Lectionary Sermon for February 18 2018 on Mark 1: 9-15

Hard-wired for Temptation
The writer of the Gospel of Mark tells us that the same Jesus, who we now talk of as the Son of God, started out by spending more than a month in the wilderness struggling with his temptations. In the well ordered atmosphere of a Church service I wonder if we sometimes forget that Jesus must have had to deal with some real life problems in his own life – and for that matter, our attendance in worship wont count for much unless it has something to do with the way we face up to our real life problems and opportunities.

The author of the Gospel of Mark has been sometimes criticised that, like some other authors of other parts of the Bible, he was inclined to provide an apparent observer’s detail for events where he could not conceivably have been present as a witness. Talking about Jesus facing the temptations of Satan is a case in point. Yet I would argue in Mark’s defence that, here and elsewhere, he draws attention to some absolutely critical ideas, without which our theology would be much the poorer. In passing we note that some of Mark’s account of Jesus needing to spend time overcoming his temptations fit rather nicely with what today’s scientists tell us about the nature of the human.

The first is the left-field idea is that even someone as good as Jesus should face genuine temptation. This may not quite fit the way we often use high sounding religious expressions of praise in our worship but it fits very nicely the modern finding in psychology that all humans are “hard-wired” for “temptation”.

I want to step outside todays gospel reading and think for a moment about this so called hard wiring because it might remind us that it isnt just about Jesus if we too have to face inevitable temptations. The hard wiring idea comes because the scientists tell us that at one stage the time the human population was small, scattered and faced with all sorts of dangers. Skills for survival in those days would be anything but gentle living.

Science now tells us which parts of the brain fire electrically and chemically with such responses. We now know that much of this activity is deep down in the primitive parts of the brain (sometimes called colloquially the “lizard brain” because it is shared with more primitive creatures). Biologically then, for whatever complicated reason, the brain is effectively “hard-wired” for these activities. Without such wiring, humans would presumably have been history long ago.

Take the willingness to resort to action including violence when threats emerge. In those early days violence would have removed the competition. We don’t have to look far to notice that many of us still organise our lives to deal with competition.

Enemy recognition in a primitive setting included recognizing who looked and behaved differently, so that we know who is with us and who isn’t. As Auckland is starting to be organized in “ethno-burbs” where new immigrants cluster in their ethnic groups are our Churches congregations really responding to make their lives easier? Isn’t it true that prejudice appears to be built into society with deep suspicions shown to neighbours who are different? Again a universal human temptation – and unfortunately one which has played out every time people we don’t like seem to be gaining power or status.

At present there are serious hotspots in the Yemen, in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, Iraq and many more besides. Now think why some are driven to join ISIS, think the rejection of homosexuals, think prejudice against the Muslims and the Jews or think how many in the community are resistant to the thought of offering hospitality to refugees and new immigrants. Not everyone, even in a Methodist congregation, would offer hospitality to a stranger.

Remember there is a catch to hard wired responses. Genetics being what it is, the chemical and biological tendencies to switch into these forms of behaviour are not only ingrained, but are rarely helpful in a changed world. It may be biology, but when a pupil from a well known high school lashes out and king-hits a bus driver (the Herald said his eye socket was fractured) you can see why it doesn’t always do to follow instinct.

Yet many do. At this time of the year next month we are about to read about out of control drunken students behaving badly in our University cities. We see blind rage unleashed in football and race riots.

In New Zealand typically the police record more than 30,000 call outs to domestic violence incidents each year where children are present – and more worryingly they have calculated they are only called to about 18% of the offences. I also understand that in the USA social scientists have calculated on average somewhere in America there is an incident of domestic violence once every 9 seconds. Humans are a violent species.

Back in history for a small and genuinely threatened population, the aggressive responses may have a place – but as the population increases to the point where the only rational choice is to hope to coexist in national and even international communities, such responses are rightly seen as anti social and must be restrained. As investment into warfare has continued virtually unabated, the dangers in following one’s biological instincts become more and more marked. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is great for the survival of a tiny threatened sub-group (particularly where the weapons of choice were tooth and claw) but is distinctly inappropriate for a modern city – particularly one in which there are a variety of cultures and a real need to lessen the dangers which cannot be avoided because of the number of potential rivals in the same area.

Unfortunately some temptations we all face can’t be easily disregarded because of these inbuilt biological triggers. Because we all live different lives I cannot – and indeed I shouldn’t tell you what temptations impact on your lives. That’s the sort of thing we each have to work out for ourselves. I would simply suggest as a species many simply don’t bother to examine their own situation and as a consequence and at regular intervals people behave in shocking ways towards each other.

When it comes to naked violence, a good number of self-claimed inheritors of Christ’s tradition through history, including the crusaders and their modern equivalents, act as if they interpret their claim to follow the Christ as deliberately choosing to go with the very option rejected by Christ, and instead, acting as if their hard wiring of the brain leads them to embrace the very temptations offered by “Satan”.

When trying to convey the gospel as appropriate for life lived this sends a very mixed message. Attempting to beat and frighten terrorists into submission may be a natural biological reaction but as an effective method of conveying a message of peace and instilling love it is an absolute disaster from every angle. As D A Rosenberg pointed out in 1971, “levelling large cities has a tendency to alienate the affections of the inhabitants”.

Curiously, we are so horrified by the callous disregard for suffering inflicted by suicide bombers – and public beheaders, we call upon our side to respond to ensure that our enemies are punished with much worse. The innocent bystanders can be overlooked because what we support is government sanctioned violence…which is of course considered to be righteous!! Could you imagine a situation whereby a town is shelled and bombed to kill off a few terrorists – victory is declared and the families destroyed in the cross fire are denied help when they seek shelter in nearby countries.

How many here remember a move to compensate those amongst our troops exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam – while nothing was done about the innocent civilians who had been caught up in the war and whose suffering was infinitely worse.

Temptations are not really temptations unless they are genuinely likely to persuade, so it is as well to remind ourselves that displays of power of the sort we note in others have an insidious similarity to what we ourselves might excuse to be acceptable behaviour in ourselves. As a consequence we need to be ruthlessly objective with ourselves to be confident such actions and attitudes are not already part of our standard response pattern.

One very common temptation is of course to notice the faults of others with a steadfast deliberate blindness to one’s own faults and sins. One of the intriguing asides of Mark about Jesus time in the wilderness is that he was comforted by wild animals. We are left to speculate exactly which wild animals these might be – but one mentioned by the Bible elsewhere (and suggested by the poet and writer Robert Graves) is the scapegoat.

In the times of the temple we read of a ceremony which happened each year on the day of Atonement in which a goat was led into the Temple where the High Priest would read out the sins of the people over the last year, ceremonially load them onto to the goat – then drive the goat out into the desert taking the sins with him….the origin of our word scapegoat. There is something curiously appropriate about Robert Graves’ suggestion that a goat whose only crime was to be thought of as a scapegoat be among those keeping company with Jesus in the wilderness.

Perhaps our modern equivalent of the scapegoat would be the political leader who is caught falling for that “Oh so basic” hard-wired temptation of responding to sexual urges outside the formal limits of marriage. By way of example the current public disgust directed to the deputy Prime minister of Australia and his current fall from grace, suggests the scapegoat mentality is alive and well.

Scapegoats are also found in the ranks of the Church. Remember way back to the famous dynamic Televangelist duo, Jimmy Swaggart and Jimmy Bakker. Did you ever read the mischievous response in doggerel by the irrepressible Allen Johnson Jr? This is a lightly edited version. (You will find the author’s original version in his book, a Box of Trinkets published by Premium Press)

Two TV great preachers called Jim
Claimed special connection with Him
But when push came to shove
The light from above
Turned out to be frightfully dim

To return to the temptation of the biological need to display. This is of particular interest to those of us in the Church because its lure brings us in direct confrontation with some of the most basic teachings of Christ. To return for a moment, to the sometimes acerbic pen of Allen Johnson Jr…… He said and I quote:

There are some astounding contradictions between Christ’s teachings and Christian religious services. In Matthew 6:1-6, we are admonished not to give or pray publicly. If you consider the taking up the collection as public giving (which it surely is) and hymns as musical prayer (which most of them are), then – taking into account all the long-winded prayers from the pulpit – two thirds of your average church service is directly contrary to Christ’s admonitions

If we must use public prayer we must at the very least choose our words carefully.

There is also great irony that the one we follow had deliberately turned his back on the temptation to display to achieve recognition and in the process Jesus rejected the normal trappings of prestige with possessions and finery – and yet somehow we often behave as if he should best be honoured by ostentatious display. The peacock finery of many of those who lead worship, the magnificence of great Churches and cathedrals is indeed awe inspiring, but because Jesus has clearly shown that this is not in line with his message we may need to think again on how our obsession with such trappings impacts on the way we share his message with others.

This is not to imply we are going to find simple answers. We all have to work within the constraints of our own setting which includes the deeply embedded historical traditions over which we may well find we have little control. We also have to work with others who themselves are hardwired and have their own range of preferred responses to problems and situations as they arise. Knowing that others are similarly hardwired and that we all have very different imprinting should also make us less judgmental.

Maybe the real problem is that we are most comfortable with faith when we treat it as a spectator sport….and have someone do it for us on our behalf. We can look back and see how Jesus faced and overcame his personal temptations, and we can criticise our leaders when they fall short but that doesn’t mean we have faced our personal temptations. Nor is reading about the Bible times and places the same as assuming nothing has changed now we are in the twenty-first century particularly in a different cultural setting. If we were a little more keenly aware of the hard-wiring of temptation and what it means for the sort of world we currently face, perhaps following Jesus lead we might see a need to think how we too should best face our personal temptations – and then choose for ourselves a style of witness which reflects what we believe to be important.

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The Alligator in Chief

So Donald Trump has finally realized that allegations can ruin people’s lives. Surely he knows that many of his allegations have turned out to be both false and hurtful. So what will we make of Mr Trump the alligator now …. a handbag perhaps??

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Abortion as Murder??

The reason why I abandoned my previous evangelical Christian stance and moved into what some would dismiss as a progressive or liberal view of issues like abortion is that, as an evangelical, I had often found myself among those who had limited understanding of ethical principles, shaky Bible scholarship and what to me seemed an unthinking judgemental attitude which appeared to be short on empathy and common-sense. Like it or not science has widened our understanding (for those who bother to read with an open mind) and the “beggar thy neighbour” attitudes of the Conservative right truly worry me.

Let’s just go back a little. Thou shalt not kill. Yes I accept that, particularly if it means avoiding visiting unnecessary suffering on the living. But many conservatives, apparently obsessed with abortion, have taken it to mean: forget the suffering, look at the rules. Don’t kill any cells if they might eventually be used to create a functioning human being? Well the science says clapping (eg applauding a State of the Nation address) most certainly kills off some cells which contain the complete genetic information for making a fully functional human being. It is called cloning. Next time don’t clap!!

We see another dimension of this in attitudes to society passed off as judicial killing. For example many of the religious righteous right who are opposed to what they term unnecessary termination of a foetus are happy to condone Donald Trump instructing his soldiers to lay waste to Middle Eastern towns, terming the end result from wiping out the few terrorists by smashing nearby houses and hospitals as “unfortunate collateral damage”– then walking away from the mess, including the bombed, killed and maimed civilians. More seriously they turn a blind eye to Trump’s government actually closing off a good proportion of the funding for the refugee camps and approve him signing off laws to stop the fleeing refugees from settling in his country. And the fundamentalists applaud him for so doing!  Why is the concern for the unborn critical when the living are seen as disposable pawns.

I checked up on the UN figures for one month and discovered that the US coalition had actually killed more civilians for that month (last March) than ISIS had in Syria. While as a cash equation I can see the US arms dealers make lots of money not to mention being responsible for what the president calls “jobs, jobs, jobs” please allow me as a liberal to be horrified at what the Saudis are doing with the weapons in Yemen.

The anti-abortion lobby claim abortion is murder, yet they are very selective in which cells they will mourn. The untold natural abortions (miscarriages) sometimes after only a few days whereby the accumulating cells in the developing embryo for a whole variety of reasons, die by the thousands they ignore, and in practice the mother is often even unaware it has happened.  Surely no-one, not even a nutter, would call this Murder by God!

The conservative right place great store on stem cells which abound in aborted foetuses and as a consequence oppose them being used to develop vaccines or cell repair interventions to save the lives of fully functioning humans. Don’t forget the various centres for disease control claim that more than 200 thousand die each year from the Human papillomavirus (HPV) and that this virus now affects something like half the population of the US and is calculated to cause 5000 or so women to die of cervical cancer each year. There is a safe vaccine for HPV. It was tested on 6000 women and was one hundred per-cent effective. And what happened. The evangelicals agitated to get a law passed to prevent the use of the vaccine saying that the cancer risk is a useful impediment to pre-marital sex.

The blanket opposition to abortion should not be used to equate to a genuine concern for the lives of the young.   One of the more self-righteous evangelical members of the CDC’s ( Reginald Finger) even tried to get the HIV vaccine banned apparently wanting to condemn millions (particularly in Africa) to die unnecessarily each year. I think of those babies born with HIV and seriously wonder about what really drives such judgemental zeal.

Actually we should not assume the scripture is the final authority in this situation.   As it happens, the Bible doesn’t condemn abortion. The Jewish custom was to not consider the baby fully alive until it was half way through the birth canal. Certainly I would be very cautious about full term abortion but that is rarely considered and early termination is the standard practice.

Blanket condemnation of all abortion to my mind is barmy.   What about incest, or rape, or when the mother knows with certainty that the foetus has damage of the sort that precludes being born as a fully functioning child?   Neither should insisting that a mother be sacrificed to preserve the possibility of life in the baby be an automatic option, and the reality is that some pregnancies are entirely unintentional and sometimes distinctly harmful to a family situation.

Yes I agree that abortion is in danger of being trivialized, but cant we at least have the debate without the finger pointing and name calling?

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What Do US Citizens think of Devin Nunes?

I think I need a lesson in how US political justice is supposed to work. Would some US legal expert tell me what I am missing in the story on the Nunes’ FISA memorandum?

The first surprise is that Mr Trump in his State of the Nation address called for unity, yet on the way out of the auditorium the President told a lawmaker he would be supporting the release of the Nunes memo. It is hard to believe Mr Trump was unaware that the Democrats had already signalled they could not condone the release of the Nunes memo on the grounds that it appeared to deliberately leave out key details that would distort its conclusions.

But there were some other puzzles.

In this instance I thought the memorandum purports to be authorised by the chair of a Republican Intelligence committee who as far as I can see has a clear interest in the outcome of the committee’s investigation. According to my sources Nunes was a member of the Trump transition team, and for some reason accepted the position of having oversight of the committee which was intended to check on whether the Trump team had developed inappropriate ties to Russia during the run-up to the US election. Either Nunes had been a member of the transition team, in which case he should have recused himself from an investigation into the conduct of the team, or he was not. Well? Was he?

The memo claimed that the FBI had no right to ask for surveillance on Carter Page and only did so as a consequence of the 2016 Clinton campaign. Surely as is relatively well known, (and well before the Nunes memo was released) the story of how Carter Page and the Russia connections came to the attention of the FBI going back well before 2016. For example a few years back, according to a recent Time report, Page had significant and in some cases suspicious Russian contacts.

Page, at least according to Time, even bragged in a 2013 letter that he acted as an adviser to the Kremlin. The letter, sent by Page to an academic press (letter dated Aug. 25, 2013) to support an unpublished manuscript he had submitted for publication. According to the editor who was corresponding with Page a quote lifted from the letter states “Over the past half year, I have had the privilege to serve as an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin in preparation for their Presidency of the G-20 Summit next month, where energy issues will be a prominent point on the agenda,”

The same year, Page had admitted a relationship with Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged with working as a Russian intelligence agent under diplomatic cover. In response to reports about Podobnyy’s activities Page defended the alleged Russian spy and criticized President Obama for prosecuting him. I would have thought that if someone is defending an apparent spy there is justified sufficient reason for having him further investigated without waiting for a politician to give further instruction.

After all, as soon became apparent, Page had argued for sympathy towards Podobnyy, the spy— whom he described as a “junior Russian diplomat.” In an email to the Guardian, Page complained that Obama had persecuted Podobnyy… and him “in accordance with Cold War traditions.”

In short, the FBI surveillance of Page began, on and off, in 2013 — long before the Steele dossier and the 2016 presidential campaign.

The main thrust of the Nunes memo is that the only way one could justify surveillance of Page is through partisan manipulation. Sorry, but since the FBI already knew about at least some of the connections between Russia and Page, which were supported by Page himself there is no reason to insist that unjustified accusations were levelled again Page by the Clinton team when this had been well before the Clinton team had been assembled.

A further puzzle to me was why the Steele information should have been disregarded because Steele had claimed to know enough to disqualify Mr Trump from becoming a candidate. Surely if someone claims that they know enough to believe a candidate should be totally inappropriate in their bid to become a President, the claim is sufficiently dramatic to require evidence to be made available to authorities (FBI?)for independent assessment.

The immediate apparent parallel is with the President Nixon impeachment. Surely there the challenge was to establish if the charges were valid – and if the evidence supported the charge. I cannot believe that the US system requires that any assessor or key critic had to be identified as a supporter of the President before becoming involved in an assessment of the honesty of the President’s team regarding their involvement with a foreign power. To ask a key player which way they voted implying this was a prerequisite before allowing him to continue would be totally wrong in my nation’s system which prizes the secret ballot. My question is: should such a public declaration of voting be made public according to the US political expectations?

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Lectionary Sermon for 4 February 2018 on Mark 1: 29 – 39

On Clicking the “I agree” Box
Some time back I read a Twitter comment:
“To most Christians, the Bible is like a software licence. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click “I agree”@almightygod… ”

While this certainly seems a fair assessment at least for many liberals, maybe this is only part of the problem. Colin Morris once told the Methodist Conference in the UK that he hoped that we might move beyond the days where: “…….the liberal’s ignorance of the Bible was only matched by the evangelical’s ignorance of the world to which it might be applied”

Bible reading must always be related to context – and this includes an acknowledgement that since the days of the Bible record our context has changed. If a few more took the first step and actually read it – including the fine print – they might notice that many of the common misconceptions about Jesus in his world, are simply not supported by the record.

To watch some of his modern day self-declared imitators, we might assume that Jesus was into grand occasions and liked performing for the crowd with dramatic action? Not here into today’s gospel – or indeed for almost all of his reported encounters with people. Here he is just as prepared to help those in a small house – without even room for a big audience. And what is more, his help seems rather low key.

In Jesus day the obsession with exorcists was so great that there were elaborate ceremonies laid down. For example for a woman with a burning fever, the procedure should have been the complicated ritual laid down in Exodus Ch 3 verses 2 – 5 in which a iron knife is tied by a braid of hair to a thorn bush, to be repeated three times over the next three days – and then followed by a magic incantation – which would presumably be thought to produce the desired cure.

A modern cynical scientist might observe that since the release of pyrogens into the blood to raise the temperature to kill the bugs is the body’s natural way of dealing with pathogens, three days fever would usually abate by itself with or without an iron knife or incantation. Yet for whatever reason Jesus simply ignores the detailed “cure” laid down by the law and takes a much simpler and less dramatic path.

So Jesus solves everyone’s problem? Well sorry – not according to the record.

Did you spot the oversight in the healing? True the story has Jesus ministering to an unnamed woman with a fever. Her temperature may have come down – but did you notice as far as Mark is concerned, she is still not worth naming after the event and no doubt to the horror of feminists today she has been apparently healed so that she can resume her tasks of serving the men. Jesus may have helped initiate a system that helped contribute to the eventual freedom of women but he appears in his day almost as much constrained by the traditional rules of his society and culture as we are by ours today.

In this respect, perhaps I should add, Paul appears to suffer the same constraints when he asks not for the freedom of slaves, but rather their humane treatment, and in another place also insists that women should keep silence in Church.

Jesus heals everybody? Well, no actually. Mark in today’s reading, records him ministering to many who came that day, but presumably only ministering to those who happened by good fortune to live close enough to turn up. Those in the next village might just as well been living at the other side of the world for all the good Jesus was able to do for them.

What about the assumption that Jesus had God-like strengths and gifts? Note the record in this instance implies he seems worn out by the end of the day which might help explain his sneaking off early the next morning for some meditation. Jesus at least according to the record showed many of the standard human weaknesses and limitations. He reportedly could preach a great sermon, but not all who heard him were affected to the extent their lives were changed. Certainly he was a great debater, but his replies enraged some as well as convinced others.

But beneath all there is of course the question we would prefer that was not asked. In his healing was Jesus actually doing what all would agree are miracles? There is a common belief that Jesus could do actual miracles in which the laws of nature were suspended at will. Yet if so, since the laws of nature are very firmly in place for us today, does that mean that whatever Jesus was doing is actually beyond our reach? Some get angry when this is questioned because they say it is not right to even raise such matters where faith is sufficient.

Should we at least be truthful with ourselves and at the very least allow the answer that there is no way of knowing. Whatever Jesus was doing was in fact recorded years after the event – and Mark as the recorder was not there.

We also know that many claimed miracles today turn out to be based on false claims, and that it is extremely difficult to establish evidence that laws of nature can in effect be suspended. Honesty also demands that we admit in Jesus day accurate diagnosis was virtually impossible. Leprosy in those times was associated with many skin conditions other than Hansen’s disease, and temporary conditions like an epileptic fit would be expected to get better at least in the short term as would many natural diseases. Even death was hard to establish without stethoscopes and a host of modern techniques. When someone is reported as recovering, if you don’t know whether they had a condition not able to be dealt with by natural processes of the body’s immune system, and if you have no way of checking whether the cure was effective for the following days, certainty about miracles is misplaced.

We already know that different versions of the same event in the gospels can and do differ in some details so we know that there is unreliability in the record. If we remove all stories where a degree of exaggeration might have crept into the retelling, there may be few, if any, stories that show Jesus was operating outside the standard constraints of nature. Clearly miracles were part of the thinking in those days when demons and strange happenings were rationalized with a different mind-set to what we might consider today. Perhaps we can only appreciate what is written if we try to see it with the ancient mind rather than with a modern analysis.

We might also note in passing that while miracles are frequently mentioned by the gospel writers, the most prolific New Testament writer Paul does not consider it important enough to even mention one miracle of Jesus outside the resurrection.

Well no doubt this may irritate extreme conservatives, but as far as I am concerned, to find that Jesus was not some all powerful magician who could click his fingers and heal with a touch would not cause me to abandon my faith. If Jesus were indeed superhuman and could deal to every situation, this is so far from the realities I face and the weaknesses I experience, I would be forever consigned to casually ticking the I agree box and leaving it to others to attempt the actual Christian walk.

There is for example a caricature of Christian witness you too may have encountered, that has large groups of people gathering in worship to chant repetitious flattering phrases pointing out to God or alternately to Jesus how great he is – and enjoining him to fix all the current problems. There is probably no harm in this when those present are actually doing their best in becoming involved in dealing with day to day problems for which they are praying. There are always situations of injustice, the need for visiting the sick and the prisoners, feeding the poor, making peace, righting injustice or perhaps ministering to the deranged.

If we use our prayer to focus on such situations as a prerequisite for involvement, this can only be positive. There is no shame in genuinely praying for the strength to do that which is beyond us and using the prayer to sort out our thinking. But prayer removed from a willingness to do anymore than offer support in the prayer chorus line approaches hypocrisy. Using prayer as a substitute for action, and insisting we trust a possibly suspect memory of how Jesus actually went about his tasks seems a parody of what Jesus showed mission to be. I suspect that there may even be a degree of escapism in worship that extols Jesus and presents great lists of problems to lay at his feet in prayer rather than following his lead rather than struggling with actual problems within the constraints of reality.

I guess what I am really calling for is a careful examination of this particular software agreement before anything gets signed.

My reading of this particular subsection in the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus had to cope with some very realistic problems and that even he did not bring all the answers by way of complete solutions. If we are indeed signing up to follow in his footsteps – and what is more following into a world which has probably changed almost beyond recognition, there is every probability that the problems have become even more complex and intractable. In this case, the “I agree” box does not mean that our tick will mean everything is done and dusted.

Mark Twain once observed that: In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.

We need to examine the questions for ourselves – and not be afraid of the answers. Perhaps it should be before we can say “ I agree” to the basis of our faith, we need to acknowledge that we are signing up for a journey (not an achieved destination), and one for which each step needs thought and planning to deal with actual not ethereal realities.

So what if Jesus was subject to the limitations of his world and recognized reality – only helping where he could help? That is a positive message for us today, for although our context is different, at least Jesus’ way does not make other worldly demands. To follow in his way, we too must help where we can. We should not be surprised that we cannot walk on water, or summon a genie to banish an incurable cancer. What we are called to do is to offer support and friendship to the afflicted – and like Jesus be prepared to grasp the near edge of the problems that come our way.

And yes, we are called to faith. Faith is what we are genuinely prepared to trust and risk in our part of the real world – and sometimes with fear and trembling.

There is just one last thing. Why not read and think before you sign the “I agree” box…but do it soon. Our portion of allotted time is not infinite. You may recall the famous story of the rabbi who was asked by his disciple, “when should I make a decision to follow God?” The rabbi thought for a moment. “Exactly one moment before you die.”
“Hold on Master” – protested his disciple. “ How could I possibly know when I am going to die?”
“Exactly”, said the rabbi, “ do it now while you still have time”.

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Lectionary Sermon for 28 January 2018, Year B, Epiphany 4 based on Mark 1: 21 – 28

A few weeks back I witnessed what some people might have called a miracle.   One of the well-known identities around town who has some very visible mental issues had been doing his usual rant on the side of the road.    He had been shouting at the passing cars, swearing, babbling incoherently, and shaking his fist.   Then he walked into the ASB still muttering and cursing.  I was two behind him in the queue and wondered what was going to happened when he reached the teller.   He was still cross about something – but the teller calmed him right down.    “Just give me your notebook”, she said.   He obediently took it out of his pocket and handed it over, and the teller obviously well used to him, checked off the amount of money which was his weekly allocation and handed the money over with a smile and a friendly word.   He calmed right down and – the miracle – he walked out quite peaceably.

I guess one of the unexpected side effects of recent research into a whole variety of medical conditions is that the collective wisdom in Bible times about disease and spiritual cures for disease is now largely redundant. Epilepsy – thought in Jesus’ day to be a form of demon possession turns out to have a clear relationship with brain chemistry. For example it turns out that more than one child having fallen on their head as a child has scar tissue in the brain – which is one of the measurable causes of at least one form of Epilepsy. We are now no longer petrified when we see someone having an epileptic fit because in most cases it simply subsides of its own accord. And let’s be honest …we no longer need to imprison or shackle someone who exhibits such symptoms – nor necessarily ascribe a miracle to the sympathetic passer-by whoever tends to the sufferer and happens to be present when they are seen to recover.

In Jesus’ time, we need to remind ourselves that demons were greatly feared and used to explain many medical and psychological conditions. Without modern pharmaceutical drugs as a means of moderating behaviour there would also have been rather more variety of serious conditions on show to blame on the demons. A number of ancient civilisations were so convinced that a variety of conditions – including severe headaches, and what we would now call schizophrenia, epilepsy and strokes were due to such malign spirits, to the extent that they sometimes resorted to punching a hole in the skull usually with a chisel to release the demons. That some skulls have been found with straight sharp edges to the hole in the skull, and other skulls with partial bone growth surrounding the hole, shows that such an extreme operation called trepanning was occasionally survivable. Presumably according to the ancient wisdom of the day, when the patient died, the demon was reluctant to come out!

Although I am sure we would now use different medical or psychological terms to describe someone of the sort described by Mark as being demon possessed, for anyone who has encountered a variety of forms of human behaviour, there is a genuine authentic flavour to this story.

We have probably all witnessed instances of bizarre and even psychotic behaviour where a person exhibits symptoms of strange and anti social behaviour. Although these days where such conditions are rather better understood, describing such people as possessed still conveys a form of truth we observe. A clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may have rather better understanding of what causes the apparent possession, whether it be a drug or alcohol induced state, a chemical imbalance in the brain, a birth defect or even simply specific environmental factors like scarring of brain tissue after a fall that trigger such events.

Nevertheless because such a person is described in terms that leaves no doubt that something has caused them to react as if being possessed by forces outside their immediate control is still fair enough, and I for one still find the term “demon possessed” helpful as a descriptive term for what we see. In fact we can go further. Those who teach behavioural psychology are fond of reminding their students that all we really have to go on is exhibited behaviour. Even now we don’t yet know enough to understand exactly what goes on in the brain or in what is popularly called “mind”.

In Mark’s story he talks of the man who appeared to see something threatening in Jesus and suddenly starts to rant about the threat to his demons. Jesus takes control of the situation and apparently finds an appropriate way to calm the man down with his authority. While it is traditional to ascribe this to a miracle I wonder if we rush too quickly to such judgement. Much of the talk about Jesus as a miracle worker is by way of editorial comment, much of it written long after the event. The catch is of course, that the more we emphasise the superhuman or God-like characteristics of Jesus, the less he has to do with us and our realities. Nevertheless, what is true for this particular reported incident, is that Jesus behaving with authority in the face of the man’s outburst is certainly not typical of what we might expect even from those facing such a situation today.

Time after time in our daily newspapers there is editorial outrage about an all too common situation in which typically someone gets out of control and that despite often large numbers of observers, most people stand around and do nothing. A few years back in our daily newspaper the New Zealand Herald, there was an account of an outraged and out of control young woman beating up and kicking a pregnant young woman on the ground outside a shop while watched by 20 or so onlookers who reportedly stood by watching without interfering. The beating was evidently over a boyfriend the pregnant woman was accused of sleeping with.

Over the next few days there were the usual indignant letters to the paper expressing outrage that none of the onlookers had moved to help. Yet I wonder if the letter writers should have been surprised. There is a paralysing and almost hypnotic focus of attraction associated with bizarre events and instances of uncontrolled behaviour.

I know from past experience from being at the scene at a number of accidents, that by far the most common attitude is where in the face of an emergency most people appear to be able to do nothing more than gawp. What is encouraging is that from time to time, there are a small number of clear and logical thinkers who can, using little more than common sense and a positive attitude, take control of such accident scenes in a calming and rational manner. If there is a common factor for most of these, it is that they are quite simply willing to become involved.

When we read for example of incidents where an armed person is either threatening to harm others – or in a worst case scenario attacking others (as for example in an armed hold-up or mass shooting) while many might panic or flee, there are sometimes those prepared to help calm the situation and even risk their own safety in order to help others survive. I have both seen, and in other instances read of people exhibiting dangerous and even psychotic behaviour counselled to a more peaceful way of acting so I don’t believe miracle must always be invoked in such instances.

While the attention is usually given to Jesus as the miracle worker – I wonder if rather more attention should be given to the miracle of his willingness to get involved. Time after time, with situations where he appeared to be thinking more of others than himself. In those days for example, diseases like leprosy were much less understood than they are today and the lepers were genuinely feared.

That Jesus was not a passive spectator in such cases and was prepared to meet and touch such people, tells us far more about his character than for example it tells us about the ultimate long term health outcome for the lepers he had met and which, in the absence of recorded detail, we can never know.

That he was prepared to get involved with the demon possessed, the blind beggars, those who might be seen as dangerous enemies, prostitutes, tax collectors, and those having socially unacceptable beliefs can almost be summed up not so much as some form of ethereal magic – but more as one whose authority was the confidence to put his own welfare and safety to one side – and to become totally involved.

I must say that for me, demon possession can be trivialised by focussing on the form of getting rid of the demons with ceremony or ritual. Becoming deeply involved with someone possessed by agents outside their control is costly rather than trivial. Those for example who have struggled with someone in the grip of drug addiction or alcoholism will know that such demons are rarely exorcised with a few words of religious mumbo-jumbo or a quick passing prayer.

While I confess to a healthy scepticism for what goes on at mass faith healing services and even feel unease that one now retired Papal exorcist in Rome once publically estimated that he had performed some 50,000 exorcisms in his career, it seems to me that the question is not about how others treat the afflicted, because that has nothing to do with my individual walk of faith. The question I must face is: whether or not I personally can bring myself to follow Jesus’ lead in directly dealing with those I meet in the course of my path through life?

In an age where mega-churches are all the rage and where Tele-evangelists can sometimes reach untold thousands with their message, there must seem something of a conundrum in Jesus ordering the man freed from his demons to be silent. Why not tell it from the roof tops? Surely if this sorry derelict in Capernaum has acknowledged Jesus as Lord, he is doing nothing more than making an historic proclamation. After all doesn’t James put it as: “even the devils believe and tremble” (James 2:19)

Yet Jesus insists “Be silent” which John Pridmore wryly points out is not exactly the favourite text in typical Church mission plans. In some ways this particular “be silent!”saying deserves more attention than it gets in practice. Those front door religious visitors who switch on a practised torrent of artificial religious spiel to go with their simplistic tracts often seem unaware that true religion is lived not professed. Somehow a wodge of words, no matter how accurately quoted seems curiously unattractive if the messenger does not even take the trouble to first get to know the recipient – and even less show any genuine concern for the realities of their life.

As those attempting to follow Christianity, we are unlikely to ever achieve universal agreement as to whether the unfortunate man in Mark’s story was indeed demon possessed or whether his condition was rather more mundane and explicable in modern terms. Yet whether or not he was possessed, or merely behaved as if he was is hardly the point. A rather more important focus of the story was that Jesus was reported as being prepared to address the one afflicted, rather than being a passive spectator and in so doing restored the unfortunate man’s human potential. Jesus’ injunction to keep silent afterwards is a timely reminder that some events don’t need a facile and shallow acknowledgement.

In this case it may be that we too need to keep silence as we contemplate the mystery of what is reported here and instead look for creative and positive ways of making room for similar actions in our tentative steps in faith.

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A lectionary sermon for Year B, Epiphany 3, 21 January 2018 based on Mark 1: 14 – 20

Called to Fish??
For those who stress how dependent Christians should be on Jesus, it may be timely to remind ourselves that Jesus is not recorded as being a one man band. As Mark recorded it, Jesus never set out to be the sole act. He certainly presented gospel as good news – but the good news had an essential place for partners in the enterprise. It was good news, not because now Jesus could say some clever words, but rather because something was set in place whereby individuals and even community might start to be transformed and values applied.

Gospel has no value if it is just past history. Although it maybe hard to admit, it is also worth reminding ourselves our gospel only performs in each generation about as well as the current batch of disciples allow it to perform.

If as the surveys suggest we have a present community that finds the Gospel to be largely irrelevant to daily life, perhaps we, as the modern day interpreters of Gospel might look to our current witness before looking elsewhere for someone to blame.

Unfortunately, and perhaps precisely because it is such a striking simile, this morning’s gospel call of the disciples to become fishers of men is possibly both the most famous – as well as the most misunderstood call to mission in the history of the Christian Church.

At its most simplistic it sounds a bit like a mission to build numbers. Don’t catch fish – treat people like fish – hook them, net them, catch them with baited words – fill the pews and when the pews are full, build another bigger church and fill that too. I am sure that is what the unfortunately misunderstood word “evangelism” has come to mean for whole branches of the Church. And yet if you listen carefully, that is not what Jesus said – and nor does it correspond with what actually happened with the disciples. That is simply not what Jesus taught them to do.

And did they need teaching? To a non fisherman, being offered fishing lessons probably seems completely superfluous. Throw a net into the water you catch fish. Bait a hook and throw it into the water, you catch a fish.
What is there to learn?

Well, as any real fisherman will tell you, even when fishing only for fish, there is a great deal to learn. The seine fishermen in Jesus time had to learn to fish at night when the nets would be harder for the fish to see – and when the fish might be attracted to a light in the boat. Certain types of fish only feed at certain times and are attracted to very specific bait. Some types of fish are found at specific depths and even at specific temperatures and at specific times of the year. These days it is even more of a science. For example the modern Tuna fishermen now use sea surface temperature maps generated from satellites to identify the warm patches where the tuna congregate. And that is only one of a host of things a fisherman needs to know

It may well have a lot more meaning then for a fisherman to be asked to learn a new way of fishing.

Come with me and I will show you how to be fishers of men (sic)”. In Mark’s probably reconstructed memory, that was what Jesus was saying. But that doesn’t mean simply preach at those we might invite. We have to be concerned for them as individuals, and these days we would mean men and women and note they are individuals facing unique situations, rather than as scalps or trophies.

For Jesus it was never going to be easy to use these fishermen for the tasks of the kingdom. We read in the gospels that these disciples were wilful, they were slow to understand and at times they were not in tune with what Jesus was trying to accomplish. On the other hand as they lived and worked with Jesus, they seemed gradually to wake up to what it was that Jesus was asking them to do. Of course they had doubts, and you might wonder why this did not cause Jesus to give up on them. But here is a thought. Perhaps it was in fact that these doubts justified their selection because doubts are essential to honest thinking. As Tennyson wrote in his poem dedicated to his late friend, Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam A. H. H.:

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
… then he went on to write……
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

When I hear people try to turn Jesus’ teaching into simple formula recitations leaving no room for thought or doubt I worry that they may overlook the way Jesus himself approached others.

Jesus showed by his actions he was not interested in reacting to labels. He showed by illustration and actions that the so called heretics of his day, the Samaritans, should be treated as individuals and that if for example the despised Samaritans showed compassion, this was to be genuinely valued. His disciples are called to share these same attitudes in living out their mission. The fact that some modern-day, self-claimed disciples, appear to be judging and even rejecting others in terms of labels like “Muslims” or “homosexuals” suggests that they may not be exactly on message.

Jesus showed by his actions he was more interested in the spirit of the law than the detail. If compassion was called for, this for Jesus took precedence over any imagined conflict with religious custom. In learning the Jesus way, Jesus’ focus on liberation and on renewal, had to become part of his disciples’ activity. This too was part of effective fishing.

It is hard to be certain from this distance in space and time how much of Mark’s record was intended symbolism. For example the notion of fishing for people also has scriptural precedence to do with justice. Amos for example talks of people carried off with fishhooks (Amos 4:20) and Jeremiah talks of God catching people to bring them to justice. (Jeremiah 16:16). Although Jesus is recorded as being more focused on compassion than judgment, there is no doubt that he too placed an emphasis on justice.

Presumably his followers also have to see that a concern for justice is part of what we now call the Christian message. We can for instance see that since Jesus showed a real focus on concern for the poor, that we who claim to follow Jesus, but who just who happen by accident of birth and opportunity to be living in the rich West, we also need to learn to be awake to the injustices visited on the poor. Why else might the poor be uninterested in what we have to offer if we are not genuinely concerned with their plight?

Those called to follow Jesus in his day found themselves with unexpected responsibilities, constantly encountering what we would now call situational ethics. What for example should one do when the institutional church puts its own wealth ahead of its duty to the people? Jesus reportedly cleared the temple.

What should one do when ostentatious display of religious status gets emphasized ahead of service? Jesus risks his own safety and calls it like it is.

What should one do when religious custom identifies the untouchable leper? Jesus reaches out and touches with the healing hand.

Each of these actions tell others about the way he is inviting others to follow.
Yet the thing about situational ethics is that situations change. It is not so much Pharisees as those with titles like Reverend or pastor or parish steward or Tele- evangelist or member of the leaders meeting that should now be our focus. With lepers now far less common, today’s untouchables may well be those with AIDS. Our modern-day Samaritans may just as easily be those we call extremist Muslims, or atheists spitting out what may appear to us to be words of vitriol.

One of the sad things about traditional Christianity is that it is slow to react to change and is often left behind when trade policies or environmental issues are being debated. To win hearts and minds, at a minimum, religion must be seen as relevant to current issues. This is why a strong presence of the church has to be involved in debates like genetic engineering, like climate change, like food production, like the arms race and sustainable energy policies. When for example the Catholic Church waited until 1991 before admitting Galileo was right(!?), and took almost to the same date to pronounce on Darwin it is another way of telling the general population that the Church is happy to be left behind in the modern world.

Conversely when the Christian World service is among the first to set up aid in a disaster area, or when the current Pope weighs into the current problems, the Christian message wins the right to be heard. But surely it is not just the Church leaders. What for example are we saying about accepting those displaced by the weapons produced by the wealthy arms dealers from our part of the world. Do we say we don’t want the refugees our side have displaced? Do we as part of our witness for Jesus support our leaders when they say have to cut down the aid to the United  Nations. I suppose we could always pretend not to notice less aid means that the UN sponsored refugee camps will become worse. Remember some politicians who are merely reflecting what the people want are saying those things.

Sometimes the rule book is not the issue, and those who are called to discipleship have to learn that they too have to take a message of responsive action as well as words if their evangelism is to have any integrity. The reason why Bonheoffer’s words continue to tug at the heartstrings is because of his self sacrifice in the fight against Hitler’s Nazi regime. I am certainly not sure that Bonheoffer thought of himself as a fisher of men (and women) – yet from the number who claim to have learned their faith from his example, he appears to have mastered his part in the fishing trade.

In his day Jesus called a cross-section of men and women to mission. Today the need is probably as strong as ever, since the need for compassion, for justice, for those concerned for their fellows and even a concern for the planet itself is as urgent as ever. The call for those prepared to share the tasks for the kingdom, may have changed in form – and the specific tasks and challenges change year by year and even day by day. How the fishing is to be done in a modern age must be continually relearned, but remember the gospel only has our present generation to depend on – and as for all the generations in the past, the success of this gospel depends on…..well… those like us.

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