Lectionary Sermon for April 2 2017 (Lent 5 A) on John 11:1-45

If I had my time again as a teacher I like to think I would encourage all serious science and history students to read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road not taken” That poem concerns a traveller walking through the wood, encountering a point at which the paths diverged. One path was well worn and the other scarcely trodden. Our traveller decides to take the less worn path. The poem finishes:

…..Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

The assumption that heading in the direction everyone else is going is the safest may well be partly true, if only in terms of public approval, but in terms of breaking new ground to see things in new ways, whether it be in science, religion – or even sorting out whatever really matters in our personal lives, sometimes we may have to risk making our journey along paths that others would spurn.

Certainly echoing what everyone else says is unlikely to bring about enlightenment. In fact I would go further and suggest a casual affirmation of whatever a large group of people are saying or doing can draw us into patterns of behaviour and belief that sometimes work against the very principles we say are important.

It is true that many followers of Christ have done much to help their communities. Unfortunately it is also true that history is full of examples of bad behaviour excused by public acceptance in the name of religion.

Just to take one brief instance. When King Richard the first was about to set out on the crusades in 1190 a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment swept through a number of cities in the North of England. In one case, the Jewish population of York, estimated at the time to be of the order of 150 men, women, and children, took refuge in the Keep at the royal castle. Terrified by sounds of the mob outside, baying for blood, a good number of the Jews committed suicide. Those who didn’t were burnt to death.

With countless examples: of centuries of religious persecution, of slavery justified by Church leaders, of the selling of indulgences to frightened and illiterate peasants, of the storing of treasures on earth by a powerful Church, and the turning of a blind eye to serious injustices, sometimes even on a global scale, we might well wonder why more of those familiar with the obvious themes of the gospels were not brave enough to step back to cry “enough!” in the face of what the majority condoned.

We might pretend that such callous disregard for inhuman behaviour would not happen today. During the Second World War, the Jews, whose people suffered persecution while ordinary citizens in occupied countries looked the other way, might suggest otherwise. So too might those who continue to suffer because there are those who currently prefer turn a blind eye to today’s child poverty and for that matter, the present grossly unequal distribution of the world’s resources.

A superficial reading of today’s gospel story may let you conclude the raising of Lazarus offers nothing to such themes, or if it comes to that, seems almost irrelevant to any practical situation we are likely to encounter in the modern world. At the very least it would be unexpected in the extreme to encounter contemporary examples of people encouraged to rise from the dead and actually doing so.

Before considering the Lazarus story, pause for a moment on the following item that apparently made the US National News back in 1992.

A letter was quoted as reportedly sent to a deceased person by The Department of Social Services in Indiana. It read as follows:
“Your food stamps will be stopped, effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away.
May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a
change in your circumstances”.

But at least be honest. If you think that letter was silly, then perhaps you too think the bringing back to life of a person who has been dead for some time is very unlikely as an outcome.

Some less conservative Christians would argue that if the events surrounding the raising up of Lazarus are intended to be taken literally, if there was any truth in the account, perhaps he was not truly dead in the first place.

There’s an old tale that Pat fell from the scaffolding on a construction job and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came. He took one look at Pat and said, “He’s dead.” Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed and still groggy he said, “I ain’t dead.” “Lay down, Pat,” said Mike. “Lay down. The doctor knows best.”

In the case of Lazarus, since resuscitation of the dead is rare enough, especially for one apparently dead for four days, sceptics might even be inclined to the naturalistic explanation and say: in those days lots of mistakes would have been made. It is hard enough today without the best of medical equipment to be certain someone is dead – so presumably it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to have someone apparently resuscitated by calling their name.

Alternately those insisting on a literalistic faith might simply say: well in the case of Lazarus, Jesus was the Son of God and could therefore do such wonders anyway.

I have certainly heard both well travelled possibilities suggested. Well I don’t know about you, but there is a much less well travelled path that is there for those who choose to look.

Let’s look at some of the features of the story. Jesus called the man by name. The name happened to be Lazarus …and just from that particular name we might begin to guess the story is intended to teach at another level. Lazarus was a name used in other scriptures, but almost always the meaning of the name reminds us that there is a parable dimension intended.

We might for example remember that there was a parable about another Lazarus who dies and is saved by God…..(the poor man at the rich man’s gate). Lazarus is more or less the Greek form of the Hebrew word which is derived from the Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār (Eleazar) meaning “God has helped“.[ I don’t know if the name was intended to be significant yet Matthew’s first hearers of his Gospel may well have thought so.

You see it was not just in the gospels. Some rabbinic tales feature El’ leazar (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s proscriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. A friend of mine calls this, “being the mystery shopper”!

I wonder what the mystery shopper would report about our society.

The next point we may have noted is that although John claims Jesus raised Lazarus, it most certainly was not in the sense of a resurrection to eternal life. True, John records Jesus as saying Jesus to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone believing in me, even if they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (11:25-26).

However a closer reading of this miracle (or perhaps parable?) shows the eternal bit was not intended to apply to the revival of Lazarus in a literal sense. Lazarus may have come walking from the tomb, yet there is no suggestion that he was now eternal in that he was now going to live forever. As far as we know, even if apparently brought back to life, in due course he would once more be dead.

The alternative is that Jesus was referring to some lasting quality rather than quantity of life, a quality so important that it could be attributed the term eternal. If this were intended, we might guess Jesus was using “life” in a metaphorical sense to imply that those who adopted the way of life he was advocating would thereby open themselves to living in a totally new way…perhaps even one in which death was irrelevant.

To see the story as a case of a dead man literally brought back to life is to stay with the limited understanding of Mary and Martha. We ought to be able to do better than that, because with the extra detail supplied by John there is good reason to think Jesus was talking about life at a deeper level.
I implied earlier that there were aspects of the less travelled path that might make it less likely to be popular. In this case, the popular view seems to be that Jesus performed the miraculous result by himself. This is comforting because it then makes minimal demands on us.

Most sermons and commentaries I have encountered relating to this story focus on Jesus’ actions, so it is easy to overlook a tiny, yet I would suggest an important detail intended for John’s readers.

Remember when Lazarus emerges, festooned with the wrapping bandages and cloths intended for the wrapping of the dead body, Jesus asks those present to remove the bandages that Lazarus can be freed to move. If this too is part parable, perhaps he is saying that we shouldn’t look to Jesus to do it all for us. Just as Lazarus needed others help before he was free to display signs of life, the suggestion is that before what Jesus referred to can take effect others too have a part to play.

We are not all called to moments of high drama, but the notion of helping free those we encounter from the difficulties that stop them living life to the full is at the heart of practical Christianity.

Just as Christ met people as they were, blind, leprous, rejected or as in Lazarus’ case, dead to the possibilities of life, the call into fullness of life is also a call to interaction with those whose claim to full life is tested by encounter.

When that thoughtful and embarrassingly honest Anglican priest, Richard MacKenna, was trying to put his faith into words in his book God for Nothing, he wrote (P183)

Ask me why I am a Christian and I say, “I don’t know” What called me into the cloud of unknowing, the dark wood? Because I want to find out who I am? Because I want to know how to love? All I know is that the quest is risky and painful…and yet there is something there…light at the end of the wood.”

In his book questioning standard Church thinking, I believe Richard MacKenna was walking the equivalent of Robert Frost’s road less travelled. I suspect at the end, he too would be able to say “…that has made all the difference”.

As for me, my autobiography is yet to be written. And what will yours conclude?

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 4, Year A, 26 March 2017 on John 9:1-41

Here we have a miracle story which worries many educated Church goers with good reason in that, at least as far as the modern mind is concerned, in the real world, nature is just not like that. Blind people may be helped by corneal transplants, or replacing cataract damaged lenses with plastic, or using lasers to fuse detached retinas – but curing blind people with a word, or by what must seem to non Christians to be mumbo jumbo actions, is outside our normal experience. No doubt some will respond with “Of course it happened. It is in the Bible. The Bible is inspired. Therefore it must have happened as written”. If you were put on the spot what would be your view? What do you believe happened?

I guess if we are just seeing it as a familiar Bible story it may not even matter to us whether this should be questioned as literal miracle, or alternately for that matter, whether any of the recorded Bible miracles needed to have happened in the physical sense.

But at least it reminds us that there is a question which may need sorting about our beliefs – and then of course, the consequent implied question. Once sorted, how should such beliefs affect how we live?

I remember attending a lecture on teacher behaviour. It seemed to me that the lecturer’s message applies to more than just teaching. At the initial level, he said, we all have a series of beliefs that we claim to support or reject. For example here are some typical beliefs a teacher might claim to subscribe to. For most teachers, they would probably agree it is important for a teacher that they be a good communicator. The teacher should be fair, and not prejudiced. And of course there was more of the same too. The teacher is professional – check. The teacher is a master of their subject, surely that should go without saying. The teacher is a team player…..I can’t think of a teacher who wouldn’t accept that as an ideal. These are all teacher appropriate beliefs. The only catch is that listing beliefs in this way is not particularly meaningful and reminds me a little of a congregation member rattling off the words of a written creed while actually thinking about Sunday dinner.

At the next level we have the beliefs which are so important that we try to make them affect our choices and what we do. Staying with the education scenario, a teacher, for example might say to himself, or herself, something like: in order to be fair I will only try to put test questions in the exam if I know the pupils have encountered the topics in class. Beliefs we are trying to follow are obviously going to have much more than a generalized list has to do with shaping our self image. But there is a catch. As with our faith, it is always possible there is a mismatch between what we imagine ourselves to be doing, and what we are doing in practice.

So then, as the lecturer said, there is a more important set of beliefs. For the teacher, these are the beliefs other people see the teacher as living by. To return to the previous example, the teacher may well see themselves as being fair in their testing. The pupils may be saying something like: Mr Brown or Miss White is not fair (whoops – unintended pun!) because they deliberately choose questions their favourite pupils have done projects on.

I can hear the echo of an example in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees got cross at Jesus for healing the blind man in a way that they did not understand. When he dismisses their assumptions, saying that those who now see will turn out to be blind, they finally lose patience with him. “Do you think we are blind?” they ask, no doubt expecting him to treat this as a rhetorical question. His reply paraphrased. “Your sin is there because you claim to see”. In other words they are in darkness because they think they are in light without having understood the Spirit of the law.

Can I suggest we have to be rather careful with today’s Gospel reading. History tells us that on hearing that Jesus called the Pharisees blind, many self claimed Christians in the next few hundred years used this as one of the scriptures that might be used to support persecution of the Jews. A more thoughtful reading suggests that there is a way that anyone (including us) can be blind not so much in a physical sense, but in the sense that they miss what John would have us know as the light of the world.

This should remind us that John’s focus in telling the story is not on Jesus as healer – but rather on Jesus as the dispeller of darkness in the wider sense – or – using the term that John repeats in a number of places – the light of the World.

As to our own ability to see, it then follows that what becomes most important to us in practice will reveal if we are in the metaphorical light or if we are in the dark.

If we look beyond today’s gospel to other places where Jesus finds emphasis in his teaching, we may have noticed that the “Pharisees” Jesus takes issue with are really stereotypes which move far beyond the confines of the Jewish faith. The stereotypes work just as well for us today. Jesus’ teaching may have emerged from the law, yet his real focus was always on taking his listeners away from a focus on the rules and turning instead to a care for their fellow beings.

Time after time through history we see that wherever the insistence is on following rules blindly instead of responding to the people in their need, it is then we lose sight of what our faith is supposed to be. Belief without charity is a parody of faith.

Early Church history may seem a strange topic to read, but it just happens that recently I have been checking up on some of the key early Church leaders who shaped the Church beliefs.

Let me tell you about St Cyril. St Cyril was bright, he could sway a group of bishops to come to his way of thinking – and he just happened to be very nasty with it. He was very good at sorting out creeds, what people should say for example about the Virgin Mary, about how Jesus was the God bearer – in fact according to St Cyril, Jesus was God in human form – and so on and so forth. Some of his statements still influence the belief sets of some Christians today. The only trouble was anyone who disagreed was fired or worse. After seeing how many people were fingered as heretics by St Cyril of Alexandria, when St Cyril finally died in the year 444 AD, one of his fellow Bishops wrote feelingly: “At last the villain has gone. I hope his gravestone is very heavy, for I fear that Cyril will vex the dead so much that they will try to send him back to us.”

And so we return to the miracle in today’s gospel, the healing of the blind man. Well as it happens that was only part of the story. In fact if you read the passage carefully you may have noticed that not only was the passage not simply about healing the blind man, the blind man was not entirely healed in that he could not see where Jesus was. In history we discover it is not only nasty people like St Cyril who were judgemental. In his day Jesus suggested that the “rules first” Pharisees who were being judgemental, were actually being blind.

Way back in Jesus day they were also saying the sorts of things that we still occasionally hear today. When a friend’s daughter fell sick with the debilitating disease I was concerned to hear a conservative Christian acquaintance explaining this was no doubt a consequence of sin somewhere in the family.

Over recent times I have heard instances of Church folk claiming that children born with disability are only born that way because the parents or their wider family have displeased God. Similarly the Japan Earthquake was explained by saying that most Japanese were not Christian, and the Christchurch Earthquake was because of the immorality of the people of Christchurch. In that context it is helpful to hear Jesus insisting there is no causal link between disability and sin.

I have also encountered the obverse where people will tell you that those faithful to God will prosper in terms of health and good fortune, and just as the blessed are good, those who are visited by disease and misfortune are bad. What is more, believers in the prosperity Gospel can find Bible verses to back up what seems outrageous when case studies are investigated. If the truth be known, I need to confess a weakness. I take secret pleasure in hearing when someone who spreads such a claim, later encounters a reversal in fortune.

The other thing about Jesus’ act of bringing light to the blind man is that in the last analysis the basics are quite simply. For all their wisdom and complex questioning the Pharisees didn’t get it. The Pharisees today might represent unfeeling Church leaders who try to bully and manipulate themselves through to a position of control. On the other hand, for the once blind man, the bullying and complexity of questions didn’t count. “I was blind and now I see”.

Someone had cared and helped. That was all that counted.

We too have to decide what sense we might make of this strange Jesus figure, the one who does strange acts and asks disturbing questions. Yet John also reminds us that the way those Pharisees responded to Jesus carried with it its own judgment. Rules first, or people first? This is a dilemma which can’t be answered with reciting a creed, even one partly shaped by clever St Cyril. Neither is our choice about how to accept or explain away a miracle. Our choice is one of darkness or light. Which will it be?

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 3 A : 19 March 2017 on John 4:5-42

At a recent meeting of the South Auckland Writers’ Group a pleasant young Indian woman recounted how the day after the Twin Towers event she had encountered an abrupt and unpleasant change towards her from now suspicious classmates and teachers. Even in our normally peaceful and relatively accepting New Zealand society overt prejudice is always close to the surface. I suspect most communities are reluctant to totally accept those from different cultures or different religions. If for no other reason, this is a reminder that there is still reason to revisit the Gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well at Sychar.

We may not have Samaritans in our immediate community but we certainly have the equivalent. Even if we can avoid feeling little uneasy at those who appear to our untutored eyes to be wild-eyed ISIS suicide bombers joining our flight at the airport, this is not to say we would be comfortable welcoming religious visitors from an unfamiliar religion.

Avoiding eye contact, hurrying past or simply seeming otherwise occupied are all familiar enough civilized ways of coping with difference. But to do as Jesus did and engage in serious conversation with such a person as the woman of Samaria is to take the meeting with those we find inconvenient to a new and unexpected level.

Such teaching represents an important part of Jesus’ message which is hard to escape. He has other such recorded interactions with Samaritans, and even on occasion uses them for his parables, to remind us they too warrant respect.

To the Jews, the Samaritans represented everything to suspect. They claimed different lines of descent. The Samaritans didn’t accept the Temple as being located at the correct place. They lived in different territory and self-respecting Jews would walk around this territory rather than to be among those they despised. There was also a convention, not unlike customs in places like Saudi Arabia today, where men simply avoided being seen in the company of women to whom they were not already related, let alone to be seen in the company of those considered heretics.

There was also at that time, a custom (which I understand still exists today for some of the more orthodox Jews) that if a son or daughter marries a Gentile –if for example if they married a Samaritan, the son or daughter has their funeral service carried out to convey they are now dead to their family.

Given that background, we can start to realize just how subversive Jesus’ actions and words might have seemed to some in his audience.

He was in the heart of Samaritan territory near a town recognized as a Samaritan town. As a Jew he had not done as custom expected by taking the long way round rather than mixing with those separated by the Jewish version of Apartheid. He broke custom by speaking in public to a woman of the despised group and invited her to draw water.

Later in the conversation it is revealed that he is aware that she herself would have been ostracized by her own community for living with a man who was not her husband. Some commentators suggest that the reason why she was at the well in the heat of the day, rather than being present at early morning, or in the evening, may have been because she felt she could not mix with the other women of the town. It was there beside the well Jesus engaged her in a conversation which went to the heart of belief, making the standard questions of the day, like which temple should be recognized, as seeming trivial in the extreme.

Perhaps we should pause on Jesus’ words about living water. He said, in effect, “if you had known who I was you would have asked for living water” – in other words, he is inviting her to realize that Jesus could offer far more than the essential of water. The term used in the Hebrew expression is mayim chayim, meaning fresh running water, water not left stale and brackish in grimy jars. Later in Chapter 7 (7:37) John will remind us that when Jesus is talking of living water he is really referring to the Spirit.

Of course there are levels of understanding. Even if we take his initial words at face value, the fresh running water is infinitely preferable to the standing, polluted water facing so many in the developing world. Perhaps we who have the luxury of clean water on tap might remember the huge number of young children sick or dying because they lack even this level of public health. Jesus clearly meant more than this, but even at face value there is an implied reminder of our minimal responsibility to those whose very life depends on living water.

Remember too, that if we simply admire Jesus’ clever use of words in this reported dialogue, if that is all we do, we have not recognized what he has on offer. It is not a formula belief that Jesus presents. Part of what he taught was a radically different way of approaching others. It only becomes our life-giving living water if we incorporate this approach in our own dealings. When Jesus’ approach to the marginalized becomes our approach to the marginalized, we are living his message.

We should also take heart in the way Jesus spoke and acted. It is almost a characteristic of every age that there is double thinking about perfectionism. Common wisdom says a public figure who engages in “hanky panky” is to be shunned and vilified. The fact that hanky panky is probably present in some form in virtually every family does not stop us talking as if we are all angels demanding perfection in others.

Similarly when it comes to faith, we notice the few hundred radical Muslims who are suicide bombers and forget the almost one billion who are not. Conversely we expect Muslims to notice Christians as like the respectable charitable Sunday attendees at our Church on a Sunday morning and not remember the nominal Christians who dropped white phosphorus on civilians in Iran or who water-boarded and sleep deprived their prisoners. We notice the Russians taking strong action on their borders and forget our own recent history of interference with other nations. We laugh at the Mormons with their strange early history and conveniently forget the excesses of our own history.

Perhaps you have come across the T shirt with the ultimate slogan for one-eyed self-focus. “Jesus loves you – but I’m his favourite”.

In our more reflective moments we may go the other way and remember with deep shame, unworthy thoughts and dubious behaviour, even thinking that we are simply not worthy to be thought of as Christian. If so we might remember Jesus had time for one who in his time was to be kept in her place because she was a Samaritan heretic, a woman from Sychar and a sinner, perhaps we can see that we too are worthy of consideration.
But there is that one extra caution. If we can take that one further step and see that if we have a place in the kingdom despite our own weaknesses then we have no right to claim that others are shut out from the kingdom.

For some reason although we read and re-read this well known story, yet often its conclusion passes us by. What happened next? At one level, the woman at the well, like Nicodemus appears to leave the encounter with Jesus, still partly uncomprehending….almost unable to see what Jesus is getting at. Yet as with other teaching we ourselves receive, even if we don’t quite understand what the teacher is getting at, at the time, it can continue to shape our thinking.

In this instance, the woman at the well is so impressed by Jesus’ approach to her – and so impressed by his wisdom, she shares the experience with the town folk. They too are staggered by what has happened and invite Jesus to stay on with them for a few days. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he accepts their offer.

It is always easy – in fact almost standard expected behavior – to allow convention to separate ourselves from those who don’t share our background and beliefs. For some of us the taboos may include things like sexuality and while homosexuality may not marginalize to the extent it once did, with so many debating gay marriage, we can hardly pretend there is no prejudice today.

Similarly the degree to which many these days make sweeping condemnation of Muslims and Hindus, speaking from my own experience, I would have to say that even for Church people, it is relatively rare to find much mixing between those with markedly different faiths or those who have very different customs and social standing. Even at multicultural festivals, those of particular cultures and beliefs tend to congregate together.

Yet if Jesus’ teaching is supposed to make a difference to our interacting it is fair to ask if we can relate to, or even better adopt, his attitudes. Do the equivalents of the Samaritans in our lives respond to such warm acceptance offered on our part, that they in turn invite us into their homes?

The competing Temples of Israel and Samaria are now part of the dust of history. I have heard that the Well of Jacob is still there at the fork of the road just outside where Sychar stood. Jesus may have asked for water, but the true living water that he offers in return reminds us that baptism is not the only sacrament that should take our attention.

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Lectionary Sermon for 12 March 2017, Lent 2, Year A on John 3:1-17

There is much about following Jesus which is counter intuitive. There seems to be a universal urge for people to give priority to look after their own interests and their own people first. Yet following Jesus way requires “forgive your enemies”, love the other with your actions even if they are foreign heretics like Samaritans or perhaps modern day Muslim refugees. It is intuitive to set trade so that each nation and their own get the best deals –I guess there is good evidence that many nations act as if their major principle could be summarized as “beggar your neighbour”.

But don’t forget this Jesus was teaching “love your neighbour”.

If our religion is as important as it is often claimed, it will shape the actions and even the lives of the followers of that faith. The nation that votes for walls to keep those undesirables out – or seeks a leader who will support the practice extreme vetting on immigrants can’t seriously expect outsiders to believe they care about foreign neighbours. If the policy we applaud results in overseas aid being reduced and we in the Church do not protest then presumably aid is not very important in our religion no matter what we state in our prayers.

Which brings us to Nicodemus…. If we had a suspicion that our religion which we had followed for years was drifting from its claimed truth, and further that we were to suspect someone else outside the mainstream might have the answer, I wonder what we would actually do…truthfully? Nicodemus was facing that problem. Given what he had at stake, do you think Nicodemus has really deserved quite so much criticism directed his way by countless preachers down through the centuries.

Certainly John implies a furtive visit which is presumably why Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, so it is reasonable to assume Nicodemus did not want anyone seeing his visit. Furthermore, despite Jesus telling Nicodemus the essential nature of a complete required change of direction, there is no immediate evidence of him accepting this as a personal challenge and joining his band of disciples.

Nevertheless I think it would be a mistake to write Nicodemus off as a timid coward.

We should remember he was a Pharisee and according to John, recognized as a leader of the Jews. According to some commentators I have read, this probably indicated he was a member of the Sanhedrin. This was a seventy-one member supreme council that met in Jerusalem throughout the post-exile period. The Sanhedrin had legislative power over the Jewish community, as well as some judicial authority at a time when Jews living in Judea were dominated by various foreign powers. In Jesus’ time, this Sanhedrin would have had some authority over the community, remembering ultimately Rome held all the power. If Nicodemus was in fact a member of the Sanhedrin, he was about as powerful and influential as a Jew could be under the Romans. John did not explicitly identify Nicodemus as a member of the Sanhedrin, but by calling him “a leader of the Jews” this is likely what he meant.

As far as Nicodemus was concerned, coming to Jesus who was a known critic of conventional practice, would have been dangerous because (at least according to John’s version of events), Jesus had already confronted the Temple authorities when he cleared the Temple. This visit was tantamount to showing he was moving outside the community whose religious hierarchy would normally have offered Nicodemus support. Visiting Jesus would, at the very least, risk losing for Nicodemus his status as a leader and endangering the current level of goodwill and respect for him within his home community.

To think ourselves into his position, perhaps we should imagine a modern day equivalent whereby one of our senior Church leaders went to a rival denomination – or worse a rival religion – to investigate the possibility of joining up. We should admire the courage of anyone prepared to entertain such a change in direction and perhaps even wonder if we ourselves would be prepared to take such a step.

I guess anyone looking from outside at our church would conclude we are relatively comfortable with our current acceptance of beliefs and customs of the Church with which we associate ourselves. Dare I suggest that for some of us at least we may even say “Amen” to prayers or songs that privately we may doubt, simply as a way of relating to our fellow worshippers. On the other hand since our faith is expected to offer something to our current situation, and since that situation is very different to what our setting would have dictated a few years ago – let alone centuries ago, we shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to assume we have no need for a Nicodemus-type reassessment of where we are going in terms of our beliefs.

One set of changes which has affected many communities is the way in which the population mix has changed in radical ways. For my personal setting of being brought up with a majority mono-cultural nominally Protestant community in Post second World War in Christchurch to my present setting of a multicultural and multi-faith setting of South Auckland – there now is every reason to question whether my faith still gives the most appropriate set of beliefs and behaviours. When I add in the new understanding from science and the ready accessibility of new historical insights I should at least ask the question if some of the teachings I have accepted in the past and now pass on to others are still relevant.

To give one specific example: the scientists who study brain function as it relates to behaviour have discovered some biochemical relationships with some addictions and socially undesirable behaviour. This raises the question about whether all acts previous thought to be sin are really committed by free choice. If you are born with a messed up frontal lobe of the brain you may well be very anti-social.

We may accept as an article of faith that deciding to be called Christian and following the directives of accepted Christian leadership is sufficient, but history should cause us to question that assumption. When in November 1095 Pope Urban II directed the first Crusaders to take their swords, wear the white cross on their right shoulders and cry out altogether “God wills it!” they set out to the Holy land certain that by doing so they were guaranteed a place in heaven. When they unleashed slaughter on the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including the Christians who came out to welcome them) to the point where they were ankle deep in blood they may well have thought they were fulfilling Biblical prophecy from the book of Revelation – yet surely this is not what Jesus had in mind when he said be born again in the Spirit.

So Nicodemus came to Jesus, by night. There is the suspicion that John who so much liked to overlay his gospel with theology visualised the darkness as being the spiritual darkness faced by more than just Nicodemus.

Now Nicodemus tells Jesus why he has come. He acknowledges Jesus as a teacher and says he is impressed by the signs Jesus has been demonstrating as a part of his mission. “No man can do the signs you have done.” Clearly we cannot be certain which signs Nicodemus is referring to. We can only guess that he is talking of Jesus reputation as a miracle worker and a healer.

Perhaps Nicodemus even wants to discover Jesus’ secrets so that he too might be a miracle worker and demonstrator of great signs. If this is his focus, Jesus is not interested. He seems more concerned about Nicodemus sorting out his own attitude and approach to faith. Listen to his reply. There are also the little bits we miss without the Greek in front of us.

Very truly, I tell you, said Jesus. But that is just the translation. The word Jesus used for “You” happens to be you in the plural. I guess that means, at least as far as John was concerned, he was addressing his words, not just to Nicodemus but to the Jewish people. The advice was not exclusively aimed at Nicodemus.

And what was that advice? It was a metaphor that is perhaps stranger to us than it was to John’s readers. You must be born again from above.

And now a puzzle. Nicodemus says he doesn’t understand. The puzzle here is that the being born again before making a new start was standard Jewish teaching. Ezekiel had talked of the need for a new heart and a new Spirit (Ez 18:31). New converts to the Jewish faith were expected to be baptised and instructed that in the baptism they were being born again.

We can only suspect Nicodemus was choosing not to understand, for to admit understanding would be the equivalent of admitting his faith needed putting back on a new track. After Jesus answers in the standard Jewish form, Nicodemus is driven back to another defence. “How can these things be?” And again Jesus uses standard Jewish teaching.

John uses the Greek translation of what Jesus said with the Greek Pneuma which has the dual meaning of spirit and wind. We presume that he was translating the Hebrew word Ruach which also has the dual meaning of wind and spirit. Wind and Spirit, mysterious, able to be sensed, yet they remain unseen.

Even if we think Nicodemus was being deliberately obtuse we can see that his discomfit was understandable. Jesus was offering a way to be changed and recreated, and Nicodemus was balking at it.

It was not that he didn’t understand. The problem was that he wasn’t sure that he wanted the change. Being born again was a leap into the unknown. It is not simple the start of a clearly charted journey. Rather it was a declaration that the old comfortable norms could be set aside and each new situation from that point on to be confronted with the new set of values. This is why following Christ would have been seen as subversive. This is why it may still be subversive today, because accepting Jesus notion of being born again means in effect we cannot have others do our thinking for us.

So was the meeting wasted? Nicodemus leaves John’s gospel at this point, but John hasn’t quite finished with him. Nicodemus returns to the story after Jesus is crucified. This time, he is in the company of another who preferred to be a secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, and together they remove Jesus’ body from the cross and place it in a tomb, with the spices decreed by Jewish custom.

Whether or not the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus affects those of us who read about it almost two thousand years after the event is a different issue. Remember the notion of being born again is not a label we lightly attach to ourselves as some sort of automatic right of passage, and as far as I can tell it was not just Nicodemus who Jesus saw in need of that attitude rebirth. Remember when Jesus addressed his reply to Nicodemus he used the plural for you. Perhaps he also intended it for the generations that followed. Is that rebirth from above to be our rebirth also?

We may well be tempted to dismiss Nicodemus as a timid soul who could only approach Jesus in the shadows. More to the point – it is not so much the questions he asked of Jesus – it is what he then did with the answers – just as it will be what we do now with those same answers.

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Lectionary sermon for 5 March 2017 on Matthew 4: 1-11 (Lent 1 A)

If you stop to think about it, today’s gospel reading has some really strange features and unexpected challenges. The first point is that although it is clearly a significant story it is one with clear puzzles. Jesus alone in the wilderness is tempted by the devil, seeing strange sights and facing dramatic choices. So did it really happen just like that? If so, are the temptations relevant for other leaders? What about Presidents or Prime Ministers or even bishops? Then there is the more subtle question. If we see ourselves as Jesus representatives, are the temptations somehow connected with our temptations?

The catch for those of us with the habit of frequent reading of newspapers and constantly watching or listening to news bulletins, is that subconsciously we come to assume other written narratives of reported events can only ever be assumed to be objective eye-witness accounts. When it comes to the gospel narratives this may not always be the best starting point. Most of the narratives recounted by Jesus for example were in the form of parable, and a number of the leading scholars of the New Testament including John Dominic Crossan even identify parables ABOUT Jesus presented in the gospels as reported events.

This brings us to the narrative reports about the Temptations of Christ. Was this widely reported and frequently retold sequence of events actually intended as parable, or was it objectively recorded historical event, myth or perhaps some compound mixture of the genres?

A moment’s reflection suggests some caution before assuming objective reporting on the part of Matthew. Clearly Matthew, writing many years after Jesus’ mission, was not an eye witness for this encounter between Jesus and the Devil, and his account is not a good match with the much briefer earlier version given by Mark.

The setting of the encounter in the desert, where Jesus has come aside for a spell of living off the land much as John the Baptist had done before him may seem an inappropriate way of sorting out his thinking by today’s standards, yet it also underlines an important teaching of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus in effect claims that chasing the extras in life should take second place to finding sufficiency in nature.

Consider the lilies of the field and birds of the air….. Perhaps Matthew and Luke record this setting of the temptations as a way of highlighting the subversive difference between the alternative lifestyle and setting of Jesus and the lifestyle of other Church leaders of that day (and perhaps ours!)

Certainly there are exact parallels between this from Matthew and the version in Luke whose account lists the exact same temptations (in different order) even if the writers give the account a different theological slant. Since Jesus himself along with the Devil are the only two recorded as present for the sequence of events, it is fair to assume that at best, Jesus may have recounted the story later to his disciples, but even there we find internal clues to suggest a non-literal intention. As William Barclay pointed out in his commentaries, it is all very well for the Devil to have taken Jesus to a place high on a mountain to see all the kingdoms of the world stretched beneath, but for a world that is round there is certainly no mountain from whence every kingdom could be seen, particularly when we remember that the cities of China and South America would be well over the horizon.

Assuming it is Jesus who was the original source of the story, perhaps the impossibility of the sufficiently high place observation point should be enough to convince us that the story is one of metaphor rather than literal description. This might then cause us to go on to question whether Satan is similarly a metaphorical symbol.

As to the themes within the story, there is certainly enough to discover close parallels between Jesus’ reported answers to the Devil, and the form of ministry he consequently chose.

Jesus rejects the choice of turning stones into bread, in other words he is rejecting the possibility of trying to exploit his powers to win support even if he is capable of having supernatural powers for such an act. When Jesus dismisses this as an option by replying, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’“, perhaps the intended allusion is to Moses leading his people through the desert.

We should note in passing that this statement most certainly is not intended to show Jesus has no concern for discomfort or hunger. After all, the recorded event (or is this perhaps another parable?) of the feeding of the five thousand was presumably intended to illustrate this concern. However the point of that particular apparent miracle is best coupled with the knowledge that Jesus made no attempt to exploit it for political gain.

Next the Devil has Jesus taken to a high pinnacle, not in this case a natural pinnacle of the sort that might occur naturally in the desert where there would be no one to see Jesus act in the solitude, but a pinnacle as part of the Temple where a crowd might witness Jesus’ what Jesus was being asked to do. The Devil’s test in this case was that Jesus should throw himself off and have the angels of the Lord rescue him and thereby convince the crowd of his supernatural powers. In this part of the story both Matthew and Luke claim the Devil quotes the scriptures – in this case Psalm 91:11-12 to show that God had promised this assistance. The astute Bible scholar may note that Psalm only promises that God would deliver those who trust and abide in Him.

For those of us who think it is sufficient to quote scriptures to justify a position, it may be worth reminding ourselves, that, just as Matthew has the Devil quoting scriptures in an attempt to mislead Jesus, the scriptures should not be used as a Talisman without considerable thought.

Finally the Devil offers Jesus possession of the Kingdoms of the world on condition that Jesus bows down to acknowledge the authority of the Devil. I guess because most of us are familiar with hearing and rehearing the story we are unsurprised to find Jesus responds by saying: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Parable or objective reporting, the Temptations story is a useful reminder that Jesus in his responses was in effect defining the sort of Messiah he was intending to be. Yet if we are to allow the story to speak to our situation we may need reminding that in order for Jesus to be that sort of Messiah to those who encounter his message, in other words one who sets aside the temptations of splendour, or power and the chance to impress so that he can live his message of servant-hood, we have to be careful that, assuming we wish to be his followers, we remain true to his chosen way of presenting his message.

In the history of the Church we cannot help but notice some Church leaders have been only too willing to assume the very power that Jesus turned aside. We can read in the history books of militant Popes assuming Emperor-type positions and Bishops who have led their troops into battle swinging swords. We have witnessed hierarchies of Church leadership where dress, authority and pay all reflect control rather than servant-hood. There may even be an implied question in the case of some Churches and cathedrals where the very architecture is designed to encourage wonder and we should acknowledge that in the not too distant past some denominations have even redesigned church buildings where the poor were consigned to watch the worship of the wealthy from the back of Churches through screens. It is also a fair question to ask if some of the modern day church leaders who have specialised in ostentatious acts of public healing may have opted to go with the temptation to impress the crowds.

But rather than divert attention to Church leaders perhaps we are better to start with ourselves. If as the New Testament teaches, we need in part to become the embodiment of the Christ we follow, then surely we need to find our own answers to the temptations we have to subvert his gospel. In essence we may even be talking of the same temptations. We too may be tempted to be seeking power by impressing those who see our actions.

Selling ourselves to the Devil is a very colourful way of expressing the temptation for everyone who wants control over others. Since putting ourselves first is the opposite of what Jesus stood for, is this not close to selling one’s soul?

Above all we need to be careful of the temptation to ascribe to Jesus the otherworldly and supernatural dimension that makes him all powerful and leaves us as unthinking puppets. We also need to be honest with ourselves in what the story tells us about the human nature of Jesus. Even in the days when the New Testament books were being assembled Jesus’ humanity was noted. For example Hebrews 4:15 claims Jesus is one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are. The author of the book of Hebrews clearly suggests Jesus was tempted in the same way as other humans (which presumably means without recourse to supernatural powers). If today’s scriptural passage is to have any validity, it only makes sense as a list of genuine temptations because Jesus was required to pass these tests without relying on powers that other men and women do not have.

Ultimately we have to turn our attention to the same problem that faced Jesus. This Lenten season, we should ask how we do what is right in accordance with what we understand God to mean, yet at the same time turn our back on alternative options focused on self interest?( or should that mean turning our back on other Gods?) We cannot pretend the world is other than the one we find ourselves in. If there are right options among the myriad of options they are not always easy to discern. With multiple religions and many different options even within Christianity it is no easy task to discover good options let alone the best options. Yet for each one of us life itself holds tremendous potential. Maybe for this reason alone it is worth choosing our direction with care.

John Dominic Crossan, parable, the humanity of Christ, the Temptations of Christ, servant-hood, self seeking leaders

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(Rumours that Trump University is finished are based on alternative facts)

Unit 1: Handling the Press: For some unaccountable reason repeatedly telling reporters they are hopeless liars and idiots turns out to result in a plethora of ungrateful and anti-president negative stories. This unit puts the case for a novel future approach of talking to some of the Media as if they are almost human with feelings.

Unit 2: Handling the CIA and FBI. As explained on Twitter, these organisations are a waste of space but unfortunately coincidentally they are unexpectedly large and well organized and although Fox failed to make it clear, they also collect information about possible dangers and opportunities for the Nation at home and abroad.

For some unaccountable reason, explaining to those who collect and share such information that they are useless and not worth consulting turned out to be counter- productive in that subsequently they appear to be unfairly reluctant to share their collective knowledge with the wise and all powerful president and instead leaked the more embarrassing titbits to unreliable media like the New York Times or the Washington Post.

It turns out unbeknown to the President’s team of vastly experienced non swamp advisors (chosen from among close relatives and the decreasing pool of campaign sympathisers), it even transpired there was a precedent with President Nixon and something that happened at Watergate Hotel. As part of the new President’s bigly job creation scheme some of the aforesaid advisors are now being short-listed for alternative careers.

Unit 3: Handling Trading Partners. For some unexpected reason, abusing then threatening trade sanctions against the Mexicans for not paying for the President’s wall, despite going down well with Fox and the President’s inner circle, subsequently encountered a slight hiccup. Unexpectedly, the Mexicans who buy lots of our Corn counter-threatened they would unfairly look elsewhere e.g. Brazil for their staple food imports. The next white male soon to be chosen for chief trade advisor will be even better than the present incumbent.
Unit 4: Dealing with illegal immigrants. For some unexpected reason i.e. one not explained on Fox, it turns out that illegal immigrants provide half the farm labour in the U.S., not to mention selling most of the Tacos near Trump Tower. It turns out they are also the main source of cheap labour for building Atlantic City Casinos and an essential part of the skilled technology needed in Silicon Valley. Fox should have said! As soon as the new Secretary of Education has finished off the US bear population she will ensure the education of replacement boffins recruited in the rust belt.

Unit 5: Taxes: It turns out that those unfair taxes the rich president and his mates were asked to pay (and you can’t prove they didn’t!) were part of the income required to cover Crooked Hillary’s spiralling national debt. Wisdom after the event suggests that before announcing vast increases in military spending, building a wall along the Mexican border and the costs of rebuilding all those factories and heavy industries back on the mainland to produce admittedly more expensive goods for sale in the U.S., there should have been a few more taxes collected (but not from the rich President who would have released his tax returns if Crooked Hillary hadn’t made them disappear).

Unit 6: Dealing with China. It turns out that TPP had been partly designed to help give trade advantages to the US and block the expansion of China into the Pacific. Further, the ungrateful potential TPP partners who had been previously hoping for Trade deals with the U.S. are now exploring their trade options in China. No doubt the lying media and Crooked Hillary reminded the Chinese that they actually own most of the U.S. debt and that therefore they had the ability to crush the entire U.S. economy and even worse were capable of refusing to release much needed fashion items owned by the President’s daughter.

It also transpires that the Chinese are even worse than the President had realised and are not above cancelling their colossal annual order for Soy from the pro-Trump Mid West and then unfairly looking to Brazil for their surplus Soy instead. The President would not have cared except that Trump hats are also manufactured in China.

Unit 7: Peace and Disarmament: Once he had solved the Israel problem by encouraging Israeli settlement in Palestinian housing areas, the President had been surprised that some Muslim Palestinians failed to see the wisdom of being thrown out of their houses in the interests of peace in Israel. The next stage of solving the Middle East disputes will involve sending pointed Twitter messages which will clarify the issues for any Muslim who has bothered to learn English.

The nuclear weapons that the U.S. are now going to acquire should come in handy smashing any nation who tries to take back control of the oil which is needed for the increase of U.S. fossil fuel industry – but of course the nukes will only be used as a last resort. The buffoon with the funny haircut in charge of North Korea has the temerity to think he needs nukes. At least someone in the White House is smarter than that…Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink.

The president has already saved heaps on unnecessary disarmament conferences by the simple expedient of authorizing an all out nuclear arms race, with the aim of making US force irresistible. By reducing the U.S. funding for the United Nations the President anticipates fewer embittered nations will be able to attend U.N. meetings with their pathetic complaints.

Unit 8:The Encouragement of Learned Dependency
Learned Dependency (ie passing responsibility for self improvement to an authority figure) is of course what got the best president elected in the first place. This was successfully encouraged before the last election by the President to be, in his presenting the population with a series of intractable problems as perceived by the population at the time and offering instant simplified solutions.

In retrospect, while those who themselves had no answers of their own were attracted by the superb self-confidence of the incoming President, the lying survey companies started to convince a few turn-coat waverers that in practice the answers were beginning to fail in practice. The consequent pseudo drop in public confidence was clearly not the fault of the now elected president and the key learning is to ban biased or informed journalists from asking awkward questions. The President’s masterful treatment of pathetic commentators is expected to bear great fruit any day now.

(This is only an incomplete draft outline for this Doctoral level course which may be completed by correspondence via Twitter. To justify certificates being printed on high-grade cardboard, Word Press readers are encouraged to draft their own versions of other appropriate units to complete the course requirements)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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