Lectionary Sermon 8 September 2019 (Year C) Luke 14:25-33

The Embarrassing Side of the Ledger
When Karen Armstrong, one of the most respected modern theologians and specialists in comparative religion, was speaking about her latest book “ The Lost Art of Scripture” she said “there’s a lot of bad religion about”. That might seem like an obvious truism, but we shouldn’t necessarily assume she was only talking about other people’s religion. While it is true that many claim to follow the same set of scriptures, the awkward reality is that whole Churches seize upon different interpretations and behave in very different ways as a result.

While Karen Armstrong acknowledges that a whole generation of Muslims have “grown up with a Maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths” she is just as concerned with the fist pounding, gun toting, scripture waving fundamentalism sprouting from a bed of Biblical literalism that has nothing to do with the scriptures’ original intent. Somehow we sometimes forget to remind ourselves that our religion is supposed to be transformational, so that we might live better, kinder and more fulfilling lives. Today’s text if actually taken in that spirit has the potential to shake the typical church-goer’s complacency.

What we find in today’s gospel should worry us and I suspect deep down we may already know that. While it is true that for many, Church membership is not much more than a non demanding ticket to a social circle and a more or less optional chance for a spectator’s seat for Sunday worship, in most denominations there are sufficient serious followers of Jesus to show us that there is a difference between a lived faith and a notional set of beliefs.

There has always been a choice between seeking a religion for what it offers by way of reward and seeking a religion for the opportunities it offers for service. Perhaps it is unfortunate that sometimes in the past, enthusiastic evangelists have talked up the reward side of Christianity and have almost hidden the investment side of the ledger.

Those few outstanding individuals who have made substantial contributions to Christian ideals, ideals like justice, equality and liberty, are often the very same folk as those who have given the most for their cause. Quite apart from the one we most associate with Christianity, Jesus himself, many who have upheld his principles, sometimes in the direct face of hostility, appear to have known exactly what it might cost. We may think for example of someone of the stature of Martin Luther King saying:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals”.Martin Luther King, Jr.

No doubt when there is comparative peace and full employment we can pretend that current indicators of progress and peace will continue without effort on anyone’s part, yet this is to ignore the realities of history. It may be that in those times that we should be rather more open to the words of the wise like Thomas Merton.

What was it he said? Peace demands the most heroic labour and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.

Perhaps Merton today might be looking at Brexit, shaking his head sadly and being found agreeing with Karen Armstrong that Brexit is really the distillation of the distinctly un-Christian dislike of immigrants and refugees.

If we return to Jesus’ teaching from today’s gospel, on reflection we can at least begin to understand why Luke chose to record this particular set of saying by Jesus.

When he set down the Gospel words from Jesus about giving up possessions, about counting the cost of building a tower and about carrying the cross as a prerequisite for discipleship, Luke had already witnessed some of the genuine costs suffered by the first Christians. Some scholars even believe that the gospel of Luke was written from a prison cell shared with Paul as they were awaiting trial so to him at least, the costs of following this new faith were hardly academic.

The one verse in today’s reading which is at the heart of this type of challenge comes in the last verse, verse 33: 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

This statement in its baldest interpretation leaves us with a very exclusive and very small band of genuine disciples. Rather than seeking cunning interpretations of this passage to avoid the full force of the words perhaps we should become a little more humble and somewhat less certain of our entitlement to be numbered amongst Jesus’ followers.

Sometimes the context or original words used leave us with a convenient escape clause. Many preachers seem to do one of two things with this passage. Some seem to want us to believe Jesus was not really saying what he appeared to be saying, and instead he was merely asking for a change of emphasis. The other common approach is to say this is why stewardship – ie giving to the Church is important – and even more important than first looking after yourself.

Unfortunately there is a flaw in both approaches. The Greek “apotassomai” has a general meaning of renouncing, forsaking or even simply saying goodbye to- and in this case it is directed to possessions. Without some serious response to this apotassomai, if we hear what Jesus is saying, we cannot consider ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples!

In terms of most local Church congregations, I can’t honestly say I can think of any members who reach this level of commitment. Although I have heard of those belonging to some odd-ball sects renouncing all possessions to hand over their all to the care of the sect leaders – and although I know of a number of religious orders , eg those in monasteries, who in effect do the same, it seems to me that they not so much renounce possessions as reallocate their control.

If the religious order is known to take over ensuring the well-being of its members, then even if the eventual goal is some sort of pension care of the Father Ted variety, this does not quite square with the existential leap into the unknown of total poverty.

Nor does giving generously to a self-interested Church quite seem in the spirit of commitment of the sort Jesus was advocating. While that attempt at stewardship might be considered best directed to the Church (at least in the eyes of some Church leaders) – this is to misrepresent what Jesus actually said, and since Jesus’ focus is often on those in need, it would be reasonable to surmise that the divesting of possessions should most likely be either towards the needy or at least via those who have a primary concern for their welfare.

If the Church is truly putting such needs before its own, there is no double standard. Unfortunately if we look at typical annual Church budgets as a guide, it is probable fair to guess that many Churches only have a passing commitment to the needy. To invite Church members to give unstintingly to the Church – without requiring the same commitment to unstinting giving on the part of the Institutional Church, is to misrepresent what Jesus was on about. This is not to say stewardship is wrong. But it does suggest that to be consistent, the same leaders who are encouraging us to give should be equally diligent about making sure that the church as a whole reflects this self-giving attitude.

I would imagine there is much there to make us uncomfortable. But there is something else as well.

One standard view of this passage that, if nothing else, it suggests your treasure should be directed to where your heart believes it should go. Again….and perhaps unfortunately….. even assuming we are looking for easy answers….. this is not the gist of that Jesus appears to be saying. If anything your treasure going in the direction of your heart is the opposite of his actual theme which is much closer to: where you put your treasure your heart will follow.

This is good psychology since we are probably much less free to make decisions than we might hope. The way our imagination translates to our action is confined by our realities. If we deliberately change those realities we are then open to different options.

Most of us will be familiar with targeted giving where special efforts have been made to help communities – either locally or overseas. Having witnessed or taken part in a number of such programmes, the realization that one has been part of such an effort seems to shape future giving and I have been amazed at how previously tight-fisted individuals appear to become more relaxed and even pleased that they have helped others.

In most Western nations denominational churches differ widely in their understood responsibilities. For example it is no mistake that the Salvation Army is often associated with care for the down and outs, whereas some of the older Churches appear to have somewhat lost their way when it comes to a total emphasis on compassion. It also makes the signs of reorientation of the current Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis seem so refreshing.

Perhaps here we might allow the last word to that creator of Peter Pan, JM Barrie,

Dreams do come true, if we only wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it. James M. Barrie
AMEN

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Lectionary Sermon for 1 September 2019 on Luke 14:1,7-14

On Taking the Message Seriously

While most Christians claim to believe that Jesus was the way, the truth and the life, in reality, followers who genuinely try to follow his teaching tend to be so far out of step with their society’s popular conventions that those who follow such disciples’ example are few and far between.

Francis of Assisi appears to have been something of an embarrassment to the Church of his day when most church leadership of the time seemed focused on hierarchy and status. As stories of the deeds of Francis with his humility and compassion began to spread, the Church leadership found his witness hard to ignore, yet it was difficult for them to offer him support without demonstrating the difference between his example on one hand and the practice of the mainline Church leaders on the other. It was not so much the leaders were unaware of the concept of servant-hood. It was more that to them it was a concept better admired in theory than personally practiced.

As one of the traditional Francis stories has it, the contrast was strongly underlined when the Pope of the day decided to honour Francis of Assisi by having him as a guest of honour at an official banquet. The day of the banquet arrived and Francis arrived at the door of the castle in his tattered brown robe. The doorman, obviously mistaking him for a beggar and, anxious that he was well out of the way before the important guests arrived, directed him to the kitchen. Francis clearly at home in the company of kitchen hands and other beggars, not only welcomed the redirection but enjoyed their company and before long the motley crowd in the kitchen were sharing scraps of food and stories with Francis.

The absence of the guest of honour upstairs caused great consternation and servants were sent to locate Francis. Eventually word of his whereabouts got through to the great hall and an apologetic messenger arrived to usher Francis, still with his kitchen plate in hand, through to his place of honour at the head table. Francis appeared totally unperturbed by the apparent earlier lapse of manners by his hosts and was soon cheerfully chatting with the Pope, Cardinals and Bishops – but whether out of sheer devilment or perhaps simply a total lack of the need for pretension, was seen offering those around him at the top table a share of the scraps he had been given by his new friends in the kitchen.

With the safety of the centuries between ourselves and the Francis incident and today we may feel we can scoff at that system that once relegated a great man of compassion to the kitchen while at the same time accepting the credentials of the professional Church leaders whose only qualification seemed to be the assumption of customary rights that went with their title. But are we really certain that conditions have really changed. One dimension which very obviously has never changed in the interim is that there is still a great deal of difference between Christianity admired and Christianity practiced.

For those of us obsessed with communication via sermons, which are often sermons in Church settings, it is helpful to remember that Luke’s version of Jesus often focuses on meals rather than on worship. For someone who talked about the primacy of love for neighbours, the Greek word for hospitality philoxenia, seems particularly apposite. Philoxenia literally means “love of the stranger” and from Jesus’ other parables it is clear he usually saw the stranger as the one who was typically shunned and avoided. The doorman in the Francis anecdote, in directing Francis to the kitchen was clearly not offering Philoxenia, (any more than perhaps we are inclined to do in our age).

As an outside observer it seems to me that part of the mixture of delight and/or consternation in some parts of the Catholic Church today is figuring out what to do about the current Pope who is shunning the traditional pomp and ceremony which goes with the status of the position, and is apparently actually modelling the genuine humility and service to the poor and needy which is supposed to go with the title. It seems curiously appropriate that this Pope has chosen the name Francis to signify his ministry. But even with his current large following of admirers it still remains to see if those impressed by Pope Francis’ down to earth humility and compassion are themselves intending to follow his lead.

Thinking of my own denomination, it also occurs to me that there is a kind of benign benevolence which pervades the meeting time of the customary cups of tea offered after many of our urban Church services. We readily admire humility (in our religious forbears) and find comfort in what is often presented as the quiet wisdom of Jesus. We enjoy meeting with fellow admirers in the family of Christ. Yet our feelings of hospitality sometimes wane a little when we do not feel those who share our hospitality are fellow admirers of Christ. Yet believing we have achieved hospitality without real contact with genuine strangers, may be only to hear one part of Christ’s message and even to miss why Jesus was crucified in the first place.

We would do well to remember that the word hospitality comes from the same root meaning as hospice and hospital. The strangers to be welcomed may need rather more than the briefest of polite contact. Some commentators suggest that Luke writing in part to second generation Christians was anxious for them to come to terms with the notion that Jews and Non Jews were going to have to find better ways of bringing their separate communities together, particularly as the Jews had a history of separate development. Our communities too have sectors of society deeply divided from the rest and the form of our hospitality needs particular attention as a consequence.

As with all realities, we are certain to find difficulties on the way. Perhaps the greatest difficulty is realising that we are not necessarily the people we would like others to think us to be.

Our ears are attuned to the part where Jesus says all those who humble themselves will be exalted and yet deaf to the part where he says all those who exalt themselves shall be humbled.

Dr Reza Aslan , scholar of religious history from UC Riverside, in his book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” identifies a central issue that we often gloss over when it comes to thinking of Jesus: namely He was such a challenge to the Roman politics and the existing religious powers that he was crucified as an enemy of the state for standing with the oppressed and challenging the political and religious powers.

Aslan finished one interview about his writing by putting it this way: “Remember, the (Be)attitudes aren’t just about the meek becoming strong and the hungry being fed, they’re also about the fed becoming hungry and the strong becoming powerless.”

In practice I have exactly the same problem with the anecdote about Francis of Assisi and for Jesus’ parable where the wedding guests were assuming positions to which they were not entitled.

In both cases I can see much to admire about the value of humility, yet to leave the stories at that point is to miss their challenge. I confess I prefer not to notice the admonition for those who cheerfully accept offered privilege. My point of difficulty comes when I realise that the same degree of humility will be expected of me if I want to claim Jesus as my inspiration and guide, and I am far from convinced that I have made much progress on that dimension of faith.

We certainly can’t separate this parable from the rest of Jesus teaching. Remember this is the same Jesus who told his followers: The first will be last, and the last will be first.
and The one who saves their life will lose it and the one who loses their life will save it.

Similarly when I think of my own family guest lists I become somewhat uncomfortably aware that the group Jesus described as the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind are not commonly present. When I think more closely about this I would have to acknowledge that it is probably because I am rather more worried about the affect such an invitation might have on me and my personal family situation than the effect it might have on those being invited.

In practice, the few times where my wife and I have summoned up enough courage to try to invite those who society categorises as less desirable to our table, our fears turned out to be totally groundless. I also note in my own town, volunteers from a number of the mainline churches combine to offer weekly community meals to which the homeless and lonely are invited. This obviously fills a need because many who would not normally go near a Church are there each Tuesday night.

This is not to say all strangers are angels to be welcomed so that they may be recognised as angels. Strangers have swiped handbags and coats. Strangers have messed up the toilet facilities, or taken more than their fair share of food, but hospitality does at least give us freedom to think of the newcomer as a person rather than as the other.

I have a friend, Peter, in South Auckland who offers friendship and opportunities to those we traditionally call the “poor” or “under privileged”. To my friend this is not offering charity, it is seeking a genuine two sided relationship. For example he doesn’t offer solutions. He encourages the one who is facing difficulties to say what their aspirations and their solutions they are seeking, and helps them uncover towards their own goals.

It is only a passing observation, yet when I see Peter making genuine time for those in trouble and respecting their wishes without offering preordained solutions, it seems to me that this way of identifying with others may not represent a standard view of humility but the point is this. It really seems to work. My challenge then becomes to wonder if I can learn this form of relationship building for myself.

A few years ago the late David Clark, the progressive Christian leader of St Luke’s congregation in Auckland recounted an anecdote of a rather staid congregation receiving communion Presbyterian style in the pews. The communion steward reached a blind lady and her seeing-eye dog. He handed the blind lady her morsel of bread, then reached down and handed the dog his own piece of bread. If communion is sharing at the deepest level, can we really question the theology of the steward’s version of the Gospel

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Lectionary Sermon for 25 August 2019 (year c) on Luke 13: 10 – 17

The Modern Sceptic and the Miracles from Yesterday
Are we meant to simply praise or worship Jesus for his words and actions – or do we ourselves expect to be challenged by what he is reported to have said or did?

From sermons I have heard, I am coming to think the word “faith” is perhaps unintentionally used to substitute for passive agreement with chunks of religious knowledge. Because part of my background is in science it occurs to me that some concerned with religion might learn something from those who make breakthroughs in scientific research.

The research scientist takes commonly accepted beliefs, tests them as if they are true but notes truthfully when they fall short. Faith, in that sense to the scientist, means believing in an idea to the extent that it is deemed worth testing in practice. In science when the faith fails to deliver, the test results mean the starting belief needs to be adjusted. This does not mean nothing useful is learned. The results tell us more about our realities than we knew before. The original belief is then either adjusted to fit this reality or changed to a new hypothesis to be tested. The changed belief will then be retested and the process continues. This to a scientist is the equivalent of a tested faith. Having enough faith to bring a belief to test is very different from insisting that we simply accept the original belief as a passive and untouchable truth.

Surely it should be the same for religious belief. In Jesus’ day, one standard belief was that no work should be done on the Sabbath, including the work of healing. In today’s story Jesus challenged this belief by healing in the Sabbath. The results spoke for themselves and Jesus argued that good had come from his actions.

There are two challenges to today’s gospel story that invite our thoughtful response.

The first is the dilemma we always have whenever we in the 21st century read of Jesus performing one of his jaw-dropping miracles in the first Century AD.

The truth is that we live in a modern age where medical researchers bring us inexorably closer towards complete understanding of disease with each passing day, and as a consequence it is ever harder to believe in the miraculous as being outside nature. I know philosophers like David Hume claim that before we can agree that a miracle has occurred we should be certain there must be a violation of the laws of nature – yet such definitions can only remind us that we have no certainty that any specific miracle has happened. Even after all these years of discovery, the laws of nature are at best dimly and approximately understood, and to say that they have been violated, presumes knowledge we may not have.

Miracles reported by others are even harder to claim with certainty. Since observers’ records are usually how we get to hear about possible miracles we have to remain sceptical about whether or not such observers have objectively described what they later say happened.

What seems a miracle to one generation becomes nature at work when more facts come to light. For example, for several hundred years, monks in the Ural Mountains reported a sacred everlasting flame in the rock face. It is perhaps unfortunate that the monks expected payment from the pilgrims who came from afar to witness this sign from God. The sacred flame was later found to be a natural gas outlet that once lit had continued burning. We have no right to criticise the pilgrims or the monks for their naivety, particularly when it is remembered that Chemistry at that time was not sufficiently understood by the pilgrims to correctly interpret what they were seeing.

Back when the Bible was assembled even educated people had every excuse to believe that disease was often spiritual in its cause and to assume that mysterious miracles may have been the only hope for alleviation of suffering. These days when we have enough data to know that the human can recover spontaneously from some conditions, and particularly when we know even trained doctors can misdiagnose some medical conditions, we need to be particularly cautious before proclaiming a miracle.

In the case of the woman who was bent, while we should acknowledge the sincerity of those who reported the change in her condition after Jesus intervened, if we value honesty we should at least be careful before announcing this as a miracle, particularly when Luke himself makes no such claim. Curing cripples with a touch or a word is fine if they are not genuinely crippled in the first place. We might for example believe someone who is habitually bent over by habit may be persuaded – even dramatically – to good posture, although even here, without the advantages of modern diagnosis, we should be frank enough to say we have no way of knowing for sure that Luke is saying this is what is happening.

Since we presume that Luke, a contemporary of Paul, never met Jesus this inevitably meant that the best Luke could do was to tell his stories of Jesus by using sources which were second hand. For example the gospel of Mark, considered the first of the gospels, had 661 verses and of these, 320 were reproduced in Luke.

In summary, since there is no way of using Luke description to be certain of the woman’s condition, nor the effectiveness and permanence of the subsequent cure, we simply don’t know how much of a miracle is being described. Nor should this particularly worry us. Regardless of how much of miracle worker Jesus was, our real task is to find how the stories speak to our situation today.

Even if Jesus could perform miracles which challenge our understanding of nature, it does not follow that we too can perform those miracles. For most of us, these days at least, the serious medical condition is best met by state of the art best practice medicine. Common consensus of an educated majority would probably say cripples are best diagnosed by conventional systematic medical testing and ignoring the standard care available is unlikely to be in the sufferer’s best interest.

However if we really want to struggle though to find a meaning we also relate to, rather than getting too tied up with the woman’s physical condition it might also be argued it is probably better not to restrict ourselves to think of the crippling only in a physical sense. After all being held back by infirmity is not unique to physical cripples. The infirmity could be any of a variety of very common afflictions. Have we not all met those who cannot quite bring themselves to straighten up under their load of riches or feelings of inadequacy.

Perhaps even self reflection might be in order. And if not others’ need for ever more possessions, perhaps it is our own need – if we cannot see such people around us perhaps we might even look in the mirror. Have we met those afraid to stand up to express an opinion lest if might disturb the collective conscience of those we are desperate not to offend? Can we ourselves straighten up to that extent? Perhaps we are sometimes simply crippled by a loss of confidence – perhaps a lack confidence to make serious decisions, a lack of confidence to do anything much beyond give assent to the opinions of the powerful.

When Jesus talked of the woman as a daughter of Abraham he was inviting her to recognise her own worth as an inheritor of the central faith. Just maybe we too need reminding we should see ourselves children of those who were our ancestors in faith.

The second part of the story of this story may be even more relevant in our day-to-day encounters with those in need.

When Jesus is challenged as to why he offered help on the Sabbath he responded by saying in effect that offering assistance on the Sabbath is a common-sense response such that even offering water to a tethered animal is expected and offered without question. He then draws a parallel with the woman who in effect is bound, not with a rope – but by her condition. And we read that his critics were silenced in shame and that the crowd were pleased with Jesus’ response.

Since we are most unlikely to be faced with an identical dilemma, again we should look beyond the immediate situation to the underlying principle. Jesus is addressing a particular religious convention whereby scripture directs that no work should be done on the Sabbath. While it is true that few Christians today observe such a principle, each faith community has its own expected religious code of rules and conventions. For example we have a host of expected conventions related to worship.

One of these sets of religious conventions relates to typical practice for administering Communion, and what happens in a Roman Catholic setting does not necessarily conform to Anglican (or Episcopalian), Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal styles of offering the wine and bread. However the issue Jesus places before us with his healing on the Sabbath is that sometimes convention must give way in the face of genuine need. The cripple who cannot manage walking to the front to receive Communion should not be denied communion and I suspect (although I know some clergy would disagree) that choosing not to offer Communion to someone who has a different faith background is not true to the spirit of the Christian gospel. Similarly, regardless of the expected conventions,

I would imagine, that should for example an elderly person collapse during worship, first aid then takes precedence over ritual.

But prejudice sometimes requires a more direct intervention. It is all too easy to withhold aid to anyone we see as being outside our own circle. Again we are reminded that Jesus called the woman whose body was bent a “Daughter of Abraham”. By calling her a daughter of Abraham he was extending to her a tribute which was unlikely to be echoed by a good number of those present.

While it is not explained in this particular passage, there was a popular assumption in Jesus’ day that victims of illness or infirmity were at least partly suffering as a result of their own or their family’s failings. By Jesus calling her a daughter of Abraham who has been under Satan’s influence he shifts the blame for her condition away from the woman, and in effect underlines her value to the others in the Synagogue.

And even if we ourselves can’t produce miracles at will, perhaps we need to remind ourselves that Jesus’ teaching is the part we can respond to.
Perhaps we need reminding that a blindness to noticing the ones crippled with needs as sons or daughters of Abraham is shorthand for reminding us to recognise value in the one who is different.

I said earlier that we can never be sure if a person has permanently recovered as a consequence of a miracle. If, in today’s story, the woman is viewed in a new light by those around her as a person of worth, it may be that this is a form of healing even more important than that which addresses physical infirmity. It is also significant that the permanence of this dimension of healing depends on the on-going choices of the woman’s faith community.

For we who are also members of faith communities, it maybe that we need to see ourselves as part of the miracles for which we hope. Finding and conveying a sense of worth in the ones who come to our community in the hope of help may not be complete miracle in the conventional sense of the word yet it may be miracle enough to take us forward in our search for relevant faith that one day we might meet then share God in a modern world.

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Lectionary Sermon for 18 August 2019 (Year C) on Luke 12:49-56

An Unvarnished Truth
A Bible quiz question: in terms of the total pages written, which New Testament author wrote the most? No not Paul! Luke as the only systematic historian of the emerging Christian Church with his detailed “Acts of the Apostles” together with his gospel stories of Jesus, leaves Paul in the shade (even if Luke also seemed to copy a fair chunk of Mark’s gospel).

Using the RSV as an example Luke is the author of 552 pages for the New Testament. Luke’s Gospel of 78 pages together with the Book of the Acts of the Apostles 71 pages (is over a quarter of the whole). Paul’s 121 pages is still significant but don’t forget some scholars claim some of his letters may have been written by someone else.

Paul describes Luke as a gentile and as a doctor (eg Colossians 4, 10 – 14) and we also note that Luke alone accompanied Paul to prison in Rome, so he would have been very much attuned to the need for warning the new Christians the reality that following Jesus could turn out to be divisive in practice.

When Luke was recalling Jesus describing the division that this form of faith would bring, even to family situations, recent memories of seeing families torn apart must already have been alive in Luke’s memory.

It doesn’t take very much self-reflection before we come across reasons for the discomfort that Jesus’ gospel can generate in practice.

There is a line in a song by John Ylvisaker: “Jesus was sent to upset and annoy.” This would no doubt puzzle anyone who holds to the saccharine image of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, yet many still seem to act as if Christianity is confined to that which happens within the confines of a Church service.

If you read Luke carefully it should challenge any who assume that Christianity is best practiced in complete isolation to outsiders. On the other hand anyone who has thought of attempting to apply Christian ethics to family, community and international decision making would soon have ample reason for agreeing that such application upsets and annoys big-time.

Because families and communities have the power to force decisions by weight of numbers, and since Christian principles often challenge popular assumptions of nationalism, selfishness and self interest, we can assume anyone attempting to live by the sort of Christian principles championed by Christ would soon find themselves at odds with those whose preferred actions follow basic self focused instincts. Think about nations following such themes. Honesty should also encourage us to admit that the principles advocated by Jesus are not always characteristics which we associate with all branches of the Christian Church – or even principles we associate with all factions of an otherwise apparently Christian congregation.

It is not as if we are unfamiliar with the teachings we aspire to follow. Taking no thought for the morrow, putting acts of kindness and compassion ahead of rules, forgiving seventy times seven, recognizing good acts regardless of expectations associated with religion or position (cf the Good Samaritan) and not storing up treasures on Earth – all of these are clear enough. What is less clear is how we might engage in such acts free from our own baser instincts or for that matter, antagonizing those around us.

At the most basic level, think how the family might react if one member decides to disburse material wealth to the needy. Think what happens when those who having expectations of inheritance see their share under potential threat. Even when we are not personally affected by such decisions we can probably understand that those who give generously to the needy make their colleagues and family whose actions are less generous feel uncomfortable.

Even formal association with particular faith communities can be a problem. In my wife’s family for example I know of a father with a nominal Baptist background who would not attend his daughter’s marriage to her chosen partner because he was a Catholic. As a science teacher some years ago I was instructed by my Principal not to teach evolution to some exclusive Brethren pupils because he believed their acceptance of such a view would result in them being cast out of the family. More recently when I was doing my five year stint as a full time lay minister, I recall a congregation member who some years previously had been cast out of his Muslim family for marrying a Christian woman.

When we read in today’s gospel: Vs 53…..they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” we find a truth that continues into our present.

Thinking of divisions immediately draws attention to the human weaknesses connected with the idea of Church. Historically we find much evidence that members of various Church denominations have traditionally favoured those in their own denomination, sometimes to the point of rejection of members of other faiths or those with other shades of belief. Do you need reminding of the Protestant Catholic rift in Northern Ireland? I guess like me you have heard some Christians condemn followers of the Muslim faith or Hinduism. Patterns of immigration laws past and present should remind us not to pretend a formal association with Christianity will ensure that Christian principles will always win out.

Where a majority accepts an exclusivist stance, those who work for peace are sometimes rejected to the point where they are victims of stand-over tactics or even violence. While it is easy to be scornful about populations in places like Egypt or Iraq where religious intolerance sometimes spills over into acts of uncontrolled vengeance and where peace keepers are targeted, it is less comfortable to remember our own history.

Those who insist on forgiving enemies are considered traitors in times of war, and anyone who doubts that need only look at the history of pacifism in the West.

Colin Morris in his book “God in the Shower” (Macmillan 2002) recalled how his father talked of a comrade in World War One who had served with distinction in the great battles of Loos, Ypres and the Somme. “ One day they were throwing the bodies of dead Germans into a huge shell crater to be rid of the sight and smell of them. One man suddenly stood up and said “Enough! This butchery is madness.” This man, said Colin Morris’ father, was the bravest of us all. “When the officer’s whistle blew and we went over the top again, he stayed behind in the trench. In no-man’s land we had an even chance of survival, but when he disobeyed that order he was a dead man”.

Although Morris does not spell it out, we don’t need to look too far to see the irony in officers who expected the enlisted soldiers to attend Church parade, yet use a court martial to proscribe the firing squad to anyone who refuses to act on the commandment not to kill.

There is always a temptation to compartmentalize our thinking, in effect thinking Church when we are at Church, and community when we are in the community. We then risk having our faith become irrelevant to our day to day life. It is, as Jesus is recorded as saying, fairly easy to notice the weather signs yet there are more important signs of our times which are always there for those of us who are prepared to look. Remember he asks: You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Jesus calls those who will not look hypocrites, and perhaps we should ask ourselves why.

For each generation the signs will no doubt vary, but the charge of hypocrisy for those reluctant to notice must surely stand, particularly if we claim to follow a faith that has something to offer in our respective life situations. Community-wise, there would be few communities where there are no disadvantaged people. Some Church communities are very aware of such needs and the pattern of giving to food banks and their organizing support services is to be commended. A reality check for a local congregation would include looking at which needs are effectively addressed each month and each year.

A similar self assessment on attitudes to international responsibilities is also part of any congregation’s claim to be relevant. For example most would be at least dimly aware of a present situation where powerful nations regularly exploit weaker nations for the strong nations’ benefit. As a nation we pay lip service to international justice yet do not always insist our decision makers adjust policies to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources.

According to our democratic practice, passively accepting our nation’s practice is tantamount to giving our rulers support to continue in their current policies. This becomes serious when for example a nation’s industrialists believe they have support for their right to produce obscene numbers of weapons and sell them to vulnerable nations.

Similarly there are statistics available to show that the world’s producers grow enough food globally to feed the world’s population and yet many would rather not notice that approaching a billion people have insufficient food for their needs. Policies of fair trade can be supported at the local level, and politicians can be lobbied.

This is only a sample of current tensions and we might argue that none are new situations. We can also argue that such issues are too big for individual Christians or individual congregations to make a real difference. However the hypocrisy comes when we claim a faith that concentrates on righting injustice and on offering compassion yet fail to notice when we are making no serious effort at all. When the signs of division are all around us, it is wrong to talk and act as if there is only unity in our corner of the world. Community may lead to a comfortable Church, but some would argue this would also be a church with little to offer its world.

I said at the outset that Luke was using his gospel and book of Acts of the Apostles to defend Christianity. Unlike many faith protagonists today, Luke mounts his defence simply by recounting what has happened. The actions of Jesus and his subsequent followers are their own defence. It is an approach from which we might be wise to learn.

Ultimately it is our individual histories rather than what we might say we believe that will either convince toward or alternately dissuade others from our faith. To show that we can read the signs of our time and choose to respond in a Christ influenced way that addresses the realities of our day as best we can is what is needed. We have to admit our efforts are individually unlikely to solve many problems but might at least lend our faith genuine credibility. To ignore the genuine problems, divisions and issues may allow us to pretend to offer a relevant faith, but unless others can see the relevance in what we stand for themselves we should not be surprised if our claims are then seen as empty and of no real value.

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Lectionary sermon for 11 August 2019 on Luke 12:32-40

I have heard it argued that the typical obsession with gathering possessions and money is to somehow put off the risks involved in growing older. And yet as people approach the end of their lives, all those possessions and even all those qualifications may turn out to be less significant than some more lasting values. And I think deep down we all know it.

The race to accumulate fancy houses, drive new powerful cars and make it on to the Forbes rich list – might attract passing envy from some for a time, but somehow millionaires and paupers alike only win real respect for the way they show care for others and for issues that concern how others are treated like justice, like care for the vulnerable and like leaving at least some of the world better for the next generation than when they found it.

In the spoof spy film “Johnny English” there is one scene where the evil pretender to the British Crown is readying a look-alike Archbishop of Canterbury for the Coronation ceremony by having the fake fitted with an appropriate silicon mask. On the so-called Archbishop’s bottom, a tattoo reads “Jesus is coming – Look busy”. In terms of today’s gospel reading, behind this schoolboy humour in the film there may even be an unintended serious point to reflect upon.

We don’t have to dig too deep before we notice that what different churches typically claim about end times are full of contradictions. Theologians and church leaders are by no means agreed as to what Jesus was referring to when he is reported as talking of a time of judgement. And truthfully, I am not sure that the Bible passages make it much clearer. The metaphors Jesus uses certainly draw attention to a time when he appears to be claiming we will all be called to account, yet it is far from clear whether this is referring to the physical death we must all face one day – or something else entirely.

But regardless of what Jesus had in mind, if there should ever happen to be a day of judgement, surely it would be our day-to-day attitudes and actions rather than our pious self claims that would reveal where our true allegiance lay.

However for this passage at least this is irrelevant. Jesus’ statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also“, seems to remind us that what we really strive for, results in actions and attitudes that reveal where our priorities lie. Even if the judgement we face, is only that of our fellows, it really won’t matter which cause we say we embrace, our lives will make their own declaration.

This is not so much theology as common sense. Titles can mislead for a time, but there is only so long that a community will be misled by a leader’s promises and assurances. A dictator may claim Christian principles but as soon as the leader starts siphoning off the wealth that rightfully belongs to the people, or treating the poor or disadvantaged with contempt, respect from the people evaporates.

Similarly we cannot assume that once we have signed up to Church membership, that we will be recognised as those who are committed to Christ and his principles. Ex US President Jimmy Carter was once quoted as saying: “If you don’t want your tax dollars to help the poor, then STOP saying you want a country based on Christian principles because you don’t”.

But of course this is only one of many dimensions to Church membership. For example the statement in the law book of the New Zealand Methodist Church now includes the following sentiment:

The standards on which membership of the Church is based are set out in the Church’s Mission Statement and its accompanying principles, where, in particular, it is stated that `every member is a minister.’”
I would imagine most mainline Churches would be comfortable with accepting similar statements.

But just remember this. The law book is in effect a public declaration of what is intended. If the vast majority of Church members are not demonstrably behaving as ministers and embodying the Church’s mission statement, the declaration is null and void.

I guess not everyone here would claim to be a m\Methodist let alone a minister….yet if we are prepared to claim a type of faith. ..what do others see when they look at us? If we do fairly represent our claimed denomination, a religion or a faith of some sort would others like what they see? I have for example heard some dismiss a faith because they believe its representatives are hypocrites, or that their faith comes across as intolerant or irrelevant to real life issues.

If we think of ourselves as ministers we should at least remember that such a mismatch between what we claim to stand for, and what others see that our faith represents, becomes the public reality of our mission statement. Just as many in the West discount Islam as a faith worth following because of the actions of a few suicide bombers, those looking at our Church from the outside sometimes reject our faith because they are not attracted to the national or even international actions and attitudes of those they associate with Christianity.

After all Mahatma Gandhi once claimed that the tipping point for him in rejecting Christianity, despite all his admiration of Christ, was being turned away from entering a Church in South Africa on the grounds that no coloureds were allowed.

In one sense today’s gospel passage is an alternative answer to the age old question about how we might find a meaningful life. Last week’s passage was more directly about greed, but did you notice that Jesus there seemed more concerned about the effect greed has on the greedy one rather than the unfairness greed imposes on others. Here a parallel theme is developed further – this time questioning not the dangers of greed, but rather the dangers of inattention to the important faith response tasks of the day.

We might also note that reminding us about the need to give to the poor suggests Jesus is thinking here about our moral and ethical responses to need. Jesus suggests in his parable that we should not put off a response to such duties. I don’t know how you see the situation but I would contend we only have to look around us today to see that inattention to the challenges of the Church is still a typical characteristic – and if we follow today’s parable and accept the truth behind the reported teaching of Jesus, we can only assume that this inattention can have consequences.

I confess I have serious problems with the bit in the gospel passage where Jesus says v33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. While it is true that a few saints of the Church have given up virtually everything to serve their fellows in the name of Jesus, while I have the deepest admiration for those like Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, for myself, I can’t in all honesty ask others to take this step, because as long as I continue to enjoy a standard of living well above the poorest in the world, I have not won the right to do so.

I am only guessing, but I would like to suggest that I am not the only one who has come to the conclusion that following exactly in the footsteps of Christ seems well nigh impossible for real people who often appear to share characteristics of both the saint and the sinner.

For those discouraged by the apparent impossibility of getting anywhere near perfection, it may be of some comfort that Jesus was prepared to continue to work with those who showed signs of imperfection. Just think of some of his disciples. We can but hope he would have done the same for us.

Most of us I suspect are too wedded to our possessions to give away our all to the poor, yet Jesus here in his parable is talking of a range of likely behaviour in response to the master’s absence. However this doesn’t quite let us off the hook. For example, we should forget that Jesus also said (in the last part of verse 48) that from whom much has been given, much will be expected.

If we choose to accept the positions of responsibility, or if we find ourselves blessed with talent or possessions, our responsibilities are correspondingly greater.

I suspect quite a few of us have a feeling of unease at the question ‘Is my life worthwhile?’ Bill Loader in his commentary on this passage suggests that moralising in reply won’t do it, or worse, offering what C T Studd once referred “neat little Bible confectionary” in the form of proof texts. Neither approach comes close to answering the genuine angst felt in such a question. Loader wisely suggests that ultimately the answer to this angst is an act of healing. People have genuine worries and ideally need support which identifies and tries to offer the pain of the sufferer very clearly – and gently – and offers healing at the very least in the form of an expression of genuine empathy.

Sometimes we hurry to put what we hope is wisdom into words. Maybe caring enough for someone is simply to be there for them in their time of worry. Maybe too, for ourselves, simply quietly reflecting on the words of Jesus may edge us closer to that moment when we can see meaning taking shape and form in our lives.

(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)

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Lectionary Sermon for 4 August 2019 on Luke 12:13-21

On Being the Real Deal
It’s odd isn’t it. We can claim to have the best set of beliefs, but our words and our actions give us away every time. Drawing attention to our status as Christians might show we are well-intentioned, but what if our words and actions don’t quite match what we say is important in our lives? We can certainly spot the fake in other people’s actions.

To use one extreme example: I understand Hitler claimed to be a Roman Catholic and had his storm troopers go into battle with “Gott mit uns” – in other words “God with us” engraved on their belt buckles, yet subsequent history with its story of more than six million Jews and gypsies murdered in concentration camps gave a lie to that claim.

While this might be thought to be an unfair example, there is a much more common and insidious way of misusing the way of Christ…claiming – but not living his teaching.

Because our modern societies are structured in such a way that many of the key decisions are made via the way set by those we helped choose as our leaders, perhaps we need to stop to check if those we offer to support are reflecting our true principles. Virtually all politicians not only claim to stand for development and fine policies, but because they want the votes, they also try to appeal to what really drives the people. For example, there would be very few politicians who would claim to be racist, but some deliberately demonstrate racist expressions and attitudes to gain the supporting votes of those whose thinking is in tune with racist sentiments, even if the motives are not admitted in public.

For example on the international stage we can probably all think of politicians who stand accused of racism from widely publicized public statements yet who emphatically insist they are free of racial bias. One possible explanation is that some of this may be designed to show that they are sympathetic to the baser instincts of large groups of voters.

As Christians we might claim to follow Jesus in sympathy with the vulnerable yet we need to be honest enough to at least admit to ourselves that the way we organise our personal lives and vote in the privacy of the election booth might, for some, reveal a truer preference to elect someone who will reflect the voter’s hidden prejudice rather than the politician who makes room for the immigrants and refugees regardless of their religion, their language or the colour of their skin.

One rather well known President in his last election campaign declaimed “The point is, you can never be too greedy” That President not only talks of improving the conditions of trade for his country but sometimes puts tariffs on the trade arrangements for poorer trading partners. We remind ourselves these policies are among those approved of by a significant proportion of a voting public who also claim to at least be Christian by self identity. Where does that leave the followers of Jesus who say they follow Jesus?

What if we too are shown to be influenced by the same sorts of issues? I think at the very least we need to be thoughtful about how our political choices line up with our values particularly if we want to give some sort of priority to following what Jesus said was important.

Would Jesus agree with the notion – that rich is good and getting very rich is really what it is all about? Well what did Jesus actually say? Luke Ch 12 verse 15 “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Jesus also reminds his listeners of the dangers of wealth in his parable about the rich farmer who acquired sufficient wealth to secure a comfortable retirement. Jesus doesn’t muck about. He actually calls him a “fool” for what he has achieved at his death. And in case anyone misses his point he says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21). Then he goes on with his call for his would-be disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. Do you remember his question in Mark’s gospel? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

On reflection I suspect we don’t come across the truly wise very often – so here is an interesting speculation. If we only once in our life had a chance to meet a truly wise person – someone up there with Jesus in the wisdom stakes…only one meeting … the chance for one question…what would we ask that wise person?

Since in real life most folk rarely make the most of their fleeting opportunities to learn from the wise, I guess there is a fair chance we would mess up.

Certainly the man in the crowd in today’s reading from Luke apparently messed up big time. Instead of using his once in a lifetime opportunity to ask Jesus some insightful and profound question, the man merely wants Jesus to take his side in an inheritance dispute. Perhaps the best that can be said is that his question revealed to Jesus what was uppermost in the questioner’s mind, just as what we put our focus on in our thoughts, our conversation and choice of activities during the week ultimately shows what we really count as important.

Certainly as far as Jesus would have been concerned, the man with the inheritance problem would not have been asking an unexpected question. At that time the local rabbi was expected to be the instant arbiter on practically every legal and moral dilemma. However Jesus shows almost no interest in giving a direct answer to the man’s question. As far as Jesus is concerned, an obsession with possessions is an irrelevance when it comes to the important things of life.

Turn again to his story of the rich man gathering more and more riches – building more and more barns for his wealth, and then at the very last, finding none of his wealth counts for anything against the real issues of life. At the very least this should remind us even today that nothing owned counts for much when facing one’s death.

The parable also suggests that whatever else Jesus might have been, he was a least an acute observer of the human condition. His parable of the rich man finds plenty of modern equivalents. It is intriguing that in the centuries since, although the trappings of wealth may have changed, the same self-serving and ultimately ill-fated desire to accumulate more than we need is almost built into our society.

The insidious effects of the wealth gathering personality have been well studied by the psychologists and sociologists. In experimental studies such folk are often more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behaviour. The underlying implication is that whatever good intentions we might believe ourselves to have, unfortunately the experience of being wealthy risks affecting us in ways we might not readily notice for ourselves. I guess we have all heard well off people explaining why the rich deserve their position which of course justifies behaviours that consolidate even more advantages. Is there a lesson there for us today?

For example in most nations where there is a distinct difference between the incomes of the rich and the poor, the rich often use their influence to ensure tax structures make it possible for the richest to pay less tax than would be expected for the size of their incomes. Some achieve this by setting up family trusts which have the advantage of safeguarding the family fortunes for members of the family to inherit, thus putting family members even further ahead from their poor neighbours from the date of their birth.

In this country (New Zealand), for example, the United Nations statisticians have noted that of the developed nations, New Zealand has one of the fastest growing gaps between the rich and the poor. Even in the US where there is wealth aplenty the UN statistics show the percentage of poor is even higher than in our own country. The Methodist Church in New Zealand at their last few conferences remind us of the plight of poor children in the country but despite vague promises from the nation’s decision makers and some tinkering with social services, month by month and year by year the gap stays unacceptably wide.

Since wealth also brings more personal security we can hardly blame those who work hard to improve the well-being of the family. Nor can we do much about the fact that when one is born into a country with plenty of natural resources and a comparatively sparse population that there will be a disproportionate number of wealthy individuals.

The problem rather is retaining our sense of care for others as our advantages accumulate and together finding ways to work towards a society where the key human values are safeguarded: like ensuring justice for all, like expressing compassion in a meaningful and tangible way, like not exploiting others within one’s own nation in order to increase one’s own personal position, or not notices that others at a distance are living in grinding poverty so that we can enjoy our advantages.

It is rather too easy to get ourselves into the mind-set of the rich man in Jesus’ parable.

We are assured by those who are supposed to know these things that if the food of the world was shared on an equitable basis there would be more than enough food for everyone. As things stand there are still many who are very hungry indeed and as people who claim to accept, value and live the principles Jesus taught, this should matter to us. Prayers dissociated from action will hardly help the problem.

As a church we should continually check what we are asking our politicians to do. The advantage of living in a democracy is that the people can persuade their political masters to follow the will of the people. HOWEVER The disadvantage of living in a democracy is that if the will of the people is merely to improve their personal situation (if you like…. building more barns) then nothing in the ideals of religion we claim to follow will ever be accomplished.

As a church we should be looking to how our current policies reflect our ideals. What proportion of our church income to we allocate to helping others? What issues do our leaders publicize in our church sponsored letters to the editor? Do we make use of Church newspapers? Do we invite speakers from organisations dealing with the serious public and moral issues and have we got the balance right? It would be sad if we were to fund-raise first for ourselves and almost as an afterthought, merely pretend that we reflect Jesus’ principles because we give token amounts away and placate our consciences because we also pray for the refugees, the poor and the down trodden in our prayers of intercession?

I guess most of us would be anxious to say we are not like a well known President.

Very well then…In terms of following the teaching of Jesus, what are we really like?

(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)

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Lectionary Sermon 28 July 2019 (Year C) on Luke 11:1-13

Jesus on Prayer
Perhaps like me you have come across the statement: “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things”. A fine sentiment, but perhaps it leaves out one factor. Prayer can only find its meaning for us if we too see ourselves as people available to help bring about that change.

If we were to pause for a moment and think of occasions of worship with the strange mixture of sublime and heart-felt prayer on one hand and on the other the repetitious and empty posturing that sometimes passes for prayer, perhaps at the very least there are times we should admit we are a little too casual in our approach.

It is not as if Jesus did not leave us with some good places to start.
When his disciples asked how they might go about prayer he answered with the prayer that in our decorated and extended form we now call the Lord’s Prayer.

In Luke Ch 11 we read Lord teach us to pray they said and he replied….from verse 2
2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Have you ever wondered why Luke’s version is much shorter than the version customarily used in most mainstream protestant Churches today?

This points to an underlying problem. Here is Jesus showing us how to approach prayer, yet straight away his followers want to add bits to make it more impressive. Then, if that wasn’t enough, we seem to be forgetting there was also that other passage where he condemned the Pharisees for their repetitive showy prayers. Well then, why risk repeating our version of Jesus’ prayer so often that it can be said without thought or meaning?

Don’t forget it is not just what is in this prayer, but also what is left out, that gives the prayer its special character.

We might also note that in the original there is minimal asking, and perhaps more surprisingly to some, very few words of adulation.

Assuming we are following Jesus’ example and are addressing this to whatever Father in heaven may represent, we might remember while the term Father may well only be a metaphor for what we are trying to express, yet isn’t it also true it would be entirely inappropriate to address our actual human father with excessive words of praise? Even if it were only an earthly father would we be really so naïve to hope our father, thus flattered, will overlook our actions which after all are a much better guide to what is in our hearts. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said “I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.” Jesus seems to have sympathy with that point of view.

The bit from the Lord’s Prayer that grounds it in action is the bit where we say the equivalent of “Forgive us our sins – and the kicker – as we forgive those who sin against us.” If we are not inclined to forgive others, that is the bit of the Lord’s Prayer we should hope never gets answered. Some of you may know the poet Robert Frost once suggested that the phrase might equally be, “Forgive me my nonsense as I also forgive the nonsense of those who think they talk sense.”

For what then should we pray? Following Jesus example suggests we should not focus too much on our own desires.

I have always been very much attracted to St Francis of Assisi who has captured the selfless nature of effective prayer in his own model prayer.
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

– this prayer appears to pick up one of the key points Jesus was also making.
I guess it is hardly surprising that our own dilemmas are going to get some of our attention in our own praying. However please notice that in the Lord’s Prayer, the asking for daily bread seems very minimal – and perhaps in a world where many must go hungry we have no right to ask much more than this.

I think Mahatma Gandhi was on to something when he said “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” …… what was that last bit again?….It is better in prayer to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.

Once we accept the obligation to have our prayer reflect what is in our hearts, I wonder if this might give us a sense of caution for how we might phrase our prayers and for that matter the sorts of things we might ask in prayer.

It has always seemed to me that the most dubious prayers are what we might call petitionary prayers. If we behave as if God is a being who sits outside nature and who will provide a different outcome if asked to do so, it seems to me we are in danger of living in cloud cuckoo land.

It has also seemed to me that the natural world is entirely governed by what some would call the laws of nature. Gravity is a property of mass, the weather follows the principles of physics and earthquakes and storms once thought of as magic or the fury of the Gods could not have been more natural in their causes. Nor have I personally ever encountered anything that makes me suspect otherwise.

Certainly I have seen Yogic flyers – in ecstatic trances bouncing up and down on spring mattresses – but their claim to be actually flying looks to my untutored eye as sheer delusion. They are certainly bouncing and appear to be making effective use of their rubber mattresses as substitute trampolines but when they bounce up, they promptly come down again no matter what they might claim or feel themselves to be doing.

When the Wizard of Christchurch infuriated the local New Zealand fundamentalists by indulging in what they assumed to be black magic by doing a rain dance to break a drought it also seemed to me that it was not exactly magic that his rain dance should coincide with a local weather office prediction of imminent rain.

Praying for rain or perhaps more commonly praying for fine weather to coincide with some function such as a wedding of Church picnic is harmless enough but again – and only from brief personal experience – I have yet to see a consequent change of weather that does not follow from the weather conditions in the atmosphere.

There is also that age old conundrum – would a God of Love be kinder to a baby who had been prayed over than one who wasn’t? When it came to the plague, also known as the Black Death, despite copious prayers and chalking crosses on the doors to keep the black death at bay, the population of Europe and England died by the thousand – and continued to do so intermittently until some wise observer of nature decided to kill all the rats which we now know were carrying the fleas which in turn carried the disease.

Please note however I am not saying that we should not pray for the sick. It is not so much that I believe we will necessarily alter the course of nature in interceding on the sick person’s behalf, but on the other hand I do know that brain activity of specific types can alter our own state of physiology. Prayer and meditation have been studied with brain scans and with stress relief studies and both sets of studies appear to show that there are beneficial physiological effects of that sort of prayer including a return to the steady state (called homeostasis) and the accompanying feelings of calm. Perhaps this fits with that great Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard when he said “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

But if we only pray because we want good health outcomes for those who suffer, there are no guarantees.

In all honesty, having read numerous studies measuring the effects of targeted prayer on patients, such as groups of people praying for those having suffered heart disease or praying for those undergoing treatment for cancer, while some studies appear to show the health benefits for the patients, other studies are unable to show that the prayer helps, and I do not believe any good purpose is served by only noticing the studies that support the case for an interventionist God.

On the other hand I can see every reason for praying for others in that it helps us focus our concern on those who need our care. If you like this is also self-benefit in that such thinking will shape our attitudes of compassion which seems to be the heart of Christianity. This does not of course therefore mean that we should limit our concerns to our prayers. Compassion needs expression in acts of care and kindness as well as in spoken sentiment.

I guess that like the Lord’s prayer, the Prayer of St Francis only becomes real when our lives start to reflect its intention. Prayers prayed in Church might sound impressive but they will not necessarily affect what happens outside the place of worship.

We only need to look to our newspapers. Lots of prayers in the USA – yet what do we read?… Shootings in the USA continue unabated. And what of those unwanted refugees dying unassisted in the Mediterranean – despite many sincere church goers praying across Europe. Thousands continue to die in Idlib in Syria, and in Yemen and in many other places but remember they have prayers five times a day in the mosques and many eloquent preachers praying in numerous churches. And so it goes on.

A ramping up of violence in Libya, bombs continuing in Iraq – and then we say, Lord make me an instrument of your peace. There is nothing wrong with the prayer and every reason for praying it – but it also needs to start to find its meaning at ground level, in the way we encounter those we meet – and the way we talk about those described as enemies.

There may be nothing we can do about what happens in other countries but we can and indeed must start with our own attitudes. Remember the prayer: it is indeed in giving we receive. It is whether or not we pardon, forgive, and sow peace – and whether or not we are prepared to see enemies as genuine neighbours, to ask for our forgiveness as we forgive. Then perhaps that gives us the right to make the Prayer of St Francis – or the Lord’s Prayer our own. AMEN.

(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. Comments and alternative views are always welcome.)

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