Lectionary Sermon for 15 October 2017 (Matthew 22: 1-14)

Thoughts on Spitting Against Heaven

I have often puzzled about churches where the faith followed appears to have little to do with the reality of the world in which the followers find themselves. The temptation is to try to pursue one’s faith in such a way that it conforms to what the followers want in terms of their rewards and expected recognition of status.

I once heard of a Spanish proverb which roughly translated says: “he who spits against heaven, gets it in the eye”.

This morning’s story from Matthew seems a perfect illustration of that proverb.

Picture the setting. A king is having a wedding celebration for his son and anyone who has had the slightest connection with what goes on behind the scene at a wedding will immediately know the potential trouble ahead. Who should be invited – and who should be passed over. When the guests arrive, where shall they be seated? and what protocols should be followed? That the wedding is of the son of a king just makes these issues even more problematic.

Any wedding when made to conform to that myriad of human failings and perceptions of pecking order is bound to produce some problems. And this wedding in Matthew at least sounds plausible when the first set of problems about wedding invitations spurned begins to emerge. But then things turn nasty, and let’s be honest, much nastier than when Luke told the same story. Why?

This morning’s parable suggests that a story can or perhaps even should be altered to address current reality. The result may not seem an improvement if pleasant stories are your choice.

The outline of the story seems intended as a straight-forward retelling of approximately the same parable we encounter in Luke where reluctant wedding guests turned down their invitation and found their places taken by randomly chosen people from the highways and by-ways. Matthew’s retelling is somewhat unexpectedly rough round the edges and the changes made don’t leave us with much comfort.

Matthew is clearly dissatisfied with Luke’s version and embellishes the story – but unfortunately in the process paints a most unfortunate picture of the apparent nastiness of the master who in the parable appears to stand for God.  If Matthew’s idea of God appears to have evolved from Luke’s – perhaps we too should check our own image of God and wonder if it needs more work,

Remember the story from Luke is a favourite with preachers and it doesn’t take much examination to see why the Matthew version is often avoided altogether for a pulpit exposition.

Admittedly the story would be in keeping with the kings of the time who had to hold to their power with total force. This picture of God is far more Old Testament than New Testament. If this is the case since we now live in a different age perhaps we need to ask ourselves how we might rewrite and represent the story for our day and age.

Look again at the detail. Having been turned down by those originally expected to accept, the king probably correctly reasons that such wholesale rejection of his invitations is in fact a deliberate slight, and in all probability an indication of rebellion. How to respond? His answer is with a total display of power. He actually goes as far as to murder the messengers who return the rejected invitations. Next he orders the effective destruction of the entire city, butchers the rebellious inhabitants – and finally shows his contempt for the original ingrates by in effect organising a transfer of power to total new- comers – appointing if you like a new class of supporters.

Then as if the previous mayhem were not enough, he takes one poor guest, identifies him as improperly dressed, has him bound hand and foot then tossed out for the apparently minor crime of being improperly dressed.
So there are puzzles to solve. Why did the story need changing in the first place?

In the first place when the story first started to circulate there was a different setting in which it was probably heard.

Remember Matthew was probably assembling his version of the gospel at a time when the Romans had tired of trying to subdue the Jews who resented their invaders to the point that they had risen in revolt. To teach the rebellious Jews a lesson the Romans had had sacked Jerusalem and driven the survivors in effect out to the wilderness. Matthew then may simply have been putting a theological spin on the reason why this terrible event had occurred by adding a blood-thirsty bit of vengeance to the simple parable found in Luke’s gospel. Matthew appears to be using Jesus parable to remind us that those originally chosen – the Jews have not understood that the invitation to join the son’s party requires a response – and in the face of their inability to respond, others – presumably those we would now call the Christians – must seize the opportunity.

And there is plausibility in the choice. Turning down the invitation on the grounds that we might find a better offer would seem a relatively common response. Since we are not so much talking of Church attendance as participation in the good things of the kingdom, time after time history teaches us that to ignore those higher values of life can and does lead to crisis.

Shutting your eyes to the poor, only works for so long. The French revolution and the Russian revolution are not mere parables and it is hard to pretend that the Arab Spring or the current attempted Islamic State uprising had nothing to do with disenchantment with those leaders who had forgotten to care for their people.

Church leaders and even whole denominations lose their right to the seat at the feast if they do ignore the moral imperative of the real issues of the day. It is said for example that the same evening on the same Moscow Street at one address a group of revolutionaries gather to discuss overthrowing the Tsar – and at another address in the same street a group of Priests gathered to discuss the colours of their vestments. One of those meetings changed the history of the world.

In most nations there is a tendency to forget the embarrassment of the starving – and the growing gap between rich and poor. There is something sad about the way in which most wealthy nations refuse to take the growing world refugee problems seriously and although most large churches would claim to be concerned for the planet there is little evidence of concerted action. A few years ago in our universities there was a social theory explaining the lurches observed on group and individual behaviour called catastrophe theory.

Its main contention of catastrophe theory was that stresses would continue to build incrementally until there was a sudden switch in response and suddenly all was different. This is a lesson which has proved very difficult to learn at a national and even international level. A few years back, the partial collapse of the world banking system, and even today the insidious build-up of social pressures until rioting breaks out, the increase in world terrorism ….. all complex phenomena no doubt – yet in retrospect these were phenomena where the warning signs were present.

The notion then that those who might expect to have a seat at the top table suddenly finding themselves cast out to a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth may have more gritty reality than we might hope, particularly if we are more interested in preserving the goal of conventional symbols of wealth. William Barclay once put it that it is easy for a person to get so involved in the things of time that they have nothing left for the things of eternity.
This brings us to a part of the wedding feast parable which we find hard to comprehend unless we are aware of some local knowledge – namely why the guest who failed to put on the wedding robe got chucked out.

Don’t think for one moment this would have been a George Clooney type celebration. Several knowledgeable commentators have pointed out that in Jesus time when guests often didn’t have a large wardrobe, the wedding robes would have been ones provided by the host. In other words putting on the robe would be a natural courteous response to the hospitality offered. But in order to understand this for its full meaning we need to look a little deeper.

Some commentators have also noted the likely parallel with the imagery offered by one of the letters attributed to Paul. In Galatians Paul entreats us that on accepting the challenge to follow Christ we clothe ourselves not with ordinary clothes but rather clothe ourselves with Christ. This curious analogy (Galatians 3:27) draws attention to the difference of clothing yourself temporarily for the occasion (eg a business suit for a day in the office) and clothing yourself for what some have called eternity.

In the context of the parable, all but one of the guests understand that to take advantage of this opportunity which has unexpectedly come their way, they had better do rather more than turn up. In this feast they have a part to play.

The analogy with church is clear. Simply turning up is hardly the same as clothing yourself with Christ – in other words our challenge is to cloak ourselves with the persona in which the values and attitudes of Christ become part of our own persona. Jesus in a number of places portrays God as not allowing oppressive regimes or uncomfortable injustices to remain intact. While it is probably human nature to prefer routines and even ruts to chaos – when the chaos arrives as a result of neglect – as with the wedding feast there may still be new opportunities but not necessarily for the same people. Those opportunities may well be opportunities of service, of compassion, of ensuring justice,- opportunities in fact that come with clothing ourselves with Christ. The parable comes also with an awkward truth. Not all those invited for the feast will accept the challenge – and not all will accept the offered robe. The invitation is there – how will we respond?

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Lectionary Sermon 8 October 2017 on Matthew 21:33-46

IS IT TIME FOR OUR TEAM TO BE REPLACED?
There are different ways of reading the history of the Christian Church. Despite the subconscious acknowledgement that there is one Jesus and one essential gospel it is easy to get so tied up in the minutiae of our present local church setting that we might easily miss just how many times this particular parable has played out in the shaping and reshaping of the church into its current myriad forms. Even more to the point, there is the danger we will miss seeing which part of the parable might be calling our own actions to account.

As with many of the New Testament stories, the key to unlock this allegory comes from earlier teaching. In this case the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah talks of the “well-beloved” as an image for God and talks of God’s pleasant planting in terms of his people. Isaiah’s vineyard refers of course to the 8 century BC people of Judah, but don’t forget Isaiah has earlier explained very clearly what the harvest is.

The people are expected to be an example – a shining light or beacon to the whole of humankind and in that context the harvest is behaviour in keeping with how the character of God was portrayed at the time, and here is the important part, with an emphasis on providing…….. justice. If we look back to the first chapter of Isaiah we even find this justice defined. In verse 17 he explains it in terms of rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow.

And in case there should be any mistake about how important this is to Isaiah he makes it every bit as clear that if this justice is not delivered, it doesn’t matter how pious the people might sound – it is futile without the acts of justice. In that case Isaiah hears God’s words saying what? Here it is (Isaiah Ch 1 verse 13): Incense is an abomination to me. I wonder if these days a modern Isaiah might imagine God saying : without justice ….worship songs and high sounding prayers are an abomination to me

Jesus theme fits this imagery. The nation of Israel is that planting of grapes. The harvest which is to be produced is still justice. The workers are given chance after chance to hear the agents of the Lord – coming as slaves of the Lord which presumably are intended to represent the prophets, and the last of these is the owners son – clearly Jesus himself, and all came asking for the harvest. But not only are the earlier prophets ignored then reviled – What did Matthew say? : “beat one, killed another and stoned a third”…but then even the son himself – the son understood to be Jesus is taken to be killed.

Matthew in choosing this parable to record was writing at a time when Jesus had already been sent to the cross – and undoubtedly the listeners also saw the connection between the son of the land owner and Jesus himself.

Yet Matthew records Jesus as saying even that killing the son won’t stop the God from his insistence on the harvest. Thereby comes the truth that would have been very upsetting to some in the audience. What of the tenants who had had their chance to deliver justice – to deliver the harvest and failed? They will be put to death by the owner of the vineyard and the vineyard given to others to take on the responsibility of the harvest.

The reason why this would have been upsetting to some among Matthew’s audience is that, for the Jews of that time, there was an absolute self-assurance that they were the chosen people. Their whole faith was predicated on that assumption and to have someone say that they had had their chance and missed it would have been very hard to swallow. And I suggest it would be much the same for anyone today thinking that they had joined a Church with a satisfying theology where they felt at home with their place – in effect among the chosen…then to hear in effect that the Church had dropped the ball and some other people would have to pick it up.

Remember Matthew was probably writing after the knowledge that the Jews had been turfed out of Jerusalem by the Romans, and I suspect he believed the parable was saying that the Jews had missed their chance to deliver Justice – now it was up to the new Christian church to deliver.

But we have one advantage that Matthew did not have. We can read our Church histories and see that this story has actually been played out not just once but a number of times in the history since. That early church started to deliver – then failed. Others then took over… and in time they too lost sight of the purpose of the harvest.

Time after time the vineyard shapes up to give a great harvest and the workers lose sight of why they are there and treat those who call them back to their task with contempt or worse. When this happens the tasks are re-allotted to others – and a new Church is needed.

Think for example of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Martin Luther, ensuring prestige power and great wealth for the Church hierarchy. They had even hit upon the idea of selling places in heaven with the sale of what they called indulgences and had subverted the message of the gospel to the point where it had practically disappeared. Martin Luther increasingly discomfited by the Church failing to care about the harvest as delivered justice listed all the things he saw as being wrong and nailed up the list on the doors of the cathedral – the result was a total reformation – and the start of a new Church – the Protestant Church.

And as I suggested it is a story many times repeated. John Wesley seeing what had become an exclusive Anglican Church, a Church which had morphed into becoming a support of the wealthy. His preaching offended those who I suggest were uncomfortable in hearing his back to the basics social gospel – and he was prevented from preaching in the Anglican churches. His taking his message outside where the people were is how the Methodist Church got underway.

We should now acknowledge that since the Methodists have been going for a good few years Methodists in their turn must be vigilant that issues like justice are not taking second place to Church maintenance and focus themselves.

One familiar contemporary parable is that of of the life saving station. (Found in Personal Evangelism 101 By Brent Hunter). In summary the parable goes something like this: In order to deal with the large number of shipwrecks on a particularly dangerous bit of coast some local people set up a rudimentary lifeboat shed and performed many rescues. Then as success attracted more donations a better and more comfortable lifeboat station was built – so comfortable in fact that dripping survivors messed it up and were not really welcome.

On a cold blustery day it was now better to stay in the warmth and comfort of the lifeboat station – and the number of rescues tailed off. Eventually just a few noticed that no rescues were happening. The few protested and were told by the others that if they insisted that life saving was still important, there was nothing to stop them going down the coast and setting up for themselves. And they did set up their own tin shed a little way down the coast where the cycle repeated.

Now of course there are many lifeboat stations down the coast – most of which are comfortable club houses – yet most who are shipwrecked still drown.

t is not up to me to say where a nation-wide Church or even an individual congregation is in this cycle. The New Zealand Methodist Church in its Mission statement has a phrase “each member a minister”. Rather than concern ourselves with “what’s in it for me?” it is worth remembering that “Each member a minister” is a very perceptive phrase which is rather easily glossed over. This I guess another way of acknowledging that the buck doesn’t stop with a Pope or Archbishop or President of the Church conference or even the leader of the parish. The buck stops with you and me.

If we take this seriously it should not therefore simply be left to designated leaders to speak on the issue of justice as they feel like it. This is an issue where we as members, each as ministers, have to calmly and deliberately look at the evidence that we are still focussed on justice, and if not, ask seriously what steps we will take..

It is simply not possible to tackle every single justice issue but to my way of thinking it may well be a case could be made that we no longer have the balance right.

The contemporary dimension of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is that the need for justice is just as important now as ever it was. There are very obvious and numerous examples where people are suffering terrible injustice. There are clearly those living without freedom and political rights.

The one eighth of the world’s population who are inadequately fed in a world where enough can be produced is to my way of thinking an injustice. I think the same could be said for those whose lives are made miserable by slave labour conditions, the child prostitutes, those stuck in refugee camps because nations like ours say we can do virtually nothing, or those rotting in prisons without right to a fair trial. The large percentage of young children even in this country living below the poverty line is also another issue which needs attention. Those denied medical assistance, or basic education, or clean water also seek justice.

There are labourers working in the vineyards addressing such issues – but I would suggest to you that there are equally those whose actions show a total disregard for the harvest of justice. Can I suggest the annual balance sheet and annual report on the Church projects for the year is one objective measure of a congregation’s emphasis on justice?

The parable is clear. If we insist that our own interests come first and that helping with the harvest is a more distant concern – should we now realize that the responsibility would be better be left to some other people?

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Ambassador Brown Seeks to Instruct New Zealanders

When Ambassador Scott Brown was appointed as the Trump representative here in New Zealand, his lack of experience in the issues that affected this country appeared a serious cause for concern. Certainly the current stand-off between his President and the North Korean President Kim Jong Un has the potential to destabilize the whole region around Korea but I would have thought Ambassador Brown was hardly in a position to tell New Zealanders that they don’t appear to understand the issues.

Hopefully Scott Brown has some history  of insisting that the US lead the way in nuclear disarmament – and perhaps he may well have written insightful articles about silly US gun laws which set the stage for numerous gun crimes such as the recent massacre in Las Vegas.   If so why does he not share the text of such insights so that we can see he has the credentials to offer us advice.

I would be interested to find out if Mr Brown’s understanding of the current situation allows him to acknowledge that our Government’s own investigations of past nuclear testing in the Pacific assembled plenty of evidence that the US and the UK deliberately endangered some Pacific Island communities with their nuclear bomb testing in places like the Marshall Islands.  More recently I thought it was New Zealand not the US protesting the bomb testing by the French. If Ambassador Brown is wanting us to join him in his rant against North Korea, is he now prepared to admit his country has been responsible for equally stupid and dangerous activities in the recent past?

It is now very clear that the official line from the US at the time of the US nuclear testing was to categorically deny the effects of such testing. Further, when public feeling against nuclear weapons had grown to such an extent that nuclear armed naval vessels were no longer welcome in our ports, surely even Mr Brown’s past silence on such issues would not have made it impossible for him to have since discovered that the US subsequently tried to pressurise this nation into changing its anti-nuclear stance.

There are some puzzles in the present situation. First the US has made every effort to continue modernizing its nuclear capability, has sold nuclear weapons and expertise to Israel and continued selling illegal weapons (eg fuel air explosives, barrel bombs etc) to various nations with a long history of political instability. For example we now know that the US not only sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein’s government but also helped them with technical advice when they used such weapons against the Kurds. Is it any wonder that we are now cautious when the US seeks our support for their next campaign?

Now we are expected to believe President Trump when he uses belligerent language to boast about the strength of his nuclear arsenal and further we are expected to be impressed when he threatens the North Korean President with stand-over tactics.   And why? because North Korea is daring to invest in the very weapons that President Trump says gives the US an edge.

Don’t forget New Zealand has no reason to trust the US when we, like many of our partner nations, now have incontrovertible evidence we were lied to about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and for that matter similarly lied to about more recent programmes like extraordinary rendition. If the US is caught supporting torture, (and President Trump is on record as saying torture should be kept as an option) why does the US ambassador seem to want us to believe that the North Korean President needs stopping because he appears to condone torture.

(I would welcome comment or criticism from readers.   Use the option at the bottom of this article to express your view)

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Lectionary sermon for 1 October 2017 on Matthew 21: 23-32)

(Sorry – just back from an overseas trip – I posted this sermon on last week’s date.  I plead old age and a wandering mind)

Jesus’ parables are generally easy to follow but not all are simply vivid and memorable stories. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus, the master of creative story-telling, is typically recorded as telling each parable in a form that everyone listening could find something there with which to relate. That was the comfortable bit. But then, for a good number of the parables, with his listeners first following and then taking the bait, they would discover the hook.

The parable was not always just a story about someone else – it was sometimes a story directly and personally aimed at those who would listen. Even when we find the story told again two thousand years later, the barb on that hook is as sharp as ever. Jesus aimed this particular story about the two sons asked to work in the vineyard at those who in his day who were leading religious figures. The barb was that to point out that others like the lowest of society were ahead of those leaders in their faith. Might his parable retain the same bait – and same barbed hook today?

The parable again:
28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

There is something artificial in the promises given for Church membership that has the potential to make Jesus’ parable of the two sons almost embarrassing. This is possibly one of the easiest parables to understand. Two sons are asked to help their father in the vineyard. One son promises – then fails to deliver on the promise. The other son says he won’t help – then does help. Which of the two does what his Father wants?….An absolute no- brainer. It isn’t the promise to help that counts – it is whether or not the help is delivered that matters.

Here in New Zealand we have just emerged from yet another election. And boy – did we hear some great promises. Race relations would improve. Each party was going to fix the economy, the social issues and the environment. The education system was going to be reformed. Trade was going to increase. The children were going to be looked after. Employment was going to improve. The health system would deliver and the elderly would have a better future. New Zealand would become a more caring society.

But did you like me notice three things missing?

The first was the promises from last time did not seem to have made much difference in the last governmental term. The second was that most promises seemed pretty well like those we heard last time. And thirdly – and perhaps most significantly – we the voters were not called upon to account for how we had helped the government achieve their goals on our behalf.

If we had been called to account, how might we have responded?

But rather than complain about the way the politicians had met their past promises wouldn’t it then be also somewhat embarrassing if Church members and even entire Churches and denominations were assessed, not on their assertions on entering membership, but rather on the evidence that they were delivering on the promises they had made.

Although Jesus’ detailed teachings are sometimes hard to interpret in a rapidly changing world, the principles are fairly articulated in most branches of the Church. Do you remember when, a few years ago, virtually all organizations including Churches were encouraged to come up with their mission statements?

Our Methodist Church took its task of setting up its own Mission Statement very seriously, developing it over more than one annual conference with numerous Synods in between and because I don’t want to embarrass anyone here this morning by asking how much of this they can recite from memory – I would just remind you that there are some magnificent intentions in this carefully crafted set of what in effect are our promises.

Without giving the whole of it in detail, we have at least agreed that not only are we going to proclaim the transforming love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and declared in the scriptures we are going to reflect that love in what we do. No doubt the preachers do a reasonable amount of proclaiming on our behalf but do our neighbours and those in the community see evidence we are reflecting this transforming Love?

We are going to challenge people to commitment in Christ. I am sure we are – but it is also a fair question to ask which people we have challenged in the last week – or even in the whole of the last month?

Remember we are going to be peacemakers between people both in the community and in the world. Well out in our community there are examples of violence on a daily basis. Our jails are full. Marriages are still falling apart. I am sure we are going to be peacemakers, but looking back over the last week – this last month where exactly has our peace-making effort been visible?

These statements you see, are in effect promises. We are saying what we are going to do. Under ecology for example we say we are going to care for creation. Presumably this has to mean something about handing on the world to the next generation in better condition than it was when we took over our stewardship.

Planting – rather than destroying native forests, cleaning our waterways rather than standing by and watch them be polluted, caring for our air and our soil and our endangered species. Having made and agreed with our statement of intent we can but hope that our planning as Church members includes action. So here is the question. Would others watching from the side be able to say that from what we see that our Church is concerned with ecology?

We are going to work for justice for any who are oppressed in our country (Aotearoa New Zealand)? Presumably this means that when new immigrants are getting a raw deal – or being denied entry because they are refugees rather than rich people – we will not only care, we will speak up. When did that speaking up happen?

Our promise on inclusiveness is that we will ensure the operation of our Church caters for all – so that our leaders meetings and worship will have visible representation by all groups, different cultures, newcomers as well as old hands, people of different sexual orientation, old and young. At one leadership course our District Superintendent asked how many of those present had young people fully involved in Church decision making… without going into detail I would have to say most present were a bit uncomfortable with the question.

And so we might continue to recall the promises we have in effect made. Those promises about Church unity, evangelism, cross cultural awareness.
But remember according to Jesus it was not just the ones who promised and failed to deliver – but he then went on to say that the ones who were not making the promise – but did in fact deliver on the test were the ones doing the Father’s will.

This is where there is possibly cause for embarrassment. We state we are concerned about ecology. If for example it is a group of young people not connected with the church who start to plant trees and clean up the environment, who will get identified as the group that is concerned about ecology?

If it is the United Nations or the Quakers who offer the courses in peace-making skills and sponsors the peace convention – is it them or the Methodists who are entitled to say they are concerned about peace-making?

Clearly we can’t all be predominantly peacemakers and ecologists and evangelists – and if it comes to that – in any case we are all at different stages of our journey. The elderly person on a walking frame cannot be expected to be a front line disaster volunteer, or a young teenager a disputes resolution mediator in a war zone, yet nor do we have the right to proclaim intentions unless somehow we follow through and ensure that somewhere in our organisation there are those who are delivering in these areas.

You can see at the very least the mission statement highlights Church family intentions – and if they are intentions that seem be intended as having no part in the present expression of the family life, they might be better temporarily set aside as inappropriate for public declaration rather than trumpeted for others to wonder at. Yet there is also a reality to acknowledge. In each of us there is something of the sinner as well as the saint, and as with Jonah, knowing what we should do is not necessarily the same as doing it.

When it comes to those mission statements the real trick is then not so much to abandon the parts of the mission statement we are not achieving and nor is it for that matter even setting our sights lower. The Mission statement is after all the agreed ideal and within most mission statements there are indeed fine ideals. What however may be missing is a starting point of ruthless self awareness and honesty. The mission statement can provide the essential points of reference. The quiet acknowledgement of those aspects of faith where we are falling short – and the genuine resolve to attempt to do better might be all that is required as the beginning of genuine mission.

I like retelling my favourite non Bible parable –admittedly with scant regard to the original form) from the Talmud.

Once there was an old Rabbi who got to the stage in life where he needed transport.

He decided to buy a donkey and went down to Honest Joseph’s donkey yard.
The latest models were out of his price range but in the trade-in section there was a rather shaggy and care-worn donkey with a somewhat moth eaten appearance and a matted mane. A price was struck and honest Joe was seen rubbing his hands as the rabbi and his new second hand donkey left the yard.

When the rabbi got home he called his friend over to have a look. He was initially sceptical but on closer inspection this donkey looked rather better than he did at first sight. The rabbi said, “All he really needs is a good brush!” And right then and there he started to brush the donkey. There was a particularly stubborn knot in the mane and when he took a closer look – there was an expensive jewel bracelet.

“Wow!”, went his friend. “Now you’re rich!”

“Oh no said the Rabbi. I bought the donkey – I did not buy the bracelet.
And despite his friend’s protests, it was off back to the donkey yard.
To say that Honest Joe was flabbergasted was an understatement.
His reaction was interesting.

“Your God must be a great God!”, he said.

To follow through on the ideals of our faith takes us to a new level. But more than that, it provides purpose and meaning to what otherwise might be meaningless promise. Who then would Jesus say is doing the master’s will?

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Lectionary Sermon for 17 September 2017 on Matthew 20: 1-16

We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” Rabbi Hugo Grynn

The standard, and I suggest limited, way of looking at this reading from Matthew about the labourers and the vineyard is to use it to gain insights about God. If for the owner of the vineyard you read God, then at one level the reading might be telling us about the generous nature of God. In practice this unfortunately leads to some fairly strange ideas about theology.

For example for a period of several centuries some branches of Christianity taught that “the last shall be first” meant that just so long as you confessed just before your death it didn’t matter much what you did during your lifetime. The difficulty here is that this implies that religion has nothing to offer this life. There is also the problem that since the next life, whatever that might mean, is largely a matter of speculation in that there are just about as many beliefs about the nature of what the word heaven is intended to mean as there are versions of Christianity. Some even take “the last shall be first” even more literally. Theodosius, the Roman Emperor who made it compulsory to become Christian and persecuted those who failed to convert was also famous for his thirteen statues he commissioned to represent the apostles.

You may already know that when he was asked why thirteen – instead of twelve – he explained that his was the thirteenth statue. When asked why his was the biggest of the statues he replied modestly – “the last shall be first”.

But not only is this a shallow reading of the parable – it is even not paying attention to what Jesus was actually saying. He does not in fact say God is like the landowner who goes out to hire labourers. What he actually says is that the kingdom of God is like a landowner …..

In Jesus teaching he seems to be implying that the kingdom of God is the situation we become part of when we accept the call to follow.

In other words referring to the kingdom of God, instead of God, is really placing us in the parable. After all, if in symbolic language we wish to identify with the kingdom of heaven, then the story may not so much tell us about God, but rather gives us a clue as to how we might treat others.

Even although Jesus’ parable has been around a long time there are few signs that all those who attend Churches see it as having anything to do with their behaviour.

I want to give three examples of Church congregations which demonstrate what can happen. The first is something told to me about one particular Church where a woman said that she had shared with another woman saying that after twelve years she felt she was just beginning to be accepted as part of the congregation. The woman she confided to responded that she had been attending for even longer and she still felt she was not quite accepted.

My second example is a personal one. When I started teaching at Wesley College many years ago, I used to take services regularly as a lay preacher at one particular small country Church. They were lovely folk – but never once did Shirley and I get invited to a congregation member’s house. What is more I noted that other visitors had the same reception – almost as if they had to have done the long service before qualifying for proper friendship.

When we shifted to Papakura, Shirley and I went somewhat tentatively to Church on a Sunday morning and were not only greeted and made to feel extremely welcome, we were also invited to a meal on the first day. Needless to say we reciprocated and started attending that Church as a place of friends. Now years later I wonder what might have happened in the little country Church I referred to earlier if my wife and I had done more to invite members of the congregation to our home.

My third example happened at a Church (not mine) in our neighbourhood when we lived in Epsom where I was told an elderly woman had arrived as a newcomer and after two or three weeks announced to the congregation that since she really knew nobody, she had divided the congregation up into manageable groups and was inviting first those with surnames A to L to her house for a pot luck meal. According to my informant this has had a transforming effect on the friendliness of the congregation.

Yet in every walk of life this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The kingdom of God is like……
Well it certainly can’t remain like words in a book – even clever words like the words of Jesus in a Bible. Stories and uplifting words can give encouragement but they are a poor substitute for the real thing: the lived faith.

If the kingdom of God is the equivalent of the open hearted landowner who does not demand extended evidence of extended genuine effort before giving a full measure in return, then perhaps one message we might receive from the parable is that is not so much a description of our entitlement – but rather guidance to us on how to treat others.

What would an election be like if those who claimed to be Christian chose their political affiliation first and foremost on how the policies looked after not so much our own interests but rather the interests of those who were the most vulnerable, the late comers to our communities. Whether or not we are aware of Jesus words in the parable is not then the point. Rather the issue is: would this attitude Jesus identified of treating even latecomers with due concern and consideration whether they had recently arrived or had been here for the long term be what others would notice in our behaviour..

To be truthful I am not sure whether this parable represents workable economics in the narrow sense of the word, but there are other values in life which we instinctively know matter more than the exchange of money.

I started my talk this morning with a quote from one person whose views I value in this respect namely Rabbi Hugo Grynn. Rabbi Grynn was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz where he had been sent as a small boy.

His key insight was a single phase “We will be judged by how we are to people to whom we owe nothing.” He had won the right to speak those words because he was until his relatively recent death a few years ago as one who lived this principle as a campaigner for refugee rights.

From Auschwitz Hugo Grynn moved to the United Kingdom, where he worked first to become a Rabbi and from that point to become one of the United Kingdom’s most respected spiritual leaders, writers and broadcasters. He was entitled to his view because in his life it was clear he cared about those who deserved nothing from him.

What of us and our dealings with people to whom we owe nothing. When we reflect on how we are going with such people, what do we see? How are we are towards people such as, the very old, the very young, the retarded, those who don’t sound educated or who appear to be new immigrants, the strangers, those who have fallen from grace – alcoholics – and yes the unemployed…..those still waiting for employment chances at the end of the day because they weren’t seen as employable in the first selection. Would others see those kingdom characteristics in us?

If Jesus shows by his dealings with those who represented the undeserving that in the kingdom of God there is a place for such people – then we too – if we claim membership in the kingdom of God, should also be making our offer to the people to whom we owe nothing.

As a guiding principle it is not only of value because it affords dignity and worth to all people regardless of their circumstance; but more than this it is of value because it as a by-product we may just discover authentic meaning and purpose whatever we might previously have thought about our status and power.

In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, the landowner is thoughtful of the undeserving – first of all in choosing workers originally passed over – but then in giving those workers more than they technically deserved. The people who were in fact owed virtually nothing.

Even if it is not what we might have done – we can sense the basic goodness in such an approach. But then the story of Christianity through the centuries is one of handing on the mantle. The landowner and the labourers story is a story of the kingdom of God to which we too might aspire. How will we in our turn make our offer to people to whom we owe nothing.

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Lectionary sermon for 10 September 2017 on Romans 14:1-12

LOOKING BEHIND THE DIFFERENCES
One of the sad things about Christianity is the ease with which some of those following the faith turn to become intolerant of anyone who might be walking a slightly different path. Irish Catholics versus Irish Protestants, Liberal Christians versus Southern Baptists, the Western Christian suspicion of veiled Muslim women, the lack of mixing of Sikhs and those in the Christian host community and so on.

Even within the first generation of those forming the Christian Church the number of such divisive beliefs was extraordinary. Paul was only addressing one particular Church community and I guess their divisions are rather very different from our divisions today. On the other hand in Paul’s day people appear to have been just as likely to reject people for legalistic reasons as we are today. We might note that although the points of difference Paul referred to now might seem to us to be trivial and peculiar to the church culture of the time, yet in their setting, the issues must have seemed great indeed.

Paul talks for example about the division meat eating caused. Remember that in those days the issue was not so much the attraction of vegetarianism but rather a reaction to the fact that it was difficult to ensure that meat had been killed according to religious tradition. Meat which even had a slight chance of being killed according to some other tradition was considered to be contaminated and unlawful to eat by those with a Jewish background. If the meat for example, had been sacrificed on a pagan altar, or not killed according to strict religious protocol, it was thought to go against sacred rule to eat it. For those living in Rome, the chances that purchased meat was killed according to Jewish law would have been much less than they would have been in Jerusalem.

Although we would find it hard to see what the fuss was today, remember the underlying issue was whether or not they should obey the laws in the only scripture they had at that point. The New Testament was still to be written and the other scriptures were still a few years away from being formulated into what we often call the Old Testament (at the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD)

There were also disputes about days. Remember again we are talking Rome. There some of the new gentile converts to Christianity would have been far less attached to the Jewish sacred feasts and specific Holy days which were generally still followed by the early Christians who were Jewish. Conversely the non Jewish Gentile Christians would no doubt be wishing to retain some of their own more traditional days and festivals. Remember that both Christmas and Easter were originally non-Jewish and non-Christian feasts that got borrowed by the Christian Church and changed in meaning.

Paul was not so much saying the rules should be ignored. He was more suggesting that where the rules are dividing – we should look behind those rules to the principles and insights that unite us.

I guess one possible reason why Paul was far less attached to specific rules even if they came from scripture was that since becoming a Christian, Paul the missionary had been an inveterate traveller. Travel in strange places is great for realising that outward customs come in many different forms yet many might simply be different outward manifestations of what are essentially the same ideals and values.

Paul rightly sees the danger in disputes within legalism. Insisting on different customs and rules can lead to hurtful criticisms and abuse. Paul identified such divisiveness as being very destructive to the emerging Church community. Seeing beyond the different observances of religious custom whether it be communion, baptism, rites of membership, or the insistence of certain wording of our creeds, Paul’s suggestion that instead we should focus on what Jesus stood for, gives us a sense of perspective taking us back to centrality of principles of compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.

If we are honest with ourselves we would have to say that many of the differences we find within our Church today wouldn’t even have been recognised as legitimate in Paul’s day because the culture and customs have changed so much. I have seen churches where people argue about what is essential by way of furniture forgetting that in Paul’s day, furniture for places of worship was largely absent and probably considered entirely irrelevant.

We have also seen Churches where they now prize stained glass windows portraying Bible scenes, whereas at one time it was considered inappropriate to have any images of human figures present in a place of worship. Women clergy are acceptable today in many Churches but in Paul’s day women were not even allowed to speak in Church and often were placed away from the men during worship. Consider for a moment a selection of issues that currently cause different opinions in the Church –

For some it will be issues like whether or not homosexual ministers are acceptable to the Church, for others it might be how we find meaning in the Bible, whether or not there is a heaven, whether or not God can change the weather or someone’s illness if we pray…Whether or not Christians should drink alcohol… and so on.

Because we are all inclined to believe that our chosen faith is the best, we might also be uncomfortable with those who teach other versions of Christianity – thus for Protestants the teachings of the Jehovah’s witnesses, the Mormons and the Roman Catholics are all suspect – yet as soon as we hear Jesus calling us back to his essential principles these things seem somehow of little consequence.

Yes, and for those of a very conservative faith, there may well be 613 rules comprising the law of the Old Testament.

We might for example use those rules selectively to deal to those we don’t like – and say we are enlisting God on our side. Yet Paul says we have to put the rule dividing differences to one side as we focus on what Jesus really was about. And what again was it that Jesus said?

The most important rule is, “Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. You’ve got to love the Lord your God with your whole being – with your whole heart and every ounce of energy.” And the second most important rule is, “You must love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself.” For those attempting to follow no other rule is greater than these two.
(Mark 12.29-31)

With these words, Jesus abolishes religion of the sort which tries to cajole God into supporting whatever our current rules might be. He pioneers the way for Paul and, much later, the way for some of our more modern prophets like Colin Morris as they point out that a religion of rules can neither buy God’s approval nor bring about social justice.

If our version of Christianity causes us to separate ourselves from our wider community and not notice where things are going astray for our community and our world, our religion becomes less relevant.

The upshot of Paul’s writing for us today is, I think, to recognise that the way our current rules and customs shape our religion in churches on Sunday may help us develop what to us are comfortable customs but in no way should they define how we are to be Christian. Nor is the Christian way of life even defined by an ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast (of the sort we might find in the detail of our creeds!) .

I suspect Christians are still best defined by a choice to love – rather than by obedience to religious laws (certainly Jesus seems to think so!); by a willingness to set aside the security of external ceremonies (well at least says Paul); and both imply the need to focus on issues where the principles of Jesus need a clear input.

Let us stop to consider any one of the big issues of the day. All is not well in this world. A glance at the headlines reminds us of record number of refugees, conflict fuelled by nationalism and religious zealots and a planet being laid to waste by greed.

The economists and scientists tell us that for the possible the first time in history there is enough food on the planet to feed all the population. Yet the international surveys tell us that there are many obese – as well as many who remain hungry. Those who are hungry are in effect being denied access to the food.

Almost a billion are seriously hungry – many to the point of starvation and in many countries (including New Zealand) there has been a growing gap between the rich and the poor. There may be a good number who attend Church – but surely the ones who are attending to the principles of Jesus are those who show by thought, word and action that they wish to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Allowing only minimal attention to rules of honesty would probably lead you to overlook the gap between the rich and the poor so here too in fact Paul is right to remind us that we need the over-riding principles.

It seems to me that the overriding principles that Jesus taught would provide a good guide as to what is acceptable whether it be moral decisions about helping the poor and the hungry – finding guidance for making decisions about what is acceptable behaviour for those with other interpretation – or even the question as to what is the most desirable way to interact with those whose journey in faith is different to our own.

It is inevitable that sooner or later we will encounter those who see life and faith differently to ourselves. Remember that others will only be attracted to our conclusions if they find something in our lives that attracts them.

Certainly we will always be tempted to focus on the differences.
Yet in the midst of the rivalries there is a quiet insistent voice calling us to new possibilities as we meet in a spirit of love.

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Lectionary Sermon for 3 September 2017 (Romans 13: 8-14)

If there were to be one disturbing moral feature that characterizes our current age perhaps it is notion that the only way to persuade our perceived enemies they are wrong is to respond with overwhelming force or at least the threat of such force.

So we know what should happen if the Islamic State (ISIS) takes a city in Iraq or Syria. Call in the strike force to take out that city. So a strutting dictator has the temerity to seek to develop Nuclear weapons. Show him he is wrong by reminding him that our side has the power to blow his country off the face of the earth. Suicide bombers and deranged drivers attack civilians in the streets of our cities. Call out the troops and destroy the terrorists in a fierce gun battle. And yet somehow the number of terrorists does not drop.

Yes I know that by the time terrorists have become terrorists it may be far too late for alternatives. But it also seems to me that Jesus’ alternative message is largely untried in practice.

Now here is a thought. Why is it that we talk love in Church, yet those we pray for don’t notice that we love them? Remember that line in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. How come a good number of those we have in mind don’t even seem to know we have prayed that prayer?

Am I really guilty of heresy when I suggest that the prayer left as words is a waste of time.

Love is not just a feeling – it is inexorably tied up with action. If you were to turn it round for a moment and think of ourselves being the potential recipient of love, we would see just how dependent we are in looking to words and actions.

So just how do we know love is present? And for that matter, how might we know when what we are being offered is not love? The motivation for love – or its opposite hate – may well start with the feelings but it is the expression in words and actions that will determine how it is recognized. And it is that which is perceived which tells us what is in the other’s heart.

If I had to choose one key teaching that summarizes what Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity may be, for me it would be his understanding that the only really important principle needed to put all other teachings into perspective would have to be the centrality of love…but more than that, he showed by the examples he used, that love is not simply a feeling.

Although in other places he talks of positive actions associated with love, here he mentions some negative commandments – things that you shouldn’t do to your neighbour. He chooses as his examples some of the more extreme – adultery, killing, stealing and of course the attitude of coveting which sets up jealousies which would rapidly destroy any chance of developing good relationships. And on reflection this makes perfect sense because it is the negative actions done to us which very quickly identify our neighbour as unloving – and unfortunately in real life a single unfriendly act will imbed itself in the consciousness.

Unfortunately it is sometimes easier to recite the well known teaching about love than it is to find the teaching making a difference in our personal lives or for that matter in the lives of our self-claimed Christian communities.

With elections once more in the offing keeping score of wrongs is once more taking centre stage, and I suspect self interest governs more policy than any visible insistence that we show love to enemies, and insist on kindness for neighbours.

Paul himself would have been keenly aware of the gulf between theory and practice. The injunction to love had its equivalent in the Talmud and Paul as a leading Jew would have known those words. By the time he got round to penning today’s words from his letter to the Romans he had realised just how important this practical love might be.

It was not always the case. Remember earlier he had also been something of a religious fanatic who had persecuted the early Christian movement and even murdered some of the earliest followers of Jesus, thinking he was doing God’s will. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul seemed to be more interested in measuring himself against what we might now call the golden rule. If we admire his words, perhaps we too need to reflect on how our current behaviour patterns and attitudes must seem to others.
Remember what Paul said in the letter to the Corinthians:

‘If I… fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I am nothing.’ (1 Corinthians 13:2-3).

Remember too that Paul was writing not just for the individual but to encourage the emerging Churches as fully functioning communities. We are often reminded of ways our individual consciences need to be activated, but it is interesting to think what sort of letter we would write if we were addressing our own local Church community. What sorts of actions characterize our group? Would we be identified both as individuals and as a group as having loving actions?

The two notions of individual actions and group actions are always mixed together and whether we like it or not. After all if enough examples of bad individual behaviour are noticed the whole group gets judged accordingly. Fortunately of course the obverse is true. If there are warm relationships and kind actions being noticed, the group members feel good about their association with the group.

I even suspect we make judgements about whole nations in the same way. Unfortunately others are also judging us.

Don’t forget that a decision made to support punitive action whether it be in the Gaza strip or Iraq or Afghanistan – makes it inevitable that such punishment would be remembered by successive descendants of those who see themselves as victims. There is an old saying to the effect that “Bombing a city has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants” Conversely decisions motivated by the intention to be kind and to offer generous assistance seem to lead to payback in the form of treaties and alliances.

Yes it is true the primacy of love is not yet a commonly accepted part of international relationships. The old maxim of: To the man who only has a hammer in the tool kit, every problem resembles a nail– appears much more a part of the automatic response than following Paul and Jesus and offer kind actions towards any State that appears a threat. But remember, if Jesus and Paul are correct, casting your bread upon the waters has far more chance of a positive outcome than any heavy handed punishment any day.
Yet the adoption of a compassionate option always has to start at the individual level.

This then makes the act of that Sunday Communion much more meaningful for such a congregation. Sharing the bread and grape juice, kneeling or standing beside someone you care enough about to invite them into your home for a meal served in a friendly setting – where there is laughter and story-telling and sympathy aplenty, makes the Communion setting one of gathering with genuine fellow travellers.

Contrast this with the other extreme. What if the communion celebration is with a group of virtual strangers who have never dreamt of inviting the others into their home – a group who might smile briefly at one another with a perfunctory greeting outside Church in the foyer – but who might have no genuine interest in one another Surely this raises a question. Is sharing the Lord’s supper with such partial strangers really remembering Jesus, who like Paul, said in effect that love of God and love of neighbour was the organising principle which put all other commandments into perspective?

Having said that I am not implying that those who share meals at home are therefore saints fit to take communion beside you – or that by kneeling yourself after offering hospitality you then become a better companion for communion. It is rather that adopting Paul’s suggestions as best you can makes both you and the community better than you might otherwise have been….. not perfect.

Remember although what Jesus and Paul offered was welcome common sense, the love injunction does not cure all situations. A person who forgives does not turn all potential enemies into friends – at least not in the real world. After all Jesus forgave – yet was crucified. Paul extended the hand of friendship to many but was still martyred in Rome. What however he did do was pass on the inspiration for churches to grow in positive ways to the benefit of many.

In practice of course, just as we as individuals start with characteristics of both the saint and the sinner, most Churches would have an obvious mixture of good and bad attitudes amongst the members in their congregations. I once heard someone say “I love all humankind. All my family are members and some of my wife’s family are too”.

And I guess this is part of the challenge. One almost universal human flaw is that we naturally relate best to those who are like us and particularly if we are at ease with their customs. Most of us have acquaintances who we find easy to love because they return kindness as a matter of course. In practice, others have never learnt that skill.

Some are painfully shy, some are almost afraid to let others into their world. One of our current neighbours collects our mail while we are away and is prepared to look after neighbours’ pets. We have had other neighbours in the past who are aggressive and bad tempered, and others who prefer to keep to themselves, and on occasion I confess to my shame we have even had neighbours where I did not know their names. It is easy to write someone off because we suspect in advance that we are unlikely to agree with them.

I want to suggest that Paul and Jesus are right in identifying the key pre-eminence of the love principle – but I also want to suggest that it is an ideal that needs constant attention and even deliberate action that sometimes goes against our baser natural instincts.

What is at stake in effect is the very nature of the local church, and hopefully from there our community and even our nation.. Then, as now, Church membership is not sufficient to automatically reflect underlying attitudes and actions.

Paul of course was writing to the early Christian Church at Rome with some advice on what principles were needed for their fledgling community. I cannot be sure that should Paul have been considering our community he would have been drawn to the need for the same advice. With us he might have noticed something different. Nevertheless the advice he gives sounds as though it might equally apply to a host of communities. The real catch is that there are two issues that no-one else can answer for us.

The two questions that still remained to be answered are: first the question of self assessment. Do we consider that an observer might see in the way we live the characteristics of those who genuinely care for one another and care for those to whom we come into contact? And then the second question…. if not…what would we have to change to be satisfied that love had come to take a more central role in the way we live?

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