Fighting Father Dave on Outlook (BBC World Service)

I had hoped that when a larger-than-life portrait of myself in my boxing gear appeared in the middle of the Sydney CBD (see my mural story) that it might lead to me getting a high-profile boxing match. Well … nothing so far. 🙁

On the other hand, the mural did generate plenty of media interest, including an interview done by The Guardian, where the journalist said “let’s make your story international!” Surely, I thought, this will get me the fight! It didn’t.

The Guardian article did though did lead to an unexpected phone call from the BBC! ‘We’d like to interview you for BBC radio’, they said!

I went into ABC studios in Sydney to do the interview, to a recording studio known as ‘The Tardis’ (with a life-size picture of a dalek at the entrance)! I really enjoyed doing the interview. I hope it reached lots of boxers and promoters across the UK. I haven’t had any offers yet though. 🙁

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The Guardian meets the Fighting Father

I confess that I was a little ambivalent when I was first approached by a journalist from The Guardian, asking whether he could write a story about me. I said “does it matter that I’m a friend of Julian’s?” I was referring to Julian Assange, who I knew was not on good terms with The Guardian, but the journo didn’t pick up the reference and I didn’t push the point.

In truth, Johnny Drennan (the journo) turned out to be a terrific bloke! We spent some excellent time chatting and I even took him for a round on the pads. He obviously enjoyed that and made various promises about getting fit and joining our boxing club. I haven’t seen him since.

The only other regret I have from that meeting is that the bulk of what I said didn’t make it into the article. That’s par for the course, of course, except that I’d really hoped that this article would help spread the truth about Syria!

As I remember it, I talked a lot more about Syria and the work of Boxers for Peace than I did about myself. Even so, the article is a tribute to me and does little for the greater cause. I shouldn’t be ungrateful, of course, and I’m not. And this article did lead to an interview on BBC radio where I was able to talk about Syria. I’m still hoping that it might help land me a fight in the USA or UK too.

The Guardian – Thursday, August 25th, 2016 guardian

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The parable of the lost feral – A sermon on Luke 15:1-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 
2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

And so Jesus told them a joke …

Jesus told them a series of jokes actually, didn’t he – three jokes in succession in fact. It was something of a stand-up routine!

I don’t know how you envisage the scene that’s given to us in Luke chapter 15. It’s not exactly Jerry Seinfeld, is it – ‘did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep?’ I assume that it doesn’t take place in a club. I envisage this scene taking place in a tavern or something like that.

I suspect that most of us think of Jesus’ dialogues as taking place in remote rural locations, and that’s possible here. Certainly the one about the sheep has a rural theme, and it’s possible that there are sheep grazing within view of where Jesus was speaking. Even so, the only clues the passage gives us as to the location are, firstly, that “all the tax-collectors and sinners (read sex-workers, drug-dealers, traitors and criminals) were coming near to listen to Him” (Luke 15:1), which suggests to me that Jesus is somewhere near where they were working, and secondly, that the upright religious folk were grumbling because Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (Luke 15:2), which suggests that they were somewhere where food was being served. I’m guessing some first-century equivalent of a tavern.

Of course it’s possible that they are at a private house. We know that Jesus was regularly entertained by both prominent local identities and by the families of His disciples. Even so, if it were a private house, one might wonder who let all the tax-collectors and sinners in! No. I think we’re dealing with an establishment where whoever is working the door is not particularly discriminatory with regards to who they let in, and so we have sinners and tax-collectors, along with scribes and Pharisees, all sharing the same uncomfortable space, though I envisage the two groups sitting at opposite ends of the bar!

Did you hear the one about the shepherd who had a hundred sheep? Jesus begins.  This shepherd lost one of his one hundred sheep and then left the ninety-nine in the wilderness while he went after the one that was lost until he found it! (Luke 15:3-4)

Of course nobody has heard about this shepherd because this shepherd doesn’t exist, or, at least, if there were shepherds like this they wouldn’t be shepherds for very long. You don’t leave the ninety-nine ‘in the wilderness’ (Luke 15:4) where they are likely to be consumed as mutton by the next passing wolf while you search for the one that is lost. If you have any basic shepherding sense, your response to a situation like this is simply to deduct one from your inventory of sheep!

Of course it’s a joke, and we’re not expected to take the shepherd too seriously. And indeed, the character of the shepherd looks even more absurd when you put the joke in context, where the lost sheep Jesus is referring to are the social misfits hanging about at the wrong end of the bar!

We have a children’s book at home that has an illustrated version of the lost sheep parable, and it includes lovely drawings of a character dressed like a Bedouin, roaming the sunny slopes of Judea, calling out “Woolly”, until he eventually finds the cute little guy stuck in a thicket.

Putting the parable in context, let’s start by imagining an animal that is entirely feral! Perhaps it has a bad case of the mange? Perhaps that’s why it wandered off from the flock, as animals often instinctively wander off to die alone of their injuries and/or diseases. And let’s envisage the animal biting the shepherd when he tries to rescue it. That’s much closer to my experience when it comes to dealing with lost sheep!

I can’t tell you how many lost sheep I’ve dealt with here in Dulwich Hill in the last twenty-five years, but nearly all of them have turned on me and bitten me at some point. In truth, I find myself getting a bit hard and cynical as I get used to this pattern.

I think of one young man that we worked with for years. It wasn’t just us. There were a team of us working with this lad. We gave him accommodation for an extended period of time. He stayed with my family for a short time. We counselled him, worked with him, went to court with him and stood by him. Eventually he got ‘radicalised’ during one of his stints in prison and last year he was arrested for planning a jihad attack on a civilian population centre. His plan apparently included blowing up the house of one of the families who had been trying to help him!

I appreciate that lost sheep can look very warm and cuddly at a distance, but my experience is that they tend to be quite feral and mangy when you get up close!

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?(Luke 15:8)

I confess that I feel far more drawn to the woman in this second joke than to the sheep in the first, primarily because she reminds me of my dear friend, Ruth Paddle.

We lost Ruth many years ago, but I can see her turning her house upside-down, searching for some useless trinket that she’d misplaced somewhere. The problem with dear Ruth was that she was a hoarder. She hoarded so much stuff that she couldn’t sleep on her bed because it had too many boxes of stuff stacked on it, and she couldn’t cook in her kitchen as even her sink was stacked full of things for which there was no space anywhere else!

Ruth used to sleep on a corner of her couch and she’d eat what was delivered to her by ‘Meals on Wheels’. She never overcame her hoarding problem. Even so, she was a godly Christian soul and I loved her dearly.

The point, at any rate, is that this woman Jesus depicts is struggling with an obsessive compulsive disorder or something similar. No fully functional person behaves like this – sweeping house from top to bottom, searching for one stray coin!

Jesus adds that the woman holds a party when she finds her lost coin. I could see Ruth doing the same, though the party would have to be in the church hall as there wouldn’t be room in the house.

Now again, let’s keep in mind the context in which Jesus tells these jokes. Whether it be lost coins or lost sheep, the point of reference are the social misfits who are sharing a meal with Jesus. These are people that civilised societies can do without!

If I might extend the image of the obsessive woman, we might say that these people are the social refuse that we like to sweep under the rug. We generally manage that in our society by putting people in prison. Incarcerating someone is a very effective way of sweeping them out of sight, and out of sight is out of mind!

I don’t want to launch into a crusade against the prison system today, and I do appreciate that there is a lot of good work going on within Correctional Services. Even so, there are deep problems in our system, and the privatisation of our prison system is something I think we should all be concerned about.

From the latest statistics I could find, Australia has the largest percentage of its prisoner population in privately-run prisons of any country in the world! This should concern us.

Whatever else these prisons achieve, the private-prison system is a very efficient way of moving public money into private hands and, of course, the more people incarcerated, the more money made! I can think of any number of kids I’ve worked with over the years who aren’t contributing much to society and, of course, they are worth nothing to the big corporations. Even so, once you put them in prison, they can be generating $30,000 to $40,000 each for these companies that are running the prisons, and will continue to do so for as long as they are kept locked up!

It’s a win-win really. The GEO group and Serco Corp make a killing, and a stack of worthless coins get swept under the carpet and out of sight!

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” (Luke 15:11-12)

Now this is where Jesus’ routine gets less funny. As I say, I envisage these jokes being told in some sort of tavern where food is being eaten and where you can hear a hum of activity in the background, with plates being stacked and glasses clinking, along with gentle chuckling as Jesus depicts His zany characters. Even so, at this point the jokes start to get a bit close to the bone, as no doubt many of Jesus’ listeners had had their own family dramas.

All of us who are parents experience dramas of one sort or another with our children, and I’m sure that some of those listening to Jesus –scribes and Pharisees and tax-collectors and sinners alike – had had their struggles with their sons and daughters.

We know how the story goes. The son takes his inheritance, runs off and wastes it all, thus bringing disgrace upon his father and his household, and yet the father never gives up on the son. He waits for him to return, and when he does return …

I don’t doubt that there were people listening to Jesus who were ribbing each other, saying ‘sound familiar, Abe?’, for it is a familiar story. Even if the details of the story don’t exactly fit our stories, the depiction of parental love is something with which we are all familiar, and while, at one level, the behaviour of the lovesick father is as irrational as that of the crazy shepherd and the mentally-ill woman, it’s an insanity that we understand, as we’re all a bit crazy when it comes to our own children!

And that brings us to the heart of the problem. In the end, the problem we have with Jesus, I’d suggest, is not so much why He ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’. Our problem is with how He managed to think of these people as His sons and daughters! It all sounds very light-hearted and whimsical when it’s just a part of a joke, but if you’ve had your own prodigal son or daughter then you know that it is no laughing matter! And if it’s not your son or your daughter, why should you bother?

As I say, I’m getting a bit hard and cynical in my old age, I think, and I’ve found myself getting into arguments lately with my dear colleague, Terry, who manages our bush camp at Binacrombi. I’ve been very critical of Terry lately for the way, from my perspective, he’s let some people we work with walk all over him! People take his time and energy and money, and then they abuse and threaten him, and I’ve been lecturing this brother (who is old enough to be my father), telling him ‘you’re not doing them any favours by letting them walk all over you!

I’ve personally established quite explicit limits with the people I work with. If someone threatens me physically, or most especially if they threaten my family, I cut them off!  If they cross that line I refuse to have anything more to do with them, and I’ve been trying to encourage Terry to take a similar stance. The only problem I have with this is that the more I argue this line, the more I sound like the older brother in Jesus’ final joke, whereas Terry sounds more and more like the loving father!

I mentioned earlier that other young man we worked with who planned to blow up the home of one of the families that was trying to support him. That family hasn’t given up on him but still wants to work with him! Are they insane? Well … was the shepherd, was the woman, was the father?

“Then the father said to [the older brother], ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” (Luke 15:31-32)

Sermon first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on September 11th, 2016

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Hate your Father! (a sermon on Luke 14:25-33)

Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus. He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can’t be my disciple.”
(Luke 14:25-26)

… and a happy Fathers’ Day to all!

I’d really wanted to give a warm and fuzzy Father’s Day sermon today, but it wasn’t obvious how I could weave the warm and fuzzy bits into today’s Gospel!

I don’t think the fact that we get this reading scheduled for Fathers’ Day reflects the caustic wit of those who composed the lectionary as I believe the lectionary was put together a long time before Father’s Day (in its modern form) was ever celebrated, and it was put together in another part of the world where Fathers’ Day is not celebrated on the first Sunday in September.

For those who don’t know, the church has been celebrating fatherhood since the Middle Ages, but celebrations take place, predictably, on St Joseph’s Day, which is the 19th March. The modern, commercialized version of Fathers’ Day really originates in North America, where they celebrate Fathers’ Day in June.

Fathers’ Day has its own history in the U.S., going back to Sonora Dodd, who came up with the idea in 1909 as she sat listening to a Mother’s Day sermon. Dodd’s father had raised six children alone after his wife died giving birth so she figured that if mothers were to be recognised for their role in nurturing children, so should fathers! She chose June 5th because it was her father’s birthday!

In Australia we celebrate Fathers’ Day on the first Sunday in September. Why? I assume it’s because it’s the first Sunday in Spring. The other possibility is that some wag thought it would be clever to schedule it for the same Sunday when churches across the country would be hearing the exhortation of Jesus that we have to hate our fathers!

In truth, I’m not sure why we in Oz celebrate Fathers’ Day in September and, in truth, I am even less sure that I can do justice to this bizarre Scriptural command. The one thing I am sure about is that Jesus doesn’t actually want us to hate our fathers (or mothers, wife, children or anybody else in this list)!

That’s a statement not likely to inspire confidence in my preaching – that I’m not entirely sure what Jesus meant but I’m sure he didn’t mean it – but, in truth, this is where all of us who are students of the New Testament start when we read this passage. We know Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anybody, let alone those who are dearest to us, and yet we know for certain that He said this!

Modern academics often question the authenticity of some of the sayings attributed to Jesus. Nobody questions this one, and the reason is obvious enough. If Jesus hadn’t said this, there’s no way the early church would have made it up! Jesus said it – that’s a given. The question is why!

Perhaps Jesus was just trying to wake us up? That’s possible.

The passage begins by saying that ‘large crowds’ were travelling with Jesus (Luke 14;25), and Jesus did have a habit of trying to thin out the crowds in order to shed those who had just been swept up in the tide of His popularity.

It’s one of the odd characteristics of Jesus’ ministry that He often worked hard to weed out people who weren’t sure about why they were there. He did most of his teaching in parables, He said, in order to keep people guessing about His teaching (Mark 4:12). It seems that He wanted to keep His followers off-balance and constantly questioning why they were with Him and what they were doing. Is the ‘hate your father’ exhortation just another example of this – a provocative exhortation designed to get people thinking and talking and questioning amongst themselves as to what they were doing there?

When my brothers and I were little my dad used to read to us at night – epic stories such as “The Lord of the Rings” (long before the movies came out). And every now and then, after he’d been reading for a while, he’d thrown in a line like “and then they all went mad and shot each other” to see if we were still awake. And if we all just continued to smile with eyes glazed over, he knew he’d been reading for a bit too long! Was something like that going on in this case? Was Jesus just trying to keep His followers awake and on their toes?

In truth, I don’t doubt that this was a part of it. As I say, Jesus liked to keep his disciples off-balance. Even so, I don’t think we can really compare Jesus’ words to the type of ridiculous statements my dad used to come out with either. Even if Jesus didn’t mean that we have to ‘hate our fathers’ when he told us to ‘hate our fathers’, He didn’t mean nothing by it either. So what did He mean?

Perhaps He was talking about loyalty? That would certainly make sense.

There’s a passage in Matthew’s Gospel that is very similar to this one where Jesus is recorded as saying “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)

That exhortation raises its own questions, of course, but at least the meaning is straightforward and nobody is being asked to hate anybody.

I don’t doubt that loyalty to Jesus is indeed a part of what is on view in this passage and indeed, as followers of Jesus, we are expected to place our loyalty to Him and to His commandments above all other loyalties.

This is very relevant in our day and context when it’s often stated quite explicitly that allegiance to country is expected to be our primary loyalty.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the polemics, generally directed against religious and ethnic minorities in this country, questioning whether someone can really be Australian and Muslim, for instance – the assumption always being that our common identity as Australians should be more important to us than any specific ethnic or religious identity that might divide us.

These identity issues make a lot of sense to me and, as you know, I’m personally committed to running programs amongst young people that affirm our common humanity while recognising ethnic and religious diversity. Even so, I recognise that these identity issues are complex!

I’m personally committed to helping people recognise their common identity, and when we take a camp for young people I love it when our kids recognise that they have a common identity as Australians that is above and beyond anything that might divide them into smaller groups of Christians or Muslims or Sunni or Shia or European or Arabic or Asian or Indigenous or anything else.

I love the idea, personally, of having common points of identity that unite us, above and beyond the things that divide us. Even so, if I’m going to be true to the teachings of the New Testament, I have to ask myself ‘did Jesus expect me to put my loyalty to Him above my loyalty to country and above all those things that I have in common with those around me?’ and the answer is clearly ‘yes’!

As I say, identity issues are complex, and I personally believe that my identity as a follower of Jesus should be something that actually brings me closer to people of other races and creeds, rather than divides me from them. Even so, these issues are complicated and, more to the point, these questions are not going to be resolved with reference to this passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter fourteen, as I don’t believe loyalty to Jesus is the real issue in this passage – certainly not the key issue!

The Matthew passage is much more straightforward in that regard. Luke is distinctive, not only because of the introduction of the hate speak, but also because there’s an extra target introduced alongside father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – namely, the self!

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus goes on, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”, and then Jesus spells it out still further:

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.” (Luke 14:28-32)

The point of these short parables is clear enough. They are all about counting the cost, and not getting into something if you’re not prepared to see it through! The fact that Jesus introduces these parables with an exhortation to carry the cross suggests that the focus of this cost will be personal suffering on the part of the disciple, and perhaps that’s the real focus of this passage – that we have to be willing to suffer for Jesus’ sake!

I suspect that the very mention of a parable about building projects is likely to produce pain and anguish amongst some members of the congregation of Holy Trinity – most obviously amongst those who labored over our last building project – the rebuilding of our church hall after the great fire of April 2013!

And now we are looking at another building project – the possibility of redeveloping the rectory site into low-cost housing! The question is, of course, whether we have the resources, lest we lay a foundation only to have people ridicule us, saying “those who began to build are not able to finish!”

Of course the beauty of the Anglican system is that the Diocesan Property Trust makes sure that we never get to that stage. Even so, the point of the parable is clear enough. We have to be willing to count the cost before we start, and the cost would appear to measured here in terms of human suffering.

“When Christ calls us, He bids us come and die!” So said Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his introduction to “The Cost of Discipleship”, and indeed there is no way of by-passing the hard path of suffering for those who would follow Jesus.

“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:16)

To follow Jesus is to live in love, and to love is to suffer. There is no way of by-passing the way of suffering, and obviously this is part of the point of what Jesus is saying in this passage recorded in Luke, chapter 14. Even so, I would still suggest that it is not the key issue. Indeed, the key issue is spelt out quite straightforwardly at the end of the passage.

In Luke 14:33, in the final words of this exhortation, summing up all that’s gone before, Jesus says “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if …”

If you don’t know the verse you might want to guess how it finishes.

  • none of you can become my disciple if you haven’t counted the cost?
  • none of you can become my disciple if you aren’t willing to suffer?
  • none of you can become my disciple if you don’t love me more than father and mother and brother and sister and life itself?

No. Luke 1433 reads: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

And so it turns out that counting the cost is primarily about counting the cost! Yes, it’s a wake-up call and, yes, it’s about loyalty to Jesus and, yes, it’s about being willing to suffer for Christ and the Kingdom BUT, primarily, according to these words recorded in the Gospel of Luke, it’s fundamentally economic!

I don’t pretend to have unraveled everything this passage has to say but the key thrust is clear enough, I think.  You have to be ready to give it all away! How hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 19:23)! None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Sermon first preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on September 4th, 2016

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Lusting after cheap religion – a sermon on Hosea

“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”
(Hosea 11:8)

The words of the prophet Hosea – a man with whom I feel I have a lot in common!

You remember Hosea, don’t you? He married Gomer, his town’s most notorious sex-worker. They had three children, and Hosea gave each of them horrendous names! His family life was so dysfunctional indeed that no self-respecting religious institution in the history of the world would ever have considered giving him a job, and yet he was one of God’s greatest prophets of the eighth century B.C. and, as I say, he’s a man with whom I feel I have a lot in common!

My sense of connection with the prophet is not in the specifics of his dysfunctional family-life, mind you, but rather in the way in which his public life and private life were completely integrated. Here is another character who, like myself, doesn’t really have any private life that is not also public. Here’s another brother who never really goes home from work, but who’s home-life is his work. Mind you, when it comes to the integration family life and ministry, Hosea does push the envelope further than any parish priest I’ve ever heard of! He takes vocation to ministry to a whole new level! Even so, I’m a little surprised that no one has ever claimed him as patron saint of parish clergy. Perhaps the church still isn’t ready to fully own Hosea just yet!

Hosea, as I say, was an eighth century prophet, which means that he was prophesying to the northern state of Israel in the lead-up to its destruction by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and it’s in that context that he broadcasts the details of his failed marriage to his contemporaries, hoping that they’ll see the parallels with their own failings in terms of their relationship with God!

It’s a unique ministry, and it’s hard to be sure exactly how it all developed. Some scholars suggest that Hosea was just a guy whose marriage went disastrously wrong but who then interpreted his marital failings in terms of his prophetic message. In terms of the way the story is written though (and we presume the prophet himself wrote the story), it would appear that Hosea had felt called by God from the beginning to go out and find some notorious sex-worker, marry her, and start having children by her that could become a part of his message!

If this is really how it happened, I envisage some very awkward initial meetings between Hosea and Gomer and Gomer’s minders, and I can’t really imagine how Hosea ever convinced Gomer to come on board with the project!

Can we imagine Hosea’s initial conversation with the management at the brothel?

‘I’m looking for Gomer… No, I just want to talk to her. I’ve got a proposition to put to her… No, not that sort of proposition. I’m a prophet, and I want to see if she’ll partner me in ministry!’

I had my own awkward conversation with the management of a local brothel not long ago.

If you remember when I had my fight back in February I was looking for a sauna I could use to shed the last few pounds before the weigh-in, and it turns out that there aren’t many saunas in this area! I’d been told that there was one in the indoor-pool complex in Tempe, but when I went there they told me that their sauna was closed!

In desperation I did an Internet search for saunas in the Marrickville area and was delighted when I found some Sauna Centre located in one of the back streets right near where we live! I rang up the number immediately and asked them how much it cost to use their sauna.

I said “This is Father Dave. I believe you have a sauna there. I’m wondering how much it costs to use it.”  There was a long pause, after which I was told “if you have the full one-hour service you can use the sauna.” I said “I just want to use the sauna. Can I just use the sauna without any service?” There was another long pause … “no”

That was awkward, but nothing compared to what the early conversations between Hosea and Gomer must have been like! How did Hosea manage to convince Gomer both to marry him and to participate in this elaborate charade whereby they had to expose their children to ridicule and shame for the sake of getting Hosea’s message heard? Maybe Gomer thought it would be fun? More likely, to my reckoning, was that she must have been a genuinely pious woman, willing to let go of everything she’d had in life up to that point to join Hosea in his costly and unique prophetic work!

The naming of the children is certainly where I would have drawn the line had I been Gomer. Hosea names the oldest child ‘Genocide’ (or he may as well have)! Hosea named the boy after the town where Jehu had butchered the entire royal household of the line of Ahab, and put everybody’s head in a basket! Who names their child after an event like that?

The second child, his and Gomer’s only daughter, is named, literally, ‘No Pity’. If Hosea had been an Australian, I suppose he would have called her ‘Hopeless Joke’ or something very similar to that.

The third child is named “Not Mine”, which may reflect the fact that Hosea wasn’t sure whether or not he was the father this time (yes, it was that sort of marriage)!    In truth, Hosea quite literally named his third child ‘the bastard’.

Of course the name can be taken to indicate the spiritual state of Hosea’s audience as the prophet understood the situation – that God was in fact saying to these people ‘you are not mine’! Most likely the name was supposed to reflect both the spiritual and family tragedies – the anguish of both Hosea and God!

However we envisage things developing, it’s hard to imagine how these children must have fared at school, let alone what they thought of their dad! I’m sure that at some point the children must have had this out with their father:

“Can I have a word to you, dad!”, says the youngest son. “Of course, Bastard, tell me what’s on your mind.” “Well … I’ve been talking to my brother and sister (Gene and Joke) and we are wondering why you didn’t just change your own name. After all ‘Hosea’ means ‘God saves’. How come you got ‘God saves’ and we got Genocide, Hopeless Joke and The Bastard?

I don’t know how to best interpret the family life of Hosea. The other area I wonder about in the Hosea story is exactly how to interpret the idolatry he rales against.

Hosea’s basic thrust is that is that the people of Northern Israel have abandoned the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and have instead whored after the gods of the Canaanite’s – ‘Baal’ – but I think it’s a mistake to view this as a simple switch from one religious franchise to another.

For a start, the word ‘Baal’ is quite a generic term when applied to religious deities and could signify any number of forms of worship. Indeed, ‘Baal’ literally just means ‘Lord’, or even ‘husband’, and hence could be a word used by a faithful Jew to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!

The prophet Hosea indeed plays on the ambiguity of the word in his preaching, though most of this is lost in the translation into English.

“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’” (Hosea 2:16)

This is a play of words – God in his relationship to His unfaithful people is their husband but not their Baal, which is really the same thing (Ha! Good one, Hosea)!

My point is that the movement from true worship to Baalism is not necessarily a conscious switch of products. My guess is that most of the people of northern Israel weren’t aware of having made any sort of switch. It took the prophet to come along to them and say ‘this isn’t the God of your fathers that you’re worshipping any more. It’s Baal!’

You see this process beginning at the very separation of the two kingdoms.

If you don’t know the history, the kingdom of Israel divides into two after the death of King Solomon. Jeroboam, son of Nebat, rebels against Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam, and sets up a new northern capital in Samaria and builds a new temple there in order to stop his people having to perform regular pilgrimages down to the temple in Jerusalem (in the south).

According to the first Book of Kings, when Jeroboam built his temple he made two golden calves and put them on display as objects of worship, saying “Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:28)

Note that Jeroboam didn’t say “forget the worship of the God of your fathers who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Let’s worship Baal instead.” On the contrary, he says “let us continue in the worship of the God of our fathers – almighty, all holy, and fertile (as you can see by these two helpful icons I’ve built for you).”

Was Jeroboam still worshiping the God who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt? Jeroboam would say ‘of course!’, but when the prophet Hosea comes along, he says “this is NOT the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at all!”

What takes place is something that is much closer to home than we might realise. No religion is impervious to the values of the culture in which it is embedded, but there comes a point where the culture actually takes over and where the spiritual kernel of religious truth has been completely dissolved!

I’m not sure how you pick the tipping-point. We know of plenty of churches that teach that God will make you rich, and give you a better-paying job, a bigger bank balance and a more vibrant sex-life, but at what point do you say “Hang on! I don’t think this is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that you’re worshipping anymore!”?

I heard a wonderful illustration the other day of the vacuous nature of the idolatry that dominates our culture. I was listening to a lecture on cultural intelligence, and the lecturer mentioned a conversation between a Mexican fisherman and a visitor from New York who was saying in his village.

The American noticed that the fisherman only seemed to work for a few hours each day and he asked him why. The Mexican replied that he caught enough fish for his family each day in only a few hours (and enough for his extended family as well), so he’d come back mid-morning, play with his children, and in the afternoons he’d go into town and play music with his friends, relax and enjoy life!

The American said to him “but if you worked a few extra hours you could catch a lot more fish, sell the ones you didn’t eat, and use the extra money to gradually establish your own fishing fleet!” The Mexican asked why would want to do this.

The American said that once he had a fleet of boats, he could stop fishing altogether and employ others to do it. Indeed, he could move to somewhere like New York and develop his business remotely, buying even more boats and establishing something of a fishing empire!

The Mexican asked him how long this would take. The American suggested about fifteen to twenty years of hard work! The Mexican asked him what he would do then. The American said “well, that’s the best part. You then sell your business for millions and use the money to retire to some quite seaside village where you can go fishing for few hours each morning, come back and play with your grandkids, wander into the town and play music with your friends – relax and enjoy life!”

When you look at it like that, it all seems pretty pointless. Even so, we all buy-in this to some extent, and no religious tradition or form of worship is impervious to the values of its culture. Even so, how do you determine when your worship has transitioned from being culturally relevant to having sold out? Well … that’s the job of the prophet – to help the worshipping community correctly interpret what they are doing, and that’s what Hosea did – telling the people of northern Israel that their relationship with their God was a lot like his dysfunctional marriage!

I think this is a powerful and illuminating image for us too. We love God and we want to live in a faithful relationship with God but we sleep around too! We can’t help ourselves. The allure of the Baals is just too strong!

It’s how we operate. We don’t walk out on God. We stay in the relationship; however dysfunctional that relationship may have become! It’s just not our style to get up one day and say “I’ve had it with serving the Lord, Jesus Christ. I’m going to try Buddha for a while. He seems far less demanding!”  No. We worship and we pray as per usual, and we do try hard to seek His Kingdom, but we build our own little kingdom on the side too. We sleep around.

We want to store up riches in Heaven, but we’d like a solid nest-egg here on earth too, and we will break down our barns and build bigger ones if we can. In other words, we sleep around!

It’s a damning indictment – Hosea’s words of judgement upon God’s chosen people, and yet it rings true for me, and I suspect that we can all sense its relevance. We are not the faithful partners to God that we wish we were. We have not been true to our first love. We continue on in a dysfunctional relationship with our Heavenly Father – leaving undone the things we ought to have done and doing the things we ought not to have done.

That is the bad news. The Good News that Hosea reminds us of though is that despite our constant and inevitable philandering, God remains faithful to us:

“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:8-9)


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Beyond US and THEM – a twist on the parable of the Good Samaritan

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” 
(Luke 10:25-29)

So Jesus told him a joke.

A Jewish guy and a Chinese guy walk into a bar …

OK, it wasn’t that one, but I’ll come back to that one for those who haven’t heard it, and if you haven’t heard that one you’ve heard others like it that work off racial stereotypes. When I was a boy I used to hear jokes like that all the time. Most of them targeted the Irish and were always highlighting apparent stupidity!

I have no idea how the Irish managed to be stereotyped in that way as I have never heard any evidence suggesting that Irish persons really do have below average IQ’s. Perhaps it was all a vestige of my Protestant heritage, targeting the Southern Irish.    I really don’t know, but it’s easy to target a group like the Irish when you don’t know any Irish people or anything about them.  Racial stereotypes thrive on ignorance!

The other racially-orientated jokes I was familiar with in my youth were Scottish jokes, and that was because I’d been left a set of ancient Scottish joke-books by my great-grandparents who were Scottish. I still have those books – so old that they had no dates in them and were illustrated with traditional wood-print etchings!

My favourite book in the collection was entitled “Canny Tales Fae Aberdeen” and my favourite canny tale in the book concerned a gift shop opened by Scott McTavish in the main street of Aberdeen.

Shortly after opening, Scott’s friend, Sandy McTaggart, wanders in and says “Weel, this is a lovely wee shop you have here, Scott, all except for the blind in the window. It’s awfully shabby. Have you thought of getting a new one?” Scott grumbles about the cost of new blinds but assures Sandy “I’ll see what I can do?”  Only a few weeks later Sandy passes the shop again and notices a lovely new blind hanging in the window! He congratulates his friend “that’s a lovely frilly blind you’ve got, Scott, but how did you afford it?” Scott replied, “it was easier than I thought, Sandy. I just put a box on the counter here, labelled ‘for the blind’ and I got more than I needed!”

I find it easy to laugh at a joke like that as I’m laughing at my own ethnic heritage, and it’s from a book of Scottish jokes put together by Scots for Scots. That’s not the norm. We don’t normally tell jokes about ourselves. You don’t hear many jokes playing off stereotypes of the white Australian community (or at least I don’t hear many). I do remember one – an account by a traveller to our shores who was saying that he’d heard bad things about Australians before coming here, but once he got here he found Australians to be some of the most generous and hospitable people he’d ever encountered. He then added that it was only the white bastards that he couldn’t get on with! That traveller was Irish comedian, Dave Allen. Touche!

Yes, if we hear white-Australian jokes they are likely to come from an outsider. White Australians are far more likely to tell jokes about Asians or Arabs or about our Indigenous brothers and sisters, most of which make me cringe when I hear them.

Mind you, I do remember hearing one joke about Indigenous Australians that I was told was approved by the Aboriginal Land Council. I shudder to repeat it except that I think it’s worth sharing. It concerns a white Australian guy who runs over a group of Aboriginal people in his car while driving at high speed on a dirt road out in the bush.

The man doesn’t know what to do after the accident so he decides to bury the bodies. Just as he’s completing his grisly task, a police-car pulls up and asks him what he’s doing. He figures it’s best to be honest and tells the police how he’d run over a group of Aboriginal people and was now burying them. The police ask “were they all dead?” to which he replies “well, some of them said they weren’t but you know what lying devils they all are!”

That’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear that joke told in church, and it’s one of those jokes where the joke is really on us, and where our reaction to the joke is probably pretty close to the sort of reaction Jesus got to a lot of the jokes he told!

‘Did you hear the one about the Jewish guy who was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers?’ (Luke 10:30)

This is Jesus’ joke and most of us know it well, and we recognise it as a Samaritan joke, playing off that familiar form of racial stereotyping.  I suspect Samaritan jokes were a common source of humour in Jesus’ day, and I don’t doubt that a lot of Samaritan jokes would have been passed around between the disciples during their three years with Jesus, even if this is the only one that ever made it into print.

Now, in case you don’t know anything about Samaritans, let me tell you a thing or two about them. First of all, they are a lazy breed of people – all of them! They live on government welfare benefits because they can’t be bothered to get jobs. They sit around all day spending your hard-earned tax dollars on beer and pot, and the only reason they come to this country is so that they can take our women and take our jobs …  hang one a sec! They can’t be taking our jobs if they’re not working, can they? I’m getting a little mixed up but you get the basic idea. I’ll get back to the joke.

“A [Jewish] man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” (Luke10:30-33)

“As if!” I hear you say! ‘As if a Samaritan would stop for a wounded Jew out of pity?  If a Samaritan stops near the prostrate body of a Jew, it’s to put the boot in! We know what these people are like, and they’re all the same!’

I think that’s why Jesus goes on to fill in the details of His story, lest we fill them in with our imagination.

“[The Samaritan] went to [the injured Jew] and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’” (Luke 10:34-35)

This is an offensive story because we all know that a Samaritan wouldn’t do that.  We know what they are like. They aren’t the sort of persons who care about us. We’ve heard of plenty of stories like this, of course – true stories – but they generally have the Samaritans playing the role of the robbers who beat up on the defenceless Jew and not the other way around. Of course, this is just a story!

That’s the weakness of Jesus’ joke, of course, or at least it seems to be. It’s a story about a Samaritan who doesn’t perform in accordance with the stereotype we constructed for him. Even so, it’s just a story and we’ve got no reason to believe that it was a true story. Do Samaritans ever really behave like that? None that I know of!

If we feel tempted to think that way, it shows that we didn’t actually get the joke, which is not really a joke about Samaritans but it’s one where the joke is on us!

It easy to miss the punchline in this joke as it actually comes quite early in the story!

“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31-32)

I know we covered that part of the story already, but were you offended by it?

I remember, as a youth, being brought up in the church and listening to sermons on this passage where the preacher would often speculate at this point of the story as to why the good guys – the priest and the Levite – would pass by on the other side.

After all, priests and Levites are a part of our tribe. They are one of us (or two of us) and they are exactly the persons we would expect to stop and help one of us if one of us where in trouble.

And so preachers speculate:

  • Perhaps the priest was late for his synagogue service?
  • Perhaps they were worried that the man was dead, meaning that they would be rendered ritually unclean if they touched the dead man’s body?
  • Perhaps they were concerned that the robbers who assaulted the man were lying in wait for another victim?

It was my friend Stephen Sizer (an Anglican priest in London) who pointed out to me that Jesus actually makes it quite clear why these two avoid the injured man. Indeed, it’s stated quite explicitly in the opening words of the joke.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

The robbers left the man naked and half-dead (in other words, unconscious), meaning that the priest and Levite couldn’t see his clothing nor hear his accent.  They therefore had no way of knowing whether he was one of us or one of them!

This is how we distinguish between us and them. We discriminate on the basis of the way we dress and the way we speak. When someone says “G’day mate!”, he’s one of us! When someone speaks with a ‘funny’ accent, she’s one of them! When you see someone wearing a hijab, she’s one of them, and when you see a guy with a big, square beard, you know he’s one of them – a Muslim (or maybe a hipster).

I do have a problem with my stereotypes in that area. How many times have I been about to say ‘Salam Aleykum’ to someone with a great big beard when I’ve noticed that they’re drinking beer … out of a jar!

Even so, this is the way, and it’s generally the only way, that we can tell whether somebody is one of us or one of them – by looking at the way they dress and by listening to the way they speak, and in Jesus’ joke, in the case of the injured man, the priest and the Levite don’t stop because the man was naked and unconscious, and so they couldn’t tell whether he was one of us or one of them.

The shocking thing about the Samaritan in this story then is not simply that he is an impossibly nice guy who doesn’t fit his racial stereotype but it’s rather that he himself is one who doesn’t pay attention to racial stereotypes! He just doesn’t care whether the injured guy is one of his own or not! He doesn’t care whether he is a Jew or an Arab, and obviously neither does Jesus!

‘Go and do likewise’ Jesus says, and in case you misunderstood the punchline here, the challenge is not simply to ‘go and do likewise’ in terms of finding an injured guy and putting him on your donkey and taking him to a hospital, but rather the far simpler yet far more radical challenge of going and doing like the Samaritan does in showing an utter disregard for the distinction between us and them!

A Jewish guy and a Chinese guy walk into a bar. They don’t know each other but they sit next to each other at the bar as they knock back the schooners. With each drink the Jewish guy gets more surly. Eventually he turns to the Chinese guy and pours his beer over the other man’s head, saying “that’s for Pearl Harbour! My grandfather was killed at Pearl Harbour”! The Chinese guy is aghast and says ‘that was the Japanese, you idiot! I’m Chinese!’ His antagonist shrugs, ‘Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese – what’s the difference? You’re all the same.

The Chinese guy orders himself another beer and pours it over the Jewish guy’s head. That’s for the Titanic’ he says. ‘My great-uncle drowned on the Titanic!’ ‘I’m Jewish’, says the other guy. ‘What have I to do with sinking the Titanic?’ ‘Feinberg, Steinberg, iceberg – what’s the difference? You’re all the same!’ he says.

The truth is that they are not all the same, and the deeper truth, of course, is there is no ‘they’. I quoted Matthew Bolz-Weber last week in saying that “whenever we draw a line between us and them, we’ll always find the Lord Jesus standing on the other side of that line”, and isn’t that exactly what we discover here? Perhaps you thought that the “no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free” thinking started with St Paul.  No! It all starts here, in the jokes of Jesus!

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That was the original question that prompted the joke.  The answer, it seems, according to Jesus, has a lot to do with letting go of the distinction between us and them!

First preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on July 10th, 2016

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A Tribute to St Paul

“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin”
(Galatians 1:11)

One of the things I had wanted to do while in Damascus recently was take the rest of the team to see the house of Judas in Straight Street – the very place where Ananias prayed for St Paul (formerly, Saul, the persecutor of the church) and baptized him!

I’ve ended up at the chapel there – the chapel of St Ananias – just about every time I’ve been to Damascus. It’s right in the middle of the old city. You have to climb down a flight of stairs to get to it – once a small house, converted into a chapel – though interestingly it was apparently once at street level! Over the years, the newer buildings have been built on top of the old, such that every modern building is now one level higher up than those that existed in New Testament times!

There’s a wooden carving behind the Eucharistic table in the chapel, depicting three of Paul’s key moments in Damascus:

  1. Paul falling off his horse on the road into the city, where he was struck blind!
  2. Paul being baptized by Ananias in the house where the carving hangs.
  3. Paul being lowered over the wall of Damascus in a basket after plots on his life forced him to make a hasty exit from the city!

Of course these scenes are all detailed in The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9 where I assume we’ve all read about them. Even so, I found that some of my Boxers for Peace team had not read about them and so I was keen for them to see the site and learn something of this piece of history. So, after an extensive stint in Damascus’ most famous ice-creamery, I asked our guide to take us to the chapel of St Ananias, as I was convinced that it was only a short walk from where we were.

‘Go to the street named straight’ (Acts 9:11) I barked confidently, and our guide seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, but after walking for about forty minutes, with me thinking that the chapel must be around every corner, I realised that there had been a mix-up and, sure enough, when I was then told ‘here we are’ (at a beautiful Orthodox church) we had to re-orientate ourselves back to the location (one that had been much closer to our starting point than the one we’d reached) and by the time we got there the house was closed to the public.

This was painful, not because I really expected any of our team to have a Damascus Road experience at the house, but simply because that house has to be one of Christianity’s most significant historic sites. Indeed, it could be said that Christianity as a religion started in that house!

That’s a provocative statement, I appreciate, and I’m not denying for a second that the Christian faith as we experience it today is rooted deeply in the person of Jesus. Even so, the communal dimension of our faith, in all it’s multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-coloured complexity, really begins with the church-building work of the Apostle Paul, and Paul, the Apostle, begins in that house in Damascus!

Paul was a fighter. That’s one of the things I love about him. Indeed, whenever you come across him in the New Testament, Paul is almost always fighting with someone or he’s in some sort of desperate trouble!

The three aforementioned scenes of him in Damascus are archetypal in that regard:

  • Paul falling off his horse
  • Paul groping blindly while Ananias prays for him
  • Paul hiding in a basket, fleeing for his life

Paul managed to get just about everyone off-side, one time or another in his career. He remained a proud Jew throughout his life, though it was leaders of the Jewish community that he was fleeing from when he escaped Damascus, from where they continued to pursue him. He was a leader in the Christian community, though he always seemed to be at odds with others in leadership positions, including the Apostle Peter. He was a Roman citizen, but it was the Romans who killed him!

Paul was a man who never seemed to know any peace in his life, beyond that mysterious peace that he spoke of – ‘the peace of God which passes all human understanding’ (Philippians 4:7) – and the issue for Paul was always the same. He believed in a church that was bigger than Judaism – where it didn’t matter if you were Jewish or Greek or Indigenous Australian – all were equal, all were loved. And it was a vision that, to my reckoning, none of his peers every got fully on board with.

Of course we take the equality of all races under God as self-evident now. How could it be otherwise? As I’ve said before, truth tends to come in three stages:

  1. First, it’s seen to be ridiculous
  2. Secondly, it’s violently opposed
  3. Finally, it’s seen to be self-evident

We are privileged to have been born into a generation where that truth is indeed seen to be self-evident, but Paul was always either ridiculed or violently opposed, and in his case, we aren’t using metaphor when we speak of violence!

One question that always comes to mind for me when I think of Paul, and one that I’ve reflected on while sitting in the chapel of St Ananias, is ‘what made Paul so sure that he was right?’

Paul took on everybody from Jews to Romans to his fellow Christians, from the Apostle Peter on down, brandishing his own peculiar understanding of the mission of Jesus to the world, maintaining that it was simply no longer relevant whether you were Jewish or Greek, male or female, rich or poor, weak or powerful, smart or simple. It was all the same to God! What made Paul so sure that he was right?

Behind the polemic we read in Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia is exactly that question, of course. ‘What makes you think you are right, Paul?’ Authoritative-looking brothers and sisters have come up from the church in Jerusalem, telling us that you’ve got it wrong and that we do need to embrace the more Jewish elements of our faith (such as circumcision) if we are to be fully in sync with God. Why shouldn’t we listen to them?

What is Paul’s response?

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8-9)

That’s Paul at his uncompromising best, and those of us who are familiar with the history of ecclesiastical debate within the Western church can all appreciate why polemical Protestants have so regularly taken St Paul as their champion.

I was brought up in a household where we were never explicitly told that all Catholics were going to hell but where it was pretty well understood that if you crossed yourself or said the rosary you were playing with fire! Why? Because Catholics didn’t believe the Bible but believed in their traditions and in the teachings of Popes and prelates. Their faith was in the corrupt institution of the church rather than in Christ, and they gleaned truth from their traditions rather than from the clear waters of Scripture!

St Paul seems to champion this Protestant cause completely!

“If we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!  (Galatians 1:8)

It doesn’t matter what the Pope says! It doesn’t matter what I say! It wouldn’t matter if an angel from Heaven said it to you! If it’s garbage, it’s garbage! Don’t believe it!

As I say, it’s obvious enough why those who are critical of the church as an institution see St Paul as their champion, for he clearly did not believe that the ecclesiastical pedigree of the speaker guaranteed the integrity of the message.  Even so, Paul is not exactly an archetypal Protestant either, pointing us instead to a clear word of Scripture – not in this instance, at any rate.  In this section of his letter to the Galatians, Paul simply appeals to the spiritual insights of the people, or so it seems, as if they should know instinctively that what he is saying is true!

We have no idea, of course, how Paul’s letter was received, but I envisage any number of people in the church of Galatia feeling quite ambivilent about it all! ‘Why should we believe you, Paul? Why should we assume that you have a monopoly on the truth? What makes you think that you are always right? Shouldn’t we at least listen to what these people from Jerusalem have to say? After all, they are the direct link back to Jesus, whom you never actually met, except in that strange experience you keep telling us about – the one that you had on the road to Damascus?’

This was the heart of the problem for Paul, I believe. Paul wasn’t a good Catholic in the sense that his preaching was just a repetition of what had been taught to him by others more senior in the faith.

Paul wasn’t acting as an emissary from Peter, James or the other Apostles, and so he wasn’t a good Catholic but, on the other hand, he wasn’t a good Protestant either in that he didn’t come to faith in Christ through his study of the Scriptures – not at all! Paul had not stood up after a forty-day period of fasting and contemplation of the Torah to say “My God, I added it all up wrong! Jesus is the Messiah after all!”

Paul didn’t inherit his faith in Christ from Jesus’ first Apostles, nor did he find it through contemplation of the Scriptures. We know exactly how Paul came to confess Jesus as Lord! God threw him off his horse and confronted him about it directly!

That was Paul’s story at any rate, and that was certainly at the core of Paul’s self-understanding. He was a man who had switched tracks mid-career on the basis of a confrontation he’d had with the Almighty that he simply couldn’t get past!

It is indeed the extraordinary thing about St Paul – that he was able to dismiss an entire lifetime of learning, steeped in the traditions of his Jewish forefathers, all on the basis of one extraordinary experience on the road to Damascus!

They say that after the death of Blaise Pascal, the great philosopher, they found sewn into the lining of his jacket an account of his life-changing encounter with God – an account that he always kept with him.

I won’t read it all here as it’s a long account, but it begins:

“The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology. Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others. From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.

Fire. ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace”

Pascal, as I say, kept this hand-written account of his intense experience of God next to his heart (literally) till the day he died. I suspect that when he struggled with doubts and uncertainties and wasn’t sure of the way forward, that he put his hand on his heart over where he stored this piece of paper, and so reminded himself of his experience – an experience that strengthened him and gave him the resolve he needed when he most needed it.

St Paul was the same, I think. I don’t know if he kept any account of his Damascus road experience sewn into his clothing but he evidently talked about it all the time. The story turns up three times in the book of Acts and is referred to in numerous letters, reflecting, we can assume, the regularity with which he retold the story.

If Paul had lived till his dotage and ended up in a retirement home, I suspect that he would have been one of those cantankerous old souls who’d come out at least once a day with “did I ever tell you about the time I was on the road to Damascus and …” to which everybody would respond “only around 5000 times, Grandpa!”

It was the experience that defined Paul’s life, and this might make him sound more like someone at the extreme Pentecostal end of the Christian spectrum, rather than a Protestant or a Catholic, though you can’t pigeonhole him there either as he never seems to expect that ecstatic experiences like his were the norm. He doesn’t expect anyone else to have bizarre experiences like the one he had. He seemed to believe that his experience with Christ was as unique as it was transformative.

So unfortunately neither Ange nor any of our team got to visit the chapel of Ananias in Damascus, though I was concerned at the time that the experience, if it had happened, might have been something of an anticlimax.

I say that because I was conscious at the time that I had been talking the place up and, on reflection, I was talking it up to a group that had just visited:

  • The tomb of Hafez Al-Assad
  • The shrine of Zaynab
  • The ruins of Palmyra

In each case the word ‘majestic’ comes to mind. These were each spectacular landmarks of architectural excellence and spiritual beauty.  The chapel of Ananias, on the other hand, was just another house on Straight Street, so inconspicuous that it took us forever to find it!

Perhaps, as I say, finding the house earlier would have been something of an anti-climax on account of its relative ordinariness. Even so, I have a feeling that that’s exactly how Paul himself would have liked it – a monument to the great founder of the modern church that remains a very simple place of prayer.

For Paul was not an arrogant man. He was an humble man, he was a lonely man, he was a damaged man, he was a fighter. He was a man who, one day on the road to Damascus, experienced Jesus – an experience that transformed, energised and animated him for the rest of his life!

May God give us grace to tap into that same transformative energy that is Christ.

Sermon given at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, May 2016

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Time is Short – a sermon on Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 
52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I don’t normally begin a sermon by reading out the complete passage I’m intending to speak to but this is a risky passage not to read out.

The risk is that I’ll start speaking about the passage and referring to it, and those amongst us who are not already familiar with it (which is probably most of us) may well find themselves thinking ‘Jesus didn’t really say that, did He?’ or at least, ‘He didn’t really say it exactly like that, did He?’, and so I’m beginning by reading it out, exactly as it is written, lest anybody accuse me of making this up!

This is what is written, people, and it is indeed one of the more offensive passages in the Gospel of Luke. I wouldn’t say it’s the most offensive by any means, as indeed there’s a lot of material in Luke that is unpalatable.  Even so, if we were to publish a special collection of sayings of Jesus that are hard to digest, and put them in order, from the most offensive to the least, this particular passage, I’d suggest, would probably still make it into the top half of the list!

It’s not quite on the level of “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children … they cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26) but it’s not “Come to me all ye that labour and are heavy-laden” (Matthew 11:28) either, is it?    It is at the pointy end, I would suggest, of the offensiveness scale.

The Samaritans won’t deal with Jesus. James and John say ‘let’s burn them all!’ Jesus says ‘for God’s sake! No!’

A wanna-be disciple says to Jesus ‘I will follow you wherever you go!’ Jesus says to him ‘do you even know where I go?’ In terms of reasonable accommodation, I have nowhere to go!’

More disciples come to Jesus, wanting to be a part of the team and seeming very sincere, but they have some serious family responsibilities they need to get out of the way first. Jesus says ‘see you later!’

I’m abbreviating, but I want us to try to grasp these encounters as a whole. In terms of how they depict the relationship between Jesus and His followers, the very clear impression we get from this passage is that Jesus and those who followed Him were rarely ever on the same page! Jesus and His team had fundamentally incompatible understandings of just about everything that mattered. I find that disturbing!

I know that we who have been reading the Bible for years and years often take this sort of scenario for granted. We think of the twelve as a group of lovable duffers – a bit fluffy-minded and prone to emotional outbursts at times but basically sincere and endearing. Maybe so, but what sort of people were these twelve such that they and the women and the various hanger-oners could be with Jesus for the best part of three years and learn virtually nothing!

What makes this particularly incredible, to my mind, is that these accounts of the life of Jesus were put together by the very men being written about! I don’t mean Peter and James and John literally wrote down the words of the Gospels themselves, but they were involved, and certainly John survived long enough to read some of these Gospel accounts, and they were not flattering portrayals of him or any of his friends!

When you compare, for example, the Gospels with the stories of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, those men come across as flawless men of integrity when compared to the motley crew Jesus had with Him! You could be forgiven for assuming that the authors of the New Testament didn’t like the disciples yet, on the contrary, we know full well that the authors of the Gospels were almost certainly all themselves faithful disciples of those disciples!

I like to think that this is an indication of the fact that the twelve in their later years really didn’t take themselves too seriously, and that the Gospel-writers knew that those men were happy to be portrayed warts and all!  The other more disturbing possibility, of course, is that the New Testament narratives actually are very generous in their depictions of the disciples, and that the reality was far worse!

Perhaps if we’d been there when James and John had confronted Jesus about what they wanted to do to the Samaritans (in the incident related to us today) we’d realise that the account in Luke chapter nine has been sanitized! Perhaps James and John acted far more vilely in their threats towards those people and started throwing punches at them? Perhaps they regularly screamed at Jesus, and the Gospel-writers had to tone down their language and their behaviour for the sake of the readership?

I’m not going to speculate further on that, but I will say again though that however we interpret the behaviour of the twelve and the other disciples in the narrative given to us today, what is clear is that Jesus and his followers were NOT on the same page, and that itself should disturb us!

You would think that, having lived pretty much in each other’s pockets for three years, the disciples would have adopted their master’s mindset by this stage. They hadn’t. That is disturbing. What is more disturbing still though, and what perhaps helps explain some of the tension between Jesus and His disciples, is that the mindset of Jesus seen here is not one any of us want to adopt! Indeed, in these clashes between Jesus and His disciples, it’s the disciples who get it right!

Isn’t that the case? Don’t we find ourselves siding with the disciples in these arguments? Do any of us really think Jesus was in the right in these confrontations?

Jesus says to one nameless man, “Follow me!”  He says “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (Luke 9:59). Our response would be, “Of course! Go and bury your father first, and give my condolences to the rest of your family.”

Another says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home” (Luke 9:61). We would say, “No problem! Take as much time as you need!  It’s a big decision. Make sure mum and dad understand what you’re doing.  Hopefully you’ll have their full support.”

These are sensible responses. These are the responses we would make. This is how the first century disciples saw things. Twenty centuries later, we don’t see them any differently, and yet Jesus completely disrespects this common-sense approach!

“Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60), He says, and “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62). These were tough things to say. They are still tough things to say!

Now, admittedly, it has been suggested by those who better understand the culture of the time that for the guy who wants to bury his father, his father is still very much alive at the time. That may be correct. In other words, it may be that the statement ‘let me first go and bury my father’ is a way of saying ‘let me first go and fulfil my responsibilities to my family’. It’s likewise possible that the request of the last guy (‘let me first say farewell to those at my home’) has similar implications – that it’s a farewell that may take a few years.

This may be the case, and I appreciate that this changes our perception of the dialogues somewhat. Even so, the requests of these wanna-be disciples – that they fulfil their responsibilities to their families before embarking on mad adventures with Jesus – seem entirely reasonable and commendable. We are supposed to honour our father and mother, surely, and we do have responsibilities to our families!

In truth, I can never read this passage without being reminded of a young man I was quite close to in a church I used to be involved in. This young guy was ready to drop out of his University course so that he could throw himself full-time into Christian ministry, and then he decided that he should really finish his course (as he only had a year to go) and after that throw himself into ministry, but then he decided that his parents had invested a lot of money in his education and that it was only proper that he should give a couple of years to the profession that his parents had worked so hard to prepare him for before heading off on a mad adventure with Jesus and, so far as I know, this guy has been working diligently as an accountant ever since!

Do I intend that story to be taken as a damning indictment on this then-young man? Not really. I just can’t overlook the close parallel to the narrative we read of here. There’s a choice to be made between a mad and impulsive course and a sensible, responsible one. We generally see it as a virtue to choose responsibly, and we urge our children to do the same. It’s Jesus, and Jesus alone so far as I can see, who is constantly urging us to choose the crazy path!

I read this account in Luke chapter nine and I ask myself ‘does anybody in this narrative actually have a half-decent understanding of what Jesus is on about?’  Sadly, I think it’s only the Samaritans in the story who come even close!

The Samaritans appear right at the beginning: “they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him” (Luke 9:52-53)

The Samaritans, I think, understood very clearly that Jesus was trouble, and so they didn’t want to have anything to do with Him! The disciples do want to deal with Him, of course. They just won’t follow the crazy course He has set for them!

Why is Jesus so unreasonable in His demands? Why is He so dismissive of social and cultural norms and even of family responsibilities? Why is He so hard to get on with? The answer, in this case, is actually given at the very opening of the story.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51)

Jesus ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’, and it’s this that leads the Samaritans to reject Him and which makes His calls to action so urgent. Jesus faces Jerusalem – embracing His destiny in the final run-down to His own suffering and death. In that context it just doesn’t make sense for anybody to go back to business as usual!

There’s a sense, of course, in which Jesus had always been facing Jerusalem, in that He’d always known what lay ahead. The Gospel writer though sees a turning point at this stage in the journey where Jesus actively embraces this future and starts deliberately striding towards it!

I don’t want to suggest that we all need to face Jerusalem in the way that Jesus did, as I recognise that His destiny in this regard was unique. Even so, I think it is of great benefit to us all, to face squarely our own mortality, and to embrace that.

We are all heading towards death and destruction (at least at a personal level). That’s not to say that our demise will be as violent as Jesus’ or that it is imminent.  Even so, it is our future, and it does make a real difference, I believe, if we can embrace that rather than simply going on trying to avoid thinking about it.

It’s been the common testimony of those who returned with me from Syria recently, that the journey helped put things in perspective for them. It helped them recognise that a lot of the things we get stressed about here really are just first-world problems that aren’t worth stressing about. Conversely, the backdrop of violence and death there gives you a heightened sense of what is really important in life. So many things that seem important – even legitimate responsibilities to family and community – really aren’t that important, and are certainly not that urgent, and other things that really are important need to replace them as our personal priorities NOW!

“Let the dead bury their own dead… No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Why? Why so harsh? Why so urgent? Because time is short! Your time is short, my time is short, and our world doesn’t have much time either! Go, and proclaim the kingdom of God!

sermon delivered at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, June 2016

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St Paul and Gay Marriage – a sermon on Galatians 6:11-18

“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.
 13 For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God. 17 Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren. Amen.” (Galatians 6:11-18)

Thus Paul concludes his message to the church in Galatia, in what is often referred to as Paul’s ‘angry letter’.

Indeed, it is a passionate letter, brimming with frustration and strong language that at times seems downright crude, and that passion is on full display here at the very end of Paul’s message as he grabs the stylus from the person he has been dictating to and completes the letter in his own unmistakeable scrawl – “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand …” (Galatians 6:11).

Lest anyone should doubt that these words come straight from the mouth and heart of the Apostle, Paul puts his hand into the production of the letter as he completes it, just as he’d put his heart and soul into it from the very first line!

This is Paul’s angry letter – his passionate letter – and it should not surprise us that the matters under discussion had Paul so worked up because the whole existence of the early church was at stake. Even in its infancy, the church was divided, and Paul believed that the church was going to die in its infancy if it didn’t get some key things right, and, as crazy as it might seem to us now, the crucial issue at the heart of all the grief Paul experienced was, of course, circumcision!

Crazy! That’s how the debate appears to us now, though of course it’s easy to be wise in retrospect, especially when there’s a good twenty centuries of retrospective wisdom between us and this letter. Even so, I don’t think St Paul would disagree that circumcision, in and of itself, was a trivial issue, but behind that specific issue there was a far broader issue at stake, and that broader issue did indeed threaten to divide and destroy the early Christian community.

Some things change. Some stay the same. We too live at a time when a specific issue threatens to divide and destroy the Christian community as we know it – the global Anglican communion most especially. The issue at the moment isn’t circumcision but gay marriage – a completely different issue, of course, or, at least, it seems to be a completely different issue.

Not everybody here may have followed the events that took place at the beginning of last year when Anglican Primates from around the world met in London and voted to suspend the Episcopal church of the USA from full membership in the global Anglican Communion because they had chosen to act unilaterally in authorising same-sex marriages.

If you did follow that event you will no doubt remember Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry – a powerful African American church leader – speaking passionately of his desire to maintain unity with those he had been in conflict with, saying “We are part of the Jesus Movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world can never stop and will never be defeated.”

This 2015 suspension of the Episcopal church did not, of course, appear suddenly out of a vacuum but rather reflected divisions in the Anglican Communion that became explicit at the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) of 2008, which met in Jerusalem in response to the emergence of a ‘false gospel’ that was said to emanate from a certain sector of the Anglican Communion that “promotes a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behaviour as a universal human right.” Our own Archbishop of Sydney at the time, Peter Jensen, was elected General Secretary of GAFCON in 2008, and I believe he remains so to this day.

The specific issue, not explicitly mentioned in the GAFCON statement quoted above but assumed to be at the basis of the controversy, was the US Episcopal church’s 2003 consecration of the openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson. However we understand the evolution of the issue though, what is clear is that we (Sydney) were involved from the beginning, and hence it should come as no surprise that we (the Sydney Anglican Diocese) took a very deliberate stance in the current election on the issue of the projected plebiscite regarding gay marriage.

It’s probably high time I confessed that I was in fact encouraged to make an announcement to the congregation on either of the last two Sundays, instructing parishioners as to the positions taken by the major parties on the issue of same-sex marriage, so that each of us might be fully informed as to how our votes might affect the issue.  The assumption was that we would be united in our opposition to same-sex marriage and that I would be doing us all a service by helping us all to mobilise in support of our common cause. This, of course, is not our reality.

I did indeed let the bishop know that I wouldn’t be making the announcement on the week the task was given me, most obviously because we had a gay activist preacher giving the sermon that Sunday. Of course I didn’t make the announcement last Sunday either, and I probably would not have mentioned it at all except for the way in which today’s Epistle reading from the final section of Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia seems to me to connect to the very issues addressed in the announcement, though probably not in the way that the authors of the announcement might have envisaged.

 “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)

I actually changed my mind about the issue of gay marriage some years ago, along with my judgements concerning issues of sexuality in general, and the change for me came while I was reading Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia! I don’t remember if it was this exact passage, but if not this one it was one just like it.

The key insight that I felt unlocked Paul’s thinking for me, not only in this passage but throughout this letter and throughout so many of St Paul’s writings, was that the Apostle wasn’t really interested in circumcision as such, but rather with the bigger question that the issue of circumcision raised – namely, ‘who is welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?’

Of course, if you were to ask any church leader or any church member that question in that or in any other period in the history of the church, I suspect the answer you’d get would always be the same – namely, ‘everybody is welcome!’ – but, in truth, there is normally a fair bit of fine-print attached to that welcome. We have never really been very good in making everybody welcome.

We are pretty good at welcoming people who are just like us. This is the way we naturally work. I spend a lot of time, as you know, with members of the Muslim community, and I often wonder how we’d go if some of those dear people expressed a desire to join our church. I suspect we would be very welcoming initially but that it wouldn’t be long before someone said to one of the new members “why don’t you stop wearing that hijab now? After all, it’s a symbol of your oppression and you don’t need it!” She might respond “but I don’t see it as a symbol of oppression” to which we might respond with “well, I do!” and the battle-lines would be drawn!

Of course it might not happen exactly that way, but the truth is that we don’t find it easy to accommodate people whose dress and language and lifestyle are different from our own, especially when those points of difference are fundamental to our identities as individuals and as a group!

This was the issue for Paul – who was welcome in the church of Jesus Christ? Paul and the Apostles and the entire first-century church would all answer with one voice “everybody”, but there was regularly some fine print attached!

Joining the church meant becoming a member of the people of God – the people of Israel – and while everybody was invited to join Israel, being an Israelite meant adopting certain practises and lifestyle choices and dress-codes that marked you out as one of God’s people, and most fundamental of all it meant entering into the age-old covenant of circumcision, such that all the males in your family – young and old – would physically mark themselves in this way so as to identify themselves as members of the nation of Israel, the people of God.

It’s interesting that Paul, in this letter to the Galatians, doesn’t challenge the idea that to be a joined to the people of God means becoming an Israelite. Instead, what Paul does is to redefine Israel as a spiritual concept rather than as a nation state!

Did you pick that up in this passage? Galatians 6:16: “Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.” The ‘Israel of God’ is here redefined as an open community that includes all who ‘walk by this rule’.

Paul doesn’t disagree that we all need to be Israelites (in a sense). All who ‘walk by the rule’ are Israelites by definition! What he does challenge is that in order to be Israelites (in this new spiritual sense) we need to adopt the lifestyle and the dress-code and the practices of that ancient Biblical people. Paul came to the conclusion that all of those symbols and practices were nothing but superficial tribal markings that could be happily discarded by members of spiritual Israel who weren’t genetically connected to people of the Old Testament.

Paul’s thinking is beautifully summed up, I think, in Galatians 6:15: “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

Paul recognised that the circumcised and the uncircumcised were distinct ethnic groups, and I don’t think he really wanted to trivialise ethnic and cultural difference. Even so, what he recognised was that, in the eyes of God, those traditional symbols of ethnic identity counted for nothing!

“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” Yes, there are real and tangible things that divide us ethnically and humanly, but before God these differences count for nothing. It’s the new creation that counts, and that is something far deeper and more mysterious than circumcision or ethnicity or status or gender or, I think Paul would say, sexual orientation.

As Paul says earlier in this same letter, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

What counts is neither ethnicity nor status nor gender nor anything else. That’s not to say that each and all of these things aren’t important. Indeed, they define who we are! Even so, in the eyes of God they don’t count for much in the sense that they don’t help qualify us for membership of the people of God any more than they disqualify us. These things in themselves are irrelevant to our spiritual identity. All that matters at that level is our openness to the Spirit of God and our willingness to be transformed!

If you’ve never read the spiritual adventures of St Paul as he argues for this position of inclusiveness throughout his apostolic career, you get a lot of it right here in this letter to the Galatians.

In chapter two Paul details how we had a stand-up argument with no less a character than the Apostle Peter in Antioch because Peter had taken a compromise position with the non-Jews there. Peter had been happy to welcome the uncircumcised into the community but, according to Paul, he accepted that they should nonetheless eat separately from the Jewish members of the church, thus making them, for all events and purposes, second-class citizens (Galatians 2:11-13).

This all sounds very familiar – welcoming everyone into the church but denying certain groups full status. That’s not to say that we don’t eat with them, but we probably don’t allow them into positions of leadership. We certainly don’t consecrate any of them as our bishops!

The specific issues change – circumcision, the consecration of a bishop, a proposed change in the Marriage Act – but the basic question remains the same: ‘who is welcome in the church of Jesus Christ?’ Paul’s uncompromising response was always the same – ‘everybody!’… really, no fine-print, everybody – Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, rich and poor, male and female, straight and gay, sinner and saint, everybody!

It’s hard to be open to everybody. We are always feeling a need to put people into categories and draw lines around those who are acceptable and those who are not. And we who like to think of ourselves as being at the open-minded, liberal end of the spectrum can be just as intolerant as anyone else. Our intolerance just tends to focus on those we consider to be intolerant! We are very open-minded, except when it comes to dealing with people that we don’t see as being open-minded!

True inclusiveness is not easy, and yet it is our calling. As one spiritually mature person put it to me recently, ‘whenever we draw a line between us and them, we can be sure that the Lord Jesus is on the other side of that line’.

St Paul saw this, I believe, and he was right too when he saw that the future of the infant church depended on how they dealt with this issue. Humanly speaking at least, had Paul lost the battle for inclusiveness, we can only imagine that the church would have remained a small sect within greater Judaism, most likely to disappear completely when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in the year 67, if not before!

What kept the fire of Christ burning in the church, and what continues to keep it burning, was the radical proclamation of the Gospel, upheld by St Paul, that all people are loved by God, all are of equal value, everybody is welcome!

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

“For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15-16)

sermon delivered at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, June 2016

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