Lectionary Sermon for 5 August 2018 on John 6: 24 -35

Although each of the gospel writers deals with some common material, each has their own style and each has somewhat different intentions in telling their story. John for example is strongly attracted to metaphor and seems to delight in poetic expression. Unlike the other gospel writers, he is attracted to the more obscure miracles, spending far less time on Jesus’ direct teaching and more on conveying the important truths by relating Jesus’ enigmatic answers to simplistic questions.

The passage for today is vintage John. The scene finds Jesus almost literally pursued by a crowd who simply can’t seem to get enough of him, yet this same crowd is portrayed as including those who seem strangely naive in their questions. The crowd may or may not have witnessed the feeding of the five thousand but, at least according to John, apparently they have heard about it. From the way John tells it, they have probably at least also heard the rumours of Jesus calming the sea and walking on water, but their questions suggest they are simply baffled by his actions and words.

For example the crowd cannot even believe how he is now on the other side of the lake, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” they ask. Jesus tells them in effect they are missing the signs because as he sees it all they have really cared about is that he recently organized to feed them. This, Jesus says, is not the sort of food they should really be after, since ordinary food doesn’t last. Rather, he says, the focus for their quest should really be “for the food that endures for eternal life.” Again the crowd appears to misunderstand and instead wonder what they might do to achieve the same results as Jesus with his strange and wonderful acts.

Again Jesus is anything but direct. “Believe in the one God has sent” is in effect his answer. “Can you show signs like our ancestors received?” they persist. “Like for instance Moses giving them manna in the desert.” “That wasn’t Moses” says Jesus, “that was God acting. Anyway, the true bread from heaven is the bread that gives life.” “And how do we get that?” comes the inevitable question.

Then comes Jesus’ extraordinary and memorable answer.
“I am the bread of life”, says Jesus “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry”.

It might be a mistake to rush too quickly to assume those questions John says came from the crowd are necessarily the questions of the stupid or slow witted. Think about it. Questions like “Who is this man really?” and “Can we have a share in his same gifts?” are actually standard typical questions that still appear to (and I even think should) puzzle many, even today. The standard answers to these questions that we often hear like: Jesus is the son of God – and – we will be saved by our faith and/or perhaps – known by our works – may well have scriptural verses to support them and may indeed sound good in Church but those same answers can become curiously irrelevant when we are at work or down at the shopping centre.

Which brings us to Jesus and the statement: “I am the bread of life”
Although it may sound at first hearing that Jesus is deliberately evading the questions with his obscure answers, there is another way of thinking of his words. The crowd has after all discerned that Jesus has something in his actions that sets him apart. When he says he does not so much bring bread but rather is the bread what I suspect he is really saying is that he doesn’t so much bring the message as he is the message. There is a ring of authenticity about that.

A televangelist who thunders about sin but has an affair with his secretary or siphons off the donations of the faithful into his own bank account, may in fact be using direct quotations from the Jesus and the writers of the Bible in his public address, yet despite using exactly the same words as Jesus, he or she is rightly dismissed as a hypocrite because they are not living my their message. The quiet little old lady who is thoughtful, kind and loving to her neighbours may not have a hope of getting all her Bible quotes word perfect, and may well be unable to use a microphone at all, let alone address a TV audience with confidence, yet her witness will be seen as authentic because she is her message.

Living in what for much of the rest of the world sees as luxury, we in the wealthy West probably don’t really grasp what bread meant to those in Jesus’ audience. In a typical Western supermarket, the shelves are stacked with a huge variety of food. Yet in many places of the world there is only one staple food. In much of Asia the food for necessity is rice – usually brown, unpolished rice. In first century Palestine it was mainly unleavened bread. In New Guinea it is often yams, or for the lucky, pork, coconut and fish. But whatever the staple food – it is the food that keeps starvation at bay.

There is of course one part of Jesus message which can be and often is misinterpreted. When Jesus says don’t work for the food which is perishable, in context he is almost certainly not saying, therefore forget about perishable food. After all a little earlier in John’s gospel he is recorded as feeding the five thousand. Fish and bread are indeed perishable food. On another occasion he was recorded as cooking fish on the seashore for his disciples.

What however he seems to be reminding us, is that food – particularly basic food in a physical sense – may be fine in its place but like other things we might seek, when the merely physical becomes our main focus and we see it as the main or even the only purpose of our effort, we are in danger of losing our perspective. Whatever takes our main focus and attention becomes our life.

You may be familiar with the old Danish folktale of the greedy spider. The spider in the barn spun this magnificent web. First he dropped a thread from the ceiling and from there set out to weave the most magnificent web. Initially the web trapped only a few flies so the spider made the web a little bigger – and as more insects were trapped the spider got fatter and fatter. The food gathering became an obsession and every day the greedy spider would figure out new ways of making the web more efficient and larger. He would remove any ineffective parts that were not working as food gatherers and place new threads where they were most likely to succeed. Finally one day the spider looked up at the thread hanging from the ceiling. Never once has this caught an insect, he said to himself. Reaching up he cut the thread. The web collapsed along with the spider who fell to the floor where he died, crushed under the hoof of the farmer’s horse.

I am sure we can all think of a human equivalent. Perhaps the most obvious equivalent of that hungry spider are simply those who forget the direction of the most important source of life, of action and of support, and instead focus on feeding their appetites with whatever comes to hand.

Traditionally politicians who wish to stay in power exploit this greed. Back in the times of the early Christian Church the Roman Emperors distracted the attention of the crowds with bread and circuses. Today the more subtle version is to woo and distract the electorate with visions of improved amenities, offer tax breaks for the rich and set up trade barriers and immigration barriers to prevent third world countries from sharing our wealth.

Jesus appears to be inviting us to change the direction of our attention, and instead put our main search into everything he stands for as our principal goal and purpose. To work for the food that offers eternal life may be metaphor but in no way can it be interpreted as passive. When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” and tells us that we should work for that bread, it then becomes a call to action.

In one sense, attention to the bread of life or for that matter directing our focus to the heaven directed supportive thread should also help attend to some day-to-day realities. Working towards a goal does not in practice mean that we should expect to reach that goal completely. The real world is a little short on those fully deserving the title of saint. Yet short of shutting ourselves away from the world as a hermit saint, in practice it seems that without being fanatical it should be possible at least settle on attempting to live with a positive direction rather than chasing the illusion of rainbows of self gratification.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be taking a good hard look at areas of real life where a re-orientation is sorely needed. It is simply a fact that more than enough food is able to be produced to sustain the world’s population yet it is also true that many starve.

And why? Simply I guess it is that too many of us are focused on our own appetites rather than on the needs of others, or for that matter, seriously working for the other principles that Jesus lived. To partake of what Jesus called heavenly food is to take Jesus and all he stands for into our thinking and living and that includes accepting his attitudes to others. The challenge is to make that thinking our thinking. I have seen that same message in the lives of some others and I guess you have too, but the real question for my conscience is what others will see in me. For whatever I am is my message, just as whatever you are will speak more convincingly than any words.

Jesus called himself the bread of life and when we seek communion we seek to partake of that same bread. Jesus is the bread of life, and looking at his example and the example of those who have taken him at his word we can see it is a form of sustenance worth working for. How we now react to his offer to seek this bread and to the extent we allow it to become part of our lives will be our offer to others.

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Lectionary Sermon for July 29 2018 on John 6: 1 – 21

The Unexpected Miracle of Treating Others Like they Matter
When I think of a story about Jesus doing a miracle I guess I am going to annoy some people when I say that to me at least is the part which appears mystical or miraculous is rarely the real point.

In this morning’s reading for example, Jesus organizes for some hungry people to be fed. From a purely personal point of view, I have to confess I don’t actually care how he did it – or how it was subsequently remembered and reported. As it happens, because I believe that that the working of the natural world and principles of nature are trustworthy, I strongly suspect that whatever Jesus did would not have required some kind of magical or mystical intervention. Nevertheless there is something that is reported here that sets Jesus aside from how many important people would be expected to act in the same situation.

In one of Rex Hunt’s commentaries and sermons on this particular miracle he tells a story which seems so appropriate to introduce this topic that I want to borrow it.

It seems a small girl called Kathy went with her parents and some of their friends to a restaurant. Because the others were all adults and the conversation was about things concerning the adults, Kathy sat largely ignored. When it was time for the waiter to take orders he took all the other orders first – then he came to Kathy.
“And what would you like?” asked the waiter
“A hamburger and a large Coke”, said Kathy.
“Oh no she won’t” said her mother. She will have the fried chicken and some boiled vegetables.
“And some milk!” added her father.
As the waiter walked away he turned and I suspect to the horror and consternation of the parents he called out, “What sort of sauce do you want on the hamburger?”
“Look at that. He thinks I’m real!” said Kathy.

Waiters aren’t expected to consider the real wishes of children ahead of their parents any more than Jesus might have been expected to alter his plans to take into account the feelings of the disciples, or for that matter, that a crowd of hungry people should expect to have their hunger noticed by someone as important as Jesus.

Living in the cyber age is changing society in new and strange ways. For possibly the first time in history the problem is no longer a shortage of information. Given our ready access to the web via Google and a host of other impressive search engines we are inundated with knowledge.

Faced with this avalanche of facts and understandings our real dilemma comes in the selection of life enhancing observations and principles. This includes what we do with the information from the countless sermons and commentaries on the feeding of the five thousand. No doubt the new Christian might well be content to hand responsibility for this selection to those who go before them on the faith journey, but sooner or later many of us come to the realisation that we too must get to the point of making our own judgement and selection.

There is of course a problem in holding to closely to the literal truth of the loaves and fishes story quite apart from the multiplication of loaves and fishes mechanism. For a start there are other versions of the story in the other gospels and the detail varies in the retelling. There are actually six accounts given in the gospels of feeding the multitudes. Matthew chapters 14 and 15, Mark 6 and 8, Luke 9 and today’s version in John 6.

In one account, we read of 5,000 men and another 4,000 men; once with five loaves and two fish, and again with seven loaves and a few fish; once with twelve baskets of remaining bread gathered and in another five baskets. Perhaps it was the accounts of different incidents, but I suspect not.

That I should choose to see the story as showing how the actions of the least of us, even the actions of a small child, might inspire an open handed sharing is obviously not the only way to look at the event. Yet even if you are one of those who consider that Jesus would not have been constrained by the laws of nature, for me the real issue for the rest of us, who most certainly are constrained by physical realities, is more focussed on how the story might inspire us to relax our attitudes to minister to the needs of others.

When the disciples came to Jesus to ask him to encourage the crowd to leave so that they might find food and shelter, did you notice that Jesus in some way might have almost been reminding them that they had not first shared what they had? ….And Jesus replied, “They don’t have to leave. Why don’t you give them something to eat?” Now note how the disciples replied: “We have only five small loaves of bread and two fish.” The passage doesn’t say so, but I would like to think that Jesus answered that in part by by raising his eyebrows and spreading his hands in question.

John Churcher has written a thoughtful commentary and sermon on this event and I would like to share one short paragraph:

“Which is more powerful and of greater compassion, for me to sit back and to look on this incident of the feeding of the 5000 in terms of a heavenly conjuring trick for which I sing self-indulgent songs of praise to the interventionist God residing somewhere out there? Or is the power, the compassion and the miracle in this story for each one of us, as incomplete as we are, to realize that by living the values of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, the hungry are given something to eat; the thirsty are given something to drink; the strangers are truly welcomed; the naked are given clothes to wear; the sick are taken care of; the prisoners are visited?”

In these terms, I prefer to notice this story is not primarily about multiplication of the loaves, it is more about generosity. A moment’s reflection might suggest for those of us who are not saint-like, generosity ebbs and flows. A huge disaster for example can awaken our conscience. Wasn’t there an increase of giving for the Christchurch earthquakes, as there is each time there is a significant disaster in the Pacific? If we stop to think of the people affected, a hurricane on one of our nearby Pacific Islands, or for that matter a tornado or flood affecting a nearby neighbourhood we don’t have to remain selfish.

Suddenly the tight-fisted can become open-handed … but because they, like many of us, are human with all the weaknesses that entails, dare I suggest that a few months later they may well be back to being tight-fisted. Just remember they could do worse.

Perhaps the sometimes generous are not as bad as those of us who use their religion to insulate themselves from need. It is only religion by proxy if we gather in Church each Sunday to pray for the sick and the lonely – and avoid the sick and the lonely for the rest of the week. It is also religion by proxy, if on one hand we talk in awed terms of Jesus feeding the five thousand yet on the other spend more on eating out than we would dream of putting in the offering plate or than giving as a gift to Christian World Service or Oxfam. If we have five loaves and two fish, and the plight of the hungry is set before us it is not Jesus’ way to ensure that those two fish and five loaves may be consumed exclusively by ourselves.

There is a well known saying with a number of variations. In one of the more popular versions it is: “Don’t tell me about your values. Show me what you do with your money”. This even raises some interesting questions about how whole congregations allocate the money they collect each week. In those budget planning exercises that most Church leaders grapple with each year it is always worth asking where the emphasis actually lies. Could it be that virtually the entire budget is consumed by building and administration. Admittedly there are tradesmen to be paid, salaries of Church workers to meet and buildings to maintain. Yet if the whole purpose of our chosen faith is to reflect and live the values Jesus proclaimed by word and action, it may just be some change in emphasis is required.

No doubt on this occasion the disciples would have been hoping for Jesus to give comforting direction to the tired and hungry – but religion as Jesus would have it – is more than just words, it is the living of one’s true values. For some they will see the miracle of the loaves and fishes as a convincing example of Jesus’ power, something perhaps to wonder at for being totally beyond our ability to emulate. On the other hand there may be those who find in this story an insight into the values Jesus lived and invites his followers to share.

Because we are at different stages of the faith journey there is no point of insisting that we should be similarly affected by this or any other story about Jesus. On the other hand the Christian journey will have much more relevance if we aim for a first hand rather than a second hand faith. At the very least this story of the loaves and fishes might give some reason to encourage us all to seek our own individual interpretation and application in our own living. Whatever Jesus might or might not have been able to accomplish, we are clearly unable to cause loaves of bread and fish to miraculously multiply in a physical sense, but the lesser miracle of seeing others for the first time as those whose needs we might begin to meet with our own limited resources, might be miracle enough for this day.

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Sermon for 22 July 2018 on 2 Samuel 7: 1-16, Mark 6 30-37

Thoughts on building the home, not the house of God

Most young people starting out as school leavers rapidly discover that building a magnificent house is beyond all but the very rich, let alone the most impressive temple in the country. Even King David had to start small. As a shepherd boy, much of his early life with all its difficulties and dangers must have made building a very distant goal.

Certainly his reported killing of Goliath of Gath marked a change in his reputation and from that point his fortunes began to change. However looking at it objectively, even once installed as a favoured young man in King Saul’s household, there can’t have been much peace for that young man. His music and popularity might well have won favour with the young women, but for Saul they were also signs of a threat to his position. Remember that incident when Saul irritated by David’s singing and the adulation directed his way, flung a spear at David and David had to run for his life pursued by Saul and his soldiers.

On the positive side he did have gifts and strengths. For example he was magnanimous in offering mercy to Saul when he found him asleep and defenceless in a cave. He also developed a wonderful relationship with Jonathan, showed mercy to Abigail and demonstrated great skill as a military leader as he led his men in one dangerous skirmish after another.

When eventually David did achieve enough of a victory over his enemies that he could enjoy the spoils of war, his first thought after building his own house was to build an inspiring temple out of cedar.

Times of peace and plenty are no doubt the very times where such building can be contemplated, yet such building carries with it the suspicion that David rather thought that in so doing, people would not only acknowledge the God in whose name the building was to be established – but they would also know that in another way this was going to be David’s memorial.

There is always an uneasy relationship when notions of God get caught up with the rich and powerful. Leslie Milton points out that despite the obvious connection to Judges and prophets – and the religious laws and principles found in such things as the Torah – when Kings and those who wield political power start mediating and housing what they call God’s power – this can lead to a deep ambivalence. Think for instance of King Henry the eighth wresting the Church power away from Rome and vesting the leadership and wealth of the Church of England with himself. It would be difficult to reconcile the following war against the Catholics and the sacking of their Churches in England with Christ’s message of humility and compassion.

Think also of the corruption of Rome at its worst with a Church groaning with riches, and the scandal of indulgences being challenged by Martin Luther. Think the crusades or the subjugation of the people in Central and South America in the name of the superpowers and the Church. Even today, think of Mr Trump’s claim to be a Christian and his and his followers’ attitude to refugees.

So what of those who see the dangers mounting? Should they speak up?
And that brings us to Nathan. You have to feel sorry for Nathan, caught between his position of being a royal prophet wanting to support his royal master with all the sense of obligation for patronage that this entails on the one hand, and on the other, his conscience requiring him to tell the king he was wrong, and that in effect God was have been wanting something quite different.

The problem in fact may have been with David himself. The Old Testament presents David as a very complex character with flaws to match his undoubted gifts. The same David who was said to have slain Goliath was also on one hand a womanizer, a rapist, one who arranged the murder of his friend and general Uriah, apparently in order to get his friend’s wife. 2 Samuel tells us just how wrong David’s subsequent actions could be. Yet Nathan would also have known that here too on the other hand was one said to be a composer of at least some of the Psalms, one who had the apparent loyalty and support of his people, not to mention the power to deal harshly with those who got in his way. It was to this unpredictable patron Nathan must give his reluctant advice.

He presents it to David as God’s message in three simple parts. As you listen to it wonder that perhaps the words might also be intended for people a bit like us.

Nathan tells David that God effectively says: “Sorry but I didn’t ask David to build this temple. A simple tent would be good enough. What I did ask was that David should keep my commands.”

Then again, through Nathan, God further says: David’s reputation and name based on a life well lived is ultimately far more significant than any building he might put up.

And finally Nathan relays from God: What I need is for David to rest from his enemies and focus on giving the same love for his family as I have shown for him.

We are so used to the notion of great buildings built to celebrate God and the various saints that their grandeur can sometimes blind us to some serious basics. I guess the test question is whether or not the building is consistent with the notion of a loving God and compassion for the people, not just the favoured people. These days we might even ask: do the people of the building, perhaps even people such as us, follow the golden rule?

Well if that was the test then David’s dream of a cedar Temple comes up well short. In reality of course the Temple would have had to have been paid for by the spoils of war and no doubt largely built by slaves. Since the heavy cedar would have had to have been carried many miles, probably barefoot from the hills by those on subsistence wages at best, it could hardly have been built in the spirit of a God of love.

Unfortunately it is a message that has been very slow for David and his many successors to understand. In a way it is the message which strikes at the heart of conventional Christianity as well. It is the message that it is the relationships which matter more than the trappings of religion.

David’s Temple proved a disappointment in the long run. Built and rebuilt several times – destroyed by enemies and the focus of much enmity. The contrast with what Jesus taught could not have been more marked. Not for Jesus the need for a magnificent building. If anything Jesus himself was the temple to be sacrificed for others.

Even his mission was of the sort that required him to care not about buildings but about those who shared his tasks. All of which brings us to look again at our New Testament Gospel reading for today.

I don’t know if you have noticed but Mark rarely goes into much detail about what Jesus is teaching and appears to be more interested in the way Jesus interacts with those who come into contact with him. Time after time Jesus appears to notice not just who is there but what they bring to the meeting.

Because we look at a different reading each week with our lectionary it is tempting to see each of the stories as isolated events. However as Mark tells it we can see that what happens is not just what Jesus decides according to his master plan. He may be intending to build a kind of Temple – but his church or temple is built from willing hearts, not bricks and mortar, nor even with cedar. His focus on the human needs means he constantly has to take backgrounds and changing situations into account .

I think it is also significant that Jesus is not some super being who simply overcomes all odds with a word. His teaching and healing met almost total failure in his own home area. Capernaum was very different to Tiberius. Nazareth was not the same setting as Jerusalem. In today’s Gospel for example, Jesus also made allowances for such factors as the fatigue and worry of the disciples. Remember the event which we looked at last week in the beheading of John the Baptist who was after all Jesus’ cousin. Small wonder then, that Jesus was anxious to give his disciples a break after hearing that depressing news.

Perhaps this is a pointer for our own planning. In the same way that we might plan a Church programme in our leaders meetings or in the seclusion of the study at home, that programme absolutely must take into account the situations of those we are expecting to deliver the programme and even more importantly those for whom the programme is ultimately intended to serve. Perhaps this is why rather than organise the big events to wow the crowds we need to be constantly adjusting what we are trying to do for the personal situations of those to whom we minister.

It is very human to want to be seen as successful and I guess that many of us in our own way would like to leave something that sums up our life for others to admire. Remember David thought it should be a Temple. Yet for Jesus this Temple would not have been a building – he cared too much about the people he met. Perhaps Nathan was speaking to more than just David when he said in effect a life well lived is more significant than anything that can be structurally built in God’s name.

There is a subtle difference between a house and a home.  The house is a structure.  The “home” is focussed on those who live there.   Perhaps we might get closer to remembering what Nathan was on about if we could only focus again on turning the house of God into a home, a home where all might find a place.

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Mr Trump to the Rescue!

Let’s see now. The tax relief for the rich has left a hole in the US veterans’ welfare package which Mr Trump is going to fix by going deeper into debt.  Why were the veterans moaning?  The rich were happy.

More importantly, as far as I can tell, the recent Trump tariffs were introduced to make trade fairer for the US since the five % of the world’s population in the US only currently consume 25% of the world’s GDP.  Mr Trump was understandably shocked to discover that other poorer nations unfairly reacted to the US tariffs by introducing their own tariffs and for some unaccountable reason hit the very same states supporting the man behind the tariffs. Why would they do that we wonder?

Now the farmers (who voted for Mr Trump and his tariff policies) have realized that they are losing money, so the deeply indebted government will borrow some more to bail them out and everyone will be happy that America has returned to greatness.

Well that seems straightforward enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps it was always so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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