DONALD TRUMP AND HIS ALTERNATIVE FACTS ON TPP

DONALD TRUMP AND HIS ALTERNATIVE FACTS ON THE REJECTED TRANS PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP

While I am sure President Donald Trump knows how to add using his fingers, I wish he had used bigger fingers before maligning the junior trading nations with the US like New Zealand.

According to our New Zealand Statistics figures for 2016 we sent NZ $5.6 billion worth of exports to the US and in return received NZ $5.7 billion worth of Goods and Services from the US.   In the Brave New World according to Donald Trump he claims this means that New Zealand gained far more from this trading relationship than did the US! ?  In response, small minded journalists might suspect that (using Trump’s own invented language) he might have “misspoke bigly”.  At the very least, his assertion that smaller partners have been gaining more from trade with the US than does the US doesn’t match the New Zealand example.   Assuming Trump gets his way and achieves a one on one trade agreement with partners like New Zealand, I am puzzled in our particular case why he assumes a new future agreement whereby the US gains more at our expense would have us wanting to trade under such conditions. To take one example, I happen to know that our national airline Air New Zealand is currently buying fewer planes from Boeing and more from Airbus.   If President Trump were to succeed in making our buying from Boeing even less favourable, why on earth would we move more to Boeing while taking fewer planes  from the EU Airbus conglomerate?

The other curious aspect of the new President’s action in closing down TPP is that for some reason he was either denied the information generated by President Obama’s economic advisors – or more likely, simply couldn’t be bothered asking.     From the previous White House point of view the TPP was partly designed to help the large and growing poorer sector of the population.   Landing goods more cheaply in the US may not initially directly benefit the captains of US industry but it sure helps those US consumers who are struggling to make ends meet.  Landing goods after tariffs???  In any case I would have thought extending the US range of target nations for US manufactured goods would have provided at least a few extra jobs.

The other key aspect of the TPP was that by helping the junior trading partners the TPP was supposed to supply what President Obama called the “Asian Pivot”.   In other words by assisting the trading partners develop their own economies it means the US could guarantee future stronger trading partners who would support the US.   We can already see Fiji turning to China because China offers more trade assistance to Fiji.   Friendship has to be a two way affair.

I am assured by the few New Zealand producers I happen to know, that without the current trade barriers with the US we would have been able to purchase more from the US and sell the US more of our goods.   My reason for suspecting this is plausible is that China with a much more relaxed approach to trading with New Zealand has now displaced the US as our second biggest trading partner.    New Zealand’s trade relationship with China has nearly tripled over the past decade, with two-way trade rising from $8.2 billion in the year ended June 2007 to $23 billion in the June 2016 year.

That Donald Trump is intentionally or more probably unintentionally set on making China great again by encouraging them back into the partnership with the other 11 prospective TPP nations may seem a mystery but would at least allow us to set up a further trading relationship option where we would not suffer the prospective indignity of being punished after thirty days for not signing up to a lopsided relationship designed to make the US rich at our expense.  This of course is partly guesswork because the future arrangements of the TPP partners are still at the reorganization stage.   However the TTP is not the only game in town.

The Chinese, earlier sidelined from the TPP, have been developing their own free Trade network alternative and according to the Wall Street Journal are now well advanced in their plans to establish favourable trading for potential partners under what they are calling the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (The RCEP). Since Trump’s election, China has been aggressively moving ahead with the RCEP, and the Wall Street Journal has been reporting that several TPP signatories have been “shifting their focus” to RCEP.

A few days into the “Make America Great Again” campaign and our nation is being forced to find a more positive form of greatness in other main trading partners. Is this really what the Trump supporters had in mind?

 

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Sermon for 29 January 2017 on Matthew 5:1-12

ADDRESS   I want to start with a confession. I guess I have become so accustomed to the very familiar passages in the New Testament that I keep forgetting how far we as a Church may have drifted in intention from what Jesus claimed was important. I recently came across an American Christian minister called Robin Meyers who has written a number of books dealing with the need to live rather than talk about the faith.

When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount – and in particular, the beatitudes, I should acknowledge using one of his ideas. Robin Meyers suggests to us what might have gone wrong. Meyers challenges us by saying of the Sermon on the Mount: “In the whole thing“,he says” there is not a single word about what to believe, only instructions on what to do or how to be” But here is the puzzle. “Fast forward 300 years to the Nicene Creed and the essence of what is supposed to define a Christian, and there’s not a word about what to do or how to be—only about what to believe. Clearly, something’s gone wrong,”.

Then Meyers goes on to goes on to push further, “Not plain enough? The Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed themselves add insult to injury. Both creeds are products of a church trying to ‘circle the wagons’ and establish an institutional identity. Both creeds more or less say Jesus was ‘Born of the Virgin Mary (comma) suffered under Pontius Pilate.’ And there you have it: the entire life of Jesus, all of his teachings, the parables, his interaction with the poor, his healings—whether metaphorical or literal—all reduced to a comma.”

Assuming Jesus’ teaching was important to his disciples, then what the creeds miss out and what the sermon on the Mount teaches may turn out to be the heart of Christianity for modern disciples as well. If we think of ourselves as disciples perhaps formal beliefs about Jesus status might need to take second place to what the Christian life should mean in the here and now.

Well let’s join the disciples, as Jesus takes them up the hillside and shares with them the key teachings. Remember not a word about stuff he wants them to believe .. but some key markers he expects…but who from?

And while we are about it, did you notice that although the crowd were present, and no doubt were intended to hear what Jesus was saying, first and foremost Matthew says this particular teaching was delivered to the disciples. It was almost as if Jesus was saying my way is based on these ideas, and you as my disciples are expected to follow these ideas. The crowd would be listening, and many no doubt approvingly – but if they had noticed as Matthew pointed out that Jesus was speaking to the disciples, perhaps those in the crowd who knew the disciples might have suspected how this was going to pan out was now going to depend on whether or not the disciples were now going to start living out what they were being taught.

If we wanted to distinguish Christians from non Christians while it might be easy enough to ask them to list their beliefs – there may be a more important question namely -what would their behaviour look like compared with non Christians? Would we be doing what Jesus put as important. Blessed are those – those who what?

Over the last week we can hardly have missed that world has been focused on the new US President. Political leaders are supposed to be important because if they do what we hope they help us achieve a sense of well being. They are expected to be fair, care about those who get a raw deal … and of course achieve peace and prosperity.

But did you notice Jesus doesn’t say look to our leaders to mourn for those who suffer loss, for leaders to be meek, for leaders to be peacemakers on our behalf, for leaders to put righteousness ahead of personal achievement, and so on. That would be passing the buck. It is quite simply instructions not just for leaders, whether they be political or church leaders – it was addressed to those who would be disciples.

It is all very well asking Prime Ministers and Presidents to bring about peace on our behalf – and certainly to be honest I am worried that President Assad, Putin and now President Trump will turn out to be rotten peacemakers on our behalf but quite frankly Jesus did not exclusively address his instructions in his Sermon on the Mount to Presidents or even to Emperors – in fact if Matthew is to be believed he wasn’t even talking specifically to the general crowd of spectators.

For the church regulars among us, this is just part of the Sermon on the Mount. Profound wisdom in summary form, and for those familiar with the other gospels, it sounds very much like the same material scattered in Mark and collected in Luke (Ch 6 – verses 20 -49) which certainly strongly suggests that the record of all three gospel writers used some common source. However rather than looking at the similarities and differences, setting the scene in broad brush strokes might be more helpful.

Although Jesus covers a lot of ground in the Sermon which follows, today we only reflect on his introduction to the sermon with the brief list of who should be seen as blessed. This list is probably more commonly known as the beatitudes. A funny word that. The word Beatitude comes, of course, from Latin. The Latin word “beatus” means happy. For those amongst us who like obscure learning, the Greek, from which the translation comes, is the one Matthew used as the beginning of each phrase in his list as the word “Makarioi” .

This word can, and has been translated into English in different ways. Most commonly it is “blessed.” Other biblical translations use words like “happy” or “fortunate” or sometimes “honoured”. The French version of the New Jerusalem Bible even translated the word as “debonair”…which I am still thinking about!

I guess each of the nine beatitudes, used in this particular context, is apparently intended to identify a blessing or some sort of favour, but in some way to our contemporary minds, it is a surprising list. In a 21st century world we would probably first think of someone being blessed if they lived long and prospered in material ways.

Indeed virtually every one of the extremely numerous advertisements we see on our flat screen TVs implies we will be most blessed if we invest in the right material goods. If we buy the right car, look like that shapely model using that butt tightening exercise equipment, own the latest vacuum cleaner, drink the happiest of mood enhancing drinks, win Lotto, install the best lights, get the cheapest takeaways from the shiniest fast food outlet – you get the picture.

Donald Trump will no doubt be envied by some for his personal fortune but I suspect on the Jesus scale, Jesus turns that on its head. He finds the blessings in an entirely different set of values….and what’s more he seems to expect those who set out to be his disciples to recognise these as values in their own lives.

It also grounds what we now call Christianity in the real world. Regardless of what good fortune may come our way, for virtually every person on the planet there are also inevitable hard times, whether they be in coping with loss, dealing with setbacks in health, coping with criticism and envy, or dealing with our own sense of injustice – or injustice for those we may be in a position to help. Disease is no respecter of position and it would take an extraordinarily obtuse person to assume they would never encounter adversity.

Perhaps I should say it outright. A neat comb-over on the top of the head cant preserve the nerve connections, neuro-transmitters and the myelin insulation sheaths of those neurons in the brain. Botox might smooth the wrinkles on the outside but it wont keep you young on the inside anymore than the embalmer’s art would keep you living for ever. What however may be novel in the beatitudes is to suddenly realise that here Jesus in this reported list, helps us find the blessings in the midst of difficult and inescapable realities.

Certainly we can live our lives as if wealth and position will shield us from any serious darkness in our lives. On the other hand if we listen to Jesus’ words about finding blessings, we find ourselves called out of our intended isolation and ushered back to the world as it really can be. Jesus is advocating an emotional openness which enables us to encounter the depths as well as the highpoints of existence – and find something worthwhile in both.

The beatitudes have the potential to help us find worth in the whole of life – both good and bad, but for them to have any meaning at all in the personal sense , they need to be part of our very being – and bluntly – this will not happen unless we first accept them.

For some strange reason, outside formal Christianity, this notion that those who follow Jesus are expected to remodel their lives according to his principles is not widely acknowledged. In my admittedly limited experience it is not even the sort of topic that makes it onto the agenda of important Church business meetings, synods and conferences.

Even when we can remember the list, it is the rare individual who lives as if it is true for them. And to be honest – I am not just talking about other people – me too.

Perhaps it is simply that while most of us have probably heard the beatitude phrases about who will be blessed many times through the years, I wonder if rather we expect to associate them with the sort of thing we hear from the pulpit, without ever entertaining the thought that others might expect to see the same humility, the same insistence on mercy, thirst for justice, peace-making characteristics, and so on from the list as identifying us among the blessed. Perhaps if we recalled how those in other branches of the Church are sometimes criticised by people like us for their failure to match behaviour with their claimed teaching, we might be a little more concerned about our own shortcomings in this department.

Four of these same beatitudes are listed in Luke but notice he only lists the needy, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are persecuted. In Matthew’s extended list, there is a subtle change. The focus is less on the needy themselves and more on changing the attitudes of the hearers.

The challenge as Matthew remembered it was now no longer Luke’s version of simply “blessed are the poor”, or “blessed are the hungry”. No rather it was the challenge to reflect an attitude of being poor in spirit, and the hunger was no longer hunger for food. It was now having a hunger and a thirst for righteousness.

Notice too, the last beatitude of Matthew’s list is personalised – instead of saying blessed are the – it becomes blessed are youwhen you are reviled, persecuted, have evil falsely said about you – for that makes you like the prophets who were persecuted before you. Because Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the persecution was already beginning, we might even suspect that either Matthew is putting words of encouragement into Jesus mouth, or perhaps it is simply that he is selectively collecting the words of encouragement from other memories of Jesus.

So….”blessed“….. Does that sound like you – or me?

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Lectionary Sermon for 22 January 2017 on Matthew 4:12-23

Knowingly putting yourself at risk is not a typical response to known danger. But that is only half one point at issue in today’s reading. Putting the issue another way, there is considerable difference in the actions of the young man who amazed the tourists a few days ago when he boogie boarded down the raging waters of the Huka falls near Lake Taupo, and actions of the teenager recorded as running into the burning house to rescue a terrified child.

Remember back to that misguided African Pastor from North Nigeria who decided he was going to show his congregation that as with Daniel, God, he said, would affirm his faith by keeping him safe literally in a den of lions. According to N G Newspapers, despite the protests of the keepers at the local zoo (at Nibazon) , our modern day self appointed Daniel, the pastor, brushed past them telling them they were enemies of progress and before they could stop him he had opened the gate to the lions’ enclosure – and resplendent in his scarlet preaching robe – he stepped in to show how his faith would be rewarded. The lions were understandably grateful and did as lions are expected to do as they fell upon him, tearing him into bite-sized pieces.

While we might shake our heads at the pastor’s foolishness, we might also suspect that his was the wrong cause in the first place. A Pastor’s focus should be on the care for the interests of those he or she serves … and not on self promotion …for caring for others is what the essence of Jesus’ mission is always about …and if it comes to that, that reminder isn’t just for the pastor.

There are different ways of going about entering a lions’ den. And I guess if we are honest with ourselves, we would need a good reason to motivate us to attempt a stunt like that. So what then do we make of Jesus in today’s reading. Here he is having just heard his cousin John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas – and what does Jesus do? – he heads straight for Capernaum right in the centre of Herod’s centre of control. Surely the lions’ den?

On the other hand we can probably understand that genuine feelings for others sometimes means putting one’s own safety to one side to do what needs to be done. In this case we find Jesus himself, in all probability outraged at the injustice that had befallen his friend John the Baptist, and regardless of the risk, he was in effect taking over where John had left off. Notice for Jesus going into the territory of the king who had imprisoned his cousin, this is not entering the lions’ den for the sake of being admired. This is accepting danger because the cause mattered more than personal safety.

From another angle, strategically choosing Capernaum as a base for Jesus new ministry made very good sense. As the biggest port on the Sea of Galilee, boats would set out, not just for fishing or trade, but also taking news with them. Jesus teaching, to have maximum impact needed to have access to some means of getting the message out there and Capernaum was ideally placed.

In his account of these events, Matthew was clearly editing as he went, no doubt well aware of those to whom his message was addressed. Notice he actually bends the accuracy of his report of Isaiah’s prophecy in order to underline a few points for his readers and listeners. Certainly he wants his audience to be under no delusion that Jesus in this action was acting by chance.

Rather, as far as Matthew was concerned, by going to Capernaum Jesus was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. However when he locates Capernaum “by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan….” he was being economic with the truth about what Isaiah had actually said. The sea Isaiah had referred to was actually the Mediterranean not the Sea of Galilee and although Capernaum could be considered to be the territory of Naphtali it was not as it happens, the territory of Zebulon.

If we take a wider focus we realise that Isaiah had said in effect that the Messiah was going to appear, not in the central power base of Israel but in the Northern fringe areas where there were larger proportions of the non-Jewish population. For Jesus to see such areas as worthy of his concern should also remind us that we too as his followers should be concerned for those who represent the gentiles in our equivalent situations.

Because Jesus addressed part of his subsequent message to Gentiles as well as Jews, Matthew also appears to be getting in early so to speak when he talks about Jesus fulfilling the mission to the gentiles. Stories such as Jesus encounter with the Caananite woman (which occurs in Ch 15 of Matthew’s gospel) or the other stories like Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, or for that matter his encounter with the Centurion, would demonstrate that his message was not intended exclusively for the Jews. Perhaps, in passing, it is also appropriate to reflect that those in our own age who give priority to the exclusive needs of their own faith are not exactly being true to the teaching and actions of Jesus of the gospels.

Although the next bit of the reading appears to underline Jesus’ role as a foreteller of end times, a quick reality check shows us that when Matthew reports Jesus as saying “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” either Jesus was not talking about end times or, if he was, he was mistaken in that two thousand years later end-times are yet to arrive.

We might also note that as it happens Matthew appears to be generally following Mark in his account of this same section (Mark 1: 14 -20) yet Mark had Jesus saying “The Kingdom of God is near” and Matthew apparently changes this to “the Kingdom of heaven….” and I will leave it for wiser minds than mine to explain the reason for the change. The only observation I would make is that since Jesus words appear virtually identical to John calling for repentance because as he too said the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of heaven is at hand, we should be asking if both Jesus and John had the same basic message in mind.

When it came to starting a band of followers it may well be that some of John’s disciples would have responded to the incarceration of their leader by shifting to join Jesus, but because John and Jesus were also somewhat different in style we can see why Jesus may have thought it necessary to do some of his own recruitment.

What should strike us as unusual is that when it comes to assembling a likely group of followers, Jesus sets about the task in a way that would raise very serious questions in a company board room today.

Frankly I don’t think Jesus would have lasted more than a day of two at most as a recruitment head-hunter for an HR office today. These days matching skill sets with even the most humble of positions would be the very least we would expect – and without references and a good CV there really isn’t anything worth doing in the job market. When it comes to modern religious leadership we are even more careful, and require evidence of a good standard of basic education, appropriate prior experience – and even then, there are virtually no leadership roles available, let alone the responsibility of taking over from the boss after a few months erratic unstructured “tag-along apprenticeship” without extensive interviews and several years training at an appropriate institution.

On the other hand there may be two significant aspects to learn from in Jesus calling of the common fishermen, presumably chosen almost at random. In the style of his call we see virtually the same approach as Jesus set for the location of his mission. Remember in his mission he was choosing to care about, and where necessary heal those who are normally overlooked on the fringes. This is only underlined by first finding room among his disciples for those who others would have passed over.

Since Jesus didn’t seem to discriminate between those who had the theoretical gifts of learning and leadership before choosing those capable of following, then by extrapolation, perhaps this teaches us that becoming deeply involved with the kingdom of God is within reach for virtually everyone.

The second point is that his calling may not have been dependent on prior significant formal training, yet it was a call for significant commitment. In effect dropping the nets to take on something new and unknown was risky then and the equivalent would be just as risky today.

There is a sentence at the end of this morning’s Gospel reading that we have probably heard so many times, we pass over its implications.

What was it Matthew said? “He went around the whole of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and curing whatever illness or infirmity there was among the people.” The point here surely is that Jesus was not just interested in delivering a message in words. He was interested in the situation of each of the people he met and was prepared to help where he could.

I freely admit I don’t pretend to understand the miracle part of Jesus ministry. On the other hand miracles are only one of a myriad of ways of extending help to those we encounter.

Of course we are not Jesus any more than we are a Martin Luther King or a Mother Teresa. On the other hand perhaps any day now it will come to us that our call to mission is not merely to admire Jesus or the disciples who followed. Certainly listening to stories about Jesus and the disciples has its own attractions but surely sooner or later we have to decide if we want to restrict our mission as a retelling of stories in the past. We may not be particularly good at mission – yet moving forwards and attempting to apply the principles of Christian living in a host of contemporary and unfolding situations has more to recommend it than passive and mute admiration of fragments of other peoples’ past memories.

Soren Kierkegaard, the theologian and philosopher spent most of his later career encouraging folk to risk testing their faith in a system he called existentialism. One of his statements is worth thinking about.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”
Are we up to that challenge?

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Lectionary sermon for 15 January 2017 (Epiphany 2 Year A ) on John 1: 29 -42

The comedian Flip Wilson had a standard stock reply to anyone who ever asked him about his religious affiliation. “I’m a Jehovah’s bystander” he would say proudly. “They asked me to become a Jehovah’s Witness, but I didn’t want to get involved.” When I first encountered this answer, although I laughed at the time, I have since come to realize that there is a sense in which Flip Wilson’s religion may yet turn out to be the biggest denomination of all.

Certainly if measured by size of congregation some individual Churches appear very successful indeed, but attendance as part of the crowd may have little or even nothing to do with participation in the principles of living that a particular Church claims to be teaching. In the same way attendance at a top sports event may indeed measure side-line popularity, but is a very poor indicator of how many among the spectators are actually players of the observed sport.

Some of the older members of the congregation may even remember a time back in the nation’s social history when Church attendance was almost taken as a given, because with no Sunday trading, no Sports events permitted on a Sunday and strong social expectations for Church attendance, Church in effect was the only game in town. Although Church members looking at dwindling congregations may look back with some nostalgia to those days, the theologian Marcus Borg has a different view. He looked at the decline in mainline churches over the previous forty years and said: I quote (and this from Borg’s book entitled: “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary” P303)………

The good news in this decline is that, very soon, the only people left in mainline congregations will be the ones that are there for intentional rather than conventional reasons. This creates the possibility for the Church once again to become an alternative community rather than a conventional community, living into a deepening relationship with a Lord rather than the Lords of Culture. This is exciting.”

In the events portrayed by the gospel writers at the start of the faith we now claim to follow, intention not convention was called upon at every step.

It is also appropriate to remember that this particular Sunday on the Church calendar is called the second Sunday in Epiphany. An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, (epiphaneia), literally translated as a manifestation or a striking appearance, is commonly used to refer to a sort of an “aha” moment when suddenly ideas seem to click into place. Although probably originally intended for new insights of a religious or philosophical variety, these days it often refers to a major scientific insight or in fact any re-organization of ideas which allows a situation or major puzzle to be understood from a radically new perspective.

Today’s reading is relatively straightforward and to the point. It lists a number of these aha situations, each centred on intention rather than convention. I doubt if the participants in the gospel writer John’s account knew why they had been affected to the point that it made a difference. However as Mark Twain, that master of homespun philosophy once put it: “You cannot rely on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”

John the Baptist had been anything but following convention when he accepted the task of telling the Jews that in order to show they were ready for the coming of the promised Messiah they would need to behave like gentiles converting to Judaism and have themselves baptized in the river Jordan. We can only imagine how annoyed the Priests and Pharisees became at when they saw Jews participating in John’s baptism. Each of those being baptized, were in effect stating, by their participation, that they were living in a time when the convention of their existing religion had not been true to its principles.

Notice too that the choice John offered was very different from our modern equivalent of confessing we have gone astray which is sometimes nothing more than inviting people to shut their eyes and say AMEN to someone else’s prayer. By contrast, the only way someone might have accepted John’s baptism was to undergo an undignified and very public intentional display of a kind which the participants would have known full well was unacceptable to conventional religious leadership.

Jesus himself not only reportedly made his own intentions abundantly clear with his own baptism, but did so in such a way that it was clear to his observers that he was setting himself outside convention. When John the Baptist pointed to him and called him the Lamb of God it may even be that John had suddenly realized by that stage, by Jesus’ acts and words, that here was a probable Messiah who was setting himself up as an eventual sacrifice to what he believed. An aha experience if ever there was one.

John the Baptist was so affected by his encounter with Jesus that according to the gospel writer, he saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and found in this confirmation that, unlike his own Baptism offered with water, that Jesus would be the one to baptize in the Spirit.

Jesus also apparently recognized that gaining followers was not simply a matter of offering explanation in an intellectual sense. We cannot be certain what had been in his mind, but by requiring action instead of offering pat answers to their questions the net result was to give the disciples a new way of seeing.

Two of John the Baptist’s disciples were so struck by John’s reaction to Jesus, their imagination was roused and they saw Jesus as a Rabbi and asked him where he was staying. Notice he didn’t answer directly but instead said come and see for yourselves.

This appeared to have given them an even clearer view of Jesus as someone really significant and they went off to fetch the man Peter who was eventually to become the leader of Jesus’ disciples. Whether or not Peter would have dropped everything to follow if Jesus had not quickened his imagination by renaming him Cephas (the rock) we can never know. What we do know is that Peter’s experience of Jesus changed him from being an observer, to that of an intentional participant. His imagination was awakened and he now saw things differently.

Now for the more difficult part….. Well strictly speaking it only becomes difficult if we accept the challenge to learn from this passage and then try to apply what we have learned for our own individual situations.

I mentioned earlier one of my favourite quotes from Mark Twain. Here is another related quotation, this time from Henry Thoreau “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

If we were for example to think of ourselves as the modern equivalent of the disciple Andrew, whose main contribution appeared to have been as with today’s reading, namely that he was often the one who introduced people to Jesus, now days, straight away we come up against a small problem. Jesus is no longer present in the flesh.

So where is this Jesus we would like people to see? After all for those we bring – the only flesh and blood they will encounter is that of his modern day interpreters and followers. In short, they can only encounter Jesus as in nothing more or less than those like us. And that will inevitably mean encountering as many different manifestations as there are individuals attempting to follow Jesus.

We are by no means all John the Baptists, or a Peter the rock, or an Andrew the introducer. Yet for all of us, flawed as we are, whether or not others will see part of the Christ in us, will ultimately depend not we sing choruses or hymn of praise, nor on the conventions we follow, but rather on the areas of life into which our intentions take us.

Remember Thoreau. It is not what they look at (or, let’s be truthful…. rather….. not what we hope they will look at) which matters. It is what they actually see ….. in us! And unfortunately if they stick around it will not be simply meeting us in the controlled, safe and regulated environment of a Church setting – or a service of worship.

If the first disciples had to come and see Jesus in his own local setting, surely those who come to see his modern day representatives are going to have to settle for doing the same.

We may well prefer that the Church should post advertisements to invite people in to meet the minister who can then organize a meeting with Jesus by proxy through his or her sermons? But isn’t better to admit we probably all know that the poet Edgar Guest had it right all along when in one of his poems he wrote : “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”

Like it or not, if we want to throw in our lot with Jesus, our lives are the sermons that will be seen. Since Jesus was able to summarize all that was important into two simple interrelated commandments, love God and Love your neighbour as yourself, perhaps the quality of our lived sermon will be discovered in how well we are able to live our love for neighbours – because in so doing we live our love of God.

We may not have been to theological college – but neither had John the Baptist, Andrew, Peter or even Jesus himself. By the law of averages we are unlikely to have the right characteristics to make us likely successful disciples. Even some of Jesus’ original bunch might not have scored too well in that department. But it is not our eloquence, or education we are measured by when it comes to discipleship. Perhaps it is simply the matter of getting our imagination into focus as we come to realize how Jesus might appear when we see him in that new way.

Today is the second Sunday in Epiphany. Can you identify that moment of Epiphany for you?

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Lectionary sermon for 8 January 2017 on Matthew 3:13-17

A few days ago, in Churches and religious gatherings around the world, congregations were singing lusty joyous carols. Joy to the world….. Or was it perhaps: While shepherds watched their flocks by night.…. ? The last verse to that one goes:

All glory be to God on high And to the Earth be peace Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men Begin and never cease.”

So how are we doing in the goodwill department now we have witnessed the dawning of a New Year? The Saudis are dropping illegal barrel bombs supplied by our allies on the Shia rebels in the towns and cities in Yemen. There was a mass killing at a night club in Istanbul. The Israelis want to continue their forced resettlement of Palestinians despite the protests of the UN.  The German people are trying to find a sensible response to the terrorists who seem to have mainly come in with the refugees fleeing Syria.  There was yet another ISIS attack in a market place in Baghdad and yet another breakdown of the peace negotiation in Aleppo. As the change-over date for Presidents in the US there are now threats of major disruption in New York.

What happened to Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men? After 2000 years waiting, in many places in the world the goodwill doesn’t seem to extend to women. So instead of enjoying the continuing goodwill begun that first Christmas and assuming it will never cease, here we are, reading about the record number of homeless in New Zealand, nervously waiting for the next act of mindless violence in the community or perhaps opening our news feeds on the computer, reflecting in sad despair at the burgeoning refugee camps and wondering when the next shooting at a shopping mall or school in the US is going to hit the headlines

Today the lectionary gospel reading finds us celebrating the Baptism of Jesus. I want to suggest that first, as with Christmas, we are fond of using over-blown statements about how the coming of Jesus and the start of his mission transforms the world without stopping to think whether or not we as individuals encourage his coming to continue to affect the everyday world. In the same manner I wonder if we are also often guilty of treating the topic of his baptism casually – assuming perhaps that since we got baptized as Jesus got baptized we are thereby transformed into Christians and everyone benefits. As with Christmas, could it be we are making assumptions that don’t necessarily fit reality?

It kind of reminds me of the well-known story about the little girl who started crying after she was baptized? The minister asked her why she was upset. “Because,” said the little girl, “you made my parents promise I would be raised in a Christian home. But I want to live with them!”

In a way it is entirely understandable we don’t necessarily understand what baptism is about. There have been many different types of baptism through the centuries and even the experts in Church doctrine have been divided about what it is intended to mean.

An additional problem was that for the early Church, baptism was being offered for different reasons. The Jews said that only the unclean gentiles needed Baptism when they were demonstrating they were renouncing their old ways to become Jews. John the Baptist told his listeners that even the Jews needed baptism that they too needed to renounce their old ways so that they in effect would be proper Jews, and hence ready for the Messiah.

It therefore followed that Matthew’s account had John telling Jesus he wouldn’t need baptism. In retrospect, Jesus’ insistence that he too needed baptism made a kind of sense even if he were only signaling the official start of his mission in faith. It has also been noted that part of the symbolism might also be that he totally identified with the others being baptized. Some have tentatively suggested their suspicion that Jesus was sufficiently human to consider himself to be a sinner in need of repentance. True this is not widely accepted, but we might at least acknowledge the possibility.

Although Matthew and the other gospel writers don’t say so, for those familiar with the customs and scriptures of the Jews, there is a further possible symbolism in that some of the priests and high priests were ceremonially washed and there were pools set aside in the Temple for that purpose. To the Jews this had a scriptural antecedent For example in Leviticus 8:6 we’re told that, in accordance with God’s instruction — “Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water.” Then, later, during that ceremony Moses “poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him.” Leviticus 8:12

The early church offered several variants for Baptism, including sprinkling with water, the baptizing of whole families regardless of age, and usually associating this with initiation into the faith. About the only aspect of baptism which appeared common to all the forms of baptism is that it was intended to mark a new phase of life.

While the varying layers of meaning associated with baptism offer different things to people at different stages of different faith journeys, this in itself is not a serious problem. Indeed discovering new dimensions of chosen symbols brings a faith to life and looking back with new perception on a chosen sacramental act has the power to open us to new meaning.

Where unfortunately it can and actually has gone wrong in the past is if we come to believe that there is only one permitted form for baptism and only one allowed meaning for the symbolic act. At its worst, what was intended as a public demonstration of a step forward at the beginning of a new journey can then become disciplinary dogma, used to confine actions which ensures little more than the establishment of power for those who wish to control others, particularly those who wish to act as arbiters for judgment on who is entitled to salvation.

To show just how lacking in compassion dogma can become we might remind ourselves that Anabaptists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were persecuted for daring to suggest that adult baptism was needed even for those who had been baptized when they were too young to have understood what was happening. Thousands of Anabaptists were executed at the decree of some traditional Church leaders, and by a cynical and cruel imposed irony, this was usually accomplished by drowning, which their judges insisted on calling a third baptism.

The other way baptism becomes inappropriate, is when it is presented as a ceremony disconnected with what follows. We might acknowledge for example the large number of Christening ceremonies carried out at the request of families who have virtually no other contact with Church teaching other than for the traditional hatches, matches and dispatches.

Jesus’ baptism was not a religious ceremony disconnected with the life that followed. Indeed if it had been, it would long since have faded into oblivion. Because his baptism marked the start of a relatively dramatic period in which ordinary people had their lives transformed, and because it also marked the start of new ways of challenging outworn conventions and nationalistic faith, we then find significance in the ceremony Jesus chose to begin his ministry. Had there been no mission, no concern for the nobodies of his society, no challenge to a close minded priesthood, no crucifixion and no new life for the Church as a consequence of the dimly understood event we now call the resurrection, why else would we be concerned about Jesus’ baptism?

Yet there is a caution here as well. His baptism is not our baptism. Indeed, if the truth be told, we have no way of knowing with certainty even which of the gospel accounts of his baptism was most accurate – nor indeed exactly what was in Jesus mind when he stepped into those waters.

We do know that our own Baptisms, if indeed they have already happened for all those present today, were almost certainly arranged for different motives. And not all Churches have a common view even today. But what we also know, is that baptism – or for that matter – whatever your preferred action you undertake to signal the start of your own faith journey – only takes on meaning if it is followed by steps in that journey.

This is the second Sunday in the New Year and yes – all is not well in the world. Yet we assemble with the intention of affirming the lead of the one we follow. Jesus taught a new way of relating to one another, our neighbours and even our enemies. Each of us has, however briefly, no doubt considered Jesus’ proscribed way – and through our baptism, or confirmation – or whatever our chosen symbolism may be – we may have already signaled our association with his teaching.

The only way baptism will eventually have meaning for ourselves and those we meet is first to start – and then continue to attempt to live his teaching.

Christian faith is not simply listing and affirming statements of belief as a superficial exercise of intellect. It is primarily about establishing relationships with God encountered in creation and in acts of love, forming and improving relationships with neighbours, living according to ethical standards and in serving others. Of course we cannot expect to transform the whole world, stop all conflicts and force others to live with peace and goodwill. What we can do is acknowledge we intend to make a start and realize that the nature of our journey, good or bad, will be our personal witness.

 

NOTE TO THE READER

A number of Church leaders have told me they are starting to use these sermons as a focus for House Group meetings and Bible studies. Because the sermons are designed partly to raise questions to take folk out of their comfort zones, any feedback from studies or group discussions (including corrections or obvious omissions) would probably be helpful to others and might spark further development of ideas. If you are using the posts as a starting point for discussion, you might like to check out the general posts on this web-site where topics like homosexuality, abortion, Bible literalism, bioethics, science and religion etc etc are introduced.

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A lectionary sermon for Christmas 1 A (New Year’s Day) 2017 on Matthew 2:13-23

You have to hand it to Matthew in the way he balances a sense of wonder for the coming of Jesus with the grimmer bits. Admittedly it is an otherworldly story of angels, the shepherds the wise men and of course a guiding star…a good story, filled with awe and wonder and even with a touch of magic.

Then suddenly Matthew switches the mood from pure wonder to pure horror. Herod is furious. Learning that he has been tricked by the wise men, who, despite their previous promise, evidently have no intention of coming back with information about a potential king being born in the area, Herod now in effect throws his toys. He flies into a rage and sends his soldiers to kill all young male infants in the neighborhood. Joseph and Mary are warned and flee with the baby Jesus to Egypt.

In this instance I think that many of the liberal scholars are talking sense when they claim Matthew’s story seems unlikely as literal history. In the first place it seems at odds with the parallel story in Luke which has no flight to Egypt, and in the second place, none of the detailed then contemporary histories of Herod record such an event. On the other hand, even if Matthew was recounting this story almost as if it were a parable about Jesus, it offers more than a mid-rash or pious legend. Don’t forget the grimmer bits matter if only because the real world is not all sweetness and light, even at Christmas.

Matthew’s version of Christmas is important because first it accurately depicts the time into which Jesus was born. The misfortunes which befell many of that time created more than enough refugees to have the commentators on the Bible passages finding parallels with contemporary ages.

Since Matthew was talking of a time where ruthless rulers or invading forces exacted terrible punishment on the population we cannot be certain that a small scale massacre of infants (some suggest maybe 20 or 30 for the then size of Bethlehem) would have made it into the histories of the day. Yet even if Matthew was only intending his story as parable, it is still plausible for the age.

The Romans’ occupation and the dark moods of those like King Herod can but only have exacerbated the vast number of refugees almost constantly on the move. The Jews in particular seemed to be singled out as easy targets and historians point to the large population of Jews scattered to the cities of neighboring countries. For example Alexandria in Egypt was said to be host to something like a million Jews at the time of Christ.

No matter what we would prefer to believe about Matthew’s story of Herod, we have plenty of evidence to confirm to us that Herod was a dangerous neighbor. He may not be independently confirmed to have ordered the murder of the infants of Bethlehem but child murder was very much part of his character. For example he had three of his own children murdered on the grounds that they may have been plotting against him, and for good measure had one of his ten wives executed for adultery.

The Emperor Augustus is said to have observed about Herod that it would be safer to be Herod’s pig that to be one of his sons. As an aside we might note that since the Greek word for pig (hys) sounds very close to the Greek work for son (hyos) we might assume that this was intended as a pun to entertain the Roman nobility who spoke fluent Greek at the time.
Some scholars suspect that Matthew chose to stress the flight to Egypt because some of the prophecies that Matthew quoted drew a parallel between Jesus and Moses.

Remember:…..So Moses took his wife and his sons and set them on an ass, and went back to the land of Egypt. – Exodus 4.20
This is very close to Matthew’s rephrasing for Joseph and his family flight to Egypt
And he (Joseph) rose and took the child and his mother, and went
to the land of Israel.

For Matthew’s readers, the image of Jesus as a new Moses returning to lead his people out of their bondage would be readily understood symbolism. After all here we had the infant Moses saved from almost certain death, and brought up in Egypt so that he might rescue his people…. and now in Matthew’s parallel story Jesus saved from almost certain death to be brought up in Egypt that he might rescue his people.

For Matthew’s readers listening to the words of this gospel at a time when once again the refugees were fleeing Israel this time from the wrath of the Romans after yet another Jewish rebellion had failed, there must have been those wondering if God had not only abandoned them but had deliberately set about destroying them. The claim that major set-backs are the consequence of offending God is revisited by the religiously credulous time after time in the aftermath of each new major disaster. Yet notice Matthew pulls back from this conclusion.

What Matthew appears to be trying to teach as an alternative is that when disaster threatens, for some who take wise action there may be a way through.

Given the current refugee crisis in Europe, today’s gospel narrative should remind us that Jesus’ coming is not an automatic panacea for some age old issues . This is why Matthew’s account provides contemporary challenge. Christmas with its tinsel, carols all adding to the Christmas shopping mall experience, not to mention piles of presents under the Christmas tree, all seemed designed to take us far from the challenges of the real world where many actually miss out. Christmas is a time of joy for those with our advantages – it is true – but don’t forget the joy is supposed to be that one has come with a message that can make a difference to the problems of the real world. We emerge from the Christmas celebrations where we rejoice at Jesus coming to address the world’s problems – yet over the next few weeks we should remind ourselves that as good part of this addressing of problems is through the actions of his followers.

We are hardly true to the message if we pretend that the problems are not there. Matthew does not shy away from that part of Christmas. Perhaps we might learn to do likewise.

Even our support for the actions of the West should be tempered by the reminder that if we avert our eyes when our side supplies illegal weapons like the chemical weapons used against the Kurds, the white phosphorous the US used in Iraq and more recently the barrel bombs used by Saudi Arabia in the Yemen, we should not pretend that the refugees fleeing the destruction have nothing to do with us.

Those grim TV clips of wounded and dying children and absolute destruction of once peaceful city streets show the horrors described by Matthew are still part of our world. It is all very well to rejoice in the coming of Jesus – but sooner or later we have to remind ourselves that same Jesus is not expected to remain in the manger. Surely a good part of our valuing of the Christ child was for the message he brought. Jesus may well have come as Messiah two thousand years ago but the joy at his coming would be interpreted as forced and artificial if it is not intended to make any difference to those who suffer today.

And if they do continue to suffer, there is not much point in blaming Jesus if at the same time we as his followers are not doing our best to be his eyes and his hands in a world where pain continues to be part. of the Christmas season. This of course should not be taken a judgement on all Christians today. In reality there are a good number who work tirelessly on behalf of those who suffer. On the other hand accepting responsibilities for doing something in response to the situations we encounter is individual in nature and just because someone in our immediate circle is doing something in response should not provide the excuse for total inaction on our behalf. We cannot be followers of the Christ child by proxy.

If we go back now to Matthew’s account of today’s gospel we might notice a strange twist at the end. We can certainly understand that the family of Jesus would have been reluctant to return to Bethlehem despite the death of Herod. By all accounts Herod’s son was every bit as ruthless as his father and it made perfect sense to settle further away in the little hillside town of Nazareth. The problem comes when Matthew, ever ready to find parallels for Jesus in the prophecies inserts the words: 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” (or in a number of translations “Nazarene”)

The truth of the matter, as William Barclay points out is that there is actually no such prophecy – or at least not in the part of the scriptures often referred to as the Old Testament.

On the other hand as Barclay reminds us, the ancient writers often used puns and plays on words. Accordingly Barclay suggests that here Matthew may be intentionally playing on the words of Isaiah in Isaiah 11:1 : “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The Hebrew word for branch is Nezer which in turn looks and sounds virtually identical to the Hebrew word for the word Nazarene which seems to have been Netser and which presumably means Matthew is saying for the scholars in his audience that at one and the same time that Jesus was from Nazareth (the Netser) while in another sense he was being Isaiah’s promised Branch or nezer from the stock of Jesse, the descendant of David, or if you like, the promised Anointed King of God.

It is an interesting metaphor which implies a question. If Jesus was indeed a branch from the stump of Jesse, how might we who wish to be part of his mission, become grafted into that same stump? Now that is a challenge for reflecting back on the Christmas season.

NOTE TO THE READER
A number of Church leaders have told me they are starting to use these sermons as a focus for House Group meetings and Bible studies. Because the sermons are designed partly to raise questions to take folk out of their comfort zones, any feedback from studies or group discussions (including corrections or obvious omissions) would probably be helpful to others and might spark further development of ideas. If you are using the posts as a starting point for discussion, you might like to check out the general posts on this web-site where topics like homosexuality, abortion, Bible literalism, bioethics, science and religion etc etc are introduced.

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Donald Trump, the Keeper of the Launch Codes

It is unfortunate that Donald Trump is not only inexperienced in international politics but apparently unable to source let alone understand readily available information.

In the second Presidential debate Trump made a silly claim about the US standing with nuclear weapons which suggests either he lacked informed advisors or alternately that he was unable to understand what they were saying.

“Our nuclear program has fallen way behind. And [Russia has] gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good,” he told the audience “Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We are tired. We are exhausted in terms of nuclear.”

Anyone who followed what the public statements on US current policy have been saying would know he was simply wrong. The Pentagon has made it clear that the government are actually well underway with modernizing all three dimensions of its nuclear triad.    In the sea U.S. Navy’s Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), armed with Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) are being upgraded; the U.S. Air Force’s Cold-War era B-52 strategic bombers that carry the nuclear-tipped air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) are being replaced; and the Air Force’s land based intercontinental ballistic missiles are being modernized.

A few months ago Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, and high profile political talk show host on US television told of how Trump asked a foreign policy expert three times why the United States couldn’t use nuclear weapons if he becomes president. Mr Trump, the Republican nominee, was said to have posed the question during an hour-long briefing on foreign affairs. Now several months later Trump is still uninformed and is apparently so unaware of the recent history of nuclear weapons  he is continuing to argue that the US needs to expand its nuclear weaponry arsenal and has horrified the strategists by suggesting the US should encourage US friendly nations to gain their own nuclear weapons.

At an election campaign meeting moderated by CNN in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the world heard the Donald speak in defense of his claim that some pro US allies should develop nuclear capability. “At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea. We’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself.”

In case anyone shares Donald Trump’s naivety, just a few short years ago when the nuclear armory had reached the point of being out of control, there was an acknowledged genuine danger that terrorists were on the point of being able to access nuclear weapons. If that wasn’t enough at one stage the so called dirty bombs – ie ordinary bombs packed with nuclear waste were being deployed by Israel. In addition a low yield “suitcase” nuclear bomb was reportedly stolen from the Russians and the number of nuclear warheads being deployed had risen to the point where even the US could no longer guarantee that they would they were secure.    A small number of warheads were lost in accidents and the rest had the potential of being misfired or even stolen from silos or other launch platforms.   The US reduction to 4500 warheads and 1500 deployed warheads with a close match on the part of Russia represents a hard won reduction over at least two decades and the notion of returning to an uncontrolled arms race is a chilling prospect.

In any event, there has always been a serious weakness in that the manufacture of a primitive Hiroshima or Nagasaki type weapon is dependent on large quantities of Uranium ore as a starting material. The problem is that when the truck carrying the ore is checked in and weighed at that the processing plant, on the way out if the truck is carrying a small amount of smuggled weapons grade Plutonium it is such a small amount, and such a small fraction of the original load it is hard to be sure that no smuggling has taken place.

It may have escaped Trump’s notice that having access to nuclear weapons works both ways.  When North Korea took the hint and developed a small nuclear capability, the so called “Axis of Evil” not withstanding, even the belligerent George W Bush was cautious about dealing to North Korea as he had done to Iraq. If Donald Trump is correct that the US having nuclear weapons makes it hard for enemies, surely the converse is equally true.

The other problem which was already being addressed by President Obama was that it is currently easy for the President to make a snap decision to launch a nuclear attack in very short order. Obama quite correctly claimed this increases the possibility of reacting prematurely to false information and launch accidental nuclear war.   Could a President be misinformed?   Do you remember the Bay of Pigs?…JFK was quite cross about the misinformation on that one!  George W Bush was presumably inadequately briefed on Iraq’s   Weapons of Mass Destruction?…What sort of Twitter informed choices might a President make particularly if he or she were to boast that they didn’t even need daily intelligence briefings?

Hearing Donald Trump, who expects to have the right to press the button … and already claims he does not need daily intelligence briefings …. now boasting that he wants to be seen as unpredictable hardly fills me with confidence.  Perhaps we might reflect on the words of H R Haldeman in another context when he was quoted as saying:  “Once the toothpaste is out of the tube it is awfully hard to get it back in

The assumption Trump makes is that a powerful US will frighten potential enemies into submission by force if necessary. Let’s see now. Where has that been tried? Cuba…that was very close.    Vietnam? Afghanistan, Iraq? I thought it was generally agreed that invading Iraq using extreme force justified on the basis of poor information tripled world terrorist activity.

However the discussion is now open. Is Trump actually right or simply far right?

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