Jesus’s last sermon

by Liz Young

(Based on Mark 13:1-8)

What would you do if you knew that Jesus was returning at midnight tonight? How would you spend the next fifteen hours? Praying, asking for forgiveness for all the things you’ve put off doing?
What if you knew he would return a week from today? How would you prioritise doing all those things you haven’t got around to doing? What matters most?

The disciples were occupied with when will Jesus return. Jesus doesn’t respond to their question ‘when?’, but warns them and encourages them with three instructions:

  1. Don’t be deceived! Follow Jesus’s teachings.
    The implication that the disciples may follow false leaders reminds me that the early Christians did split into so many different sects – that by the time Mohammed arrived he felt he had to create a new true interpretation – without the certainty we have of the help of our belief in Jesus, and the help of the Holy Spirit, to live as he advised us.
  2. Take heed to yourselves. Don’t worry about the things happening around you. It’s enough to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength; and to love our neighbour as ourself.
  3. Be alert! Don’t get distracted. Oh how easy it is to be distracted by material things, comfort food, escapist books or whatever else takes your fancy.
    I find that I get distracted more easily each year I get older: so my first action after I get up is to have my quiet time, and after my reflections I write my plan for the day. I usually follow the prayer plan I was taught in my youth: praise, thanksgiving, ask for forgiveness, intercessions and ask for help in planning and putting into practice my plans for the day. (Which always include two hours of gardening.) But some of that gets hurried by my need for breakfast!

I’ve always felt that the kingdom of God is all around us. Jesus is with us now in our daily lives. How often do we make ourselves aware of him? Ask for his help in our daily decision making and actions and difficulties.
I tend to think quickly, and speak and act without thinking. Pray that we can ask for his help, moment to moment of each day. To be alert to each other’s needs, listen and look for the unspoken words in body language.
Take this simple message home this week. I hope that its brevity will help the message stick. In the Name of God the Father, his Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

God whom we serve is able …

by Ken Francis

(Based on Mark 12:38-44 and Psalm 146)

This Mark reading features two unconnected – or not obviously connected – incidents/teachings.  Actually, the whole chapter seems to be an assembly of some of the things Jesus did and taught in the week just before his execution.
Although, given that I’m touched first of all by the pompous ways of the scribes (or ‘teachers of the law’ in some versions), especially in contrast to the meekness and humility of the widow, Mark may well have placed these two segments beside each other intentionally.  So, we could unpack the attitudes of the scribes – part of the holy cabal of scribes, Pharisees and priests – and examine our own outward ways of being.  Are we ‘scribal’ in any way, sisters and brothers?
And we could then unpack the widow’s attitude to giving, or, indeed, God’s attitude to widows and orphans, and anyone in states of vulnerability.

But I feel rather to pick up on something from the Psalm reading.

Do not put your trust in princes, it says, … in human beings, who cannot save.  When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.  He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them — he remains faithful forever.  He upholds the cause of the oppressed, and …
[and various vulnerable folk are mentioned, including the widows, who, of course, in those days, had no official or often even social means of support].

God loves the vulnerable – and the righteous, the Psalm says – so, accepting that, don’t put your faith or your hopes in human beings! They’re not as good as they seem.

In coaching school rugby and soccer teams, we would often find ourselves on Saturday mornings, early, on foreign fields in miserable weather. As opposition teams began to turn up I could sometimes sense my players’ growing anxiety, seeing the size and perceived skills of the opposition, and I had to try to calm them down. I’d use various platitudes like “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” (which was little comfort to my players!), or … one that seemed to work better was, “they no different than you. They still get up each morning and put their trousers on one leg after the other”. The mental image and associated giggles did seem to lower their anxieties.

Just last week I was discussing vaccinations with my son (who’d been in some of my rugby teams as a teenager), and I was trying to ease the tensions of a controversial topic by saying, “Look, at the end of the day, if Ashley Bloomfield [NZ’s Director General of Health] says it’s safe, and the thing we need to do, then that’s good enough for me.”
To which Tom said, with a twinkle in his grin, “Dad, he’s no wiser than you or me … he still gets up each morning and puts his trousers on one leg after the other”.

Touche.

Don’t put your trust in people, people!  … is the message of some of these verses from Psalm 146.

What – you mean don’t trust anyone?  Not my husband, my wife, my family, my friends, the Bishop, the All Blacks, the climate change delegates at COP26?

No, I don’t think the psalmist would go that far.  Like me, he would still insure his car! He’d look to the Lord for safety on the roads, but he would still insure his car.  He would still look to God for his general safety and well-being, but he would still lock his doors at night.  He would trust God for his health, but he would still – would he still, maybe?, get vaccinated!

See what I mean?  If our property is threatened, we would call the police – hopefully they’d come quickly – but still, primarily, trust in our God.  And even if things turned out badly for us, our trust would still be in him … ultimately.

There are many incidents in the Old Testament where the Israelites didn’t have their hope in God, and it cost them.  Times when they made alliances with pagan nations; when they went after other nations’ Gods; when they wanted a King, ‘like the other nations’ (we learn in 1 Samuel chapters 8-10); when they turned to Egypt because the Babylonians were threatening, but Egypt had more horses and chariots than they did (as in Jeremiah 42, for example).
Actually, that chapter is quite instructive: The enemy were at the gates of Jerusalem. The king didn’t know what to do, and his generals and political ‘friends’ were in rebellion. They were wanting to abandon the city, and seek refuge in Egypt. To force the issue, the rebels sought the advice of the prophet Jeremiah, swearing they’d adhere to whatever he counselled.
Jeremiah sought God, then counselled the rebels to stay in Jerusalem – they would be saved – but not to look to Egypt (where they would die if they went there). The rebels promptly ignored the advice and … it didn’t finish well for them.

So this tells us to seek God when we’re in trouble, and to do what seems right before him – not necessarily what human advice might tell us to do.

But, back to the question of whom among men and women can we trust, should we trust?  When is it ok to trust in other people?  The secret is, I suggest, we can trust the people we trust, as long as we can do it without compromising our primary submission to the higher one: God.

I put it to you that it’s fine to ask for help: when I take my car to the garage for repair, when I try to get a good deal on motel accommodation – as Jackie and I were doing this time last week, when I accept my government superannuation, when I ask Jackie to go downstairs and get me the hammer – no, perhaps I shouldn’t admit that here – or when I ask the bank to look after my funds … these are all ways I can trust in men and women without compromising in any way and, whilst still truly trusting God for my overall wellbeing.

But there are times when our hope needs to be in God alone.  Men and women are fallible – they have no real power or comfort or ability to work miracles.  The mechanic is not God; banks collapse; motels can still rip you off.  Only God … He, who is our true backstop.

I love the attitude of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  To me these epitomise the attitude of the widow (in the Mark reading):  they were told they must worship the local king, or they’d be thrown into a furnace.  They replied (in Daniel 3), “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” [Emphasis added]
And you probably know how that panned out.

God forbid that we should ever have to face such a challenge, but let’s adopt their attitude in the face of any challenge.  Do you have any challenges in mind this morning, facing you imminently?  Then, be very clear about this: “God, whom we serve, is able …”  The widow had her whole trust in God; the scribal cabal did not.  Jesus highlighted the difference.  And the psalmist says,

Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.  Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.  He remains faithful forever.

Amen

Sustainability Reflection

Sustainability: the big picture – what can we do?  What are your thoughts and hopes?

Let’s not be put off by naysayers that it’s just too hard.

A Sunday School Teacher asked her eight eager 10-year-olds if they would give a million dollars to the save the planet. “YES!” they all screamed!  “Would you give $1000?” Again they shouted “YES!” “How about $100?” “Oh, YES we would,” they all agreed. “Would you give just a dollar to the save the planet?” she asked. The boys exclaimed “YES!” just as before, except for Jack.  “Jack,” the teacher said as she noticed the boy clutching his pocket, “why didn’t you say ‘Yes’ this time?” “Well,” he stammered, “I HAVE a dollar.” 

And this is the crux of the matter.

What can we do?  We are just one, we say.  But we can do something.   In the 1990s the global corporation Nike was targeted by campaigners because it had denied responsibility for any unprofessional conduct that may be taking place in its sub-contractor factories.  However, statements made by two woman workers at a Nike plant in Vietnam and reported by CBS in 1996 set in motion a boycott campaign of Nike that was so successful that it has now become an object lesson in how giant corporations can be brought to account by ordinary consumers.
The campaign scored a direct hit on Nike’s bottom line, and because of this the corporation today operates with an openness and transparency that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. All because the ordinary consumer, just like you or me, reacted and said with their buying power, “No, we will not agree with this.”

By using demonstrations, opinion pieces and campaigns in traditional media and increasingly over social media, and especially by voting with our dollars and boycotting, we as consumers can flex our right to an opinion and sometimes we will get results.

Another couple of examples to encourage:

In 2009 a Honduran factory that supplied Russell Athletic was shut down soon after the workers unionised. The anti-sweatshop movement got on the case, with United Students Against Sweatshops persuading the administrations of more than 90 universities and colleges to suspend their licensing agreements with Russell. This translated to sales losses of sometimes more than $1 million per school. By November Russell agreed to rehire 1200 Honduran workers from the shuttered factory and open a new, unionised factory. The company also pledged not to fight unionisation in its other seven factories in Honduras.

2010 Internet campaign by Greenpeace led Nestlé to change its palm oil supplier. The issue at stake: Some of the palm oil used in some chocolate bars was produced by companies that were cutting down vast expanses of Indonesian rain forest, which destroyed tribal ancestral lands, killed orangutans and other endangered species, and contributed to emissions affecting climate change. By September 2013 Nestle was able to responsibly source 100 percent of its palm oil, two years ahead of its commitment.

In New Zealand, Kathmandu, Kmart and The Warehouse stated in their 2012 annual reports they have stopped working with some suppliers who failed to meet the requirements of each company’s respective ethical-sourcing code. This gives us hope.

We can make a difference – to our families, our communities and the world – by our actions towards sustainability.  Let us not be like Jack in the joke not wanting to give the little we have, be that cash or time or energy, in order to make change. 

Sharon M

Just Love

by Sharon Marr

(Based on Mark 12:28-34)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength‘, that’s what He said is the first commandment of all, ‘and love your neighbour as yourself‘: simple commands telling us all we need to know. All we need to know about God, ourselves, our relationships, the meaning of life, and the world we live in, and I can hear the saints gone before, and my mum, and the Ann Goodhews* of the world say – so … just do it … and right now.

Oh, for everything to be so black and white.

However, in these very troubled times this costly love that Jesus commands us to, with so many struggling with anxiety, fears and bewilderment over what is going on around them, the Covid virus and all its ramifications, the millions in Afghanistan threatened with starvation, Sudan with another war imminent , China raising its fist, and, of course, climate change – the single biggest threat in the fight against poverty and inequality – is not easy or simple, is it?

You can’t legislate for love, we know, but here God through Jesus (in this reading) does command us to love.  A royal decree you might say.  Discovering the difference between what God can and does achieve and what our laws and the sheer might of the world cannot achieve, is one of the great wonders of being human and of being a person of faith.  Discovering the difference between the love commonly witnessed in the world, one that says if you are the person I want you to be I will love you, and the love God has for us that says, I love you just as you are. 

I have one tiny funny example of how love can get a little distorted.  All my granddaughters have at one stage or another watched with great interest, and participated in, me putting on my make up – so much so that early on, I took to singing a little ditty as we did it:

Put on your happy face
Chase away the blues
I can’t help myself
I love you true.

When Shauna was about four she joined in with me singing our little ditty, but she sang, instead of I love you true, “I love your shoes”. And she did, she played in them constantly making happy clip clop noises on the vinyl floors. 

A trite example, but it does show what is utmost in our hearts can become what we determine love to be.

Do you love me – that is, your fellow human being, also created and loved by God – just for myself alone? Or do you love my shoes – that is, the part of me that makes your life happier, safer …. easier …. more comfortable?

What does love really mean to you? 

Debie Thomas of the Journey with Jesus website draws our attention to Jesus’s answer to this, in his response to the Pharisees’ question in today’s wonderful reading.  “Remember,” she says, “at this point in the story, Jesus’s crucifixion is just days away.  Death is literally breathing down his neck, and he is rapidly running out of opportunities to communicate the heart of his message.  But when he is asked what matters most in a life of faith, Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Believe the right things.’  He doesn’t say, ‘Maintain personal and doctrinal purity.’  He doesn’t say, ‘Worship like this or attend a church like that.’  He doesn’t even say, ‘Read your Bible’ or, ‘Pray every day’ or, ‘Preach the Gospel to every living creature’.  He says, ‘Love.’  That’s it.  All of Christianity distilled down to its essence.  Love.  Love God and love your neighbour.”

And note, Jesus doesn’t say, “I sure hope love happens to you.”  He says, “Love is the greatest and first commandment.”  Meaning, it’s not a matter of personal attraction, feeling, or preference.  It’s not a matter of lucky accident.  It’s a matter of obedience to the one we call “Lord.”

What would it cost us to take Jesus’s version of love seriously?  To practice and cultivate a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching?  To train ourselves into a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that we rearrange our lives in order to pursue it?  To pray for the kind of empathy that causes our hearts to break?  Do we even want to? To become vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain?  Those things are hard.  Hard and costly. And yet this is the call. 

We have a God who, first and foremost, wants our love — not our fear, penitence, or piety.  And we have a God who wants everyone else to also feel loved.  By us. 

As I was writing this I found myself humming again and again an old favourite from the 60s: Burt Bacharach’s What the world needs now.  Remember it?  Well I looked up the lyrics and it continues with these words,

 Lord, we don’t need another mountain
There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb
There are oceans and rivers enough to cross
Enough to last ’til the end of time

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some, but for everyone.

Hear the cry? Please no more obstacles in our way. There are just so many obstacles in life. (Remember the 60s, with the real threat of nuclear war, with the Cuban missile crisis? People were really frightened and powerless.) Just give us love, and not just for some but for everyone.
Not judged. Not shamed. Not punished. Not chastised.  But loved.

__ . __

We cannot love ourselves or our neighbours in any meaningful, sustainable way if that love is not sourced and replenished in an abiding love for God.  
The love God shows us in Jesus is one that is primarily interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own.  It does not attempt to possess or dominate the other. It allows genuine space for the other to be; and that love is superabundant, such that it can be offered without reserve. 

Rowan Williams**, preaching on this very passage, says that God’s love for the world is extraordinary. It is without cause, absolutely free, absolutely, overwhelmingly unreasonable.

“And that’s the kind of the love we are invited to become part of as his friends. Before we belonged to anything, before we did anything, before we achieved anything – even before we believed anything, God was loving us.

“From the beginning, we were there.
And, of course, since we were there with God, in God’s mystery, in the eternal utterance of the Word and the Spirit, before time began, we are bound up in the immense mystery of God’s outpouring of Himself in creation and in redeeming love.”

And this outrageous love is for all.

Only God’s love is inexhaustible. If we cut ourselves off from the flow of God’s compassion, we will quickly run dry.  In other words, the motion of our hearts must be cyclical — love of God making possible and deepening our love of neighbour; and love of neighbour putting flesh and bones on our love for God. 

__ . __

So what is it that we are called to do?  I believe it is to follow in the footsteps of the one who declared love to be the be-all and end-all.  The call is to weep with those who weep.  To laugh with those who laugh.  To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth.  The call is to love. 

I conclude today with a prayer poem from Steve Garnaas-Holmes

God,
help me this day to add love to the world.
Not fear, not obstacles, not anxiety
about what I owe or am owed, but love.

Help me know my freedom —
not to do what I please,
but to fulfil my call to love,

my only goal, not that I prevail
but that others receive love.

In calm interactions,
or in moments of anxiety or conflict,
let me contribute love.

In silence or in confrontation,
in public endeavour or quiet prayer,
in heroic action or mundane chores,
let me add love to the world.

O God of Love,
let your love overflow:
fulfil your love in me.

Amen

* Ann Goodhew was a former church administrator of St Francis Church, and a founder of the church’s Op Shop.
** Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012.