The Men of Manus Island – a debrief of my recent visit

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:31-32)

Here we find ourselves at the end of another Christian year – at the feast of Christ the King – and our Gospel reading presents us with what I believe is the most glorious vision of Christ as king that we see in the Gospels.

Jesus gives us this image Himself, and it’s an image of a coronation celebration.   The new age is finally being inaugurated and the long-awaited king is finally being crowned, and all the king’s subjects are gathered before the throne, presumably so that they can express their loyalty to their new sovereign as he begins his reign.

This sort of scene would not have been unfamiliar to the people Jesus was initially addressing. Even if they had not been present at the coronation of Augustus Caesar or any of his successors, they certainly would have read or heard about such events, and would have been able to easily imagine the glorious nature of such a ceremony.

That original audience would also have understood that such coronations included not only the opportunity for the faithful to express their allegiance to their new monarch, but also the public banishing or punishment of the new king’s enemies. In the depiction Jesus gives, it is the king himself who discriminates between who are his loyal servants and who are his enemies, and he does so in a most surprising way.

According to Jesus, the new king assesses the loyalty of His people to Him – the King of the kingdom – by judging how well they have been looking after those who are at the extreme opposite end of the social spectrum!

“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)

This is one of those Bible passages that is not hard to understand, as much as it is hard to understand what we are supposed to do with it, as most of us balk at the idea that our lives might be judged solely on the basis of how well we looked after the poor and the dispossessed. Indeed, I can understand why even those who pride themselves on taking the Bible literally are hesitant to take this passage too literally.

It’s a bit perplexing from a theological point of view. At the same time though, it is straightforward from a practical point of view. The very clear mandate coming out of this passage is that we should be spending a lot more time looking after the poor and the needy, and visiting those who are sick and imprisoned. And given that all of us who are a part of the Holy Trinity community have this week (either directly or indirectly) been involved in visiting those in prison, I thought I’d spend the rest of my time today debriefing that experience with you.

I arrived on Manus Island last Thursday. How I got there is itself a bit of a story, and it begins with Ruth. Or perhaps it began before that, when I started raising questions about what was happening on Manus Island and what the church was doing.

It seemed to me that there was no real media coverage of what was going on, but that people were clearly suffering. and I was keen to know what the body of Christ was doing about that.

As a member of the church in Australia, I was very concerned, as it seemed that my country was causing this suffering, and I wondered what we Christians in Australia were doing to hold our government to account. I also wondered what our Christian brothers and sisters in Papua New Guinea were doing about all this, as I figured that they would be equally concerned about it.

So, I started making enquiries – calling our bishop, calling the Anglican Board of Mission (who I knew had connections in PNG) and talking to other local church leaders, as well as raising questions online through my various social networks. It was when I posted an appeal on ‘Flocknote’ though (our church notice-board) that Ruth took hold of the idea and connected me with ‘Getup!’, which led to a series of meetings, that led to my boarding a plane for Papua New Guinea a few days later.

We arrived on Manus Island, which is a small island to the north of the mainland of Papua New Guinea (about 7 km deep and 30 km wide) on the Thursday morning, and we had the privilege of enjoying the hospitality of local residents who were also concerned about the plight of the men in the Immigration Processing Centre.

For any who don’t know the full story, the Australian government had been trying to close their facility, located near the town of Lorengau, that had housed around 600 men for the last four and a half years, ostensibly to move the men to other newly constructed facilities, also located on Manus Island. Most of the men though had refused to move, and the authorities had clearly been reluctant to move them forcibly, leading to a stand-off. When we arrived, the men had been holding out for nearly a month, pooling food supplies and constructing wells in an attempt to get fresh water.

I had heard lots of questions raised as to why these men refused to move when (according to Australian authorities) they had wonderful new facilities waiting for them. When I first arrived on Manus Island, I too had no idea as to why these men were holding out and trying to live on in a decommissioned dysfunctional facility. When I got to meet the men in that facility, it all became crystal clear.

That visit took place on the Friday night, after we were able to secure a small motor-boat, and were able to make our way around the island by water to the beach where the detention facility was located, being careful not to land at the naval base, which was located next door and shared the same beach.

This was not as easy as it might sound, as the whole trip was made in the pitch dark, with the inmates of the detention communicating with us via text messages, and trying to subtly indicate their presence on the beach by use of flashlight.

It was further complicated by repeated text exhortations of “for God sake, turn off your engine. We can hear you!”, which meant that we had to try to drift in over the last kilometre or so, using the tide. Even so, somehow, after some hours on the water, we were able to successfully rendezvous with the men, and it was certainly worth the effort.

There was no functional lighting in the decommissioned facility, but the men had become very adept at using the lights on their mobile phones to get around, and they managed to give us a comprehensive tour of their environment over the hours I was with them. They showed us the wells they had constructed to keep fresh water flowing, and explained also how local police had come in and smashed those wells and poured rubbish into them, in an attempt to force the inmates to leave.

The descriptions they gave of regular harassment by the police was distressing, and yet their commitment to non-violence was extraordinarily impressive. They were physically pushed around and verbally abused, but they refused to respond in kind. When we asked them how they developed their commitment to non-violence, they said that after four and a half years, they had learnt what worked and what didn’t.

I listened to the men as they shared their stories. Many of them had escaped from warzones in places like Afghanistan or Somalia or Sri Lanka. Others were facing more subtle forms of persecution, such as the young Iranian boy who had apparently converted to Christianity and had been labelled an apostate by his peers.

Their stories were, in every case, reminders that we were not dealing with criminals. On the contrary, we were with men who had escaped intolerable environments, only to be intercepted by Australian authorities and imprisoned in another intolerable environment, for a period of detention that might never end!

A number of these men said they did not want to go to Australia – certainly not now. Many felt understandably bitter about the way they had been treated. One man in his twenties said “I have lost my youth in this place. I just want my life back.”

I spent time with one man there who had fled Afghanistan four and a half years ago. He is a part of a persecuted minority group in Afghanistan and he left his pregnant wife with her family to seek a safe environment for them in another land. Now, four and a half years later, he shows me pictures of his young son on his mobile phone – a boy he has never met, and he wonders when he will get to meet him.

Again, these men are not criminals. Most of them have been interviewed by the authorities and judged to be genuine refugees. They just wait and wait and wait, week after week, and month after month, and year after year, in this ‘processing centre’ that never seems to process anybody.

As we spoke with the men, and as we spoke with their leaders – Aziz and Behrouz – what became very clear to me was that these men had developed a really functional community between them!

They had a solid leadership structure with strong democratic accountability, demonstrated through regular camp-wide meetings. They had a centralized health-care system, with medications pooled and distributed to those who needed the most, and with people rostered on to take care of the mentally ill – walking them around the facilities and talking to them, so as to ensure they didn’t harm themselves. Those with expertise in engineering were in charge of the construction of the wells and the maintenance of the facilities.

In short, the men of the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre had learnt to work together, to depend on each other and to sustain one another. It was a highly functional community, and when I realised that I understood why they didn’t want to be moved and broken up into various new detention centres. Why would these men abandon each other – their brothers who they knew they could trust – for promises offered them by the Australian government, whom they knew they could not trust?

Interestingly, before arriving on Manus Island, I had just finished reading a book called “Tribe” (by Sebastian Junger), which looks at the way so-called ‘primitive’ tribes function, where people live in close-knit communities, in mutual dependence on one another, in contrast to the way larger cities and nation-states function.

The key thesis of the book was with regards to those returning from war, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The author of “Tribe” suggests that the problem for these men is not the war environment they’ve come from, but the difficulty of adjusting from a living environment where people live closely together and depend on each other for their survival, back into an impersonal community where everyone seems to be only interested in themselves!

What I found in that detention centre on Manus Island was a really well functioning tribe, with men living in real community, depending on one another for their survival, and caring for each other in a very powerful way!

For me, the highly functional nature of that community was best illustrated by what happened after I left them.

For those who didn’t hear, the extraction operation did not go smoothly. As we were making our way back to the boat on the beach, lights started flashing, apparently courtesy of personnel from the naval base. The result was that I got away in the boat, while my companions – Jarrod and Olivia – ended up back into the detention centre, where they spent another day before we successfully extracted them.

What impressed me over that 24-hour period was that Olivia, who is an attractive young girl, trapped inside a detention centre with four hundred sex-starved men, never felt herself to be at risk. The men said to her, “you are our sister. We will take good care of you”, and they did.

If I had more time, I would share with you something of the adventure of my own extraction. ‘Adventure’ is probably the wrong word as it suggests that it was fun. The short version of the adventure was that it involved spinning around in a boat amidst coral reefs in the pitch black (except when the searchlight from the naval base caught us) with the crew of three inexplicably spending most of their time in the water at the back of the boat, speaking excitedly in Pigeon (which I don’t understand a word of).

I later discovered that, in the mayhem, the boat’s propeller had been damaged by one of the coral reefs and the drive pin (whatever that is) needed to be replaced. My crew had been trying to fix the engine under water without using any light that would give away our location. I was later told that the repair was a miracle of God’s grace.

Those who know me well know that I don’t fear a lot of things, but that I do actually have a bit of a phobia when it comes to small boats, ever since my darling daughter, Veronica, came very close to being drowned in a boat (of very similar size to the one I was in that night) when she was little. Suffice it to say that it was a long night for me.

Thanks be to God, at any rate, I made it back safely to shore that night (or morning, as dawn was breaking by the time we returned). I didn’t sleep well, but I did have the privilege, later that same day, of meeting with the members of the Manus Island boxing team, who were about to head off for competition on the mainland. Indeed, I was even able to do a couple of rounds with the Manus Island champion, and they presented me afterwards with an official Manus Island headband, along with a hand-woven man-bag, designed to be worn around the neck.

As you can see (from the photo below), I look like an absolute twit. The men of Manus were far more complimentary though, telling me “you look good”. I asked the sister of the man we were staying with “do you think the girls of Manus might go for me in this outfit?” and she said “maybe”. I have a feeling those Manusians were just being nice to me, but the truth is that the native people of Manus Island truly are nice people – warm and hospitable and generous and caring!

Yes, it is true that some of the inmates at the detention centre had experienced violence at the hands of local ruffians (such as can be found in every community) and yet it was also true that there was a concerted effort going on between concerned people across the island, and most especially between the churches, to get food and medical aid to these people, and to get the word out about their predicament.

“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36)

May God have mercy on these good men – the men of the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre – and on all the good people of Manus Island. May God have mercy on us all!

first preached at Holy Trinity on November 26th, 2017

Manu Man (I do look like a twit)

I do look like a twit in my Manus-man outfit

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Father Dave and Pastor Jarrod on Manus Island

The following press release is courtesy of GetUp!

Religious leaders secretly travel to Manus Island Detention Camp, condemn Australian government inaction

MEDIA RELEASE: Thursday, November 23 2017

Australian Christian leaders Pastor Jarrod McKenna and Anglican Parish Priest Father Dave Smith returned on Tuesday from Manus Island, where they met Manus church leaders and spent nearly 24 hours in the detention camp with the 340 men detained there.

The religious leaders spent five days on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and were smuggled into the camp by supportive locals. Father Dave, priest of Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill, spent seven hours in the camp, while Mr McKenna, pastor of Perth’s Cornerstone Church, remained there for 25 hours after the navy disrupted his first attempt to leave.

The pair heard why the men in the camp fear to leave it and filmed interviews with many refugees and asylum seekers (available below).

Speaking of his time in the camp, Mr McKenna stated: “The kindness the men in the camp showed us, when our nation has been so cruel, was so overwhelming. They fed us, despite having so little food, they washed our feet when we fell in the mud, despite having so little water. As a Christian, it overwhelmed me. I wept with love.”

“The news yesterday that police have forcibly removed people from the camp, and arrested journalist Behrouz Boochani, who we spent hours with in the camp, horrifies me.”

“The police have now destroyed all of the men’s possessions, food and water. It is even more obvious and urgent that the Australian government must evacuate these men immediately to safety in Australia,” Mr McKenna said.

Anglican priest, Father Dave Smith, said: “I have enormous respect for the brave men we met in the camp. They find their strength in community, in supporting each other, and I would be proud to have them as neighbours.

“But the Australian government is attempting to break up their community, destroy their support structures, in order to force them to endure years more of indefinite detention. It is absolutely inexcusable.”

“Churches across Australia have been deeply concerned for a long time about what’s happening on Manus. But because of government secrecy and misinformation, they did not know the truth.”

“I went to Manus so I could show Christians in Australia what is really happening there Now, I believe we will see a very strong and unified response. Churches will demand safety and justice for these people.”

Both men say the situation in the Manus camp is critical, and only the Australian Government has the capacity and responsibility to ensure the refugees and people seeking asylum are safe. All international and Australian observers agree that the only safe thing to do is evacuate these men to Australia.

Pastor Jarrod McKenna and Anglican Parish Priest Father Dave Smith are available for interview in Sydney.

A small selection of vision of their trip is available here, further footage can be provided on request:

Media inquiries: Zoe Edwards: 0400 144 794

The trip was supported by GetUp members, who donated funds to cover travel, insurance, and associated costs for the delegation.

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The law of Love – a sermon on Matthew 22:34-40

 

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

I don’t know if you’ve been following the series of interviews I’ve been doing on the Internet-based TV show, “Lock In”, but in the most recent episode (that went to air last week) I was asked about my codes of ethics, and whether I thought it was important that everybody had a code of ethics.

I thought it was an odd sort of question, particularly given the nature of the show.

If you haven’t seen the show, picture me sitting on a bar stool alongside two young men who are very casually dressed, in front of a backdrop of brightly-flashing pinball machines, each of us with a bottle of beer in one hand.

You might have expected me to be asked about my favourite rock band (which is the sort of question they asked other guests on the show), and I wondered at the time whether they asked me about ethics because they felt that this was a question that you should ask a priest (along with asking about how sales of the Bible are going).

Jesus was asked this sort of question all the time too. Was it for the same reason? “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:360).

In the incident recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapter twenty-two, we’re told that it was a lawyer who asked Jesus this question, and that should make us immediately suspicious! I’ve had lawyers ask me questions, and when a lawyer asks you a question, you take your time and answer very slowly and carefully, lest you find yourself entangled in some terrible legal quagmire.

What was behind this lawyer’s question? Was he trying to entrap Jesus? According to the Gospel account, his was in fact the third attempt at entrapment in succession!

Earlier in this chapter of the Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that the Pharisees asked Jesus, “should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17) It wasn’t a genuine question. It was a trick question, designed to get Jesus into trouble, either with the crowd or with the law, and Jesus says, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”, which is a clever answer, but still leaves us wondering, ‘so should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?’

Immediately after that, we’re told that some Sadducees tried their luck with Jesus, telling Him a bizarre story about a woman who had seven husbands die on her. It wasn’t a serious story, and it ended with a trick question that was designed to make Jesus look like a fool, but Jesus avoided getting entangled in their trick question.

And then we come to round three, which turns out to be the final round. Indeed, Matthew tells us that after this question, nobody dared ask Jesus any more questions (Matthew 22:46). “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

As I say, it may not be immediately obvious to us what lay behind this question. What is obvious to us though is the answer:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We know this answer – we Anglicans especially – as we hear these words every week! We read them every single time we meet for worship on a Sunday. If you’re like me, you lost count long ago as to how many times you’ve heard these words:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the great and first commandment, and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”

“Lord, have mercy upon us and write your law in our hearts by your Holy Spirit”

Forgive me if that final response is from an older form of the liturgy, but some of us know these words so well we could say them backwards if we were pushed!

The original source of these words (or at least the first half of them) is Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – the Shema Israel. The part about the neighbour is found in Leviticus 19:18. These are very ancient Jewish texts, thousands of years old. We know them off by heart, even though we’re not thousands of years old and not we’re Jewish (or at least I’m not, as far as I know).

The point is that we know these words so well that it makes you wonder why anybody would even ask such a question. Isn’t it obvious that there are two great commandments? What did you expect Jesus to say?

And maybe that’s the important question that we need to ask – the one that will unlock this passage for us. What did Jesus’ interrogators really expect Him to say?

My guess is that our familiarity with this passage probably blinds us to the fact that Jesus’ questioners weren’t expecting Him to answer their question in the way He did. There are other possible responses!

One response that they may have been anticipating is what I’d call “The Reverend Lovejoy response” – namely, “It’s all good!”

You’ll have to forgive me if you’re not a Simpsons fan, but I’m thinking of that scene where Lisa asks her pastor, the Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, whether there is any particular section of the Bible she should be reading to help her with her struggles, to which he replies “Oh, it’s all good”.

I suspect that many people would have expected Jesus to reply along similar lines. ‘Which command is the most important?’ ‘Oh, they’re all good!’

When you think about it, this is the obvious approach for someone who takes the Scriptures seriously as a revelation from God. God has spoken to us through these texts. God has given us His laws. Each law is a law from God, and so every law is equally good and equally demanding of our obedience.

I’m sure we all know people who do approach the Scriptures exactly this way. It doesn’t matter how ancient or remote the text seems to be. If God commanded it,  it’s a law, and if God makes a law, God surely doesn’t change His mind!

Of course, I’m not thinking here about those laws that govern human sexuality or that assign women to their proper gender roles, but rather some of those classic laws such as “never eat an owl”.

That one’s in Leviticus, chapter 11, in case you missed it. The owl – both the little owl and the great owl – are listed there (vs. 18) as being ‘detestable amongst the birds’ (vs. 13), along with birds that you may already find detestable, such as the vulture, the buzzard and the bat!

Don’t eat them! God commanded it. Ours is not to reason why but simply to obey! Well, … that might have been what they were expecting Jesus to say.

Forgive me if I seem to be giving owls a hard time, but …it is written, and there’s not a lot I can do about that, though I suppose I could have focused on other little-known laws, such as “never boil a goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) or “never plant two kinds of seed in the same field” (Deuteronomy 22:9). The point, at any rate, is that they are all laws and they are all written in the law of God, and so surely, they are all equally important? Well … Jesus didn’t agree.

A second response Jesus might have given to the question, “which is the great commandment in the Law?”, is “well … there are ten!”

That would have been a solid Biblical Mosaic response, surely – give them the ten commandments!

I remember once seeing a cartoon of Moses with his great white beard, descending the mountain and addressing the people – “I got him down to ten, but the adultery clause is in. Live with it!”

Yes, there are lots of little laws filling the books of the Torah, but at the heart of all those laws are the ‘ten words’ given by God on Mount Sinai and engraved by the finger of God on to those great stone tablets – the ten commandments. Surely, these ten are the distillation of all the great laws of God. Jesus apparently didn’t think so.

To the lawyer’s question as to what is the greatest law of God, Jesus responds with two, and they’re not simply a subset of the ten either. In fact, the problem is that the two laws Jesus gives us, strictly speaking, aren’t really laws at all!

Jesus commands us to love – to love God and to love our neighbours – and the funny thing about love is that it’s not really something you can command. It’s certainly not something you can legislate, at any rate.

‘Stop hitting your sister!’ – that’s a command that echoes through many a household. Even ‘be kind to your sister’ works as a command, but ‘love your sister’ … it’s not something we can command someone to do, even if it’s what we yearn for.

Now I know that ‘love’, in the Biblical sense, isn’t just a good feeling that you have towards somebody, and it is about practical actions of commitment to someone’s needs. Even so, it’s not just about what you do either. It’s a relationship, and you can’t enforce a loving relationship by law.

This, I think, is the conundrum in Jesus’ great commandments – that what He gives us as His two great laws are aren’t really laws at all, in that they can’t be enforced and that they are in constant need of reinterpretation!

This was not the response that the lawyer who questioned Jesus was looking for. Whatever precise response the lawyer expected, he expected a legal response.    He was a lawyer asking about God’s law. He wanted an answer in terms of law, but Jesus spoke to him instead about the law of love, which isn’t really a law.

I’ve come to the realisation after 55 years of life that laws are basically about control. We have laws in society so that we can control people, and there’s obviously a place for that. Some people need to be controlled, or at least reeled in.

Religious laws function like that too. While I don’t deny that every organisation needs certain rules and regulations, the history of the church is that we have, over the centuries, devised rules and laws that have oppressed and controlled people, and where the church has had the opportunity to extend its reach into the broader society, we’ve tried to control what goes on there too.

Laws control people, but Jesus’ law of love is designed to do something else.

The lawyers and their legalistic buddies tried to entrap Jesus by getting him into a legal/religious argument, but Jesus spoke to them instead about love, and I think they realised at that point that they were never going to control Jesus, and so they had to kill Him.

In truth, it’s a lot easier to live life by a clearly defined set of rules.

As I say, perhaps my friends from “Lock In” asked me about ethics because they thought it was an appropriate sort of thing to ask a priest, but perhaps too they were genuinely interested in hearing of some useful rules to live by – some simple code.  Surely, we all need guidelines, laws and rules to live by?

My response to the “Lock In” guys was that this was how ISIS worked – a rule for every occasion and, for every occasion, a rule! It was a spirituality of death!

That might sound like a rapid escalation – from ethics to ISIS – but I couldn’t help but think of a man I met in Damascus a few years ago who had fought for these people. He told me that they offered him $100/month and all the cigarettes he could smoke. How could he refuse? Once he joined though he found out what religious legalism and puritanism were all about – namely, violence and death! He said, “I went from poverty and unemployment to beheadings and slavery!”

Laws and Commandments – religious or otherwise – are ultimately about control. My understanding of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is that this God is not ultimately interested in controlling us but in loving us, so that we too can move beyond laws and rules, and to live lives wholly consumed by love – loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves.

sermon preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 29th, 2017

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Creation groans – a sermon on Romans 8:19-23

 

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

I received an invitation this week to be part of a delegation to Yemen later this year. I’m not sure if this will come off, and I don’t want to be in Yemen at the expense of being back to Syria, where I hope to deliver some significant financial aid to the church there before Christmas. Even so, I have expressed my interest.

For those who don’t know, Yemen is currently at the centre of a terrible humanitarian disaster, including a devastating outbreak of cholera – all being the result of their military conflict with Saudi Arabia.

I don’t blame anyone here for not knowing much about this, as it is all being radically under-reported in the media at the moment. One article I read this week referred to Yemen as “the war that isn’t happening even as it’s happening”.

This sort of thing makes me groan – not only the horrors of war, but also the way in which our media decides which things in our world are worthy of our attention and which things we should turn a blind eye to. It should make us all groan. Indeed, it should leave all creation groaning. That’s what came to mind for me, at any rate, as I reflected this week on that part of St Paul’s letter to the church in Rome where he speaks of creation groaning:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

Is the violence in Yemen the sort of thing that would make St Paul groan? I’d like to think it is, though I’m very aware of my tendency to create Paul in my own image.

I suspect that we all tend to do this. We don’t do it so much with Jesus, as we recognise that we can’t enter into the consciousness of Jesus, the Son of God. St Paul though was a brother, and I find it easy to assume that Paul was a guy much like myself, who struggled with the same sorts of things that I struggle with, and who thought about life in roughly the same way I do.

My tendency to think of Paul as a mate is probably also a product of the devotional material about Paul’s writings that I’ve been consuming since my youth – the sort of thing that encourages us to think of the New Testament as if it were written specifically for us as individuals – a message addressed directly to me.

I’ve always found this especially easy when it comes to the letters of St Paul. Indeed, I can imagine Paul sitting in his office typing:

“Dear Dave. I, Paul, an Apostle of Christ …” Hang on, let’s try servant, not Apostle. [hold down shift key with left hand, press back-arrow key with right hand, highlight the word ‘Apostle’, press delete and retype]

“Dear Dave. I, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ …”

We know it didn’t work like that, as Paul didn’t have a computer. It wasn’t as easy then as it is now to compose a letter, and most probably, Paul never actually wrote any of his own letters on his own anyway.

By this I don’t only mean that Paul might have had someone else doing the actual writing while the letter was being dictated, which was certainly the case with this letter to the Romans, where we read at the end of the letter “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Romans 16:2).

I mean though not only that Paul’s was not the hand that actually wrote (or chiselled) the message. I mean more so that the letter was probably the creation of Paul and his team, because that’s the way letters were written in the first century!

Paul didn’t have an office from which we wrote his letters alone, just like he didn’t have a pulpit from which he preached – not one in a house of worship, at any rate.

It’s difficult for us to envisage the real, first century Paul, I think. Let’s try to imagine him ministering in a place like Corinth – a seaside city. Where does Paul spend most of his daylight hours? The answer has to be down by the docks, as that’s where he would have done his work as a tent-maker.

We know that Paul did his best to earn his own living wherever he went, lest he should be accused of exploiting the churches financially, as some of his competitors were doing. He worked as a tent-maker, which was a great trade to have if you were travelling a lot, as the only tool you really needed to do your work was the awl that you carried with you. Your awl could be used both to poke holes in the leather and to stitch up your tents. You carried your awl wherever you went and you purchased your materials (leather and twine) as you needed them.

And who do you think used the most tents in the first century? The answer is sailors. In those days, they didn’t have radar to help them navigate the seas at night, so the normal practice with sailing was to travel by day in sight of the coast as much as possible, and then pull in to a beach at night and get out your tents – for yourself, your crew and your guests.

Ships were therefore in constant need of tents, and the obvious place, both to stitch them and to sell them, would have been at the docks, and that’s where I imagine Paul did much of his preaching. I envisage Paul stitching leather with a crowd of people around him. While he stitches, he talks to the crowd about Jesus, fields questions, and sells tents.

This is how the real, first century Paul would have done most of his preaching, and he probably did much of his letter-writing in a similar way, though we know that he also wrote some of his letters from prison. Either way, he would not have been alone. He would have been surrounded by friends and onlookers, some of whom, no doubt, would have contributed to the formation of his letters.

St Paul starts, “Dear Romans. I Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ …” when someone interjects, “what about ‘Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an Apostle’? That sounds less arrogant.”

“Yep! Good!”, says Paul. “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1)

If you’re up-to-date with New Testament scholarship, you know that there’s been a fair degree of dispute amongst scholars over whether Paul himself actually wrote all the letters that are attributed to him in the New Testament. The main reason scholars express doubt over the authenticity of some of these letters is that the language used in letters such as the first and second letters to Timothy is very different from that used in this letter to the church in Rome, for example.

I don’t want to enter into the debate over the authenticity of any of those disputed letters, but I would suggest that another possible explanation for the use of different language (and even different concepts) in Paul’s letters could be that Paul was with a different crowd of people when he composed those different letters – a different group that made their own distinct contribution.

The bottom line is that people were much more connected in those days in the ways they lived and worked. The rights and achievements of the individual just didn’t figure in Paul’s day in the way it does now, and most especially in the church. People lived and worked in community, and there was an almost organic sense of connectedness between them.

We pick that up very strongly in Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ, as expressed, for example, in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“Now you are the body of Christ”, says Paul, “and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the order there is all important! We are a body, first and foremost, and (secondarily) individual members of that body.

This organic connection between the members of the Christian community means that individual members of the body share the joys and pains of the body as a whole.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

I remember back in the early 80’s, listening to Reverend In Myung-Jin of the Urban Industrial Commission of Korea. He opened my eyes to what was happening in South Korea at the time, where people were apparently being maimed or killed in industrial accidents at an average of one every minute, due to the lack of safeguards protecting workers in the big industrial complexes.

Reverend In said that if we weren’t feeling the pain being felt in the Korean part of the body then we weren’t functioning as healthy members of the body! If an injury in the left hand isn’t felt by the right hand, the two are not connected. Healthy bodies don’t work that way. There’s a connectedness in a functioning body such that every part of the body is affected by every other part, and it’s that sense of connectedness, I think, not only with each other but with the whole created order, that Paul (and his team) are tapping into in this passage from his letter to the church in Rome.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

Creation groans, and we groan, and of course it’s not just any groan that St Paul is referring to here but those especially excruciating groans associated with childbirth.

Many of us have experienced those groans first-hand. Others amongst us have only experienced that pain vicariously. We might have assumed that St Paul would have had no experience of the process of childbirth, but perhaps, once again, such things were not as thoroughly privatised in the first century as they are today. Either way, the point of the analogy is not only that this groaning, in which we are all involved, is deep, but that it is also deeply connected to our hope for something better.

We know that this planet is not what it should be. We know that the world was never created to be at war with itself. We know that workers in Korea should not die from industrial accidents and that the children in Yemen should not be suffering cholera.

Our planet is sick. The eco system is in decay due to global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as companies and countries safeguard their profits. People suffer, animals suffer, creation as a whole suffers, and, in the understanding of the Apostle, it’s all connected, and it’s an agony that we are all connected to!

I’ve mentioned before the story that my dad told me many years ago – one that has stuck with me – about the time when the Beatles travelled to India in 1968 to study transcendental meditation under the tutelage of the Maharishi Yogi. According to my dad, alongside the palace of the Maharishi, where the great guru would teach students to rise above the worries of this world, ran a small Christian mission, dedicated to helping young girls escape child prostitution.

Whether I’m doing justice to the late Maharishi, I don’t know, but the point my dad was making was that there two different ways of being spiritual in this world. One tries to rise above pain and suffering, looking for something higher. The other groans with the world, enters into the suffering, and waits in hope for a better tomorrow.

I do hope to get to Yemen by year’s end. The big event for me though, that I’m even more concerned with at the moment, is my next boxing match, scheduled just over a month away. And I appreciate that while a number of people might think I’m an idiot for wanting to go to Yemen, that number would pale in comparison to those who think I’m crazy for continuing to box. Why? Because, while in Yemen there is a real chance of me getting myself hurt, in boxing, getting hurt is pretty much guaranteed!

Pain is indeed a part of the currency of boxing. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re not getting hurt, you’re not taking your boxing very seriously. That might make fisticuffs seem like a very odd choice for a sport, yet I think St Paul would say exactly the same of the Christian life – that If you’re not in pain, you’re not in the game!

And as for the boxer, so for the Christian – the pain we feel is not pointless, and it’s not forever. It’s like the labour pains of a woman in childbirth. It hurts like hell, and there is just no way of ever getting completely comfortable. Even so, through the pain we see a new day dawning and a new world coming to birth – the Kingdom of God at hand, the end of all war and suffering, the redemption of our bodies.

sermon first preached on July 22nd, 2017, to Holy Trinity church in Dulwich Hill

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I Will Give You Rest – A sermon on Matthew 11:28

 

“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

Those who have known me for any length of time likely know that I’ve had a history struggling with depression – with the old black dog, as Winston Churchill called it.

It’s not a recent history (thanks be to God), and indeed it’s been more than ten years since I stopped taking medication. Even so, I still remember vividly how it felt, and I remember too the effect these words of Jesus had on me when I was at my lowest.

“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

These are often referred to as the words of assurance, and I have found that at times when I’ve most needed assurance, these words have been to me a cool draught on a hot day – soothing, gentle, and refreshing.

They are, of course, a part of the Anglican liturgy’s invitation to the Eucharist, repeated each week before we gather around Christ’s table, and I find that, week by week, as I kneel and close my eyes, I drink in these words, even when I’m not feeling particularly fragile.

It struck me this year though, as the lectionary brought these words back again to centre-stage, that they were indeed a part of a larger passage, and that perhaps I need to look at them in context. After all, as we say, a text without a context is a pretext for proof text. In other words, we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say if we disregard the context. Perhaps these words of assurance were never directed towards me in my depression in the first place!

Certainly, I have heard it suggested that by ‘those who labour and are heavy-laden’, Jesus was referring specifically to those who were labouring under the demands of the Jewish Torah, and that the invitation is specifically one to abandon all attempts at self-righteousness under the law and to come to Jesus in faith instead.

That interpretation has a solid Protestant ring to it, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is a valid application of Christ’s invitation? Either way, looking at Jesus’ invitation to the weary and heavy-laden in context should give us the answer, and yet the disturbing thing we find when we look for that answer is that these words of assurance are not, as we might have expected, a part of a series of exhortations about the love of God for all His creatures, but are rather part of a tirade by Jesus, venting His frustrations!

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

By ‘John’, Jesus is, of course, referring to John the Baptist – a man who I thought was enormously popular amongst his contemporaries. What we learn from this passage though is that he was not loved by everyone.

My guess is that John was loved by everybody in retrospect, after he died. He was someone who was easier to love at a distance. John was a bizarre ascetic who dressed like the sort of person you didn’t want your kids to hang around with and he smelt terrible (the result of living solely on a diet of locusts and wild honey). Moreover, the message of John was confronting.

John challenged people to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, and he didn’t pull any punches. It is understandable that people found ways of writing John off. People looked at his bizarre appearance and behaviour and said, “he has a demon!”

The problem with that, Jesus said, is that you can’t have it both ways. John comes, with all his eccentricities and you write him off on account of those, saying ‘he has a demon’. The son of man comes (nb. Jesus, referring to himself) eating and drinking and you write him off as a glutton and a drunkard. There’s no pleasing you people!

What Jesus is pointing to, of course, in both cases, is the way we use rationalisation to avoid truths that we don’t want to deal with.

“It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (Matthew 11:16-17) or, as Kierkegaard put it “All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will” (in “The Sickness Unto Death”)

I appreciate that the aphorism Jesus quotes is much easier to understand, but Kierkegaard’s formula is beautifully succinct. All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will. In other words, if you don’t know something, it’s partly because you don’t know it and partly because you don’t want to know it!

If you don’t know what a dialectic is, the most memorable example I know comes from the way vacuum-cleaner sellers used to demonstrate the power of their product.

If you point the tube of the vacuum cleaner into the air and turn it on so that it blows air out, and place a ping-pong ball into the stream of the air, it will bob up and down – forced up by the air coming from the machine and then pushed down again by gravity, and will continue to bob up and down until the machine is turned off.

A dialectic works like that, with two opposing forces constantly pushing something back and forth – in this case, the two opposing forces being knowledge and will. Our knowledge of the truth pushes us to believe something, but then our desire to avoid the consequences of that truth pushes us to find ways of rationalising the truth away.

We may know in our hearts that what Jesus says (or what John the Baptist says) is true, and yet we really don’t want to go where that truth is leading us so we come up with a rationalisation that obscures the truth. We say of Jesus “He is a glutton and a drunkard. You can’t take him seriously as a man of God”. In John’s case, we say, “he has a demon”. Thus, we create obscurity for ourselves through the dialectical interplay of knowledge and will. In other words, we lie to ourselves.

I think we do well never to underestimate the power of self-deception. Conversely, we make a big mistake, I think, if we think we can rationally educate people out of beliefs that they don’t want to give up.

I had a friend who works in the counter-terrorism section of the prison system call me recently. He wanted to know what Bible verses I might offer to a Christian who said he believed that God wanted him to kill all Muslims! I said that while I was no expert in this sort of thing, I didn’t think quoting the Bible to the man was likely to make any difference at all! After all, I can’t imagine that it was a verse from the Bible that drove him to want to murder in the first place. Why would Bible verses be the way out?

I think religious beliefs, and ideologies of all kinds, work this way. We don’t develop our convictions on the basis of rationality – certainly not solely on the basis of rationality – and so rational arguments don’t lead us to change our beliefs either.

I think the human psyche works a lot like a game of Jenga. If you’re not familiar with Jenga, it’s a game where you start with a tower built from fifty-four rectangular wooden blocks, and gameplay consists in trying to successfully remove blocks from the tower, one at a time, without causing the whole thing to fall.

If you are familiar with Jenga, then you know that the key to winning the game lies is choosing the right block to move. Some blocks can be moved without having much of an effect on the greater structure, whereas other blocks prove to be foundational, such that if you threaten to move them, the whole edifice starts to shake!

The things we believe are like this. Some beliefs are strongly supported and, in turn, provide support for other beliefs. Other beliefs bear little relationship to the rest of the structure. We can dispense with them without that making any great difference.

I have beliefs about what the weather will be like tomorrow. I may change those beliefs, or be proven wrong in my beliefs. Either way, I’m not likely to be too shaken.

Take, on the other hand, my belief that the people who said they were my parents really were my parents. That’s something I was probably never explicitly taught, and I can’t think of any particular piece of evidence through which I could prove it to be true. Even so, I hold to that conviction with near absolute certainty! Why? It’s not because (to stick with the Jenga analogy) there are any particular blocks supporting this belief. Rather, it’s the number of other blocks piled on top! So much of my life has been built on this belief, and so many other things I believe assume this, that to question this belief would threaten to topple the whole structure of my life!

I remember some years ago, watching a video on ‘9/11 truth’ with a young American student who was volunteering with us at our youth centre once. We were watching the video footage of the collapse of Building 7. If you’re not familiar with this, the building seems to fall like a controlled demolition. Indeed, as you watch the video, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than it was a controlled demolition.

I remember this American student becoming very disturbed by the video and saying, “that can’t be true, because if it is true then my government has been lying to me, and if they’ve been lying about that, how can I believe anything they are saying?”

The video threatened to extract a foundational block from her tower. She had great faith in the truthfulness of her government, and from what I could see that was not because of any great block of evidence supporting that faith, but rather because of all the blocks that had been piled on top of that belief that threatened to come crashing down if her faith in her government proved to be misplaced!

And so we believe what our governments tell us we should believe. We believe that we are the good guys, fighting for the truth, and that if we are bombing and killing other people, that they must be bad people who deserve what they get. We don’t question our governments any more than we question the media, any more than we question the prevailing values of our culture, and the older we get, the less questions we ask because the larger our tower, the greater the crash when it falls!

You may think that I’ve strayed from Matthew chapter 11, but I believe that this issue of self-deception is at the heart of Jesus’ outburst that frames our passage today.

“We played for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn”, says Jesus (Matthew 11:17), followed by, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21)

They should have known better – these people – and indeed, no doubt, deep down, they did know better. If the words of Jesus hadn’t convinced them, then the miracles should have done! If they chose not to believe, it wasn’t for lack of evidence!

Likewise, the prayer of Jesus that follows: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25). This is the flip side of the power of self-deception. To stick with the Jenga analogy, the poor and weak are more open to truth because the threat of collapse is less serious when you have no great tower.

What I mean is that if you are well established and powerful, you don’t want your tower to fall. Take the rich young ruler Jesus encounters in Matthew 19:16-22. Jesus challenges the man, you will remember, to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and follow him (Matthew 19:21) but this young guy has spent his whole life building his tower, block by block, and Jesus wants to bring it to the ground!

That’s all of us, I think, as we grow older and more established – as our towers grow. We don’t want to change what we believe and we don’t want to change the way we live because we don’t want our towers to fall. Conversely, it’s the poor and the weak, those who are fragile and falling apart – those who have no towers – the infants, who hear Jesus’ Gospel and believe it!

And that, I think, answers the initial question about context that I raised at the beginning. Who does Jesus have on view when he invites those who labour and are heavy-laden to find rest in him? It’s the same group who respond to him as infants. It’s the broken and the weak – those who are open to Jesus message of hope because they have everything to gain and not much to lose.

“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Is this invitation still addressed to me and to you?  I’d like to think so, for it’s an invitation to all of us who are still open to being shaken by Jesus. The cry is to all of us who are willing to see our towers fall and our lives rebuilt on a new foundation.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

sermon first preached on July 9th, 2017, at Holy Trinity Church, Dulwich Hill

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Getting serious about Forgiveness – a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35


Then Peter came up and asked him, “Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him: seven times?”
Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a big fan of Dr Ahmad Badr Al Din Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria. I pray for the man every day, and there is no one in this world for whom I have deeper admiration and respect.

Not only have I had the privilege of meeting with him more times than I can remember over the last four years, but last year I was able to introduce him to my wife, and this year to my son!

Poor Soren indeed had to sit silently as Dr Hassoun said to him “your father is a very special man, and you must be very proud of him” and you could see the poor boy squirming. No 15-year-old boy can comfortably eulogise over the virtues of his father!  What touched me in that meeting though, was not what the Mufti said to Soren about me, but rather what he said to me about Soren – namely, that Soren reminded him of his own son, Sariya.

Dr Hassoun’s son, Sariya, was murdered by rebel insurgents on October 2, 2011 in an ambush on the road between Idlib and Aleppo. As his father is keen to point out, Sariya had not been involved in the political turmoil at all and had no interest in politics. He was killed solely because he was his father’s son.

Evidently, no one had really expected the Mufti’s son to be targeted. What was even less expected though was what followed at the funeral, where Dr Hassoun delivered a eulogy where he spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation!

You can listen to it on YouTube if you haven’t heard it. I watched it again yesterday. It’s about 20 minutes long in all, and it’s towards the end where he says:

“Those who are listening to me, who killed my son, Sariya, I’m addressing you.

May God preserve you from heartache, and may you never experience the agony that you have caused us.

I am asking God to inspire you to repentance before you leave this life, so as not to be your accuser on the day of judgement.

I am asking God to enter into the heart of Sariya’s mother, to give her the ability to forgive you, as I forgive you.”

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, and it’s hard not to see the presence of the Spirit of God in those who truly forgive. From a Christian theological perspective, forgiveness is the ultimate gift of God to humanity, and hence it should come as no surprise to us that those who studiously compare the religions of the world tell us that Christianity distinguishes itself by its focus on the centrality of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. It is a divine force that has the power to heal individuals and nations, and yet, in Jesus’ story about forgiveness, in Matthew chapter 18, it’s a bit scary too!

“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.” (Matthew 18:23-27)

Up to this point in the parable, the scene isn’t so much scary as it is crazy!

A king is settling his accounts with his slaves, and he discovers one outstanding debt of around 16 billion dollars! That’s a rough figure, of course, translated from 10,000 talents, but if a talent (which is a weight) is around 34kg and the price of gold is around $48,000/kilo, then a talent of gold is worth roughly $1.6 million, and this man owed 10,000 talents!

We get a good idea of the amount involved when we compare this story to the one Jesus tells in Matthew 25, normally referred to as the ‘Parable of the Talents’ (Matthew 15:14-30). There, you may remember, a wealthy man divides his property between his servants, giving one servant five talents, another two, and another one.

One talent was considered to be a very healthy endowment (of around 1.6 million in today’s currency). 10,000 talents is the size of a national economy, and it’s hard to envisage how the king was managing to hold his kingdom together with an outstanding debt of this magnitude on the books!

This question, of course, leads to more questions, such as why the slave who had taken the loan had been allowed to borrow such an astronomical amount, and what on earth did he need the money for? Was he planning on building the Suez Canal?

The Suez Canal came to mind for me as I read the passage, as construction of the canal did bankrupt the government of Egypt in the late nineteenth century (largely because Egypt was also trying to fight a war against Yemen at the same time). This is why, of course, the Statue of Liberty is in New York harbour!

For those who don’t know the connection, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty, originally planned to erect his masterpiece at Port Said, at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal. It was to be called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia”. The Egyptians though had no money due to the canal, and so the project was eventually relocated to New York.

This is particularly noteworthy, I think, in the light of the current debates about immigration that are raging in the USA, just as they are here. There’s a wonderful irony, I think, in the fact that one of the USA’s key national symbols was originally intended to be an image of burgeoning nineteenth century Egyptian womanhood!

For our story though, the relevant connection with the Suez Canal is the fact that it cost 100 million dollars to build, which was double the original budget. Even so, the slave in the parable could have built more than 160 Suez Canals on the strength of what he borrowed from the king! It is a ridiculously large amount of money. Indeed, the only thing more ridiculous than the amount of money that was borrowed, is that fact that the king, out of apparent pity for his slave, forgives him his entire debt!

Is the king’s behavior rational? Is it even moral? They say that when you owe the bank a million dollars, you have a problem, but when you owe the bank 100 million dollars, the bank has a problem. In this case, it’s not only the king who has a problem but his entire kingdom, surely! Is it responsible for a leader to simply forgive a debt that could be crippling your entire country?

Of course, it’s just a story, and perhaps Jesus was just being tongue-in-cheek. We know how Jesus loved to use hyperbole, speaking of camels going through the eyes of needles (Matthew 19:24) and removing the plank out of your own eye before picking the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:45). Perhaps this is just another example of Jesus’ sense of humor. If so, there’s a transition into black humor in the second half of the story.

“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slave who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.” (Matthew 18:28-30)

The behavior of this man – forgiven an impossible debt but showing no mercy at all to his fellow slave – is outrageous, and yet not unbelievable.

I’ve spoken to counsellors who tell me of women who stay in physically abusive relationships because they believe that if they just keep on giving, eventually their partner will catch on and respond in the same way, but they don’t.

Kindness is not always repaid with kindness. Love does not always generate love. By showing mercy to someone, there are no guarantees that the forgiven person will show mercy back to you, or to anybody else.

The Mufti’s story, that I mentioned previously, is a case in point. When the police eventually caught two of the men who killed his son, Dr Hassoun went to the prison and offered forgiveness to the men and asked the judge to have mercy on them. Apparently, the men didn’t want his forgiveness and the judge told him that they’d killed a lot of other people apart from his son, so the judgement wasn’t his call!

Not every story of grace and forgiveness has a happy ending, and today’s parable certainly does not have a happy ending.

“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:31-34)

And so, what seemed to be a story about a compassionate and merciful king ends up with the king raging and everybody else in gaol! The final solution of the king to his country’s national debt – that the torturers will somehow manage to extract the money out of the unmerciful servant – is not only irrational but macabre. Aren’t Bible stories supposed to have happy endings?

Biblical scholar Daniel Via compares the parables of Jesus to windows that we look out at the world through – windows that change the way we look at things – and then, all of a sudden, you catch your reflection in the window! The question is, where in this parable do you catch your reflection?

I know for myself that there’s a part of me reflected in the king at the end of the story. It’s the part of me that wants justice!

There’s a rough justice meted out on the unmerciful servant at the end of the story. Indeed, it is fitting that he should be slowly tortured to death! Not only did he destroy his country’s economy, but he failed to respond with a minimum of grace to his fellow servant, even after mercy had been lavished upon him! He gets his come-uppance, and there’s a part of me that is glad to see that happen!

Let’s not pretend we aren’t all the same in this regard. We believe in justice. We like to see people get what they deserve!

Yes, I know we all get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we read of Jesus saving the life of that woman caught committing adultery. Jesus says, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her” (John 8:7), and we like that because we envisage a poor, defenceless woman, but if it was a man who had been caught molesting a child, I think we’d be saying “here, Jesus, hand me the first stone!”

There is always a tension between justice and mercy, and I can understand why, in Syria, while the Mufti is always urging people towards forgiveness and reconciliation, there are regiments of soldiers who have watched the atrocities committed by ISIS over so many years, and whose slogan is “We do not forget. We do not forgive.”

We have to let go, to some extent, of our thirst for justice to make room for mercy, just as we have to recognise too that showing mercy and forgiveness will not always mean that everything is going to turn out OK!

Even in the case of Jesus Himself, showing forgiveness while dying in agony – “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) – did His final display of mercy have a transformative effect on those he forgave? We don’t know.

I believe in the power of forgiveness. I believe that forgiveness can change the world. Yet whether, in any particular case, showing mercy on someone is going to have a transformative effect is hard to determine. The only thing that is unambiguous in all of this is Jesus’ crystal-clear command that we have to forgive people anyway!

If people owe you more than they can ever repay, forgive them anyway! Whether it’s likely to make things better, or whether it’s likely to have no effect whatsoever, forgive them anyway. If you don’t want to end up like the tortured servant in the parable, forgive them anyway, for “so my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35)

That’s scary stuff, isn’t it? Is that graphic warning a part of Jesus’ use of hyperbole? I’d say it’s Jesus way of giving us a good shake and reminding us that forgiveness is serious business. We must learn to forgive from the heart – a learning process that begins when we see ourselves reflected in the character of the unmerciful servant.

“Lord, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on September 17th, 2017

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The Battle for the Vineyard – a sermon on Matthew 21:33-40


“Hear another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.

When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.” (Matthew 21:33-37)

I found, as I was reading through this parable again this week, that my mind went back to Maaloula (in Syria). I’ve been there twice now, including once at the beginning of this year. I first visited there though in 2014, not long after the village had been re-taken from Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Syrian version of Al-Qaeda) by the Syrian Arab Army.

The signs of war were still very present at the time of my first visit. Damaged houses were everywhere, including one with graffiti sprayed across its walls that I was told translated “We grow closer to God cutting off heads”!

I remember very vividly too looking out of the window of the monastery, located at the top of the mountain in Maaloula, and looking down at the town, and being told that there had been an Al-Qaeda sniper positioned in that window during the months of occupation.

That made sense, as you could see the whole village from that window, with the town square right below. My guide then told me “but he was sniped”. When I asked what he meant, he pointed to the blood and (what appeared to be) other fragments of the man who had once pointed a gun out that window, still visible on the window frame.

Returning this year, most of the more obvious signs of violence have been cleaned up, even if most of the houses were still in bad need of repair. Even so, when I visited the same monastery, and looked out that same window, this time I was told another story about that sniper. One of our hosts asked me “do you see the fountain there in the middle of the town square?” I said “yes, of course”. He said, “my father was shot there as he went to get some water – shot by the man in this window”.

I can’t imagine that that man can ever look out that window without being reminded of his father, going to draw water, and yet his story was just one of so many terrible stories, as that is what it’s like to live under occupation, and the parable from Jesus that we are dealing with today is likewise a story of an occupation.

Of course, it’s a vineyard that is being occupied in this story, rather than a village, and yet the results are much the same, in that they are equally stories of violence.

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.” (Matthew 21:33)

Thus begins what might have been a lovely story of a beautiful vineyard, but which instead depicts a vineyard that gradually goes to seed through the mismanagement of its tenants, though the focus of the story is not so much on their mismanagement of the property as it is on their callous disregard for the rights of the legal owner.

“When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” (Matthew 21:34-36)

The behaviour of the tenant-farmers is vicious. What’s more it seems completely senseless!  Even if they were useless tenants and couldn’t come up with the rent, why would they act with such total disregard for the law or for their relationship with their landlord?

The longer I live, the more convinced I become that violence is always senseless.  Of course, I know that, in theory, there are appropriate uses of force, and even the concept of a just war does make sense to me. It’s just that I’ve never seen a just war. In the short time I’ve been alive I’ve seen plenty of wars – from Vietnam to Afghanistan, to Iraq to Syria to Yemen, and so on. I simply struggle to see anything positive or constructive that’s been achieved in any of that violence!

Of course, you don’t need to travel the world to see violence. I’ve seen more than enough here in Dulwich Hill! It’s hard to believe now, given what our community has become, that for 23 years we ran a youth drop-in out of this church where our main aim was to provide a safe space for kids in the area, and we did that because for most of those years Dulwich Hill was not a space place for a lot of young people!

Yes, we’ve gone from being the heroin capital of the inner-west to being the latte-sipping capital of the inner west, which I do find hard to absorb sometimes. Even so, if I start slipping back into sentimentality, I only need to think about some of the things I’ve seen happen on the streets here, from overdoses, to punch-ups, to one of our boys, wielding a knife, trying to kick the door in on one of our halls, in order to get at a girl who was on the other side of that door, screaming!

In truth, I’ve seen more than enough violence for one lifetime, and our church has seen more than enough violence. I confess that it was a perverse point of pride for me at one stage a few years ago when we had no less than three members of our church community who had been shot (and none of them were war veterans). That may not be so uncommon if you live in Syria (or even in the USA) but in Sydney it was probably unique. So much violence, and all so senseless!

The senseless violence in the parable comes to a climax when the landowner decides to send his son to them.

Last of all, he (the landowner) sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.” (Matthew 21:37)

I do think the question needs to be asked at this point, ‘what made the landowner think that these tenant farmers would respect his son?’

Given the behaviour of the tenant farmers up to this point – their complete disregard for the landowner’s rightful claims to his property, and the horrendous acts of violence that they had meted out to every one of his representatives. What made the landowner believe that these people would suddenly change their behaviour and behave rationally, and show respect?

As I say, the violence of the tenant farmers seems senseless, and indeed their whole project seems to bear the marks of insanity.

If those tenants had wanted to keep their master at a safe distance, why didn’t they just give him some token amount such as might have kept him satisfied? He doesn’t seem to have been a very hard man to please!

Or why didn’t they try to give the landlord the impression that his servants had never shown up.  If they were going to commit murder, why not at least be clever about it – killing the servants quietly and disposing of their bodies secretly? No! These people seem to be unashamed in the way they behave! It’s as if they had forgotten that they had a master? Certainly, they act as if the master didn’t exist!

And yet the only thing more incomprehensible than the mindless and wanton behaviour of the tenants is the apparent optimism of the landlord, who keeps sending his messengers and servants, somehow assuming that the situation is going to improve, and he believes this for reasons that are completely unfathomable!

Instead of realising, after the assault on his first servant that these tenants need to be dealt with, this vineyard owner turns a blind eye, so it seems, in the hope that this might have just been a one-off.  And so he sends a second and a third servant, and so on, into the vineyard, and some come back badly bloodied, and some never come back at all, yet still the penny just doesn’t seem to drop!

And so we reach this climax where the master sends his son to the tenants, believing, inexplicably, that ‘They will respect my son” (Matthew 21:37) but …

“when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Matthew 21:33-39)

Jesus ends his story with a question:

Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (Matthew 21:40) to which my response is, ‘I don’t know. Has he got another son?’

Whatever made this master think that these people would respect his son in the first place?  We could have told him what would happen. The indications were all there that these people were never going to respect the rightful owner of the vineyard.  Why give them another chance?  Why not just nuke the lot of them?  What sort of set-up is this where the master just puts up with ongoing cycles of endless violence?  What sort of people are these tenants? What sort of master is this?

Of course, the tenants treat the landlord’s son with the same contempt that they did his other servants. This comes as no surprise.  This is how the vineyard operates.  This is the sort of treatment the landlord has always received at the hands of his tenants.

And so the story closes and nothing is resolved.  The master now has no rent, no servants, no vineyard and now … no son!  The evil tenants are alive and well and still appear to be running the show, and so the violence continues with no sign of resolution. ‘He who has ears, let him hear!’

This is a horrible story, but unless I’m very much mistaken, this is our story!

Yes, of course, Jesus was very much speaking to His own first century community with this story, and I don’t want to detract from that at all. Indeed, part of the irony in this parable is that Jesus is speaking to an occupied people in first century Judea – suffering under the brutal occupation of the Roman empire – and yet it is not the Roman occupiers that are the primary target of Jesus in this story about the occupation of the vineyard!

Yes, the cross that we wear around our necks, before it became a symbol of faith, was a symbol of the power of the empire. The cross was a reminder of the power of life and death that Rome had over you. It reminded you that they were great and that you were nothing because they could exact terrible violence on you at any time they chose, and the Jews suffered under that occupation.

Even so, it was not the Roman occupiers that Jesus was targeting in the parable, but the religious leaders and community leaders of Jews themselves! These people might not have had the power of Rome, but theirs was also a history of violence and persecution and, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, that violence is about to come to its own bloody climax in the crucifixion of God’s Messiah!

In other words, the history of the Jews mirrored the broader history of the world. It’s a story of multi-layered violence. The empire wages wars on defenceless communities, and then community leaders, in turn, exact violence on their defenceless subjects – as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen (or so it seems).

When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (Matthew 21:40). Yes, the hope for a final reckoning is there at the end of the story, and yet our reality is exactly as Jesus depicts it – the servants have been rejected, the Son has been killed, and the ownership of the vineyard seems to be very much in doubt!  Meanwhile, the tenants run wild in their violence and stupidity!

For me, the Good News I find in this story is less in the hope for a final reckoning of the tenant farmers than it is in the character of the master. Yes, the master is hard to understand at times. He seems far too indiscriminate in who he lets take charge of his vineyard, and he seems all too tolerant in terms of the behaviour he puts up with. Even so, there are two things that come through to me very clearly in this story.

Firstly, the master will not give up on his vineyard, despite the fact that it seems to be a lost cause, and, secondly, that the master is committed to doing whatever it takes to regain control. No price is too great!

Hear the parable of the vineyard. It’s the parable we live every day as we try to make sense of the chaos, endure the violence, and await the final return of the master, who still has not given up on us! You who have ears, hear!

first preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 8th, 2017

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Reverends in revolt over church’s $1 million donation to same-sex marriage ‘no’ campaign

I confess that I wasn’t present at Synod when our Archbishop announced our church’s one million dollar contribution to the ‘NO’ campaign on same-sex marriage. In truth, I’m glad I wasn’t there. I fear I might have howled loudly!

I was still reeling when the Sydney Morning Herald journalist called me the following day and asked for a comment. All I could say was that I felt shattered by the news.

Having said that, I felt less shattered when I read this article, as it made me realise that I was not the only one howling! These dissident voices hardly represented a fissure in the Diocese, but to me they were a light shining in the darkness.

Sydney Morning Herald, October 10th, 2017

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Why Christians should support same sex marriage

Despite the fact that news.com.au introduced this article by saying “FATHER Dave Smith is risking his job to write this piece”, I didn’t really anticipate the blow-back. I didn’t lose my job (as yet) but I did lose a lot of friends. Indeed, I thought at one point that all my Muslim friends had abandoned me!

On reflection, it was probably not a bad thing that I suffered a little as a result of our country’s postal-vote on same-sex marriage. The process caused so much tension and open animosity. It brought the worst out of a lot of people. Why should I have been immune from all of that – a curse brought upon us by spineless politicians.

This article appeared on NEWS.COM.AU September 19th, 2017

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