Lectionary Sermon for December 10 2017 (2B) on Mark 1, 1-8, Isaiah 40 1-11

We live in a world where papering over the cracks has been elevated to an art form. Far from self assessment, getting ready for Christmas has come to mean responding to advertising, putting up shiny decorations, twinkling lights and listening to Christmas mood music in the malls. And yes there are some most impressive light displays being installed to transform houses, but it seems to me that in a community where we haven’t got on top of family violence, where we have drunk and stoned young folk on the streets of our major cities on a Saturday night, and where the gap between the rich and the poor is ever widening we are not quite at the point where we are ready to welcome the Messiah secure in the knowledge that we are doing all in our power to prepare his way .

When I opened my current favourite News Website “Stuff” last Tuesday morning and saw the items from the New Zealand provinces with the stories of family violence, arson in our schools, out of control teenagers stealing and crashing cars and an adult recently out of prison punching a three year-old in the head, I reflected on how this fitted with the stories of the seasonal Christmas parades.

From the US you probably noticed the unedifying TV news item about the President’s victory in reducing what he calls a tax burden on the rich and middle classes. Of course the other way of looking at taxes is as contributions to a community pool for helping deliver services including welfare, security health and education. But rejoicing that those who can afford to give will now give less is not unique to the US and I seem to remember a similar election promise in this country. But the question for Church goers might be does tax reduction represent the finest ideal for followers of the Christ. We can (and perhaps should) criticise the US for closing borders to immigrants from six countries. But the real question is – do we do better?

I know the standard concern of retailers in December is the question of how many dollars will be taken this Christmas in the shopping rush. Do you share my niggling suspicion that this may not be the number one concern that a modern day prophet might want to draw to our attention as a so-called Christian community this coming Christmas. And more to the point, what might that same prophet want to say to me?

Back in those pre-Christian days what was it that Isaiah said? Prepare Ye the way of the Lord.

Even with literal roads the quick fix doesn’t always solve the most serious problems. Again with Christchurch as an example, the earthquake of 2011 left some of the inner city roads buckled and twisted beyond belief. Certainly bulldozers and rollers were able to restore some superficial road surfaces relatively quickly but as the engineers pointed out, with the broken pipes and underground services it was going to take more than first aid to restore what really counted. Last week I saw for myself they are still working on those problems.

In the days of Isaiah it wasn’t quite so easy. A road through the desert or wilderness would be bad at the best of times, but with constant erosion, shifting dust and sand, floods and slips – poorly built bridges that were easily broken or washed away – and nothing but primitive tools to repair or cut new paths, travel would be hazardous at the best of times.

In those days, when they knew the ruler was about to visit the far reaches of the kingdom, the cry would go out. Fix the roads….make them straight… or at least passable.

But what Isaiah is saying here takes it much further. Fill in whole valleys, remove mountains. Do the job properly.

What of course he was really saying in poetic form is that the Christ child would face more serious problems. To make the way of Jesus passable different works are needed – and certainly not just on the potholes and curbs of the road – but a proper reconstruction of everything that is wrong with the very being. The nasty kinks of character, the hate and the revenge that gnaws at the very soul …of people like you and me….. the selfishness that bedevils so many – the hardness of heart, because it is these things that prevent us being ready for the Lord…… at least in a metaphorical sense.

Isaiah was a magnificent poet and prophet… and of course there were rumours and stories about him as a consequence. One story was that Elijah didn’t actually die. Instead he was swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire. At the end of the Book of Malachi, Malachi warns us that before the end of time Elijah will return. Malachi finishes the Old Testament with Elijah and what could be more appropriate than choosing the Gospel of Mark which starts with Elijah returning as John the Baptist.

John the Baptist had enough in common with Elijah to be recognized in the same light. A latter day Isaiah, and like Isaiah he spent a good deal of time in the wilderness. And a properly dressed, refined churchman who went quietly to worship one a week he wasn’t. As John Spong pointed out “When [Mark] introduces John the Baptist for the first time it is clear that John has already been interpreted as the Old Testament figure of Elijah, who in the expectations of the Jews had to precede the coming of the messiah. John is clothed… in the raiment of Elijah, camel’s hair and a girdle around his waist. He is placed in the desert where Elijah was said to dwell. He was given the diet of locusts and wild honey that the Hebrew Scriptures said was the diet that Elijah ate” (J S Spong Newsletter, 1/4/2010).

Nor was Mark one to muck about with his message.
That line when he says “I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you”. This actually comes from Malachi 3:1 When Malachi used this he was actually making a threat. In Malachi’s day the service at the Temple was being done automatically – almost without feeling – half hearted attempts at sacrifice and prayers in a time when society was apparently breaking down and the messenger came to get them to clean up their act.

John the Baptist was direct enough to call it as he saw it. I sometimes wonder why they didn’t simply call him a prophet – because like the Old Testament prophets he didn’t so much spend time telling the future – but like the prophets of old he certainly told people how he saw them and didn’t seem to care if that did upset a few. Leaving aside the claims of magical power sometimes attributed to the prophets there is always a place for those brave enough to point out what needs fixing. As an aside perhaps I might mention that I had a whistle blower in a previous congregation who fled his Island home nation as a refugee after discovering and reporting that a previous prime minister had been avoiding paying his taxes. In my book this qualifies him as at least a minor prophet in the Biblical sense.

And yes there have been times where whole cities appear to go bad – and their only hope is complete reform. It has been that way for thousands of years. Seneca called Rome a Cesspool of Iniquity …. And I guess we would not have to look too far today before we encountered something similar.
When people do reform the results can be dramatic. When I was growing up Billy Graham was making his mark in many cities round the world. Although I personally now have some reservations about old style revival rallies I admit that recently I read of a Billy Graham crusade where he preached in a city called Shreveport, and liquor sales decreased by 30% – and Bible sales increased by 300%. Repentance can and does make a difference.

But more to the point, whose repentance would the modern prophet be calling for? Remember if the message is directed to us, we are not being called upon to find fault with others. It is not racism and stupid gun laws in the distant US that count for us, any more than we should focus on distant acts of horror in the Middle East. It is our own actions which require scrutiny. It is somewhat easier to talk glibly of Christian values and of good will to all if we don’t look squarely at our actions and ask ourselves how others might see us.

In the recent election campaigns it is intriguing that no-one seem to be interested in asking why this nation’s overseas aid had steadily been dropping over the last few years, because this aid is one measure of how much we genuinely care. By the end of the Christmas season who will have noticed we genuinely care about them? Will our giving to Christian World service and to the food bank be serious or token? Of course we can’t help many – but are we intending to genuinely help any? If not maybe even we might be in need of repentance. Surely repentance is rather more than a mumbled line in the Lord’s Prayer.

If John is described correctly by Mark, he was a man who insisted on repentance – and didn’t care who knew it. He even criticised Herod – and of course paid the price. But there was another way John was giving offence. At the time he was doing his Baptism, baptism was virtually unknown amongst the Jews. The scholars say that this would have been offensive – not just because he was baptising everyone the same way regardless of their position or status – but because they were in effect demeaning themselves in front of this wild and strange man.

Yet Advent is a time when the prophets, whether they be types like Isaiah, like John the Baptist or some other unexpected prophet, call us to see if we are prepared to demean ourselves to put the Christ child first in the sense that we accept what he stood for.

It is well to remind ourselves of the wilderness setting of that first Advent because our comfort and relative wealth can insulate us from noticing the relationships and self examination which need our attention. No matter how twinkly the lights on those house might appear – no matter how decorated those shops might be and no matter how nicely the carols are sung – if we do not find room in our hearts for love we too might find our time has run out and we will be left with emptiness.

The prophets bring a timely message. We must be ready. To use Isaiah’s analogy we are but as grass and the time is short.

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Lectionary Sermon for 1B 3 December 2017 on Isaiah 64: 1-9, Mark 13: 24 – 37

The standard Jewish trick of making sense of the issues for their present was to find perspective in history. In this case the scholars who chose today’s gospel reading for Advent were also following the Jewish approach to history by selecting what appears to be Jesus’ last will and testament from a gospel writer’s history as the way of introducing the significance of his coming.

Today’s readings are for the first Sunday of a new Church year and in this case what we call Year B with this particular Sunday being the first Sunday of Advent…and instead of starting this Church year with what we might expect from modern writers, the story of the impending birth of Christ, here we are, well into the gospel of Mark – we begin with a speech from Jesus towards the very end of his teaching ministry, talking about his second coming and despite the claims of the end-time prophets, we notice that he is talking about a likely contemporary experience for his followers.

For most Christians this should not be completely unexpected because most of us are probably familiar with the general gist of Jesus’ life story. After all the only way we know Jesus came once is also in our history, not our present, and I guess we are therefore entitled to speculate how we continue to recognize him in the coming.

As we move deeper into studying this Bible of ours we find there are many interesting twists and turns to encounter. If for example we were to insist that the Bible should be read and interpreted literally we would have to admit that the strange and vivid encounters with God of the Bible kind are very different to what we encounter today in our real world. Bible-wise we appear to learn of a God that speaks out of a mysterious burning bush, one that wrestles with Jacob…. a God that gives a personal warning to Noah who saves the world’s future by building a boat, a God who helps Moses part the sea, stops the Sun from moving for Joshua, who orders Joshua to have his men blow their trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho, one who protects Daniel’s mates in the fiery furnace, and a God who appears in a blinding flash to talk to Paul on the road to Damascus.

Putting it as bluntly as possible…none of these miracles are anything like the real lives we experience. Indeed if some mysterious God were to challenge us to a wrestling match or if we were to pause in our morning Church service and find ourselves like the young Isaiah in Chapter six of Isaiah who was interrupted in his devotions to look up and see God sitting on his Throne in the heavens – if God really were to meet us in a blinding flash when we were walking down the road to the shops – or if He were to call down fire and pestilence on our enemies or zap some of our contemporaries who he judged as sinners by turning them into pillars of salt, we would hardly be in Church this morning reflecting on the mystery of how we might meet Christ… and instead perhaps be checking on our medication.

At minimum there should be a puzzle for the literalists in working out what Isaiah is up to in today’s reading. After all if he had been reported correctly as a young man looking up to actually see God present and sitting on a throne – why would he now be bewildered and looking for a sign of God’s presence. Remember in today’s reading, Isaiah is now an old man. He has been in exile with his people and returned to a city in ruin and is standing in the rubble of a lost temple, feeling perhaps as though he has lost his faith. He calls” God, tear open the heavens and come down!” And this would be handy would it not? Yet realistically this is not how things happen no matter how unfair we consider the deal we have been given.

Perhaps there is a theological truth to be faced that we do share with Isaiah because whatever we might dream up in the way we choose to worship and regardless of how Christian we hope to appear to others, experience teaches us our prayers do not protect us from the dangers and the dangers and difficulties of life. Not then – not now. The events of the last year, the flood of refugees from places like Syria, the nasty outcomes of uprisings and chaos in the Middle East, nasty tropical storms devastating flooding and so forth…..None of these would be part of the equation if God was personally protecting us with the equivalent of Harry Potter magic.

In the real world some turn out to be lucky – but equally some are not. Remember that Australian woman watching a lightning storm with her boyfriend being struck by lightning and dying while the boy friend was hurt but lived. Churches like my home Church from younger days Durham Street Methodist Church, can and indeed did fall down in an earthquake. There was clearly no magic Talisman that protected Methodist interests in that tragedy. And yes of course, for others as always there are mysterious miraculous escapes from tragedy. The real world continues to be a curious mixture of the unexpected, the cruel and the miraculous wonder. For some everything is just great – then for others just plain frightening…and there doesn’t seem to be any simple formula for what happens.

I don’t know about you, but my experience of God is not one of continuous, dramatic miracles. That’s not the way most experience what they call the living God. I can accept that for some, perhaps sometimes, there is the equivalent of the blinding flash of light, maybe even the sensation of the voice from above, but to quote William Willimon: “in my experience God speaks most often through whispers, not shouts. God is found in the shadows, rather than as blinding light. And sometimes the whispers are very low whispers, and sometimes the shadows are very dark.”

Miracles may be miracles to those who feel they experience them – but we should never assume they will be equally convincing to others who saw the same events with an entirely different viewpoint. Even with the Bible miracles, when for example the resurrected Christ appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), Paul reportedly heard the voice of Christ, so clearly that his life was changed forever. But those who were with him heard nothing.

Fred Craddock suggests that the presence of God is so easily missed because what may have originally happened (as he puts it) in rather muted tones, yet later reported in the equivalent of glorious Technicolor in the Bible.

Craddock gives the example that when Luke tells of the death of Herod, he says that God struck him instantly dead and he was eaten up with worms (Acts 12:20-23). However, the historical record has it that the original Herod died of the gout. There is another miracle so dramatic and so embarrassingly unlikely that it rarely gets mentioned. Remember when at the time of the Crucifixion and resurrection Matthew says the tombs broke open and many dead people were seen walking. Why do you think this miracle was not even noticed by other gospel writers and totally absent from contemporary historians of the day?

There is miracle in the encounter with Jesus but it is hardly likely to matter unless the encounter has something to do with the real world we inhabit. Jesus taught that the encounter is experienced in the way we interact with those in need. Even while the images of the first Christmas might add immeasurably to our Christian experience it is worth remembering that Mark and John in their gospels and Paul in his letters left out the birth details altogether. Perhaps we too might shift our focus towards valuing Jesus for what he can become for each of us.

As we approach Advent we can enjoy the poetical imagery in the gospels yet at the same time we need to guard against dealing with the approaching birth of Christ as a rigorous literal account and avoid presenting it as a separate religious package of other-worldly events, so bizarrely different that it has nothing to do with the real world.

While none of us escape encounters with the divine in that all of us live in this mysterious work of creation, for most of us, encounters with the love of God will come most often from the unexpected acts of love in our interactions with people, especially when acts of compassion are offered or received. Nor should we forget where we are aiming to finish which is why we should listen thoughtfully to Jesus when he talks of what comes next. The German Theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, in his Theology of Hope uses a striking analogy. He says “We must not drift through history with our backs to the future”

Rather than drifting perhaps our mental image should be that of rowing. Look back, yes, to give ourselves direction, as we continue to strive for the goal.

This is why we will be encouraging our New Zealand Methodist congregations to give Christian World Service (or equivalent programs) a real priority this Christmas. For those who find themselves in the darkness of despair this Christmas, whatever we might offer by way of unexpected acts of kindness may be the only chance for some of encountering what Christmas might mean.

Hans Reudi Weber as a staff member of the World Council of Churches once wrote that :
The message of the Bible does not support the common conviction that the Church’s only task to look after the” religious department of life”… Christians are called to share Christ’s concern for the whole world, with all its harsh realities. …..the first covenant the Bible speaks about is not the covenant with Abraham or Israel – or the Church, but the covenant with Noah and the whole living creation.

There is a danger that because we think we have seen it all before we will find ourselves getting right through the Christmas season without encountering or seriously sharing what Christmas is all about. Without recalling Jesus’ last Testament we might forget what Christmas can offer. Jesus message carries hope – but it is hope in a potentially grim setting… a real setting. If we are to glimpse the fragile light which dawns with Christ’s coming, we must sit awhile in the darkness. The songs of the angels will only be there for those who strain to listen. Which brings us to ask what we too might do? (Or, perhaps more to the point for us busy people, what might we find time to do?) The message in the gospel is very simple.

Use your eyes and ears. Stay awake. Since few appear to have responded to Christ at the first Christmas we can only presume that those portrayed as seeing the babe at Bethlehem saw only another poor baby. Think what they might have seen had they known what followed.

We are likely to be disappointed if we are holding out for a direct encounter with the infinite. More often the hint, the moving shadow, the glimpse is only perceived when we turn aside from the gloss and noise and shallow celebrations of our own making and are truly attentive to the music of the spheres.

 Some readers will find in the above, echoes of the writings of Bill Loader, William Willimon, Fred Craddock and Hans Reudi Weber
I would welcome readers’ comments, examples and alternative viewpoints in the comment box below.

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POTUS Calls the North Korean Kettle Black


I am puzzled why Mr Trump appears to think that the President of the US has the right to criticise North Korea as an instigator of state sponsored terror. Even if the POTUS virtually disregards international newspapers and seeks the bulk of his serious news from Fox and Twitter I would have hoped that he, like virtually all professionals involved in international affairs would at least suspect that the US has a much more impressive record than North Korea as a supporter of state sponsored terror.

Just to take a simple example. It is relatively well known that torture is a standard technique employed by governments into terror and it is hardly a Wikipedia secret that 74% of countries involved in torture just happen to be US client states.

Now think back over the last few years and remind yourself of the South American nations which were supported by the US in their appalling record of crimes against human rights. I was talking with a migrant from Chile this morning and she assured me that there are still many thousands of Chilean citizens still unaccounted for as “the disappeared”. Perhaps Mr Trump also needs to ask himself why the US is continuing to ensure the supply of weapons to nations with dubious political records yet all the while (perhaps even pretending?) failing to notice that these weapons are used to target civilians.

If you want a civilian population to suffer real terror, hit their towns with barrel bombs, fuel air explosives, or perhaps put depleted uranium in artillery shells. True it is good to identify the source of horror weapons like Sarin and white phosphorus but if it then transpires the chief instigator is somewhat closer to home than North Korea at least do the US and international public the courtesy of not treating them as easily duped morons.

You can even prolong the suffering of civilians by commissioning the bombing of their towns and cities then refuse to accept the poor and huddled masses of refugees fleeing the destruction. At least North Korea with its current poverty exacerbated by sanctions is not one of the nations turning away floods of refugees. Perhaps Trump’s under used CIA might be used to check to see whose policies are keeping the refugees at bay.

Certainly destabilizing democratically elected governments by backing coups to install dictators and/or puppet figureheads qualifies as setting up conditions of terror… but don’t forget that makes the US look bad from their record in places like Iraq, Syria and Iran. North Korea is just a beginner in the foreign state sponsored coup department.

Now a year into the job Mr Trump appears to have forgotten the US record in the Extraordinary Rendition programme. I did a double take a few months back when the US president just “discovered” and ranted that a prison in Syria had been use to torture and “disappear” prisoners, despite that same prison being one of those used by the US in the extraordinary rendition programme towards the end of the Bush era. Surely Mr Trump is not implying North Korea is so bad that they were a part of that programme?

If any of his advisers are still in favour perhaps they might remind the POTUS that before he looks at the North Korean record he might check on Saudi Arabia using the US military assistance to kill civilians in Yemen. Next he might usefully look at the UN figures of civilian victims of the US led coalition in Syria. Those numbers actually exceed those identified as killed by ISIS. From time to time we read of US “accidental raids” on hospitals in Afghanistan, Syria and some of the lesser known battlefields in Africa. It is hard to call these anything other than acts of terror. Oh and by the way, where were the equivalent acts of State sponsored terror carried out in the name of North Korea? Do the number of civilians killed by North Korean murder squads really exceed the number of civilians killed in the cross-fire by US forces and their allies in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and now Yemen.

By all means nuke the naughty agents of State sponsored terror who have done the most damage to innocent bystanders particularly if the President insists it is called for … but do understand that the evidence suggests the US would be a more deserving target.

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Lectionary Sermon (Homily) for Sunday 26 November 2017 (Matthew 25: 31- 46 )

The lectionary organizers designate today as Christ the King Sunday. It is intended to be the day when the teaching of Jesus is summarized in its true perspective.

Matthew has arranged his gospel in a typically traditional Jewish form and in such a way that the teaching section is completed with Matthew’s version of a Jesus summary of what Matthew selects as the key ideas in Jesus teaching. The emphasis given to judgment based on behaviour here appears to have special significance in the eyes of Matthew.

The message is a curious mixture of dire predictions about divine judgment – yet unlike the continued strange mysterious symbolism of the Book of Revelation, or the Book of Daniel, the message is grounded in simple ethics. By prefacing the section with the analogy of the separation of sheep and goats we can hardly fail to notice the use of metaphor. Yet we shouldn’t fail to notice that when Jesus outlines the basis for separation it is clear he is talking in terms of practicalities.

The message could not be plainer. Yes, there is judgment, but it is not on the basis of achieved status or even past reputation. It is much simpler. It is not salvation through joining the right group, nor is it passing the right initiation ceremonies and confessing the right formulae of faith, but rather the judgment seems simply whether or not we try to live the central teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.

We should not be too surprised that the message is often subverted. Religious status has always been attractive. Some branches of Christianity elevate their leaders to almost God like status. The status is stressed by title – some with a whole series of religious ranks –acolyte, deacon, priest, Dean, Bishop – Archbishop etc- sometimes too, status is stressed with fancy robes or impressive hats. And again all too often, for example, Bishops and Church presidents are feted at public gatherings – seated in the most prominent situations – honoured with special foods and offered special gifts.

Some versions of the faith also put a great deal of emphasis on confession of faith. No doubt we have all encountered claimed status for justification like “born again”, like being a Bible Christian, or perhaps alternately a true believer. In apparent contradiction to this section from the Gospel of Matthew such marks of authenticity are often pushed forward by implication as the mark of a real Christian.

Still others put the focus on the way we worship – implying it is important whether or not we say the right prayers, sit listening to the correct sermons – or are found to be singing the right hymns – surely they seem to reason, this is after all what is called worship, and that should count for something.

Well maybe it does… but the hard truth is that certainly isn’t apparently what Jesus is recorded as saying. Matthew, when selecting which of Jesus’ teachings to highlight as a summary statement, has none of this. Status and religious practice don’t even get a mention. Perhaps it was this that Dr Myles Munroe had in mind when he once put it “the value of life is not in its duration, but in its donation.”

Of course much philosophical reflection goes into the wording of our creeds but on reflection if we merely used the essentials of this reading our intentions would be rendered rather more comprehensible. Imagine instead of affirming the familiar creeds, standing to insist

“we believe that…. we should feed the hungry, we believe we should make sure we offer the thirsty a drink, we believe we should clothe the unclothed, welcome the stranger and visit the prisoners”…….

At least we would then be reminding ourselves of the essence of what Jesus expected of his followers.

No doubt intoning: We believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, …. or he died for our sins…. can be defended at one level by our learned theologians, but isn’t there also a verse in the New Testament that is paraphrased “Even the Devils believe… and tremble”

Over recent years I have come to be reminded that that Jesus the King Sunday is not part of some competition to get our description of the Christ into a philosophically acceptable form, but rather to ask what we are expected to do in order to be following a New Testament view of Jesus as king.

Part of our response is to ask ourselves the key question about how we individually should fit into the required responses. Allowing the wider Church to come up with all the action can only be part of the response. I think we make a mistake when we assume that the Church is the only means by which we might do the work of Jesus.

Reflect for a moment on those TV clips where the current President of the US was boasting of his wealth, which presumably impressed at least some of his supporters. We might do well to remember how the sheep and the goats story finishes.

In the year 1885, the London Times ran a series of editorials honouring the British Philanthropist Moses Montefiore who was knighted by Queen Victoria for his numerous charitable works. The Times related how Sir Moses had once been asked by a brash young man what he was worth. Instead of refusing to answer this personal question Sir Moses Montefiore barely paused before naming a sum – which was very much less than the young man was expecting. Surely the young man protested, you are worth more than that. Sir Moses merely smiled. “Young man” he replied, “you didn’t ask me how much I owned, you asked me what I was worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity this year, and that is the number I gave you. You see in life we are only worth what we are prepared to share with others”.

In those terms I wonder what we might calculate we are worth.

A great story and on reflection we might remember that what we share may possibly be our money and possessions but it might equally be our hospitality, our time, our genuine sympathy and in fact simply caring enough to notice and respond to the concerns of our neighbours.

If we turn to Jesus words there are a number of points that at a quick reading might otherwise go unnoticed.

The first is that Jesus seems to expect that the critical behaviour he valued can be easily overlooked. Finding and responding to the Christ we encounter in the faces of those in need does not come easily. How else would it be that serious problems in places on the main tourist and travel destinations might have gone so long unaddressed, despite the ready access to these places by tourists, which presumably included a good number of those thinking of themselves as Christians.

I wonder if such tourists noticed the Ahkra hill tribes in Thailand. These are the estimated two million stateless mountain and hill people who live at total subsistence level in the hills of South East Asia. They carry no passports in that they are recognised by no Government, their children are trafficked to the brothels and in terms of poverty with $1US per day considered the level below which genuine poverty occurs, the few workers trying to improve the tribes-people’s lot estimate that they fall well below that level with some families subsisting on 50 cents a week. They are driven off their lands by local and nationals and when the government confiscates their land many are forced into forest areas where they exist by foraging in the jungles.

When the tribes-people send their children to beg in the cities, I have been told by rescue workers, the children are picked up by the police, are often sexually molested by the police then sent to the local brothels as sex slaves. They are not entitled as non nationals to education or welfare, and without passports they cannot seek travel to more hospitable countries. Again rescue workers tell me the tribal adults are often captured by crime lords to be used as drug-couriers. When they cease to be of use they are executed.

The regular aid agencies often seem powerless to help them. I have been told of containers of relief materials sent to these people in Thailand by well-meaning donors merely to have the containers confiscated and effectively stolen by officials under the pretence that there is something wrong with the paperwork. A small number of volunteers who are indeed beginning to make a difference to these people are those who are prepared to live among them and work with them on a daily basis. The embarrassment and I would even say scandal in the West is despite years of tourism (including sex tourism) it has taken years for the problems to start to be recognised and addressed.

So must we help all? That is clearly impossible. The scale of the problems prevents us from dealing adequately with the needs of all. There are many lonely and needy in our Church and in our community. There are something like one billion without security of food supply – and as it says in another place the poor are always with us.

Jesus is more realistic. “As you did it to one of the least of these…..” I suspect he is saying we do what we can. It is only when we do not have the listening ear, the sympathetic eye – the will to care – that we deserve condemnation.

Given that we can at least bring ourselves to start to look about us with the attitude that Jesus most clearly explains, it will then be up to each of us individually to determine how to express what we know we should do.

(If you note errors or have an alternative angle on the reading – please share it in the comment box below. It would make these notes more helpful to others)

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Lectionary sermon (homily) for Sunday 19 November 2017 (Matthew 25: 14-30)


To hear some leaders of great nations or even large Churches explain it – success or failure depends on the wisdom and efforts of the boss. If we prosper it is because we have chosen the right leader… really? It is true that in the world of money Western nations place great store on the Captains of commerce and industry. We presume leaders who deliver on our trust must be rewarded – and those who fail to deliver should get their just desserts.

If only Jesus could have left his parable of the talents as being about how the leaders dealt with their challenges and their talents! Unfortunately he insists that each one in the household has their own set of challenges. Even the lowly servant with his single minimal talent will be held to account. Our moment of self realization is when we suddenly recognise that he was not just talking about them. He is also talking about us.

By a global reckoning, our current position suggests some aren’t delivering on their responsibilities – but I guess the real question is whether or not we too acknowledge we should be numbered among the poor performers.
The U N October 2017 figures say the world population has exceeded 7 billion, of which 1 billion of whom have no security of food supply.

There is evidence of pollution and climate problems, not to mention growing energy uncertainties and political and economic insecurity virtually everywhere we look. Locally for this city, and for many cities, the alarming growth in the gap between the rich and the poor is a moral issue just waiting for the appropriate faith led action. That insufficient has been done is self evident. Less obvious is whether we intend to do enough , or frankly even care about the current state of the nations.

The recent election may or may not have delivered the sort of political majority that is designed for our personal benefit, but there may be a deeper question. Of course we, the relative rich, continue to move further ahead, but the continuing grim circumstances developing for the underprivileged poses an uncomfortable question for current priorities. To the extent we claim to live in a democracy and take pride in our nation’s role in the international community, surely our nation’s stewardship is influenced by our stewardship.

Impending disaster is not new. This gives today’s reading about the talents particular interest because as for Western nations today, this parable speaks to our own apparent dilemmas. Think for a moment about the setting for the followers of Jesus.

At the time Matthew was setting down this particular parable Jesus who was no longer physically on the scene. He had been crucified because his message was seen too dangerous for his community of the day. Quite apart from his followers, his teaching had seemed unsettling for the occupying Roman conquerors of Israel.

Despite their stories of resurrection, any chance that the new Christian sect might have had of appealing to the mainline Jewish community had evaporated when a Jewish rebellion occurred in 66 AD. This uprising had been s put down savagely by the Romans who had responded to the outbreak of insurrection with acts of punishment including many crucifixions over the following four years. This culminated in the Romans sacking Jerusalem, setting in train the Diaspora which scattered the Jewish nation to the corners of the known earth.

The Roman historians record the Roman General Titus returning in triumph to Rome with the spoils of Jerusalem (including the Menorah ie the great candlestick stand from the temple) and setting up tableaux to show how he had crushed those who had risen up against the might of Rome.

The leadership of the early Christian Church was very uneven, and without a settled body of teaching that was still to emerge as what we now know better as the New Testament – numerous and somewhat secretive sub sects like the Essenes, and the various satellite Churches in separate cities and regions with poor communications between them, had their leaders vying for control, offering a range of sometimes contradictory beliefs. Does that sound familiar?

Don’t think for one moment that the early Church was somehow more certain than the modern Church. Even their teachings were open to interpretation. There were arguments about which of the many available gospels to accept as authoritative. The early followers had to distinguish between levels of teachings with some writings being designed for the inner circle of believers. Matthew (like the other gospels) was being edited and re-edited by successive teachers.

Today’s particular story was a case in point because the equivalent story in Luke had those entrusted with the money being given much less that in the Matthew version. The word talenta used in Matthew was technically a weight rather than a denomination and was a substantial amount (vastly more than a week’s wages). This would in effect be the equivalent of a substantial lottery prize today.

The story would have had particular impact for that day particularly as each church community was virtually on its own and most would have been struggling for survival. With few certain resources the temptation was to hold to what they had and since the technical laws of the day condemned dangerous high interest money dealing there would have been an excuse not to risk investment. The preference for the option of in effect burying the money, and simply trusting to God to make things better would have been very strong.

When I encounter the story of the talents my first impression was that it struck me that Jesus was being very irreligious. Religious custom was then (and probably still is today) to expect the leadership to petition God for guidance and assistance, and by custom in most Churches this seems to lead to most members staying in a passive spectator mode with few in each congregation being proactive in individual actions and choices. Further even today we structure our Churches for the most part in such a way, that where, if indeed actions are to take place, it seems as if we prefer that selected people will act on everyone’s behalf.

There is a model of Church that seems to lead to us talking glibly of Church as the people – yet in practice behaving as if Church is a set of buildings with a hierarchy of leadership acting as a brake on any suggested action in response to the most serious societal and international problems. A more direct link of the sort in the early stories of faith where for instance Jacob has a personal encounter with one in retrospect he thinks may have been God, and what is more an encounter in a nameless, natural setting, is not normally part of our thinking.

Into this, our normally passive and relatively undemanding situation, the parable of the talents presents us with an uncomfortable set of truths.

We might start by reminding ourselves that although the natural tendency is to act as if the Church is should be preserved in unchanged form regardless of what happens elsewhere. In point of fact sociological studies tell us that the setting and indeed the congregations of most churches are undergoing change. If indeed the Church is the people surely we must expect this change to bring about new needs, and new needs will call on new talents and different abilities to meet those needs. If there is no sign of change of actions, the change is not being addressed and the church becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Matthew in his particular way of ordering his stories has assembled three of Jesus’ parables in this section – each of which talks of the rich master going away for many days leaving his servants to make their own choices. In each, Jesus seems to be stressing that even if the master is to return, we can forget that for the here and now because, in the meantime, it is we (all of us) who are responsible for acting wisely. I can imagine Jesus in effect saying … no-one else is going to do it for you…you with your varying talents and abilities and different starting points must start acting now.

So the first truth is in fact that there is no escape clause. We may not have been given the largest share of the talents – but regardless of the starting package, we are called upon to do what we can with what we have been entrusted with. There is no-one else.

I once came across another way of stressing the same point in the form of a question.
“If”…. So the question went… “ If you individually and your very own actual personal actions were copied by everyone else in the Church, what would the Church be like? – and what would it then be able to accomplish?”

The second awkward reminder is that the reward for good work – is not resting on the oars to bask in the glow of work once done. Rather the reward is further challenge.

The other – and possibly most relevant in terms of current models of actual Church – is that the only ones deserving of punishment are those who use the excuse of possible difficulties for doing nothing.

I know a standard application for this particular parable is to use it for sermons and programmes on stewardship. Yet I prefer to notice that the word talent is also to do with specific abilities which are not only different in value – but in nature. Again past custom causes us to stress abilities like abilities in worship which have been conventionally valued in the past.

In a Church setting perhaps in view of Jesus actual gospel message we have allowed the form of worship – the songs of praises, the public prayers and the act of reading and preaching to dominate almost to the point where other talents are devalued. Yet what else might “each member a minister” mean in practice. Not all can, or (let’s be frank), not all should preach.

Certainly not all can sing. (That is from personal experience!) But Jesus rarely (if ever) is found talking of the need to sing or preach. He does however talk time after time of those other gifts. He seems to focus on such talents as the gift of forgiveness, the gift of servant-hood, the gift of being a good neighbour, the gift of touching the untouchable, and even the gift of seeing past the rules to notice and to care about individuals who need our help.

Perhaps there is a case to be made for looking past what normally passes for Church activity – particularly the activity arrived at by custom – and instead start with what Jesus says is important. Jesus’ parable of the talents appeared to be aimed at those who were reluctant to risk their talents in a time of change. There is little question that we are currently in a time of change ourselves. Under such circumstances is it fair to ask if perhaps the parable of the talents might once more be seen as a reality we need to consider. AMEN

(Note to the reader: I would greatly appreciate the reader using the comment facility for feedback including criticism, suggesting other viewpoints or examples and offering corrections which are likely to be helpful to the author and other readers)

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The Bi-Polar “ leader” of the “free world”

I get it that Donald Trump doesn’t want a repetition of a lone ISIS terrorist killing six civilians in New York and wants to pass new laws restricting people who are likely to be potential terrorists getting into the country.

I don’t get it that a self appointed guardian of the defenceless ie one Donald trump – is unmoved by thousands of unnecessary gun deaths each year in the US and doesn’t want any substantive law changes to reduce the access to guns.

I get it that Donald Trump can call a terrorist who kills a handful of defenceless civilians “sick”and “deranged”.

I don’t get it that the hopefully non-sick and non deranged Donald Trump as the leader of a nation which has the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world can threaten to wipe a whole country (ie North Korea) including millions of defenceless civilians off the map for the crime of trying to build its own nuclear arsenal.

I get it that Donald trump is so concerned about the ISIS threat in places like Syria he wants his US led coalition to bomb any cities and towns where there is a ISIS presence even if this bombing kills more civilians than were killed by ISIS (according to the UN statistics)

I don’t get it that, having destroyed such towns and cities, Donald Trump wants to reduce the UN contribution to the welfare of those who are the victims i.e. feels no need to care about the refugees, the wounded, the destroyed hospitals and schools, and the wrecked infra structure.

I get it that since the evangelicals comprise a good part of his key support base, Donald Trump likes the tag of “born again Christian”.

I don’t get how the Mr Trump’s self perception of his own Christian behaviour fits with “keeps no score of wrongs”, “slow to anger”, “forgives seventy time seven”, “turns the other cheek”, “is not puffed-up”, “welcomes the stranger in his midst”, “does not store up treasures on earth”

Geddit?….. please add your own suggested gets and don’t gets in the comment box below!

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Lectionary sermon for 12 November 2017 on Matthew 25: 1-13

I guess from time to time a large number of Christians have considered themselves inspired by some of Jesus’ wisdom as recounted by the Gospel writers. Yet given some of the realities of the day to day problems encountered by most modern societies it is also fair to ask if the inspiration has always moved our communities forward for the better. Inspired…. that’s all well and good – but inspired to change which attitudes? – and inspired to do what?

Today’s story certainly seems far removed from a modern Western setting. Join me in reflecting on Jesus original story.

For those of us more familiar of how modern weddings occur, the story of the bridesmaids may well seem virtually incomprehensible. A wedding party when the bride is not even apparently present, when the bridesmaids have no idea when the bridegroom is to arrive …these are hardly part of our experience. Yet in Palestine in the first century AD, the scholars tell us of wedding customs that were in line with Jesus’ story.

Wedding feasts were in fact the main social highlight and were so important that there was even an allowance that those studying the law could be released from their duties to attend. Out in the countryside a great deal was made of the wedding procession which often went between villages and the whole village would turn out to accompany the bridal couple to their home – in the course of which the bride would often finish up in a new village.

One of the customs was evidently to see if you could catch the bridal party unawares. The bridegroom might come in the middle of the night and since no-one was supposed to know for certain when that was going to be – or even the exact date of the wedding, the custom was to post a lookout who was supposed to call out – “behold the bridegroom is coming”. At this point those who were prepared were supposed to rush out to greet him. And the unprepared bridesmaids missed out altogether.

At one level, as Jesus is recorded as telling the story, the parable appears to have been directed to portraying the Jewish nation as a whole. The story of the Messiah was deeply ingrained into national expectation of Israel and the Jews as God’s chosen people were the ones expected to be ready for his appearance. In his story Jesus was in effect saying that many were unprepared for the Messiah’s coming.

Now almost two thousand years after the telling of the story, for a good part of the myriad of Church congregations, this parable has come to signify the second coming – with the message of be prepared. Yet prepared for what – Armageddon perhaps and Jesus returning…perhaps in something symbolized in Revelation?

If we are objective with Christianity’s record of numerous attempts to find the signs of this coming we should be honest enough to admit that over the last 2000 years there have been numerous failed attempts to prepare one another for a coming that failed to materialize….again and again and again.

Last month it was supposed to be the mysterious planet which was supposed to strike the Earth just like it was supposed to do by the failed doomsayers several years ago.

We might cast ours mind back to 2011 the old Pastor, Harold Camping, who for the third time missed what he believed to be his certain date for the end of the world. When it failed to happen on his earlier predicted date in 1994, he read some more of the Bible, did some more calculation and announced was going to be 21 May 2011. For certain, he said, that’s when the faithful were to be raptured up to heaven. When despite the numerous texts he had used, that date too failed, a bewildered Harold Camping recomputed and clarified his broadcasts to explain that the 21 May was a beginning of Gods judgment and it was actually going to happen in its pyrotechnic and spectacular finality the same year 21 October. The only problem was that it didn’t.

Harold Camping’s failures consign him to that steadily growing line of failed prophets. We might do well to remember he was not alone. Time after time (and sometimes among some fairly mainstream denominations) self-appointed prophets have convinced their faithful followers that the signs are now right for the imminent coming of the bridegroom to claim his own. Sometimes waiting in joyful and humble expectation, sometimes waiting with vast outpouring of emotion and even fear … and yet always the result appears the same. The fireworks fail to start, the riders are missing in the sky, the stars refuse to fall and the Lord fails to show. And, thus far at least, the world stubbornly refuses to end.

Yet the parable in Matthew is still there with its troubling message. When least expected the bridegroom will show …and hard luck for those who are not ready. Perhaps it is the wrong sort of coming and the wrong sort of getting ready which dominates our thinking.

When John F. Kennedy was campaigning for his 1960 Presidential bid he often used to close his speeches with the following story of Colonel Davenport, then Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives way back in 1789. It seems that one day, while the House was still in session in broad daylight, the sky above Hartford suddenly grew dark and gloomy. The alarmed representatives looked out the windows and the consensus view was it was a sign that the end of the world had come. In those days science education was virtually unknown and few would have even heard of eclipses – let alone be able to recognise the event for what it was. In the midst of the ensuing hubbub with many representatives calling for immediate adjournment so that they might rush home and see to their families Davenport rose to his feet and said, “Gentlemen, the Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.” Candles were brought and the session continued.

Perhaps Colonel Davenport gave advice for our time as well.

Looking at Christ’s original message and seeing what has happened to it through the best efforts of the modern doomsday prophets it is probably fair to suggest that there has been a human tendency to surround the message with unnecessary religious gloss and fantasy. Although Jesus had a natural storyteller’s feel for a great illustration – time after time he reminded us that what he really required of his followers was that they should drop religious pretence and start caring about the God of Love they claimed to follow, and, what is more, expressing this love in the form of concern and compassion for all who are encountered as neighbours.

Preparation in this sense is more than getting “on message” and is not then particularly compatible with stepping up the religious emphasis. Dom Crossan, impatient with the strange prognostications of those claiming an individual enlightenment free from any bothersome need for scholarship or compassionate action put it as follows: “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)
(Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, then and now. NY: New York. Harper, SanFrancisco).

And for that matter there is no need to look for total mystery in Jesus’ coming when Jesus himself in several places suggests we will find him in the commonplace. Jesus says we will in effect be meeting him in the faces of those in need. If it was necessary for Jesus himself to reach out, meet and on occasion even touch those in need, whether they be lepers, those requiring physical healing, or those rejected by society, perhaps we too need to review who we meet, who we help, and how we are expressing the love we claim to have in our hearts.

The religious setting of a Church has one potential downside in that it is very easy to convey a false sense of religious concern when we are so to speak “on show.”

Years ago, when 20th Century Fox advertised in the New York papers to fill a vacancy in its sales force, one applicant offered a novel alternative to the usual CV: “I am at present selling furniture at the address below. You may judge my ability as a salesman if you will stop in to see me at anytime, pretending that you are interested in buying furniture. When you come in, you can identify me by my red hair. And I will have no way of identifying you. Such salesmanship as I exhibit during your visit, therefore, will be no more than my usual workday approach and not a special effort to impress a prospective employer.” From among more than 1500 applicants, who do you think got the job?

Looking around at the various approaches we might note that in our world today, there are two big mistakes people often seem to make with regard to the coming of the Lord. One mistake is to assume that the preparation is for some Hollywood blockbuster type event perhaps in line with the Lord of the Rings and that the preparation is therefore best left to looking around for some self-assured authority who might explain for us the meaning of obscure texts and leave us with nothing to do other than to anxiously wait with a mounting sense of paranoid anxiety. The other mistaken notion is to join with others who are more in tune with religion than ourselves, watch from the side-lines and save our involvement for the odd foray into Church worship.

Finding someone to do the interpretation of this particular parable, and to organise our preparation for us, seems to me almost the opposite of what Jesus was suggesting. Leaving the preparation for our response until it is too late is silly at every level.

In the same way that any impending event depending on us needs our attention, there are clear examples of mounting needs of neighbours that require our thoughtful and often costly response. Imagine doing nothing about a mounting debt, nothing about a known and worsening structural fault, and nothing about near neighbours facing crisis. If caring about neighbours is the Jesus thing to do, putting off showing concern is to be unprepared. Nor can we simply leave it to others and hope for the best.

Surely the point about the foolish bridesmaids was that they had not even done the preparation for themselves and wanted the bridesmaids who had actually organised their own oil, to share. Christianity by proxy – attending the same Church as the committed believers, and thinking that associating ourselves with others’ efforts to love their God and their neighbours as themselves is hardly likely to substitute for our own efforts in preparation. Jesus was in effect saying you cannot borrow someone else’s oil.

The foolish bridesmaids were only guilty of one thing – they slept when they should have been awake.

It is we who are after all are the Church – and if we are letting the chance to take action go by, whether or not we can be stirred to wakefulness will in the last analysis depend on no-one but ourselves.

(   A Note to the reader:  Share with a wider audience by adding your own reactions or examples in the comment box below.    Apology this week.  Initially I accidently posted this sermon for last week’s date!)

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