching may still have something for us to consider. If we also find ourselves harbouring resentments then even a humble gift of a few dollars in the offering plate is not going to mean much for our Christian journey if we have no intention of sorting out our differences before we make that offering.

Next Jesus addresses the issue of private disputes which I guess includes the matter of unpaid debts. It has always seemed rather odd to me that if a person breaks into a few homes taking nothing but a few IPods, cell phones and the occasional piece of jewellery he or she is quite likely to find themselves with a short sharp prison term to remind them of the need not to steal.

When on the other hand someone racks up a huge debt to you – often equivalent to your entire life savings, at best they tend to get some form of diversion or community service. Jesus’ words should remind us that debts hurt – and that by implication the hurt matters. Again for those claiming to be Christian, unpaid debts and what we call civil cases whether it be for unsettled accounts with trades-people, goods taken on deposit and not fully paid for within the agreed time, or faulty vehicles sold under false pretences – we might remember all are actions taken which imply we are not prepared to follow the spirit of Jesus’ recorded words.

I said before that some of Jesus’ words are best understood as being directed towards an audience who lived in his time not in our time. This means that with issues like divorce where the surrounding laws are very different to those in Jesus’ time, an exact attempt to follow the letter of the Jewish customs is frankly inappropriate. In any event Jesus simply did not give direct guidance on many of our contemporary situations relating to matters like child custody, like grounds for divorce, like maintenance, like gay marriage or for that matter like the complicated workings of the matrimonial property law. In fact I would go further and say that many safeguards and laws now offer far better protection than was the case in the days of Jesus and his disciples. We should however acknowledge Jesus’ guidance at that time was more helpful than the then current teaching on divorce.

But the mention of divorce is also an appropriate reminder that apart from being the sixth Sunday of Epiphany today is also Valentine’s Sunday, being the closest Sunday to St Valentine’s day.

Accordingly I would like to finish with a brief mention of part of a sermon I once heard at a wedding. The preacher commenced with a rather surprising assertion, directed to the newly married couple.

“Marriage”, he said, “is not for you!” I might add at that point there appeared to be a collective intake of breath from the startled congregation. Then he continued. “Marriage is for the person you are marrying.” In other words, if we set out in marriage, intent on getting the best for yourself, the marriage is unlikely to succeed. If on the other hand if we think first of the other and put them first in the decision making, then marriage indeed becomes a living relationship.

Well, we are not all currently in marriage relationships. However at the centre of everything Jesus taught by word and action is how to develop proper relationship not just between husband and wife but with basically whoever we might come into contact, whether it be relationship with family, or with friends, or with neighbours, or even whether it be relationship with the dimly understood one we understand to be the God encountered in acts of Love and Compassion. “ Living for the other” subsumes the law. It sorts out our decision making and will help us come to sensible conclusions on a whole raft of puzzling issues.

I wonder if “Living for the other” might even be the Epiphany summary for the whole of the Sermon on the Mount. If it is, St Valentine’s Sunday seems as good a day as any to start to make it our own.

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Lectionary sermon for 5 February 2017, (Epiphany 5A) on Matthew 5:13-20

You probably remember a few months ago when the world TV viewing audiences were shocked by a news clip of a young Syrian boy, sitting alone in mute despair in an ambulance after an air strike on Aleppo, covered in blood and dust. The image of that boy, Omran, is now considered an iconic symbol of the toll the conflict in Syria has been taking on its people and an uncomfortable reminder of the on-going refugee crisis it has created.

There are of course different ways of coping with such an image. By far the most common is simply trying to put the image out of mind. Refugees are an uncomfortable presence and carry with them a reminder of dangers…. refugees are different… and when they come from a different culture, have a different religion and particularly one we don’t really understand and all the while calling on a response which will require us to put ourselves out for them, is it surprising we prefer keeping them at a distance – even to the point of reducing funding for assistance to refugees.  Hence the populist response.  The current travel ban.   We should never forget that this is a popular idea to some. Why else would the world community pretend not to notice and have millions of refugees kept in distressing situations for year upon year.

But back to that small boy in the ambulance.  Not all who saw that image of little Omron wanted to turn their backs. Alex is six years old and lives just outside of New York City with his mom, dad, and little sister Catherine. When Alex saw what had happened to Omran, he sat down at his kitchen table and wrote President Obama a letter. “Can you please go get him and bring him to [my home],” he asked. “We’ll be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers, and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.” There was more to that letter and I would encourage you to look it up and read it for yourselves.

In the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees last November, President Obama shared that letter with the world leaders who had gathered together to discuss what they might do towards solving the global refugee crisis.

As the then President Obama put it “We can all learn from Alex” he He told the leaders to see in Alex “The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn’t learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they’re from, or how they look, or how they pray, and who just understands the notion of treating somebody that is like him with compassion, with kindness

I think President Obama – at least in this case – was absolutely right. Six year old Alex even at that tender age was being an unconscious light on the hill. Yet isn’t it also the case that sometimes those who offer those simple truths which light the way for others have those same truths easily snuffed out as we find ourselves attracted back to the safe line of minimal help and maximum self interest.

Obama’s modern words about needing to follow Rex’s example and treat others with kindness and compassion come very close to one of the central themes of the Sermon on the Mount.  So what happened next.  Those same leaders Obama addressed, working with their voters, no doubt initially intending to initiate practical responses to the refugee issues, but their answers turned out to be very different from the sort of thing Jesus encouraged – and certainly very different to the response six year old Alex felt called upon to make.

It is odd from one point of view that the very so called “red states” in the United States where the majority were claiming most affinity to the literal inspired words of the Bible appear most inclined to discourage the resettlement of refugees. But make no mistake about it. Britain with its Brexit policy, along with European populations like those of Germany and France, despite their Christian majorities, are complaining that their leaders are too accepting of refugees. Surely these are no different to those who currently applaud Donald Trump. The shell-shocked tiny figure of Omron might be welcomed by young Rex – but Trump rides a wave of support when he says those like Omron must be kept out. And if it comes to that countries in my part of the world with their Christian majorities are similarly niggardly in their response to the refugee crisis.

It is all very well accepting that Jesus asked his followers to be a light on the hill rather than a light under a bushel …or accept the challenge to be the salt of the earth. But can we be honest enough to admit our community may not accept the challenge. Would Omron find our welcome the same dramatic and open response that a follower of Jesus should offer?

Perhaps to get the most from Jesus’ words, a brief historical reminder mightn’t go amiss.

Salt in the days of Jesus was absolutely critical for survival for any community. Valuable for its unique preservative property in days before refrigeration, salt was even used for trade and barter. This incidentally was the case over much of the civilised world for many hundreds of years, and those for example who have been lucky enough to have done a river cruise on the Danube may well have done a side trip to Salzburg (the salt trading capital of the area) at a time when many of the castles built along the Danube were there expressly for controlling and taxing the passage of salt down the river.)

Paying for a slave who turned out to be lazy or useless gave rise to the expression, “not being worth his salt”, and paying soldiers and servants in small bags of salt was the origin of the word “salary”. Salt losing its flavour was actually a much more local experience for those in Palestine because salt from the Dead Sea contains a mixture of substances together with the salt, some of which would change over time and which could indeed cause a change of the original flavour.

Salt of course is only of value if used appropriately and when Jesus says we are the salt of the world and then follows it up with a suggestion that we might become a salt that loses its flavour, suggests he does not award his followers the title “salt of the world” with the presumption the title is theirs for ever as of right or that it will remain theirs without some appropriate response.

We might start out to be Christian in word and action – but if in our actions we turn out to be hard hearted are we still even worthy of calling ourselves Jesus’ followers?
Remember last week’s reading about the Beatitudes. Living out these according to their spirit is another dimension of being the light shining on the hill, or to put it the other way is to be the salt on which the good food depends, is to accept discipleship.

Certainly we are right to remember Matthew talking earlier of Jesus as the light of the world, because after-all hadn’t he specifically quoted Isaiah as talking about the Messiah with the words: the People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light? Yet we can’t leave it there. When Jesus tells his disciples and other listeners, you are light of the world, this is critical because in effect it says by implication: “My mission has just become your mission”.

The seemingly attractive cop-out alternative is to assume it is only Jesus who carries the light, in which case we have an excuse to be spectators to the faith.

If we are thinking first and foremost of ourselves it is true we are unlikely to want to set our light in the open on the hill. Thinking selfishly we are much safer if we don’t venture out, and unfortunately – or if we are among the timid – perhaps we might even say “fortunately”, we may feel safer with our light under the bushel so to speak. On the other hand to stay with the gist of Jesus argument which he follows through in much of the rest of the sermon, if we are thinking first and foremost of others, we would be anxious to place the light where it would be most helpful to others.

And rather than let us escape the full force of what Jesus is reported as saying Matthew goes on to tell us Jesus is not providing any sort of escape from the essence of the law. Perhaps Matthew is aware that here he is setting his writing at variance with the teaching recorded in Mark and from Paul. We may need reminding that by the time Jesus was on the scene the excessive teachings of the law were appearing so confining and even awkward to live that even some of the Rabbis were beginning to shift direction. The Hillel school of Rabbis were for example teaching that there were some practical situations which would permit a relaxation of the laws of divorce. Mark is prepared to choose Jesus words which suggest that circumstances allow us to set aside some laws which discriminate against people and no longer make sense, particularly some laws relating to food. Likewise Paul suggests that with Jesus we might now look beyond rules about circumcision.

So what then do we make of Matthew recording Jesus saying he did not come to replace the law? In a way it could be argued that Matthew is the most conservative of the New Testament writers, yet don’t forget he also records Jesus as setting priorities within the law. What sounds like legalism, where every jot and tittle of the law needs to be taken into account, turns out to be an exercise in which perspective arrives when we put the emphasis on the laws relating to love and compassion. The law is interpreted not on the basis of slavish attention to which acts are permitted but rather on how the law is interpreted in the attitudes to people and situations – or if you like, the Beatitudes attitudes.

Matthew introduces his gospel with the story of the baby Jesus and I guess this suggests the image of starting a mission as a small child. The six year old Rex shows that it is possible to catch on to the spirit of Jesus mission without years of maturity and depth of learning. However, staying the course of that type of decision is not for everyone. In the real world decisions are not always going to be easy and real world ethical dilemmas provide a genuine test of faith.

Here in today’s reading, at least for those who would follow Christ, there is an implied radical approach to this confusion, but whether or not we can show we trust his challenge as still being relevant for our present circumstances, and where we in effect will come to place the light we are invited to hold up for others may not yet be decided.

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The White House Press Secretary is rightly insisting that the journalists check the facts before launching into print. This is wise and sensible advice. In case the news hacks are as ignorant as Donald Trump suggests, I would like to start the ball rolling with a few questions to seek helpful information from the White House.

1. How many of the Muslim countries chosen for the immigration ban have had their nationals commit terrorist acts on US soil over the last 40 years? (Stupid Google claims none! Google is presumably wrong because Mr Trump claims not to be intimidated by imaginary threats!)
2. Why were a number of the Muslim nations chosen for exemption coincidentally nations where President Trump has had investments?
3. Why was Saudi Arabia, the main source of genuine terrorism in the US (ie the Twin Towers) not high on the list of counties likely to furnish dangerous visitors? What about Bin Laden’s stamping grounds?
4. Given that all the terrorism experts claim that acts interpreted as anti-Muslim increase the incidence of terrorism, (eg the marked increase of terrorism when Iraq was “punished”by US invasion) is the President surprised that terrorist leaders via ISIS sites are using Trump’s ban against many Muslims as encouragement for Muslims to think the US really wishes war with Islam?
5. Given the Wall is necessary what is the evidence that Mexican behaviour is worse than that of other national groups? Silly Google claims the Mexican behaviour is rather better than average ( i.e. lower crime figures).
6. Is the President prepared to guarantee to Congress and the Senate that the US is not in fact going to have to fund the wall on an interim basis beyond President Trump’s well informed estimate ?(which is less than half that quoted by a number of stupid construction engineers)?
7. When Mexico pays for the wall (as Mr Trump guarantees) why will Mexico not seek to get some of the money by foreclosing on US investments?
8. If some of the US factories are saving money at present by operating in Mexico, who is going to pay extra for their goods when their increased labour costs go back to the new factories in the US.
9. Which endangered species are threatened by the wall?
10. Which of last week’s Executive Orders signed by the President have a guarantee of subsequent support by the Government?
11. Are the North American Indians important enough to consider their opinions on pipelines and fracking ?
12. Why are the polls continuing to show a substantial resistance to the new policies when President Trump has explained that the nation has come together behind him?
There must be other questions worth asking. Ideas please.

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That Wall Will Do What?

While President Donald Trump has a reputation for glossing over inconvenient truths, when it comes to building a wall with Mexico, he appears to have overlooked the blindingly obvious. He says it will be simple bookkeeping to make Mexico pay for the wall.

Although the President has come out with wildly different estimates for the exact price of the wall, it will almost certainly turn out to be greater than his present claim of $10 billion. Since a mere 650 miles of fence has already cost $7bn the calculations from the current experts who have oversight of barrier as a mere fence, more than 1000 miles of a much more costly wall is hardly going to cost $10bn at today’s prices regardless of whatever way it is calculated.

Ali F Rhuzkan, a structural engineer based in New York, is quoted saying that a 1,900-mile wall – seemingly Trump’s original plan – would require about 339 million cubic feet (12.5 million cubic yards) of concrete – which turns out to be three times that involved in building the Hoover Dam, a single localized site.  Other estimates say less than this will be required but since the description of the wall has changed many times over the last month it is had to be sure.   But thus far the calculations appear to have been assuming the costs are in construction. Since the proposed wall criss-crosses many privately owned properties the legal costs in gaining the necessary permissions and for that matter the prospect of years of litigation would give experienced contractors pause for thought.

In practice some sections of the wall would be much more expensive particularly where the ground is unstable or in the case of the Rio Grande where the wall has to cope with periods of serious flooding. The BBC has reported that virtually all the engineers they have been able to locate for an opinion seem to quote considerably more than twice Trump’s claimed estimate. If they are correct Trump will face considerable embarrassment further down the track when the figure negotiated with the Senate and Congress turns out to be based on a serious misjudgement.

One further complication is that despite past calculations for large concrete structures in that part of the world ( unofficially) they have included factoring in illegal migrant labour. In this instance it is hardly likely that even a Trump led government could sanction building a wall built with illegal labour when a key purpose of the wall is to keep illegal labour out. According to Trump all the US may need to do is deduct this ever shifting price of the wall from the substantial annual aid package the US presently makes available to Mexico as an annual grant.

Another of his suggestions is that the US could put a substantial tariff on the goods coming to the US from factories in Mexico. Some British economists have predicted that the logical Mexican answer would be to start removing the substantial tax benefits currently being earned by US investments in Mexico which even in 2013 were over $100bn.

A further irony there is that the more expensive cross border goods from Mexico would be ultimately paid for by US consumers who thereby indirectly pay for the wall. And what of the poor who already have the legal right to live in the US. Relocating the factories to US soil where there is not ability to attract cheap labour must surely increase the price of the goods.

The consumer is expected to pay this increase…so who does that hurt?
Since the US depends on at least minimum goodwill of its immediate neighbours for assistance with its border controls it is not immediately obvious why the Mexicans (who desperately need the aid to keep their minimal social services going) would increase goodwill as a consequence of a depleted aid package. If the other alternative is favoured, the return of US factories to the US will cause a spike in Mexican unemployment. Understandably the Mexican President seems more than a little miffed at the current talk of the wall.

There is also the widespread view that poverty increases the incentive for individuals to seek alternative sources of money eg crime and drugs. Give the Mexicans less money, bring the US owned companies currently providing employment for Mexican citizens back home….. and voila ….the dodgy Mexicans will become model citizens???? Yeah right!

And what of the poor who already have the legal right to live in the US. Relocating the factories to US soil where there is not the same ability to attract cheap labour must surely increase the price of the goods. The consumer is expected to pay this increase…so who does that hurt?

In any event we already know the crime syndicates have shown they can burrow beneath walls to release their drug crime bosses. Maybe ordinary poor Mexicans (eg illegal migrant labour on US building projects) don’t have that advantage, but I thought the new US President campaigned on the premise that the bad guys (ie the guys with the proven tunnelling record) should be preventing from entering the US.

According to the Department of Homeland Security a large sum is already being spent on detecting the myriad of tunnels under sections of the present fence with Mexico and it is common knowledge that when the drug runners are not using the tunnels for their immediate needs, they offer paid passage to the many illegal workers going back and forwards to Mexico.

Since the now increasingly problematic unity of the United States depends on the people in individual States perceiving the Federal Government acting in their interests it is not clear why some of the States in America and individual cities who have a high percentage of Mexicans amongst their population will be favourably inclined to a President who now is wanting to penalize those cities and states for a situation they did not initiate or did not have the means to control.

Because President Trump had previously boasted of using cheap and illegal labour for some of his hotel and casino building projects it is also particularly difficult to understand why Mr Trump now expects to be respected for his current enthusiasm for the wall.

And finally, since President Trump claims to be an environmentalist, what is with this obsession to put a wall in the part of Mexico bordering the National Park area of the Rio Grande? The wall would clearly affect the substantial animal migration patterns across the border and interfere with an already delicate balance. Threatened species such as some of the bears and wolves depend on the ability to find mates in closely related species across the border. Creating a situation where some of the more famous of the threatened species are wiped out would further infuriate the environmental lobby.  A further complication for those concerned about the impact on the environment will be the carbon footprint of the wall in that conventional concrete structures are known to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

DISCLAIMER: The above comments are made on the basis of incomplete information. If any of the readers notice flaws in the argument, their corrections or contributions to the discussion would be welcome.

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