Lectionary Sermon for 15 July 2018 on Mark 6: 14 – 29

Don’t Talk of Love…Show Me!
Recently I was reading through some back issues of the Listener and I came across a quote that went something like: “I always load up with carbs each day just is case I have to run a marathon the next day. Of course I never have never actually run a marathon but it is good to have options”.

Do you think that is as silly as someone who loads up on Christian teaching each Sunday in the weekly Church service but lives their life for the rest of the week without putting the teaching into practice? Good to have options? We need to think about that. Henry Ford once said “you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do”. You have to do it. Since Churches are in the business of sorting out life priorities perhaps it is fair to reflect on whether we might learn something from Henry Ford’s statement. It is a fair question. If our priorities are really sorted, do the actions of our lives really reflect what we talk about?

If Mark is reporting accurately John the Baptist might have been accused of lots of things, but not of putting off direct action on issues he talked about.

I suspect even today John’s actions would have been unusual and even a great embarrassment to his followers in terms of what we might consider a leader of the establishment to represent.

In the popular mind, leaders are meant to be respectable. In John’s day, the hierarchy of Church and society were dressed appropriately like leaders in nice clothes. These days, at least for the most part, leaders of the Church are also typically respectably dressed – and for formal occasions very respectably dressed. In John’s day leaders of Church and society lived in nice houses. John seemed spurn such basic comfort and nicety. And I guess this meant John didn’t quite blend in with the religious crowd.

Would it be any different today? I don’t think if this undiplomatic John dressed in the skins of wild animals, and was living off what he could scrounge in the desert, food like wild honey and locusts, I don’t think he would blend in any better today than he did in the territory of the Tetrach Herod Antipas.

The commentator William Hendrickson, suggests a picture of what the wilderness was at the time: This was “the wilderness of Judaea, the up and down wasteland country of Judaea to the West and in the East, the Dead Sea, and the lower Jordan, stretching northward about the point where the Jabbok flows into the Jordan. According to Henrickson this is indeed a desolation, a vast undulating expanse of barren chalky soil covered with pebbles, broken stones and rocks. Here and there a bit of brushwood appears with snakes crawling underneath’.

Another commentator describes it as: ‘It shimmers in the haze of the heat, the limestone rock is hot and blistering, and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath’. In the Old Testament it is sometimes called ‘Jeshimon’, which means ‘the devastation”. Hendrickson finds parallel between his chosen setting and his message goes on: ‘It is evident from Isaiah and John’s preaching as recorded by Mark, that the wilderness through which a path must be made ready for the Lord is, in the final analysis, the people’s hearts that were inclined to all evil’. Anyone who can survive in such a place is no wimp.

But don’t forget John was not only uncompromising with his lifestyle, he was uncompromising with his words.

In John’s day church leaders, as is typically the case today, were not outspoken but rather were cautious and diplomatic. Certainly not challenging the top leaders and politicians directly as did John the Baptist. John, you may remember, was the one who told the Tetrarch Herod Antipas he was illegally married to a close relative by marriage. To tell this dangerous autocrat that he was wrong to his face was not only, not diplomatic, but given the king’s absolute power over life and death in those times surely it would have been far more dangerous than it would be today.

Which brings us to the drama played out in today’s reading.

Perhaps first we need a little more background. Remember the setting of the castle of Machaerus is not the stuff of picture post-cards.   It was bleak and desolate, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. Like a number of such castles of the time, it had most unpleasant dungeons where the ruler’s enemies or innocent victims might await their fate. Even today, tourists can see the huge staples and iron hooks in the walls to which the prisoner like John the Baptist would be bound.

The Herods weren’t exactly a pleasant family either. Herod Antipas, the Herod of today’s story had a particularly malevolent Father that other Herod who had murdered at least three of his other sons and a number other members of his family, He even had one of his wives executed for high treason. A Jewish saying of the time was that it was “safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son”

From other historians of the day we read that one of the sons Herod Philip, missed out on inheriting any of his father’s land but went instead to live as a wealthy man in Rome. While he was there, Herod Antipas turned up to visit him – and I guess, true to the reputation of that family, he seduced Herod Philip’s wife, Herodias, and to make matters worse he married her despite the Jewish law saying this was forbidden.

When John turned up saying the marriage was illegal, his wife Herodias was outraged. Although Herod Antipas too was furious, perhaps because he respected John the Baptist for his brave honesty, he locked him up instead of killing him. Herodias was not satisfied with this level of punishment and cooked up the dancing girl plot with her daughter.

As far as Jewish morality was concerned, even this was an outrage. Dancing girls were almost always prostitutes and their dancing was seen to be highly immoral. That the daughter of the wife of the tetrarch, should turn up to Herod’s birthday to expose herself in such a demeaning way would have seemed almost beyond belief to most local people of the time. Perhaps in view of his previous track record it was not surprising that Herod Antipas was impressed and taken by her performance – and when he basically said in front of his guests she could name her own reward, he would have lost face if he had turned down her request for John’s head.

On one hand this is a story of deeply flawed characters. Perhaps it was true that Herod was secretly admiring John the Baptist, but his family background and his lusts caught him up to the extent he was unable to break free from his immoral relationships.

Herodias, his seduced conquest, must also have realised that John was simply speaking the truth, yet in effect organised his murder in a ruthless and calculated way rather than allow John to continue to speak out and cause her and her husband further embarrassment.

Her daughter who might even have been later remembered as Salome must similarly have realised that her actions – both in performing the seductive dance of a prostitute for her step father – and in demanding John’s execution, were highly immoral and cynical acts.

There is a curious postscript to the story. Herod Antipas eventually decided his position as Tetrarch of Galilee was not quite the level of power he wanted – and a few years later he went to Rome to ask the Emperor to grant him the title of King. The Emperor was not impressed. Instead of granting the plea, the Emperor decided he was being insolent and had him banished to Gaul. Although the Emperor offered to spare Herodias the same banishment, perhaps it is to her credit that Herodias decided to stick by her husband and went with him.

For John the Baptist, both the unwelcome imprisonment in appalling conditions followed by an unwarranted execution was clearly an unpleasant end to a brave life. Yet as with Jesus, his steadfast holding to the truth regardless of the consequences continues to inspire through the centuries. John the Baptist, realizing the senior official, the Tetrarch of Galilee was engaged in totally unacceptable behaviour most certainly did keep his thoughts to himself. He spoke a truth that he believed needed to be spoken.

Today the faces have changed but the need for truth has not gone away. As we engage in our own tentative steps towards the truth it maybe that sooner or later we too have to make our own choices whether or not to act. Have we ever encountered immorality which is a direct contradiction of what you believe your faith encourages you to stand for?

Even if we have never had the opportunity to meet a king, what about the chance to meet a Member of Parliament whose party is doing something at variance with our beliefs? Reflect back, and for that matter do you ever remember seeing the boss ill-treating someone at work? And if it comes to that, what did we actually do when we encountered discrimination? It is all very well to say we love our neighbours, yet if we do nothing to express our concern are we entitled to claim that belief. When such moments come we might do well to remember that observation of Henry Ford. “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do”

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Lectionary Sermon for 8 July 2018 on Mark 6: 1 – 13

On Putting Your Head Over the Parapet
The previous Chapter of Mark provides a context for today’s gospel reading. Jesus has demonstrated his powers and his disciples have now gone with him to see how he manages these powers in front of his home crowd.

The rejection that Jesus then suffers in his home village provides the setting for sending out the disciples. The underlying theme today is one of expecting rejection and in case anyone misses the point, in the next chapter Mark talks of the fate of John the Baptist when he challenges the Trump-like figure of Herod Antipas.

Nazareth was a small town that doesn’t quite make it into the Concordance of the entire Old Testament. It was an insignificant hamlet of mud houses on the side of a hill and a population of a few hundred at the most, only getting the slightest passing reference in the gospels – totally ignored by the writers of the Talmud and the Mishnah. As it happens the historian Josephus also fails to mention Nazareth. Here Mark portrays it as a community apparently unable to accept anyone like Jesus could possibly amount to anything at all.
Mark seems to be cautioning his readers that since Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist had their words trampled, even amongst their own community, the strong implication is that if this is what well might happen to anyone who speaks up in favour the same sorts of truth Jesus spoke.

If dedication was sufficient the saints of old should have had no problems. Some of the early saints often took notions of self denial of luxury and comfort to the extreme. For example some refused the comfort of cleanliness and absolutely refused to wash under any circumstance. (Perhaps my own children were just going through a saint stage early in their lives? ) But those early saints took it further. They not only denied themselves nice clothes but would actually sleep in very uncomfortable places with no bedding at all.

By this measure, the one called St Simeon of Stylites must have been holy indeed. His body “dripped vermin as he walked” wrote one admirer of his day. He was also one of the original pole sitters. He had a high small (4 square metres)platform built (originally 4 metres high and later 15 metres high ) on a pillar – the Greek for Pillar is “Style”) and according to the contemporary writers of the day, he managed to perch up there day and night for 37 years, unable to enjoy the luxury of sleeping too soundly lest he might fall off. Small boys would be sent up with small parcels of goat milk and flat bread. During the day his followers and those simply wishing to see such a Holy man would come to look up and wonder. Some amongst them would call out their problems while St Simeon – unwashed and unshaven would call back down his advice.

A New Zealand Methodist writer, the deaconess Rita Snowden once recounted the story of a young boy, fascinated by such saints, who announced one morning to his mother that he too was going to be a saint just like St Simeon of Stylites. He placed a kitchen high stool in the middle of the kitchen floor, climbed up and announced he was there for the next few years. His mother, perhaps used to small children simply ignored him for the first few minutes. However it was an inconveniently placed stool and after having to step around him a few times, when it came time to mop the floor Mum basically told him to get lost. “ Outside and play!” she said. “I have work to do”. “ It is very hard to be a Saint in your own kitchen!” said the indignant young saint as he climbed down off his perch.

Jesus encountering frustration at being an unrecognised prophet in his own country is no more than many would have expected from observations in their own experience and from learning of countless similar situations back through history. Those of us who claim to follow a religion might do well to reflect on why society encourages such behaviour.

Religion doesn’t just exist to serve interests like truth and enlightenment and nor in practice do societies welcome a religion only for its call to the finer principles like compassion, love and justice. Communities are interested in living in stable and protected situations and often turn to religion to help establish traditions which preserve a predictable order where everyone can know their place, where conformity brings social support and where there are clear hierarchies of control.

Although we tend to automatically assume prophets are those who foretell the future, in fact the prophets, particularly those of biblical times, for the most part those we now call prophets were simply those who described what they saw in the present, and the strongest of them thundered about what they saw had gone wrong. This often involved conveying uncomfortable truths about wrong actions, about intolerance, and about selfishness. I am sure they would have had plenty to say about some modern issues.

Challenging people with power has always been dangerous. Since such a version of prophecy was typically forced before the attention of a ruler with power of life and death over his subjects, some of the more outspoken prophets came to a predictable end. Prophets who were otherwise ordinary members of the community would be particularly suspect. You have probably heard of the tall-poppy syndrome.

It is human nature for a community such as ours to find individuals who behave like that as a potential threat and if they are already familiar to the point of seen as no better than the rest of us, we might even feel outraged that they are getting above themselves and consider they have no right to speak of judgement.

Perhaps it was always so.

My own particular favourite prophet was a little known prophet Micaiah the Son of Imlah. (not to be confused with Micah) . The story of Micaiah is recorded in 1 Kings 22:1-12 . In 1 Kings 22:3-4 the King of Israel (identified later in the text as Ahab in 1 Kings 22:20) goes to Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, and asks if he will go with him to a neighbouring kingdom Ramoth-gilead which was under rule by the king of Aram. Jehoshaphat seems a little uneasy and asks that Ahab, check out what the Lord would think – presumably by asking his consultant prophets.(1 Kings 22:5).

King Ahab then calls on his prophets and asks if he should go into battle against Ramoth-gilead. The prophets who according to the account numbered 400 seemed anxious to please the king and told the king of Israel to go into battle, stating that the Lord (Adonai) will deliver Ramoth-gilead into the hand of King Ahab (1 Kings 22:6). Jehoshaphat still seems uneasy and asks if there are any other prophets of whom to inquire the word of the Lord. Ahab mentions Micaiah the son of Imlah, but expresses dislike for him because his past prophecies have not been in favor of his actions (1 Kings 22:7-8).

Nevertheless a messenger is sent to bring Micaiah to the king to give his prophecy. Just in case he should get any silly ideas, the messenger tells Micaiah to give a favourable prophecy to Ahab (1 Kings 22:12-13).

Micaiah tells the messenger that he prefers speak whatever the Lord says to him (1 Kings 22:14). Micaiah appears before the king of Israel, and when asked if Ahab should go into battle at Ramoth-gilead Micaiah initially tries to avoid personal danger and responds with a similar prophecy to that of the other prophets. Ahab then further questions Micaiah, and insists that he speak nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord.

Micaiah this time gives a true prophesy, in which he illustrates a meeting of Yahweh with the heavenly hosts. At this meeting Yahweh asks who will entice Ahab to go into battle so that he may perish (1 Kings 22:19-20). A spirit comes forward, and offers to “be a lying spirit in the mouth of the prophets” (1 Kings 22:22). In other words Micaiah is obliquely claiming the prophecies of the other prophets were a result of the lying spirit. The King was outraged. Unfortunately for Micaiah, as a result of this unacceptable prophecy, Ahab ordered Micaiah imprisoned until he returned from battle (1 Kings 22:27).

Perhaps secretly concerned about the prophecy, Ahab disguised himself in battle rather than lead his troops openly as their king. Despite the disguise Ahab was killed in battle after being struck by a randomly shot arrow which lands between the plates of his amour. Micaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, contrary to the word of 400 false prophets, all of whom had encouraged Ahab to attack with a prediction of victory.

Prophets even today should not expect reward for telling it like it is. It is clear for example that the growing gap between rich and poor is likely to have disastrous results. Yet anyone who agitates to rearrange a nation’s finances to give a better deal to the poor at home, and those living in poverty overseas, will be firmly discouraged. The preservation of the tax loopholes for the rich and the miniscule proportion of virtually all wealthy nations’ contributions to genuine overseas aid with no strings attached are clear evidence that such advice is routinely ignored.

However today’s gospel reading also makes it clear that the prophet or disciple is to share the truth regardless of potential rejection.

I suspect many of us prefer to keep our heads down most of the time.
We should be under no delusion that it would have been easier to be a disciple in Jesus day.

In those days of subsistence living, it would have been great sacrifice for a family to have the bread winner become a disciple or missionary. And nor would the message have been more acceptable. But that isn’t the real challenge they were being asked to face. Of all the things that Jesus was asking them to do I guess there was one part that would have brought them face to face with reality in a new way. Look what they were asked to do.
After seeing what had happened to Jesus, they were being asked to take the message without their leader’s presence to be missionaries on their own with no guarantee that they would be accepted.

If it were you, what message would you be taking – or putting more directly which message are you currently taking – to your community? And to tell you the truth, this is not simply an academic question. The gospel has many dimensions and because we all have our own particular focus it is fair to ask which part of the gospel we are individually intent on living out as our mission.

Typical Church members of mainstream churches may feel comfortably insulated from a realization that they too might have a mission which might have a call on everyday life and which might have little to do with what typically happens in the comparative safety of a weekly Church service. Nor is it the sort of thing the preacher can work out on our behalf. If ministry means ministering to needs, the choice of which needs will call on our particular gifts at our particular stage of life will have as many different answers as there are Church members.

Many sermons may well have a structured arrival point. This is not one of them. Since Christ does not confer power or position so much as he offers opportunity, the conclusion to this particular sermon is not so much an arrival point as it is a challenge to choose our own next stage for our journey. Choose well, for no-one can journey for us.

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Lectionary Sermon 1 July 2018 on Mark 5: 21 – 43

Does Jesus Cure Cancer?
This question may turn out to be a little more subtle than at first encounter. Jesus the miracle worker was indeed said to be able to offer healing – although it might also be said that we cannot be sure from the few cases mentioned in the gospels exactly what the victims suffered from or indeed if the cures were effective long term. But did you notice the question said Does Jesus cure cancer – not did he cure cancer? I guess in other words: do the Jesus type miracles still occur?

I can remember a few years back the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority taking issue with a church billboard in the New Zealand city of Napier. The Equippers Church, which from their stated beliefs I understand to be a conservative evangelical church, had placed a billboard with the message “Jesus cures cancer”, and a few days later to underline the message, the tally number 6 was on the board identifying the number of cancer sufferers associated in some way with the church and who had been cured by Jesus.
The Standards Authority pointed out that, since the six apparently thus cured had also been receiving conventional medical treatment, this was misleading at best and dishonest at worst. Further, since cancer cells have a nasty habit of reappearing sometime many years after treatment, the medical profession is normally reluctant to announce a cure for any cancer patient suffering a form of terminal cancer, preferring at least in the short term to use the safer statement of “in remission”.

Whether or not those leading that Napier Church, which had only been in existence for a few years, were entitled to their certainty about the cure, let alone its cause, is enough of a moot point. However, in fact the Advertising Standards Authority was expressing concern for a different reason. Their argument, in part, was that non-Church members who had family members currently suffering from a form of terminal cancer would be upset by the notice since many would find themselves unable to access the same healing and may be angry that the implication that they were not doing everything possible for their family members.

I am therefore wondering if the casual use of today’s Bible reading from the gospel about the healing of Jairus’s daughter might also be called unwise advertising at the very least, if not actually intentionally misleading.

Since churches specialising in faith healing often make public claims about their achievements, and in particular we find some of the televangelist healers routinely advertising their success stories, you may wonder why I even raise the question. In partial answer perhaps we should first ask why this healing story even found its way into the New Testament, particularly when Jesus had specifically instructed his disciples to say nothing? There is also some additional irony that in from all the readings that might have been selected to be read in public from the lectionary, today’s reading from the gospel includes the very account which Jesus did not wish to be shared.

Jesus’ healing acts are often used as passing examples of the miraculous evidence showing that Jesus demonstrated the power which entitles him to be called the Son of God. To use the descriptions of healing events in this way I would suggest is to cheapen their meaning and move away from his central teaching about loving one’s neighbour as oneself.
We also need to be clear in our minds about distinguishing what we would like to believe and what leaves open the possibility of different interpretation. If is difficult to be certain about death without modern medical training, even the certainty that Jairus’s daughter was actually dead when Jesus arrived may be unjustified. Since we have only the hearsay account – and one not approved by Jesus we are a long way from the point where we might set up our own billboard saying “Jesus brings dead children back to life”.

Anyone who has anything to do with the hospital system will know that what seems miraculous happens from time to time even when no miracle is invoked. Most families for example will have had one or more relatives who were diagnosed as being in effect at death’s door and sometimes with the relatives summoned to make their farewells – only a few days later to find the one supposed at death’s door, sitting up and apparently in excellent health. When I was a child, suffering as it turned out from appendicitis, I had my own near death experience complete with the dark tunnel, roaring noise and sensation of moving towards the light. Two days later I was playing cricket in the backyard.

Yet there are also unaccountable tragedies. There is no apparent faith-based safeguard for children who step out in front of a car, children who drown in a stream or swimming pool, or for that matter, those who contract an incurable cancer or a chronic condition like cystic fibrosis. A parent who watches their child die before them from one of those causes will be understandably inconsolable. To blithely tell such a mother about someone else’s miracle cure – or that Jesus has just saved someone from a similar condition to the one which has just taken her child, is both crass and inexcusable.

Assuming the gospel account is accurate reporting, we can only speculate as to why Jesus told his disciples to tell no-one that Jairus’s daughter had been brought back from death at his touch, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he thought the news could easily have been used in an insensitive fashion. For example it might raise the question such as why was Jesus there for Jairus and yet not there to intervene for my still-born child? Given that many families are not so lucky would be naturally upset to learn that such intervention was not available to them, we too need to be cautious about how we trumpet such miracles.

But there are additional possible dimensions to Jesus’ admonition. Why for example do we find ourselves trying to follow Jesus’ teaching? If it is simply because we are awed by his power, then his example is so far beyond what we can experience for ourselves that we are relegated to passive admirers and observers rather than active pilgrims. In any case, the few healing miracles we do have on record don’t all speak of a deliberate power. The middle part of the reading refers to that other healing. When Jesus was still on his way to meet Jairus’ daughter he encounters a crowd. A woman who for years had suffered from recurring haemorrhages was in that crowd, touched Jesus, and was healed without his knowledge or intention. He not only was aware of her touch, he talked then of power being taken from him. As John Pridmore puts it, “Power drains from Jesus, because his ministry is the self emptying of the Son of God”. Rather then, this is not so much the story of power wielded but rather of power exhausted. Might it not then be that the call to mission is the call to follow Jesus’ example and give of ourselves rather than behaving as if the expectation is that we are tapping into some easy source of show miracles.

The other learning about that other healing event involving the woman with the haemorrhages was to remember that Jesus called the woman out of the crowd. Did you notice he then called her “daughter”. Whereas we might be tempted to see those who Jesus ministered to as incidental props – those who are merely there so that Jesus might demonstrate his powers. Not for Jesus. Jesus sees the unnamed person as one genuinely worth recognising. This, I guess we should contrast with the travelling healing shows of some of the populist faith healers (called by some of their critics “the God pumpers” ) who often appear to cause the collapse of those who come for healing by a single touch. Yes those touched may indeed appear to be “slain by the Spirit” to use the healers’ terminology – but there is little sign that the healer is stopping to engage them in conversation, let alone finding a need to treat them as separate from the crowd, or for that matter allowing them to make a genuine call on the faith healer’s energy and power.

Perhaps this is the key for guiding our behaviour. My guess is that few would find themselves in the position of faith healers in the sense of being able to find the right actions and words to make a genuine difference in the case of an otherwise incurable disease. Yet making a difference to the well -being of the mind and attitude of one who is unhappy, whether the unhappiness is caused by circumstances or disease is much closer to being within our reach. The feeling that others care, that there is someone sincere in their understanding is very readily sensed.

We might also remember that there are two sides to this healing. Yes we do need to identify the one who can help – but we also need to turn to that person. This is not necessarily going to be easy. For the synagogue official to recognise in Jesus someone who might help his dying child would have required humility and courage. Jesus was not seen as particularly friendly to orthodox faith so for Jairus, the ruler or keeper of the Synagogue and its practices, to run and prostrate himself in front of Jesus to plead for his help would have had considerable and sacrificial personal loss of face. Since Jairus with his position in the synagogue would have been wearing a long robe, I have this mental picture of Jairus gathering up his robe in a most undignified way in order to run to Jesus.

Certainly too, courage was shown by the woman with the haemorrhage who would have known that custom meant that while she had that condition she should not be seen in public, let alone be seen to be touching a religious leader. She had to risk a good deal of herself before she could be restored.

For his part, that Jesus was prepared to put himself out to walk some distance to the bedside of the daughter of the Synagogue official, Jairus, showed that Jesus cared. That he was also able to notice the one who touched him in the crowd for healing amongst the throng of the crowd and furthermore, speak to her as a person who mattered, not only shows what Jesus was prepared to do but also models for us how we too should be prepared to show genuine care and put ourselves out for those who seek our help no matter how undeserving they might appear to be.

In my introduction I suggested that the thoughtless use of today’s gospel might lead to the same effect as false advertising. Now I want to point to a more positive approach. While it is true that the listing of miracles tempts us to present the faith as a series of gee whizz events which cheapen and mislead, a closer look at today’s stories reminds us that sacrifice – both on the part of those seeking and the one who responds – does bring us to the essence of true miracle and wonder. Faith is not in giving the correct answers to a list of questions, yet faith does begin to find meaning in being prepared to trust ourselves to the care of one another and the acceptance of help from the one we trust enough to follow.

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President Trump Misinformed about Criminal Misdeeds of Immigrants!!

No doubt families of those who lost loved ones to murder at the hands of immigrants were grateful that President Trump recently invited the bereaved families to the White House.   We presume many will have guessed that this was intended to remind the voting public just how dangerous immigrants can be. In case there should be any confusion about what Mr Trump thinks about immigrants he has also talked of the dangers of immigrants “infesting society”.    To refer immigrants in this way conjures up the racism directed to Jews in Europe in Germany in the late 1930s or more recently of Rwanda (where they talked of cockroaches) and I guess for many, at least in this part of the world, it is hard to imagine a group of immigrants so bad that they can talked about as if they were vermin.  What is more worrying is that we have to accept that many Americans are absolutely convinced Mr Trump speaks for them.

Mr Trump’s White House function for those wronged by immigrants seems likely to backfire because it turns out that the assumption about the danger from immigrants is based on a common misconception not borne out by the studies on the subject. Presumably Mr Trump’s advisors have let him down.   Rather than refer Mr Trump to complicated statistics why not ask his advisors to discretely refer him to Wikipedia where he might read things like:

“There is no empirical evidence that either legal or illegal immigration increases crime in the United States (Citation provided in Wikipedia article) In fact, most studies in the U.S. have found lower crime rates among immigrants than among non-immigrants, and that higher concentrations of immigrants are associated with lower crime rates (21 references cited) These findings contradict popular perceptions that immigration increases crime. (citation given) Some research even suggests that increases in immigration may partly explain the reduction in the U.S. crime rate (citations given) A 2017 study suggests that immigration did not play a significant part in lowering the crime rate.[citation given) A 2005 study showed that immigration to large U.S. metropolitan areas does not increase, and in some cases decreases, crime rates there.(citation given) A 2009 study found that recent immigration was not associated with homicide in Austin, Texas. (Citation given) The low crime rates of immigrants to the United States despite having lower levels of education, lower levels of income and residing in urban areas (factors that should lead to higher crime rates) may be due to lower rates of antisocial behaviour among immigrants (citation given)”

I am prepared to concede Wikipedia may have it wrong, but I would have thought to make the assumption and then be unable to back the implied assertion with evidence is unwise.     Since the studies are easy to access I invite the reader to check out the data for themselves.    I suspect such information has not been available to the President, but in the event that the Wikipedia article has it correct surely the President’s researchers and staffers can help him correct his misapprehension.

 

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ARE HUMAN RIGHTS FAILURES IN THE USA JUST AS BAD?

Unfortunately (and we hope coincidentally) the just announced withdrawal of the US from the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) looks suspiciously like an attempt to avoid scrutiny for America’s own mounting list of human rights embarrassments. The self-perception of citizens of the US that America is still widely admired for its moral leadership is not born out by the recent international polls. Certainly by most of the common measures, for the last few years, the US has slipped in its reputation on most issues of human rights.

Yes, most observers would agree that some of the UN members of the UNHRC have regimes which have bad human rights records. However, for many of these, some progress has been made. International agreements have modified some of the worst abuses and unwelcome publicity via constant scrutiny courtesy of the UNHRC is precisely why it is important that the key offenders be answerable as members of the Commission.

Because it is outside the day-to-day experiences of most Americans, and because wealth insulates the wealthy from having to face up to the consequences of ill treatment of the marginalized, it is very likely the majority have genuinely not noticed what is happening on the growing fringes of their society.  While I would agree the US is still much safer for minorities than in some corners of the world, the signs of a change in direction are alarming.

Reflect on the following.

In the US the rate of incarceration is now the highest amongst all first and second-world nations. On any given day the recorded number of those imprisoned is now confirmed to be of the order of 2.3 million people in state and federal prisons and jails, which also works out to be the world’s largest reported incarcerated population. While it is heartening that some States were sufficiently concerned to introduce reforms on incarceration at State and Congressional level, the members of the UN concern is that such reforms are not gaining White House support. Although a bipartisan proposal for sentencing and corrections reform has been gaining momentum in Congress, the Trump administration appears reluctant to give the proposal indication of support.

There is of course the recent embarrassing discovery that the US rendition programme is apparently re-emerging which should also give pause for thought e.g. having US enemies dealt to with by torture and execution in Yemen. When the US then pulls out of the UNHRC on the grounds some of its fellow members have dodgy Human Rights records forgive me if I raise an eyebrow!!

Nearly 50,000 youth aged 17 or younger are held in juvenile prisons or other confinement facilities on any given day in the US, and approximately 5,000 more are incarcerated in adult jails or prisons. Another feature is the sentencing of children to life sentences, although some states are starting to discontinue this practice. Every year, 200,000 people under 18 have contact with the adult criminal system, with many children tried automatically as adults. If it were any other country I suspect many might suggest that this is a characteristic of a police state.

President Trump has targeted refugees and immigrants, calling them criminals and security threats. Treating them as criminals is in direct violation of the widely accepted International agreement to the effect that that refugees and illegal immigrants arriving at the border fleeing situations where security or health are at stake, may not be so-treated.   More embarrassing to Mr Trump is that the proportion of crimes committed by immigrants shows on average they are better citizens than those born into permanent citizenship.

Another irony is that by sending weapons to areas of dispute and organizing the bombing of villages and towns (e.g. to war torn Syria or even weapons into crime ridden areas like parts of South America and even parts of Mexico) means a proportion of the civilian populations are forced to flee and include many trying to cross the border from Mexico. When the number one instigator of the weapons and bombs then keeps those same refugees at bay, is it surprising some are beginning to notice? No wonder too the US government found international scrutiny embarrassing when Mr Trump directed separation of children from their parents at the border even keeping some of the children in cages.

In the United Nations The Trump government seemed not to notice that using the excuse of the US not wanting to be included in the same Commission  which included those whose had a bad human rights record rings hollow in terms of the recent US record.  At home Mr Trump and his supporters had emboldened racist politics by equivocating on white nationalism; and consistently championed anti-Muslim ideas and policies. Furthermore, Mr Trump was witnessed speaking of the value of torture in his Election campaign, and was subsequently seen and heard making admiring noises about the Presidents of North Korea and the Philippines when there was world-wide condemnation of their ruthless treatment of those identified as criminals (eg drug addicts in the Philippines).   Is it surprising this made most UN members uneasy.

UN member nations have also noticed the Trump administration has embraced policies that roll back access to reproductive health care for women and championed health insurance changes that deny many more Americans access to affordable health care. What is even more surprising, remembering the civil rights improvements in the US of a few years back, recent law changes in the US have undermined police accountability for abuse. Trump has also expressed disdain for any independent media criticism and has tried to stack the federal courts with those less likely to some of his anti-civil rights actions.

By overtly ignoring the plight of the Palestinians in Israel, by praising dictators and by forcing those like the North American Indians to accept damage to their environment in the interests of mining, Mr Trump signals the need for the rest of the nations of the world to put the US under closer watch.

The individuals most likely to suffer abuse in the United States—including members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, and prisoners—are often least able to defend their rights in court or via the political process. Many vulnerable groups endured renewed attacks on their rights during the last year. Other longstanding US laws and practices—particularly related to criminal and juvenile justice, immigration, and national security—continued to violate internationally recognized human rights.

Of course it is true that the US has been frustrated that Israel has been repeatedly blocked in the UN in their attempts to take over more of Palestine, yet the real question remains as to why the US is supporting the powerful predominant Israeli group in Israel and appears so blind to the disproportionate suffering of the Palestinians. Yes, I know that Israel’s point is that they have to keep their population safe, yet to an independent observer it seems that the disproportionate death toll at the end of each year shows who is in most need of security.

I guess I am arguing in the above that based on my own admittedly limited data collection the US does not have the current reputation to justify Mr Trump’s “Holier than thou” justification for pulling the US out of the UNHRC.  If I am overlooking important evidence to the contrary I am hoping one of my readers will use the comment box below to show me where my argument has gone astray.

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Lectionary sermon for 24 June 2018 (Year b) on Mark 4:35-41 and 1 Samuel 17 (1a,4-11,19-23,32-49)

Believe it or Not
Among the tricky questions about the Bible that keep coming back to haunt church-goers are two that seem to recur. The first issue seems almost comfortingly academic. Are the Bible accounts of the more unbelievable stories and events true in the sense that they happened as recorded or alternately?  Alternately are they more there to shape our thinking and inspire us? But there is a second question and one we may well wish was not raised. If we are inspired, what are we going to do that is different?

The two stories that the lectionary challenges us to consider today may well have more than a little of the hint of the unbelievable, but I want to suggest the real reason for their value is because both stories touch on genuine insight into the human condition. It is a very human failing to pretend to ourselves that there is no foe and no fear we will not face – yet in reality when the challenge is significant or when danger begins to threaten, our first instinct is to do anything to make the problem go away. The message from each of the situations we are looking at today seems to be that if instead we face the problem, there is always the possibility that situation might be answered in most unexpected and positive ways.

To the modern Western mind both lectionary stories present a common problem. Since they both report events which are, at best, extremely unusual and at worst simply unbelievable, the temptation is to turn off at that point and dismiss them as being of no-value fairy stories. And to be brutally honest many modern commentators would certainly argue that the stories we will be looking at are unlikely to have occurred as reported, yet even if they are only treated as parable or myth, I suggest there is something we can learn here from each.

We will start with the boating trip. On a calm day boating is a great experience. But anyone who knows large lakes or the sea also knows that if the barometer suddenly drops, or if the air is funnelled down through the ravines or valleys towards water, the wind can mount, sometimes literally within minutes, and then of course the waves build. The so called Sea of Galilee is prone to such strong sudden winds and I would imagine, particularly in those days, the traditional old style fishing boats would not be particularly seaworthy or safe in such conditions. I guess that the fishing boat chosen as the vessel for the disciples trip would not come anywhere near any modern certification for sea-worthiness. We have reason to suspect from history and from the discovery of the remains of boats from that time, that it would have been an open boat, too low in the water to cope with large waves and with its planks held together caulked with pitch and in all probability held together with doubtful nails and lashed cords.

The Sea of Galilee, or more accurately the lake, has geological features that make it common for such winds to suddenly rise. I suspect this is why when we read of Jesus and the fishermen on the lake they are usually described as keeping close to the shore. This time Jesus has asked them to attempt something a little more risky – particularly at night – and that is to set out for the other side.

So now the wind rises and as the waves mount, these men – some of whom appear to have been seasoned fishermen – panic. This is more than a passing danger. Too far out to turn back they awaken Jesus apparently angry that he is sleeping instead of sharing in their situation. Then as quickly as it came – apparently in response to Jesus’ words – the storm dies.

The disciples bewilderment – and we might guess perhaps even their shame for their previous panic – leaves them with the question. Who is this man and does he really command wind and water to obey? Please note in the story it is an unanswered question left hanging and we too are left with the same puzzle.

I know that when this story is debated, the first thinly disguised rhetorical question from the critics is typically: could Jesus really control nature? For the record, at least as far as I am concerned, I often align myself with such critics because I am definitely not a Bible literalist, but on reflection surely this is not the real point of the story.

Certainly we could explain it away saying one of the standard weather observations is that a storm quick to rise is often quick to pass, so we might well believe that such a storm would die of its own accord, whether directed to do so or not. Yet for me the real issue is that Jesus is recorded as showing calmness in the face of the storm to the point of sleeping while all about him was panic …..and ultimately, however it happened, his calmness wins through.

Some here today will have seen the essence of that same calming miracle when for example an experienced paramedic arrives at the scene of some terrible accident – and seemingly oblivious to the panic and confusion of the worried onlookers, quietly and firmly takes control of the accident scene and before your eyes you can see everyone begin to relax.

But don’t forget there is a second story.

In this scene we have the Israelites are drawn up in battle formation with their traditional enemies the Philistines facing them. Probably neither side was particularly looking forward to the near certainty that many would not survive to the end of the day. Then a possible way out….. As was sometimes the custom for survival an alternative was put to them. Send out a champion to do battle with our champion and decide the result by proxy. The only catch was that the Philistine champion was a fearsome prospect. In such circumstances would you have offered to be the challenger? I know I wouldn’t. Although I would like to think I would step up if I saw some thug making threats, in reality I am not sure I would be brave enough.

Goliath of Gath was indeed a giant. If the story is to be believed without exaggeration, then Goliath was a fearsome giant indeed……nine foot tall, if I have the arithmetic correct. But when Goliath was strutting his stuff in front of Saul’s army and no-one was prepared to fight him, there is something you may have missed. King Saul himself was also something of a giant among his people according to the Bible measuring seven foot.

The fact that Saul, possibly the only one who might have had a chance against the Philistine giant, was also chicken, must have seemed on the one hand to be understandable, but on the other, acutely embarrassing to the Israelites.

That the shepherd boy David was prepared to step forward in his place, armed only with a sling, was not only unexpected and brave, it was also an event which in the Bible account was a turning point in the fortunes of the two men. From that point on, David, the giant slayer who had been armed with nothing but a sling saw his fortunes increase while Saul, for all his impressive appearance, saw his status begin to diminish in the eyes of his followers.

Of course both of these stories miss something if we focus on how believable they are. I suspect more than a few here today would have reservations yet even if we do eventually decide whether or not they are a true record then, as historical accounts, they would only instruct as one- time events. If on the other hand, we can also see their symbolic meaning, then we can notice a more contemporary connection.

It is not only disciples in a boat facing the terrors of a storm or soldiers on a battlefield who can know fear or panic. Each one of us sooner or later is bound to know great sorrow or moments of panic if we are to truly live. To love is, sooner or later, to risk the loss of at least one close to us. Accidents do happen. It is not just earthquakes and fires that can catch us unawares. The dangers we may unexpectedly face may vary greatly but moments of danger there most assuredly will be. To believe that facing these moments squarely, armed with nothing more than the assurance that we can find a way through and knowing that nothing can separate us from this mysterious relationship we call the love of God gives a meaning to life which points to hope.

So what have we noted?

We read that the disciples panicked when the waves rose, yet discovered there was something about the strange nature of Christ that could calm them despite the worst the storm could offer. Perhaps the symbolism teaches us that when the panic inducing situation faces us that we too might find for us the storm abates when we turn to what in our journey we have found Christ to mean for us.

We read that when David encountered the horror of the Philistine giant Goliath he was able to prevail using only the skills he already possessed. Clearly the war between the Philistines and the men of Saul is long since over. Yet there are still bullying situations where we find people who matter to us being threatened by forces beyond their strength to overcome. Might it be that we too can find within our own feeble resources the skills to be champions on others’ behalf.

I am reasonably certain that none of us will command the weather like Jesus is said to have done, nor should we expect some David to appear on our behalf to kill the giant who threatens others, yet I believe we have potential to contribute to peace in the midst of our personal storms, or for that matter put ourselves on the line when called to do so.

Some storms have nothing to do with water… and some who face the storms or the dangerous enemies on behalf of others are not found in the pages of the Bible. One of the bravest in our time who knows exactly what it is to put her life on the line is that extraordinary Pakistani schoolgirl (Malala Yousafzai)– and subsequently at age 17 made it as the youngest ever Nobel Peace prize winner. She was honoured for standing up against those who used force to stop girls in Pakistan from getting an education. After receiving many death threats she continued publicizing the cause for girls’ education and even survived a Taleban assassination attempt. She refused to let the danger prevent her message getting through and continued publicizing her message in every forum she could reach right up to the United Nations.

The literalist quest to put every effort into establishing historical certainty of the more extraordinary Bible stories may well be beyond the reach of the best of scholars. Nor is there a clear answer to the disciples’ question. “Who is this man?” And what is more, living a life based on facing challenge head-on and meeting those tempest problems of doubt and worry can ultimately carry no guarantee. What we do learn from Jesus however is that just as Jesus was able to instil eventual trust in his disciples, others too have found in Christ a peace that can speak to all manner of storms and challenge. The real test will be for each of us to discover our own personal encounter with the one whose boat we claim to share.

(Note: In these sermons, since there is now a complete lectionary set, I often rework the sermon from three years back. Since I have been assured that some read the sermons to stimulate their thinking, it would be helpful to new visitors if readers would leave their own suggested comments, illustrations or alternative interpretations for others to consider).

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EROSION OF CONFIDENCE IN THE LAND OF TRUMP

The US under the leadership of President Trump appears to be reflected in a massive slide in global confidence in the standing of the US. The Pew polls based on a variety of international markers have shown a serious drop in support for President Trump as a world leader across most of the developed world. While the withdrawal from support for the Paris Accord on global warming combined with the change of direction in the EPA to downplay environmental concerns may have played well at home with industrialists and shareholders in mining and various energy related ventures it does not sit well with those who see a greater need for environmental protection and had been expecting the US to continue in an environmental leadership role.

The recent shift away from support for US policies in the United Nations (eg the UN votes on Palestinian Issue) suggests the overt downgrading of US support for the UN in turn affected how the US is regarded by some other nations. The regard for the US as a leader of NATO has similarly slipped and the recent debacle at the G7 summit reinforces the public perception that the US is being side-lined as a preferred trading partner for its clumsy abuse of its partners.

Each of Mr Trump’s so-called “signature policies” are typically rejected by substantial numbers of non US observers. For example one sample set of polls (Pew, Spring 2017) set approval for the build a wall with Mexico project at 16% for and 76% against. Withdrawal from Trade agreements stood at 18% for, 76% against. Withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal 34% for, 49% against. Tighter restrictions on Muslims entering the US drew 32% for, 62% against. Withdrawal from International Climate Change agreements 19% for, 71% against.

A recent Gallup Poll of 134 countries showed for example that although under President Obama support for the US as a leader stood at 48% – after a year of Donald Trump this had dropped to 30%. This is the lowest level Gallup has recorded in the last ten years and is not only just a slump , but actually takes it below China (at 31%) and surrenders the first place to Germany now at 41% of the sample.

Trump’s version of “America First” policies has also apparently eroded support at home remembering that at the time of his first anniversary of leadership Trump had the lowest average approval of any elected President after one year in office.

Another aspect of the perception of the US is indicated in the growing divisions within the nation. The string of Trump led vitriolic statements directed to those who in Congress who dare question White House policy looks from the outside to be counterproductive and instead seems to foster unprecedented protests and a marked declining trust in public institutions.

While the main policies pushed by Mr Trump share features like looking after US interests first, it is also becoming apparent that extreme nationalism does not appeal to the entire GOP support base. For example the separation of children from their illegal immigrant parents at the Mexican border unleashed a storm of protest which saw some republicans in Congress express some of the same concerns as the Democrats.

One conventional measure of trust is the annual ranking review conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit. That review looks at sixty different measures of electoral process, press freedom, expressed confidence in public institutions, freedoms etc. With nationwide protests against new policies, serious questions raised about legal process and election tampering and a major discrepancy between the popular vote and the vote of the Electoral College it is hardly likely that the post 2016 election results would not have raised questions. Attitudes to disadvantaged groups, religious and racial intolerance and a marked hardening of policies on immigration seemed to challenge traditional views of the US as a free and democratic society.

Traditionally a few years back, the US had been scoring as a full democracy although even before the last Presidential election there had been a noticeable decrease in confidence. Now, for the second year in a row the US, with a score of 7.98 out of 10 the US is now firmly classified as a “flawed democracy”. Those remaining as full democracies evidently include nations like the UK, Norway, Ireland and Spain while the US now finds itself in the company of nations like Italy, Chile and Mexico and in fact with the same rank as Italy (21%).

While I believe we should acknowledge the unwavering support for Mr Trump among his supporters in the “Red” States, some of the chosen Trump policies actually set up these states for future economic hardship. Look at some of the more obvious examples. The pressure put on the Europe with the US proposed tariffs on cars have resulted a push-back tariff on Kentucky bourbon (no doubt chosen because Kentucky is one of the Trump strongholds). Mexico is responding to its tariff imposition by sourcing alternative markets for its Soy bean (which will no doubt benefit Russia and Brazil) and both China and Canada have similarly chosen to target US agriculture in response to Mr Trump’s latest tariffs.

The simplistic notion that a powerful rich country like the US can simply bully poorer nations into making better deals (i.e. better for the US) has not gone well outside the US and to take just one obvious example, the TPP nations, upon learning that the US wanted to abandon their TPP proposed free trade system, have simply gone ahead without the US and are now looking to set up a better deal with China.

Some commentators have suggested that as the inexperienced Trump team discover by trial and error how to arrive at preferred outcomes there should be a gradual improvement in international perception. On the other hand humans everywhere traditionally show a marked unwillingness to accept criticism and it is unlikely that those criticised by Mr Trump will easily forget and forgive. Again using recent events as a marker, when an angry Canadian Parliament met to discuss Mr Trump’s post G7 criticism of Canadian Trade policies in general and Mr Trudeau in particular there was a totally unanimous (and very rare) cross party opposition to Mr Trump’s stated position.

It is probably too early to work out the long term consequences of Mr Trump’s tax reforms which left much more money in the pockets of the rich and increased the debt levels to an extent that many Federal supplied services are now forced to be cut. The drop in tax intake produces a self-imposed jump in debt which in turn feeds into trade pressures and takes the US into uncharted territory. It is certainly premature to speculate on how the tariff wars are going to work out, but the complex relationships between trade and national debt are unlikely to be familiar territory to a President whose main economics experience has been the wheeling and dealing in real estate.

(Reactions to this article would be appreciated)

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