Sheep amongst Wolves – a sermon on Matthew 10:16-22

“Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles… 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

When it comes to great commissionings, I frankly prefer the one that comes at the end of the Gospel of Matthew – “Go and make disciples of all nations …, and lo, I will be with you always, even to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

That latter commissioning certainly has a far more optimistic feel to it, with no mention of wolves or floggings or betrayals or death, though I must admit that, even then, the very concept of being sent out on mission does make me feel uneasy.

Perhaps that’s because I still associate the word ‘mission’ with the missions I had to participate in while I was a seminary student at Moore College. Those missions inevitably involved a group of us going out door-knocking round the neighbourhood, and it was never a good experience!

Perhaps some people have a gift for that sort of thing. I found the whole practice of cold-calling not only thankless but frankly embarrassing. I always felt like a salesman trying to hawk a product that nobody wanted. It’s wasn’t that I was embarrassed by the Gospel, of course, but it was more the wrapping that the product came in …

In as much as we might want to share the Gospel, we inevitably do so as members of the church, and the church – let’s be honest – is often a hard-sell, and that for the most understandable of reasons. And it wasn’t just as a representative of the Moore College end of the church that I found this hard. I’ve done door-knocking here in Dulwich Hill too, and I don’t have many fond memories of that either.

Some of you may remember dear Daniel Ryan, who is still in ministry in the Northern Beaches area, and served us as our youth worker here in the late 1990’s, and did so with incredible dedication and energy. Dan had a passion for door-knocking which he never managed to pass on to me, though I did join him on at least one occasion.

We may have door-knocked together on more than one occasion but it was one particular occasion and one particular house that I remember. We were promoting our new Youth Centre at the time, rather than trying to preach the Gospel as such, which I felt a little more comfortable with, at least until Dan rang the doorbell and greeted the householder with “we’re from Holy Trinity Church. Do you have any boys living with you here?”

Those may have not been Dan’s exact words, but they were close to that. Even in the days before the Royal Commission into the abuse of children by the church, this just didn’t sound good as an opening line, and I remember urging Dan to rethink his presentation.

Mind you, even then, the householder didn’t set the dog on us. We weren’t ushered inside for coffee and homemade cookies, but neither there was there anything particularly hostile about the reception we received at that time or at any of the houses we visited in Dulwich Hill. Indeed, even as a reluctant missionary for Moore College, I don’t remember ever being subjected to violence, all of which contrasts starkly with the forecast Jesus gives to His own disciples – that they should expect to be mistreated and physically abused as a result of their door-knocking!

‘What are we doing wrong?’, I hear you say. Are we not being offensive enough?   Or are we simply living in a wonderfully tolerant society? After all, if Australians aren’t offended by missionaries from Moore College, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Maybe we aren’t taking our great commission seriously enough. If we did more door-knocking, and were more direct with people about the challenge of the Gospel, we would indeed have more dogs turned on us, and then we would know with confidence that we were functioning as true missionaries of the Gospel!

And maybe that’s not the case? Maybe (just maybe) it’s a good thing that we aren’t being betrayed, flogged, hated and killed! Maybe our mission and the mission of the twelve (as outlined in Matthew chapter ten, at least) aren’t exactly the same?

Yes, the disciples went door-knocking (or so it seems) but that may be where the resemblance to anything I’ve ever been involved in ends. For a start, Jesus was very particular in telling his representatives that they were to visit only those towns inhabited by their fellow Jews. This was an entirely ethno-specific mission.

Secondly, the message the disciples were told to share was short and sweet – ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 10:7). I’m not suggesting that this was all they were permitted to say. Even so, they certainly weren’t told to ‘go and teach the Torah’, which would have been a long-term project and might have involved setting up schools. This was a short and swift strike – a Gospel blitzkrieg of sorts.

Thirdly, their word of hope was to be accompanied by sensational acts of mercy:

  • Curing the sick
  • Raising the dead
  • Cleansing lepers
  • Casting out demons

I can imagine what a mission like this would look like, and I imagine that it would make quite an impact! Instead of greeting householders with “do you have any boys here?”, we’d ask “do you have anyone who is sick here? We are here to cure them!” And Jesus’ mandate was not simply to heal the sick but to raise the dead as well! Wouldn’t it be great to turn up at a house where they were holding a wake, walk up to the coffin, bang on the lid, and see the place erupt in to chaos as the dead rise!

The mission of the twelve is like a divine tsunami rolling through the village, transforming everything it touches! Wherever these disciples go, we hear shouting and screaming, laughing and dancing, with people running about in the middle of the night, telling their neighbours about what is going on, resulting in a tumultuous mix of joy, fear and chaos! It is little wonder that this sort of activity attracted the attention of the authorities – both religious and secular– and that they didn’t like what they saw.

The mission of the twelve was unique and, in truth, doesn’t bear much resemblance to anything I’ve been involved in. Even so, we too have been commissioned to preach the Gospel and to confront evil. Shouldn’t we expect opposition and abuse?

Of course, we at Holy Trinity have received abuse. As regards the aforementioned work of our youth centre, for instance, we had a history of opposition.

Over the twenty-something years that we ran our youth drop-in, we had numerous people trying to shut us down and one even threaten to blow us up, until eventually one of our disgruntled clients burnt our centre to the ground, as we all well know! Should we see this a sure indication that we were faithful, or were we unlucky?

Similar questions could be raised about our peace work. As you know, I’ve been to Syria six times in the last four years, and numerous parishioners have come with me. We have received zero persecution for that work.

I’m not saying that we didn’t receive some harassment from the authorities, at least initially. The first couple of times I returned to this country, I spent some hours with custom officials who went through the pictures on my phone and the files on my computer, looking for something suspicious. The last time I returned though I was greeted at the baggage area by a woman in uniform who asked me “have you just returned from Syria?” to which I cautiously replied “yes”. She then asked with a smile “and did you do any boxing this time?”

Initially, we were being interrogated. Now we seem have the full support of the authorities. From a New Testament point of view, is this a good or a bad sign?

After much contemplation on the Scriptures, and after much soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that if we are getting worked up over whether we are suffering enough, we have a problem.

I’m not being flippant here. This has been a problem for the church historically. Certainly, in the early centuries of the Christian era – in the days of the martyrs – there were critics of the church who believed that some Christians were chasing martyrdom as a way of identifying with Christ and ensuring their own salvation!

Certainly, there’s also a strong current of thought that suggests that the growth of the monastic movement in the years after the church became the official religion of the Empire was fuelled by a desire on the part of many of the faithful to seek a living martyrdom now that the old path to official persecution had been closed!

In as much as that might sound very alien to us 21st century Australians who are part of the me-generation, ever-obsessed with finding new forms of pleasure and sensory gratification, I appreciate too that it is easy for the church to slide into the opposite camp – upholding the importance of hard work, discipline and sacrifice –because these bear a greater resemblance to the true marks of discipleship.

As I say, I’ve come to the conclusion that worrying about whether we are having a hard enough time is a false path, and I want to suggest that we should be less focused on what results from our discipleship than on what drives it, and I find inspiration in that regard from this very passage in Matthew’s Gospel!

I read to you already the opening lines of Jesus’ commissioning – “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16) – but it’s important to see this commissioning of the disciples in the context in which Matthew frames it. It is depicted as an extension of Jesus’ own ministry.

This mission of the twelve is introduced in Matthew chapter nine with reference to the ministry of Jesus – “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 9:35).

Notably, this is almost a word-for-word repetition of what Matthew said Jesus was doing at the beginning of his ministry, five chapters earlier (Matthew 4:23). These two verses form bookends (of sorts) containing the ministry of Jesus in between,  and it’s from the point of this second book-end forward that the work of ministry starts to be handed over to the disciples.

The other important thing to draw attention to here is that the driving force behind the ministry and mission of Jesus is made quite explicit by the Gospel writer:

“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:26)

Jesus had compassion on these people because they were without direction, and it is this compassion that leads Him to say, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)

This is what is driving the mission of both Jesus and His disciples that we read of in Matthew’s gospel – compassion – and this is what needs to drive us to mission too. Whether the end-point of our mission is suffering, hardship, floggings, betrayals and burning buildings, or whether we get lucky, is less important than what drives us!  We can’t determine the end-point, but we must be clear about our starting-point!

Later this year I plan to go back to Syria, and I hope to take another team with me. That’s all scheduled to take place at Halloween (late October to early November) which may sound ominous to some.

This time I hope to take with me a combination of delegates from Boxers for Peace and Artists for Peace, along with a contingent of the non-artistic and less pugilisticly inclined Parishioners of Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill for Peace, and perhaps I’ll launch our mission with a pep talk similar to the one Jesus gave: “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.”

I won’t be forecasting abductions, floggings and betrayals, of course, though I won’t be able to guarantee that the mission will be completely without danger either. We can though leave that up to God, and focus instead on building ourselves up in love for the people we wish to serve.

In the end, we have no choice but to leave it to God to determine how our mission concludes. We can, I believe, trust God that we will receive from Him whatever strength we need to endure to the end, and so can trust that our individual stories will end well. Let us not be concerned about that, but focus instead on our starting point – on allowing the Spirit of Jesus to fill us with His compassion, knowing that in the strength of that compassion we can embrace whatever destiny lies before us.

preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on June 18th, 2017

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A sermon for Trinity Sunday 2017

It’s Trinity Sunday, and as we are the Church of the Holy Trinity (Dulwich Hill) that makes today something like a patronal festival. It’s the closest we get, at any rate!

I appreciate that it’s an odd sort of patronal festival, as a patron saint is generally a person upon we can look to as a role model, and the Trinity is not a person at all (in any normal sense), but a concept, and a notoriously difficult concept, and it’s hard to know how you’re supposed to model yourself on a concept, particularly this one!

Even so, those who’ve known me for any length of time know that I’m a big fan of the doctrine of the Trinity, and indeed that, by extension, I have a deep love of the Athanasian Creed, that is the church’s most detailed exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity – a love that is not shared by everybody in our congregation.

“And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.”

And so the creed goes on – and on and on, some people would say – spelling out the doctrine of the Trinity in great detail, and indeed, many of us do prefer Dorothy Sayer’s abbreviated version of the creed: “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible!”

At the heart of all this Byzantine complexity though is a straightforward statement of faith – that the historic person, Jesus of Nazareth, is God – and while that’s simple to say, it’s not easy to understand, as we normally define God as being something that we are not, and hence the church has had to develop some special (and frustratingly complicated) formulas to try to bring these two opposing concepts together.

When I’ve preached on the doctrine of the Trinity in the past, I’ve focused on the doctrine as a philosophical problem, and I guess that’s been largely because of my background. Philosophy was my first love. It was the focus of my first university degree, and sometimes I still daydream about going back to University and doing a doctorate in philosophy – perhaps even one focused on the doctrine of the Trinity!

What I find fascinating about the doctrine of the Trinity from a philosophical point of view, is not simply that it presents an interesting challenge to traditional logic, but more so that those who formulated the doctrine recognised that in order to speak truly about God, they needed to move beyond the language of traditional logic. They broke away from the old formulas for the sake of truth, as they perceived it!

As I say, I have a background in philosophy, and perhaps I have a future in it. Even so, over the last few years, almost all the discussions I’ve had about the doctrine of the Trinity (and there have been a number of them) have taken place in an entirely different context. They’ve been a part of my dialogue with Muslim people!

As I say, the doctrine of the Trinity holds a special place in the history of human thought in the way it attempts to bring together concepts that seem to be logically incompatible. It also holds a special place in the history of inter-faith relationships, as it’s the doctrine of the Trinity that is the main bone of contention between Christians, on the one hand, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Muslims on the other!

When I was in Iran last year I had a very heartfelt discussion with my dear friend, Sheikh Mansour, and I asked him how he thought we might build better relations between the Christian and Muslim communities. He said (though I’m not quoting him) that if we could just get over the doctrine of the Trinity, that would help a lot!

Mansour also shared a story with me about some Christian friends of his who had pleaded with him to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to them. They were Christians, and Mansour said he wasn’t suggesting to them that they should change their faith. Even so, he just had no way of explaining to them this doctrine when he (like Dorothy Sayers) found the whole thing incomprehensible!

I had, of course, referred the Sheikh to my aforementioned sermons on the Trinity, including my 2014 offering – “Does God really have a penis?” – which he found  unsatisfactory (predictably perhaps), and it did occur to me that this sermon and its predecessors really only made sense to people who took Jesus as the starting point of their religious thinking, as I do (and as Athanasius and those who developed the doctrine of the Trinity did). It occurred to me then that an equally good case could be made for the doctrine of the Trinity by looking at it from a Biblical-narrative perspective, rather than from a philosophical one.

If that sounds confusing, my point is that there’s more than one way to the doctrine of the Trinity. The belief that Jesus is God is not just a conclusion that ancient theologians reached after much philosophical wrangling. It is also the inevitable climax of the great Biblical drama when seen as a connected story from the books of Genesis to Revelation.

I thought that might be a better way to present the case for the Trinity to my friend, Sheikh Mansour, since Muslims, as well as Christians, take both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament very seriously. And so, for the bulk of my remaining time today, I want to share with you the letter I wrote to Sheikh Mansour in January of this year, making the case for the doctrine of the Trinity.

In doing so, I am aware of an obvious problem – namely, that the letter was designed to be read rather than listened to, and I appreciate that the written word and the spoken word are two very distinct forms of communication. Indeed, it may require of you a special level of concentration to stay with me while I read this to you. Humorous anecdotes and personal yarns, designed to hold your attention, are conspicuously absent in what follows. Even so …

My dear brother [Mansour],

As mentioned in my previous email, I want to try to take up again the conversation we were having when we last spoke, as I feel it was left very much unresolved.

You questioned me very sincerely about the apparently irrational Christian belief in the Trinity and the identification of Jesus with God. I was conscious when I left you that my response (which was along the lines of ‘perhaps God is more mysterious than we think’) was not remotely satisfying to you.

I have reflected on this matter much since, and I thought I might be able to come back to you now with a more helpful response. I offer you this response, not to convince you of the Christian position, but to help you see how sensible people can arrive at this conclusion despite the obvious conceptual difficulties.

The starting point, I believe, in appreciating the different understandings of God embodied in Islam and Christianity is to recognise that the Qur’an and the Christian Bible are very different sorts of books. They don’t simply teach different things about God. They are different sorts of literature.

What I mean is that Qur’an, as I read it, is fundamentally a book of truths and laws, whereas the Christian Bible is basically a story. By this I don’t mean only that the Christian Bible contains stories (as the Qur’an does too). I mean that the Bible as a whole can be read as a single narrative – one that starts in a garden and ends in a city. I do not think you would say the same about the Qur’an.

To my understanding, conveying truth through narrative was the norm for the ancient Semitic people (as in many other traditional cultures). Presenting truth by the way of abstract propositions is more the legacy of Greek philosophy.

Muhammed (peace be upon him) lived in the 6th and 7th centuries of the Christian era – a period when the Greek philosophical framework dominated the intellectual world. Notably the great Councils of the church, such as Nicea and Constantinople, took place in this same intellectual climate. The struggle in these councils, I believe, was to try to fit the truth of the Christian Bible – conveyed in narrative form – into a Greek philosophical framework so that contemporary people could make sense of it. The doctrine of the Trinity was one result of this process.

In truth, turning the Biblical story into an abstract concept was never going to be a seamless process, and so the doctrine of the Trinity never sits very comfortably as a piece of logic. Even so, to my understanding, it was the best that we could come up with, and if it appears to fail in terms of its logic, it does so in order to remain true to the story from which it emerges.

I will not discuss the Trinity further here as a doctrine, but instead want to give you a summary of the story that lies behind it.

In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth … and it was all very good! (Genesis 1)

This is the starting point of the Biblical story where all of creation lives in harmony. In particular, God and humanity are seen as living together happily, with God depicted as walking through the Garden of Eden, enjoying the cool of the day, as He talks to Adam (Genesis 3:8). We might ask how this depiction of God is sensible if God is almighty and invisible, but this does not seem to be a problem to the story-teller. Of greater concern is the way the good relationship between God and humanity breaks down through the eating of the forbidden fruit, resulting in the familiar story of humanity’s expulsion from the garden.

The Eden tragedy is followed in Genesis chapters 1 to 11 by a series of further tragic stories, such as Noah and the flood, culminating in the chaos of the Tower of Babel. It seems at this point of the story that there is no hope for bringing God and humanity back together, but then there is a promise given to Abram in Genesis 12: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”.

This promise – normally referred to as the ‘covenant with Abraham’ – forms the beginning of a new plot line in the story. It introduces a new hope for humanity – that through Abraham and his descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. In other words, the hope is that through Abraham and his offspring, the tragic breakdown in relationship between God and humanity will be healed, and God and human beings will be brought back together again to live together in harmony once more! The rest of the Christian Bible – both Old and New Testaments – is the playing out of this plot line.

The promise to Abraham is in fact a three-fold promise:

  • The promise of a great nation
  • The promise of a land
  • The promise that these people will be a blessing

We can see how the first part of the promise is already fulfilled by the time we reach the second book in the Bible – the Book of Exodus – where the descendants of Abraham (the ‘children of Israel’) are numerous indeed. They have no land though, being captives in Egypt, and are not by this stage doing anything to bring God and humanity back together.

The story of Exodus tells how the people are liberated from slavery and move towards their land. Notably though, the primary purpose of their liberation, according to the Book of Exodus, was so that God and humanity might live together again: “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 19:46)

The exodus, of course, didn’t go as well as Moses had hoped, and we don’t see there any return to the natural and happy relationship humanity enjoyed with God in the Garden of Eden. We do see though see indications of God’s presence in a fire and a cloud (Exodus 13:21-22), and then most especially in the Tabernacle (see Exodus 40:34-38).

The Tabernacle was a tent that housed the ark of the covenant, containing the stone tablets upon which the ten commandments were written. Like the temple of Solomon that eventually succeeded it (1 Kings 8:4-14), it was the place where God was supposed to be especially present, but it was hardly the fulfillment of the original promise to Abraham. And so the people continued to wait for that promise to be fulfilled – for God to return in His fullness – a hope that the prophets promised would one day be fulfilled.

“I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Leviticus 26:11-12)

“My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Ezekiel 37:27)

“Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” declares the LORD.” (Zechariah 2:10)

Sadly, as we progress through the Hebrew Bible, we don’t see these hopes approaching realisation. On the contrary, the behaviour of the people of Israel continues to degenerate to the point where the God removes His presence from the people altogether! Ezekiel spells this out in a lengthy vision (Ezekiel, chapters 9 to 11) where the Spirit of God ups and leaves the temple!

As the Hebrew Bible closes, there is apparently no presence of God any more in Israel, and the hopes of a restored relationship between God and humanity seem as distant as ever! This though is where the Christian New Testament begins. It claims that Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient hope – that, in Jesus, God is returning to His people.

In the opening verses of the New Testament (Matthew chapter 1) we see a long (and seemingly tedious) list of Jesus’ ancestors. The point is to link Jesus back both to David and to Abraham. Jesus is being depicted as the promised offspring of Abraham who will bring God and humanity back together.

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is introduced through John the Baptist:

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)

John the Baptist is depicted as the messenger who ‘prepares the way’ for the return of God to His people. He then designates Jesus as the one he was preparing the way for.

In John’s Gospel, the author comes straight to the point

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

The phrase translated here as ‘lived among us’ is literally, ‘tabernacled amongst us’. In other words, Jesus is seen as the presence of God returning!

Rather than spell out any further how the Gospel writers see Jesus as fulfilling the ancient hope for God’s return, let me skip to the very end of the New Testament, where we find the image of the tabernacle again.

“And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God!” Revelation 21:3

This is how the Bible concludes – with the ancient hope of a restored relationship between God and humanity being completely fulfilled. God is again dwelling with His people, and Jesus is at centre stage!

Now … it is within this broad story that the church developed its doctrine regarding the identity of Jesus. He wasn’t simply a messenger with a message. He was the fulfillment of the hope of God’s return to His people – a hope rooted in the ancient covenant with Abraham.

As I say, when we try to take this story and try to squeeze it into an abstract philosophical framework, we have problems. We end up arguing over the minutiae of particular texts and sayings and trying to balance them against each other. The original story is often lost in the process and the formulas that are generated can end up looking both arbitrary and irrational. Even so, the Christian faith should not (in my view) be founded on these abstract doctrines. Faith should be grounded in the great Biblical story that gives birth to these doctrines, and in the hope that this story gives us.

I hope you find this helpful, my dear brother.

Dave x

And I hope you find this helpful too.

I don’t suggest for a moment that approaching the doctrine of the Trinity this way makes the whole thing less incomprehensible. It may though help us appreciate why our fathers and mothers in the faith decided to stick with the incomprehensible, rather than dumb things down to fit everything into a culturally acceptable philosophical framework that didn’t do justice to the great Biblical narrative.

I appreciate that the doctrine of the Trinity is a stumbling-block between Christians and Muslims, as it is between Christians and Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other communities who do not accept the conclusions of the early Christian councils. Personally though, I believe that the best way to build relations between the different faith communities isn’t to ask anybody to dilute their doctrines. We just need to learn to love one another, despite our dogmatic differences!

I believe that our fathers and mothers in the faith understood that the God who comes to us through the pages of the Bible is ultimately a mystery, and the doctrine of the Trinity was their attempt to preserve that mystery for us in a way that was true to the Scriptures. The God they testified to, who is both three in one and one in three, may not be intellectually comfortable, but is the one who we recognise in Scripture and in all of life, and who is worthy of our service and worship.

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal … And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.

sermon preached at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on June 11th, 2017

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Embrace the Chaos – Pentecost 2017

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)

It’s good to be back with you after five weeks of long-service leave, though I must admit that I have enjoyed my leave. It’s not that I’ve had a holiday, though I do feel rested. I haven’t been any less busy over the last five weeks, but I have been busy on less things (if that makes sense). I went from having 50 balls in the air to having five. It’s just that each of those five became ten times heavier.

I’ve been concentrating on managing my bush-camp, and on writing my book, and on my fight club, family and fitness, which was great, as I struggle to maintain focus on too many things at the same time. Conversely, as I’ve started to shoulder my parish responsibilities again over the last week, I find myself struggling with an enveloping sense of chaos!

I’m not good with chaos. That might surprise you, especially if you’ve ever been stayed with my family for any length of time. You could be forgiven for assuming that chaos has always been the comfortable norm in our household, but if you look more closely you’ll find that the areas of the house that are under the direct control of myself and my son tend to be relatively tightly ordered!

I see it is as an issue of left-brain/right-brain dominance.  I think I’m right in saying that it’s thought to be the left-hemisphere-dominant people who are logical and mechanically-minded, and who like to have all their pencils arranged in neat rows, while it’s the right-brain dominant people who are the artists and creative geniuses of this world. My son and I are two mechanics living in a household full of artists!

I don’t mean this as an attack on the women of my household either, as I think God may be right-brain dominant too. That’s certainly the impression I’m left with, at any rate, when I look at the way things were organised on the Day of Pentecost, if indeed ‘organised’ is the appropriate word for an event that was characterized by chaos!

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.” (Acts 2:1-3)

It’s not obvious to me exactly what is going on there. We’re told that there was the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Was that sound accompanied by the actual sensation of a mighty rushing wind, blowing everything over perhaps, and maybe even knocking some of the disciples off their feet? Perhaps it was just the sound with no accompanying physical sensations, which would at least explain how the tongues of fire don’t get blown out (whatever a tongue of fire is supposed to be)?

However we envisage those opening moments of the drama, what is clear is that everything degenerated into chaos very quickly, as the disciples were suddenly all “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:4)

I appreciate that this was a great miracle, and that it involved all the onlookers there, who were gathered from every corner of the globe, somehow being able to hear these men proclaim the mighty deeds of God in their own native language. Even so, it must have been a scene of absolute mayhem!

  • People of many language-groups understood what the Apostles were saying, but it’s not clear whether the Apostles understood what they were saying.
  • Whether or not the Apostles were able to establish real dialogue with their hearers, there’s no suggestion that the representatives of the various language groups were any better able to communicate with each other!
  • While the miracle of tongues apparently resulted in about 3,000 people joining the church that day, there’s no indication that the miracle was still happening the next day when all those foreign converts showed up for worship! How was it all going to work in the long term?

Of course, I probably only ask these questions because I’m the left-brain-dominant type whose first order of business would be to form a Parish Council out of this group and get them organised, but this is why I say that maybe God is right-brain dominant!

The wind, the fire, the gift of tongues – it all makes for great staging, but what’s the point if it all leads to chaos and confusion?

I suppose the trick here is not to miss the forest for the trees. If we step back from the chaos and confusion of the day we can see that a new community – the church – was being formed in the middle of all that confusion.

It’s a bit like a boxing match. For those who have never been inside the ring as a competitor, I can assure you that it’s an entirely different experience for the competitor than it is for the onlooker. When you’re inside the ring exchanging blows, everything is a whirl! It’s absolute mayhem and you function by pure instinct. Time seems to slow down, and you don’t feel the pain until it’s all over, at which point you regularly can’t remember what happened.

The bottom line is that the person looking on from a distance not only sees things differently but regularly seems them far better, and has a far better idea of what is really going on, which is why it’s so important for a boxer to listen to his corner team.

In the case of Pentecost, the most obvious explanation for what was going on that day was that the Apostles were drunk. Indeed, according to the text, Peter only manages to convince the crowd that he is not drunk by pointing out that it was clearly too early in the day for him to be tanked (Acts 2:15)!

We can take this defence as a tacit admission of the fact that the behaviour of the disciples was indeed loud and irrational and chaotic – all the things that I find difficult to deal with, being a left-bring-dominant personality. As I say though, when we step back, we begin to see a bigger picture.

The bigger picture is the birth of the church. That’s clear enough when you step back from Acts chapter 2 and see it in the context of the broader book of Acts. If you step even further back though, you get to see an even bigger picture, though that requires stepping all the way back and seeing this incident in the context of the great Biblical narrative that stretches all the way back to the book of Genesis!

“In the beginning”, Genesis says, “God created the Heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and that ancient creation story depicts God as one who brings order out of chaos. Interestingly, once things start to degenerate and Adam and Eve leave the garden, God seems to start sewing chaos back into the order of the world, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the story of the Tower of Babel.

If you don’t know the story, read it for yourself in Genesis chapter eleven. It’s a story of the all-too-familiar human lust for power. Human beings band together to try to show the world what they are capable of! They set out to build a great city and a great tower as a monument to their own greatness. They say:

“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:5)

The judgement that falls upon these people is that they start to babble, and hence the name that the tower is remembered by. The people are divided into different language groups, never again to unite in common purpose.

The curse of Babel is designed to place a limit on human power by limiting our ability to understand each other. It’s an effective curse but, at the same time, it’s a terrible curse, as it impedes the development of human community, and so the great Biblical narrative points to a time when a descendent of Abraham will one day come and reverse that curse, and when true human community will again become a possibility.

This is the great meta-narrative that lies behind the Pentecost story, but you have to step a long way back to see it. When you do, you realise that Pentecost isn’t just the story of the foundation of the church, or, at least, it isn’t just the story of the establishment of the church as another religious institution. It’s the story of God reversing the curse of Babel and recovering the possibility of a truly inclusive multi-racial human community!

Just as the ancient curse drove people apart and divided them into different ethnic groups and language groups, so, through His church, God is going to draw people back together. But it all begins with babbling – with the disciples babbling like drunks!

Moreover, what bothers me more is that when the next day dawns (the day after Pentecost) the babbling and drunken behaviour might have stopped, but, so far as I can see, so had the miracles. Those who could miraculously understand each other the day before, were now struggling to make sense of each other again! What do you do now? My guess is that they started language classes.

This looks like the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy at work again, where the right-brain-dominant/creative people come in and start something really dynamic, but then it falls to the left-brain-dominant folk to form committees and to set up budgets and do all the boring things that are needed to keep the creative things happening.

Obviously the church survived, despite what must have been a rough start, and I suspect that this was because we found the right combination of left-brain and right-brain-dominant people to help push things forward together.

I’m tempted to conclude this sermon by admonishing all the creative trail-blazers in our midst that ‘you can’t go off saving the world until you’ve set up a budget and thought through all the things that could go wrong and have all your contingency plans in place’.

In truth though, if there’s an admonition arising out of today’s text, it’s to us left-brain-dominant people who look for order and stability and who expect all the numbers to add up! God doesn’t work that way! God has never worked that way, and I see zero indication that God is ever going to change His modus operandi!

God works through babbling and confusion, through apparently drunken, rowdy behaviour, in ways that are confusing and often chaotic. Embrace the chaos!

Many of you have heard before the response I always give someone when they ask me why we serve wine instead of grape-juice at Communion. It’s a response I borrowed from Bishop Will Willimon, but it’s a good one:

Grape juice is a refreshing, if somewhat insipid, thirst-quencher on a hot day. Wine, on the other hand, is volatile stuff. It changes the way we speak and act. Some of us start getting amorous, passions flare, fights break out! Which one sounds more like the Gospel to you?

Embrace the chaos! Embrace the passion! Embrace the Holy Spirit of God whenever She draws near, for, as he writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, “our God is a consuming fire!” (Hebrews 12:29)

sermon preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on June 4th 2017

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Jesus vs. the Mother of all Bombs! (a sermon for Easter Day)

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised.” (Matthew 28:5-6a)

I don’t know what things have been weighing on your mind over the last week, and I don’t mean to belittle anybody whose mind has been primarily on the mortgage. Even so, I can’t imagine that any of us missed what happened on Good Friday (our time), and I’m not talking about our wonderful worship service at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, but about the ‘Mother of all Bombs’ that was dropped on Afghanistan.

Just in case you did miss it, the bomb (dropped by the US air force) weighed about 10,000 kilograms and had an explosive force the equivalent of 11 tons of TNT, giving it a kill radius of around a mile (or 1.6 km). This means that everything within 1.6 kilometres in every direction from the point of impact should have been killed – not just human beings of course, but animals and (I imagine) plant life as well!

The goal though was to kill ISIS-affiliated militants who were hiding underground, and I don’t know whether the kill radius descended to a mile underground but there was a fair degree of satisfaction expressed by the US military as they estimated that as many as 36 targeted people had indeed been killed by the blast (presumably taken unawares as they slept in their underground beds)!

I am no fan of Islamic State, of course, and will indeed be happy to see their entire organisation wound up, and yet I found the news of the deployment of this weapon of mass destruction deeply disturbing. I’m not sure if it’s just the immense killing power of this weapon that so bothers me (apparently the most deadly non-nuclear weapon ever to have been deployed) or whether it was Donald Trump saying that he was “proud” of the bomb, or whether perhaps it was just that it happened on Good Friday, our time (though I appreciate that it happened on Thursday evening, US time, and that may have been deliberate).

The bottom line for me is that Good Friday for me is the day on which we remember the way that God confronts evil in our world, and it’s not by dropping bombs on it!

Now you’ll have to forgive me if this sounds like a rather dour introduction to a sermon that you might expect would be focused on resurrection and new life. Even so, the joys of Easter Day only make sense, biblically speaking, in the context of the horrors of Good Friday, and so it seems highly appropriate to me that we celebrate new life and hope today in the shadow (so to speak) of the mother of all bombs!

Mind you, I must add that one of the most attractive things about the ‘mother of all bombs’ is that it is so economical from a military perspective! At the cost of only $170,000 USD per mother, you can drop nearly five of these for the cost of every one Tomahawk missile (approx. $832,000 USD each), 59 of which were fired at the Syrian airport last week, and when you consider ‘the mother’ might have killed as many as thirty-six unwanted people (in addition to God-knows-how-many plants and animals) as opposed to the Tomahawks, that only killed around a dozen people (and mainly civilians), that’s almost a 1000-to-1 improvement in kill-rate per dollar! BAM!

Of course there are other economic factors that need to be taken into account in any serious analysis of issues like this, including how many more disenchanted young men are likely to sign up to fight ‘The Empire’ on account of this bombing, and hence how much ISIS is saving itself in recruitments costs, and of course, we might also need to factor in some economic value for the lives of those who have been killed, along with the costs associated with not providing dignity, food and shelter to the world’s hungry with the money that was spent on bombs – all of which reminds us that what we are dealing with here is not primarily an economic issue at all, any more than it’s primarily an issue of military science. We are dealing here with human issues, and all attempts to reduce such human issues to purely economic or military or political problems is itself a part of the problem, and a clear manifestation of what the Bible consistently refers to as ‘evil’.

Evil takes a lot of different forms in our world, and I appreciate that it can be difficult to define. Even so, dealing with human beings in purely economic or military or mathematical terms is a clear form of evil, just as the mother of all bombs itself seems to me to be a clear manifestation of human evil.

I’ve just finished reading a book about evil, called “Evil and the Justice of God”, where Tom Wright discusses what he refers to as the ‘new problem of evil’.

Evil is not itself a new problem, of course, but in the good old days, the ‘problem of evil’ was something that used to dealt with through philosophical debate. Then we went through a period when evil was done away with completely (in the university curriculum at least) as all human failing could be explained away as being the result of economic hardship, bad role-modelling, or even poor toilet-training! More recently, Wright says, evil has been rediscovered as a four-letter word. The only difference is that now we try to solve the problem of evil politically rather than philosophically!

Most of us remember George Bush Jr. talking about the ‘axis of evil’ in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers. Tony Blair went further by suggesting that we could ‘rid the world of evil’ through the waging of righteous warfare! Fifteen years on, I think we can look back and say with some degree of confidence that this response to evil has not worked very well. Despite (what appear to be) the best efforts of our political leaders to rid the world of evil, the world today is, quite frankly, a much scarier place than it was back then, and indeed, you don’t have to travel to Iraq, to Libya, to Afghanistan or to Syria to see that evil today is doing just fine!

I don’t want to suggest either that evil is something restricted to failed states and to battlefields. On the contrary, I’m reminded of the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, when he returned to mother Russia in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and after many years in exile, went across the country paying his respects to everybody he met, including many who had been officials in the Soviet system that had once imprisoned and persecuted him. Many were critical of the way the great novelist fraternized with these bad people, but Solzhenitsyn had a deeper understanding of human nature.

To quote from his famous ‘Gulag Archipelago’: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)

Forgive me if that sounds like a predictably religious thing to say – that we must beware the evil in our own hearts and not of just political evils – but the reality of ‘original sin’, as it’s referred to in traditional Christian dogma, is, I believe, as relevant to politics and society as the realities of social and political evil are to religion.

As one of my favourite political commentators, Chris Hedges, said (in ‘I don’t believe in Atheists’), “We have nothing to fear from those who do, or do not, believe in God. We have much to fear from those who don’t believe in sin.” As Hedges sees it, it is those who don’t believe in sin (be they religious or otherwise) who end up supporting genocidal ideologies, believing that all that is required for a just and peaceful society to triumph is for the maladjusted or undeveloped or otherwise deficient members of the community be exterminated.

As I say, I apologise if this is not the all-things-bright-and-beautiful theme that you were expecting on Easter Day – the mother of all Christian celebrations – but I do believe that to fully appreciate the wonder of the Easter miracle and all that it meant to the early church and all that it can mean to us, we need to see it against the backdrop of Good Friday – against the backdrop of the suffering and death of Jesus, who dies as the representative of a suffering and oppressed people.

What the first disciples discovered when they came to the empty tomb was not just that a great miracle had taken place (though indeed a great miracle had taken place) and not just that their beloved teacher who had been cruelly taken from them had been returned to them (though indeed He had been). What they saw in the cross and resurrection of Jesus was the triumph of God over evil, and over all forms of evil (personal, social, political and religious)! The early church believed that in Christ God had defeated evil, once and for all, in all its many insidious manifestations, and that God had done this without dropping a single bomb!

God’s way of dealing with evil is very different from the way that we deal with evil. We seem to think that we can destroy evil through inflicting violence on it. God’s way of dealing with evil seems to run in exactly the opposite direction. God deals with evil by suffering it!

I appreciate that, intuitively, this probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to most of us, and maybe that’s why we persist with the other approach – with trying to stop evil by dropping bombs on it.

I appreciate too, of course, that Jesus’ suffering on the cross is unique, and is seen in the Scriptures as a one-off event that deals with sin metaphysically and historically in a way that we cannot do and are not expected to do. Even so, the New Testament is quite explicit in urging all of us who follow Jesus to imitate Him in the way He responded to violence – by suffering it, rather than by mindlessly hitting back!

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his footsteps.

“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:21-23)

This exhortation is found in the first letter of the Apostle Peter – a man who was in no way naïve about the realities of human suffering, and who would himself suffer a violent death, following in the footsteps of his master quite literally in that regard!

John Howard Yoder, in his classic work, “The Politics of Jesus”, points out that this is, in fact, the only example in the New Testament where any of the Apostles actually point to the lifestyle of Jesus as a pattern for us to emulate!

Jesus had twelve disciples, yet it’s never suggested that any of us should take on twelve disciples. Jesus did not marry, and yet this is never referred to as a reason why we should not marry. In truth, the lifestyle and habits of Jesus are never held up to us as examples to emulate at all, except at this one point! We are to imitate Him in the way he responded to violence – by suffering it rather than by hitting back!

I don’t want to suggest that there are not more things that could be said here in favour of the occasional use of force in the face of unjust aggression, and I’m not suggesting that on the basis of Peter’s exhortation alone that we should all become committed pacifists. Even so, I think it is undeniable that there is a great and unbridgeable gulf between the spirituality of the New Testament and any inclination we might have to take pride in the dropping of the mother of all bombs.

Christ on the cross defeated evil. Yes, it’s hard to fathom just how that worked! Unfortunately perhaps, instead of leaving us with a clear explanation that would help us logically make sense of all that, what Jesus left us with was a meal. Even so, it is the insistent and persistent claim of the New Testament that evil was defeated in the cross of Christ some 2000 years ago, and that it’s now only a matter of time before the Kingdom of God comes in its fulness!

The resurrection of Jesus gives us a glimpse of that future glory – of a world without corruption and pain, where every tear will be wiped away!

In the meantime, we wait, and we try to follow Him in the way of the cross!

I’m told that it was not hard for first century people to understand that there was always a gap between when a general won his decisive battle and when you saw his standards finally appear in your own town. The mopping up operation could be quite drawn-out. Pockets of resistance to the new Lord’s rule could persist for some time! Even so, in this age of instant gratification I do find myself wondering how much longer this mopping up operation will take, as evil certainly gives the appearance of being alive and well in our world today!

Indeed, I read yesterday that Russia has a bomb that it claims is four times bigger than the mother of all bombs that was dropped on Afghanistan. It’s been labelled … (you guessed it) … ‘the father of all bombs’! Russian staff Deputy Chief General, Alexander Rukshin, said, in describing the bomb, “all that is alive merely evaporates.”

We choose to serve a different God! We choose to take on evil in a different way! We choose to put our hope and trust, not in the mother or father of all bombs, but in the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to save us. Jesus, the prince of peace! Hallelujah!

Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Easter Day 2017

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Jesus works the crowd (a Palm Sunday sermon)

(apologies for the bad quality in the early part of this video. It gets better)

“A crowd – not this crowd or that crowd, the crowd now living or the crowd long dead, a crowd of lowly or of nobles, or rich or of poor, etc., but simply a crowd, in its very concept, is the untruth” Kierkegaard (The Crowd)

It’s one of my favourite quotes from Kierkegaard – a man who left us with so many memorable snippets of wisdom. It’s one that came to mind though as I read through the Palm Sunday story again this week, and it then struck me with even more force when I reflected on it in the light of the events of the last couple of days!

“World War III may have just started. Damn you, Donald Trump.”

That was my Tweet of Friday morning, as I tried to deal with the horror of what had just happened – the American missile strike on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat.

Plenty of people suggested, in response, that I was over-dramatizing the situation and that the US had not even declared war on Syria, and perhaps that’s correct. They have troops in Syria, and they are destroying Syrian airbases, and targeting and killing Syrian soldiers, so I’m not sure what more you need to do to declare war on a country but perhaps that’s correct nonetheless.

I don’t doubt that if it were the other way around – that were the Syrian army in America, blowing up airfields and killing Americans – that it would be taken as an act of war, but perhaps when America does it to other countries it’s just a matter of good housekeeping or something like that. The point, at any rate, is that people like the US President can only do this sort of thing with the support of the crowd, and in this case, he certainly got it!

At home the American President’s popularity shot up, and around the world scores of sycophantic political lackeys (including our own PM) hooted and applauded the fact that the big man had finally done what needed to be done, and this despite the fact that his action was unambiguously illegal under international law, and that he didn’t even have the approval of his own Congress, let alone that of the United Nations.

After all, he was acting in support of the ‘beautiful babies’ of Syria, even if this meant killing the fathers of other beautiful Syrian babies – men who themselves are fighting to protect their families from Islamic State and other Jihadist groups – groups who, of course, have joined the crowd hooting support for this benign military initiative.

Now you might be forgiven for wondering what the connection is between this contemporary pack of wolves, baying for blood (as I depict them), and the group of apparently pious supporters who come out to sing psalms of praise to Jesus and to wave palms and to celebrate as He enters Jerusalem as the city’s saviour Messiah. You might wonder what the connection is, at least, until you realise that it’s the largely same group who laud him as king on the Sunday who call for his crucifixion five days later.

This sounds ridiculous, and yet this is exactly how crowds work!

‘Deindividuation’ is what psychologists call it. I still remember being fascinated when I studied this at university many years ago as part of a social psychology course.

It’s group behaviour, and, in truth, people do things in groups that they would never think of doing as individuals! The lynch mob is an archetypal example of the way this works. Normally gentle people will commit the most ghastly atrocities when they are a part of a mob, just as persons who never act outrageously will do the most extraordinary things when they feel they have the crowd behind them!

Kierkegaard believed that the reason for this extraordinary group behaviour is because responsibility is divided between the group. That is, when we act in a group, we sense that we only bear a fraction of the responsibility for the group’s actions. If I kill someone and act alone, I am solely responsible for that person’s death, but when I lynch someone with the help of a hundred other people, I only bear a tiny bit of responsibility (a one in one hundred share), barely worth considering!

“There is a view of life”, says Kierkegaard, “which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side. There is another view of life which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that ‘the crowd’ received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in!”

You can’t trust the crowd – that’s the bottom line – as it is, by its very nature, irresponsible! Why then, we have to ask, does Jesus not only work with the crowd on that great day we refer to as Palm Sunday, but actually works the crowd?

That Jesus does so, according to the Gospels, is undeniable. In each of the accounts we have it is clear that Jesus Himself makes preparations for his entry into Jerusalem, and that He deliberately stages the event in such as way as to have maximum effect on the masses!

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” (Matthew 21:1-3)

Jesus seems to have made these arrangements Himself, and the choice of the animals was very deliberate as the symbolism would have been clear to ever good Jew who witnessed the event.

“This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”” (Matthew 21:4-5)

There is no ambiguity about Jesus’ actions. He wants the crowds to recognise Him as Israel’s Messiah-king when He makes his entry. He wants the crowds to get behind Him and support Him and join His procession as they head towards the temple. All this is unambiguous. They only bit that is hard to work out is WHY?

Did Jesus actually need the crowd behind Him?

If you know the story, you know that the triumphal entry climaxes with Jesus taking over the temple, turning over the tables of the money-changers, and chasing out all the merchants there along with their animals (Matthew 21:12-13). We might well ask, from a purely human point of view, would Jesus have been able to get away with that if He hadn’t had a thousand or so people behind Him when He did it?

If Jesus had been a politician or ambitious military general, we might indeed interpret all this along the lines of Jesus making his move.

You may remember last year me sharing with you something of what I learnt from reading Mein Kampf. That was indeed the way Hitler managed his rise to power. The Fuhrer was a great believer in the efficacy of the spoken word, and would use his speeches to whip up enthusiasm amongst the crowds and would then use those crowds to silence his opponents as he strong-armed his way into positions of increasing influence. The problem, of course, is that I just can’t see the career of Jesus and that of the Fuhrer as intersecting at any point!

Perhaps if we didn’t know where the Gospel story was heading, it might be tempting to see the Palm Sunday procession as being a part of Jesus’ strategic move towards power – getting the crowd behind Him, taking over the temple, and from there, the palace, with the crowd growing in size and in passion with every step of the way – and yet that’s not where the story goes. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus makes His point in the temple and then quietly retires for the night!

Moreover, the idea that Jesus might deliberately create a mob in order to help Him act with force runs contrary to everything He teaches.

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant,” (Matthew 20:25-26)

Where is that from? It’s from the previous chapter in the Gospel of Matthew! Jesus was totally opposed to power-play! Instead, He taught that true greatness was to be found in meekness, and that real leadership was defined by servanthood!

I don’t believe Jesus needed the crowd behind Him on Palm Sunday, though it is clear He wanted them there. As I say, the question is why?

I know that my pattern with a lot of my sermons is to pose a question like this in the first part of the sermon and then (after having played with that question for a while) to offer what I consider to be a definitive answer. This is not one of those sermons. Indeed, the best answer I can come up with to “Why did Jesus want a crowd behind Him on Palm Sunday?” is “Why not?” After all, I don’t think there’s really anything wrong with having a crowd behind you.

Yes, every political power-player from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler to Donald Trump has had a crowd behind them, but so did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin-Luther King!  And in the end, the important question is not what you can do when you have a crowd behind you, but what you do do!

Oh! But the crowd cannot be trusted, says Kierkegaard, and that is true!  On the other hand, who can be trusted? Should we trust our political leaders instead? Should we trust the media, or surely the clergy? If we follow the Palm Sunday story on for a few more days, we get the New Testament’s answer to those questions very clearly! Jesus couldn’t even trust His best friends!

Part of the horror of Good Friday is that Jesus was betrayed and abandoned, not only by the crowd but by all those whom we might have thought would stand by Him! Kierkegaard too, for those who don’t know his history, lived and died alone, refusing the sacraments, even on his deathbed, as he considered the church corrupt!

Even so, I don’t think this necessarily means that we all have to resign ourselves to fighting the good fight totally on our own because we are the only ones we can trust! On the contrary, I think the challenge for most of us is that we do have to engage with that volatile and untrustworthy beast – the crowd – if we are going to accomplish something for the Kingdom!

I think it was Elizabeth Achtemeier (or one of the other great feminist theologians) who, when asked why she continued to work within the church said, “there’s only so much you can accomplish without access to a photocopier.” That’s always been a sobering reminder to me that it’s hard to get much done if you’re on your own.

Last night I was a part of a group of sixteen who came together in Canterbury to discuss what to do in response to the US attack on Syria. Most of those there were Syrian, and Arabic was certainly the dominant language, so I didn’t pick up everything. Even so, I understood the primary options being considered – namely, whether we should be writing letters to the government to express our concerns or whether we should go one step further and organise a demonstration. Perhaps it might seem odd that I was the most vocal proponent for getting a crowd together and holding a demonstration! In truth though, I don’t know of any way of fighting back against the crowd that is the untruth except with a crowd of a different sort!

As I say, Julius Caesar and Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump all had crowds behind them, but so did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin-Luther King, and so did Jesus! And it is true that the same crowd that sings praises to God one day can be the lynch mob that crucifies you five days later. Nobody knew that better than Jesus. And yet Jesus wooed the crowed, He worked the crowd, and He celebrated with the crowd:

“The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king     who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:37-40)

first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 9th, 2017

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Dare to believe! (a sermon on John 11 – the raising of Lazarus)


“So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
(John 11:53)

If you don’t recognise this verse, it’s taken from the end of the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to St John, where the ‘they’ who planned to put someone to death were the ‘Scribes and the Pharisees’ (the religious leaders of first century Palestine) and the person who they planned to put to death was, of course, Jesus!

The verse comes at the conclusion of one of the most remarkable stories ever told about Jesus – namely, the story of Jesus’ raising of His dead friend, Lazarus!

Lazarus is raised from the dead! It’s like a scene out of one of those mummy movies where a corpse, bound in bandages comes staggering out of his tomb, with children screaming and women fainting! I think Steven Spielberg could have a lot of fun with the tomb scene in ‘Lazarus, the movie’. What would be harder, I suspect, is this epilogue, where the clergy gather to plot to kill Jesus in the aftermath of His miracle.

It’s hard to believe that Jesus’ great gift of life could result in His death. Mind you, I appreciate that for many people, what’s hard to believe in this reading, is not so much the ending of the story, but the whole thing! It all seems a bit unbelievable..

I can understand why people might struggle with this story. Dead people coming back to life is not a part of our experience. We might wish things like this happened. Indeed, anybody who has lost someone they truly loved has wished a million times that they would come back. It just never seems to happen. And there is another good reason for thinking that the story of Lazarus’ comeback might not be an exact account of the original event. It’s the fact that this story, as we have it in the Gospel of John, was written down a long time after the events described actually took place!

That’s the scholarly consensus anyway. Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John was the last of the four great accounts of the life of Jesus to have been written. Mark’s gospel was probably the first –written within twenty-something years of the events described, whereas John is thought not to have been written until the beginning of the second century – seventy or more years after the event described!

Over seventy years, memories fade and stories get embellished. This would explain too why John’s gospel stores are so long as compared to those in the other gospels.

If you compare, for example, the Gospel of Mark (which, as I say, is thought to have been the first Gospel written) the stories there are short and sharp. Jesus almost seems to be on speed as He moves from town to town, healing dozens of persons in one spot, then immediately jumping into a boat, landing somewhere else, healing more people, driving out demons and doing some teaching – all in a day’s work!

The stories in John are long – very long – in comparison:

  • the story of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3)
  • the woman at the well (John 4)
  • Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 9)
  • And now this story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11)

Could it be that these yarns were originally stories of relatively unspectacular events that, over time, became increasingly embellished and so evolved into tales of the miraculous and extraordinary!

You may be familiar with the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ (apparently also known as ‘Russian Scandal’, though I don’t like the Western Imperialist overtones of either title so I’ll just refer to the game as ‘Whispers’). In Whispers, you have a circle of people who pass on a message. The first person whispers the message to the second, who whispers it to the third, and so on, and by the time the message gets all the way around the circle, the final version invariably bears little resemblance to the original!

Was the story of the raising of Lazarus (along with other stories in John’s Gospel) like that? Was it perhaps initially a story about Lazarus catching a cold, and when he saw Jesus he suddenly got better? After all, how could a story that took place seventy years before it was written down really bear much resemblance to what originally happened? That just doesn’t sound plausible!

And it doesn’t sound plausible if the transmission of the Gospel stories worked like Whispers, and yet that’s not how it worked. For one thing, the early Christians didn’t whisper their story. The proclaimed it very loudly, for all to hear!  Even more importantly, the game of Whispers only works because the people who are doing the whispering are telling an unfamiliar story. No one player knows the story before it’s whispered to them. It’s not their story, and so they are likely to forget lots of details.

This was not the case in the transmission of the Gospel stories. The Gospel stories were performed, regularly and loudly, and I imagine they were regularly performed by the very characters who appeared in the stories!

I’m sure that Lazarus himself would have retold his story often to the church in Bethany. I imagine Mary and Martha would have too – standing up and giving a dramatic, blow-by-blow account of everything that happened on that fateful day.

The people who were featured in these stories were the same people who went on to retell their stories, and John himself was said to have lived to a great age (the only disciple who wasn’t martyred) which is presumably why nobody felt there was any need to write these things down until after he was gone.

I’ve been letting my imagination play with this idea for a while, wondering what it would have been like to have been a part of one of those early Christian communities where there was no Gospel reading, but rather a Gospel performance – a dramatic retelling of one of the stories of Jesus, retold by someone who was part of the original event! I think it would have been fantastic – almost as good as having been there yourself!

Of course, I don’t want to discount the possibility that the retelling of a story could lead to that story being embellished over time, but the opposite is often also true. That is, it’s often not until a story has shared around quite a few times that all the facts come to light and the full story is made known!

I think of the saga of my friend, Morde Vanunu – the man exposed Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons hidden under the Negev desert! When Morde’s photographs of the Dimona nuclear reactor were first published in 1986, and when he was then suddenly kidnapped and shipped back to Israel, I remember the stories that were first published about him – stories about him being a sophisticated spy, on the one hand, and others about him being a treacherous criminal who was selling out his country for money! Over time though, as the different players in the drama were able to make their contributions to the larger story, the greater truth started to emerge!

I think a lot of stories work like that, with different perspectives being added over time – perspectives that complete the story rather than embellish it.

I think of what we hear on the ABC about Syria. We generally get one very partial perspective on the situation there. Over time, more truth emerges (whether or not the ABC chooses to publish it). Eventually, I believe, the full story will come out about Syria, about Manus Island, about 9/11, etc. Often it takes time to get the full story!

I suspect these stories in John’s gospel developed like that. They grew over time, and as they were publicly performed again and again, I think they grew in truth, because the very characters who were a part of the original stories would hear their stories retold and would then contribute something, and so that story would be enlarged for the next time it was performed!

Of course, not every character in every story would have participated in those performances. It’s obvious that the woman at the well (featured in John chapter 4) was not involved in any of the church’s early performances. If she had been, we would know her name. The same is true, of course, of ‘the man born blind’ (John 9).

We know Nicodemus’ name! Does that mean Nicodemus ended up joining the early church? That’s likely, I think, and, if so, it’s likely that he stood up at more than one church meeting and shared his story of his encounter with Jesus!

This is how the Gospel of John took shape, I believe – through the repeated public performance of the stories of Jesus, eventually written down for posterity once the original characters in the story had all passed on and were no longer available to retell their stories for themselves.

If this is a reasonably accurate account of the way today’s story about Jesus and Lazarus reached us, the important question to ask, from my point of view, is what were the original performers of this story trying to get across to us?

I won’t read through the greater story again now, but when you get a chance, read through the entire story (that covers the entirety of John chapter eleven) and imagine that Mary was performing this story to a gathering of the early church (perhaps with Martha and Lazarus interjecting at regular points). My question is, when the performance is over, what has she left you with?

In truth, the first thing I get form this story is emotional exhaustion! It’s a story full of passion, though the emotions evolve over the course of the story.

Initially, there is frustration, as Jesus, who has been called to the side of His sick friend doesn’t take the illness seriously and seems to deliberately delay going to him!

When Lazarus then dies before Jesus gets to him, there’s a mixture of emotions on display. Mary seems to be angry with Jesus, and so has to spend some time by herself before she can bring herself to see Him, and there’s a broad sense of disappointment in Jesus and disillusionment, though the over-arching emotion is one of grief, which Jesus taps into, and we actually see Jesus weeping (John 11:35),

It’s in the midst of His grief though, Jesus commands the stone to be rolled back and for Lazarus to ‘come out!’ (John 11:4), and suddenly all that grief gives way to joy, and to shock, and to more confusion!

As I imagine myself listening to Mary perform this story (or to Martha or Lazarus or John) I get two strong messages coming through to me.

The first is that Jesus cares. Jesus cares about the big things – the resurrection of the dead, the coming of the Kingdom and the reign of justice – but He also cares about Mary’s hurt feelings, and he cares about His friend, Lazarus.

The other thing that comes through very powerfully for me here is that Jesus is a very difficult person to deal with. It’s often hard to make sense of what Jesus is saying. He does things that are totally unexpected, and it is absolutely impossible to get inside Jesus’ head! And it’s this discomforting side of Jesus that helps us make sense of why the clergy of Jesus’ day became so determined to kill Him!

If you’re familiar with prison culture, you will know that persons who are about to be released invariably tell their mates about the antics they are going to get up to once they get out. I haven’t yet spent time inside personally, but I’ve been told countless times that there’s always boasting going on from persons about to be released – boasting about the drugs they are going to score and the crimes they are going to commit as soon as they get out! I don’t doubt that a lot of this is just bravado, and yet an extraordinary number of persons who have been in custody do reoffend almost immediately upon release, and so find themselves back behind bars within days.

It seems to be human nature that we easily become institutionalised. We find it difficult to deal with the unfamiliar and prefer our environments to remain the same, even when that environment is a prison!

We are all capable of being like this, whether we live in a real prison or one of our own making. We stay in relationships where we are brutalised because we fear being on our own. We stick it out in a job that is destroying us spiritually because it’s familiar and because we are not sure what else we can do. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t! If we don’t have freedom, at least we have security!

Jesus offers freedom, change and new life, and that’s very confronting! We see those who engage with Jesus in this Gospel story enter into a sort of dance with Him where they have to learn to live on trust, with all the uncertainties that carries with it. Conversely, those whose desire is for stability – those who are invested in keeping things the way they are – feel impelled to shut Jesus down!

It is hard to believe that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead – for sure it is – and yet I have no doubt that Mary and Martha and Lazarus himself believed it happened! The question is whether we dare to believe!

Do we dare to believe in a world where dead people come back to life? Dare we entrust ourselves to someone whom we know cares for us, but who is difficult to understand and impossible to predict? Do we dare believe in Jesus?

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 2nd, 2017

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God is Wind and Water (a sermon on John chapters 3 and 4)


When Soren and I were recently in Damascus, you may remember hearing that our water was poisoned. This was on account of the NATO-certified ‘moderate’ rebels having taken control of the damn that fed water into the city, and these same moderate folk had poisoned the water by pouring diesel into it!

The result was that people were getting sick, and one friend of ours whom we met up with in Damascus had indeed been very sick, but was recovering when we met him. Soren started to get stomach cramps too, which worried me, and Mother Carol came down with a severe tummy bug that ended up excluding her from some of the key experiences of the trip though, thankfully, she recovered.

Of course, we couldn’t be sure whether Carol’s or Soren’s difficulties were due to the water but, either way, it was all a stunning reminder of how essential to life water is, and that is no doubt a large part of the point Jesus is making when he speaks of God as water.

“Everyone who drinks of [normal] water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14-15)

The quote comes from the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to St John, and it’s part of the dialogue that takes place between Jesus and a woman He meets at a well in Samaria – a woman whose name we never discover.

It’s a well-known story, describing a well-known encounter – an encounter almost as well-known as that described in the previous chapter of the same Gospel – namely, of Jesus’ meeting with the Rabbi, Nicodemus.

I confess that in my previous treatments of the scene in John four (the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman) my focus has always been drawn to the person of the woman – who she was and why Jesus dealt with her the way He did, whereas with John three (Jesus and Nicodemus) I’ve generally found myself focusing on the teaching:

  • “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit (John 3:8)
  • “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14), and, most famously …
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son” … (John 3:16)

The focus on the person rather than the teaching in John four is understandable as the Samarian woman is a startling figure! The fact that she is a foreigner, and a foreigner with a dubious past, make it noteworthy indeed that Jesus is spending time with her, though it’s simply the fact that Jesus is dialoguing with a woman that bamboozles His disciples. Either way, Nicodemus comes across as a relatively flat and uninspiring character by comparison.

It occurs to me this time though, as I look at the two stories side-by-side, that they were meant to be read together, and scrutinised in much the same way.

As I say, Nicodemus – Jesus’ special guest in John chapter three – comes across as a rather colourless figure in comparison with the Samaritan woman of chapter four. In truth though, I think the contrast between the two figures is deliberate, and the fact is that they contrast at multiple points!

Most obviously, Nicodemus is a man and the woman is a woman! Gender differences are always fundamental to who we are, but we know too that gender differences had even more pronounced social significance in first century Judea than they do today.

As mentioned, it was the fact that Jesus was talking to a woman that shocked His disciples! Of course, this may not have been simply because she was a woman as such, but also because she was the type of woman that ventured out to the village well in the middle of the day (and the story does make it clear that she did come out at around noon [John 4:6])!

As all students of Kipling know, it’s only mad dogs and Englishmen that go out in the midday sun, and persons whose social standing is such that they wish to avoid all contact with their peers during their daily trip to the well.

As is confirmed in the conversation with Jesus, we are not simply dealing here with a woman who is on the lower rungs of the societal ladder by virtue of her gender, but with a notorious woman – someone who occupies one of the lowest rungs on that ladder by virtue of her reputation!

We don’t know the woman’s story in any detail. Jesus somehow knew though that she’d had five husbands and that the man she was then attached to was not her husband. Quite likely, the man Jesus refers to in this way was her pimp!

However we reconstruct the woman’s story, she’s someone from the underside of society – an outsider, and certainly not someone that any self-respecting Jew would take seriously as a spiritual person. The contrast could not be greater between her and Nicodemus, the Pharisee, a teacher of Israel (John 3:10).

  • He is male. She is female
  • He is educated and literate. She is neither.
  • He is a respected community leader. She is social refuse!

Indeed, the contrast between these two figures is so stark that I wonder if the author of the Gospel doesn’t intend us to understand these two figures as two bookends between which all humanity is included?

However we interpret the author’s intention, what fascinates me when I read of these encounters, side by side, is not only that fact that Jesus treats each of his partners in dialogue with equal respect, but more so, the fact that the teaching He imparts in both cases is more or less the same!

I don’t mean to gloss over the complexities and differences in the conversations recorded in John chapters three and four. Even so, in both cases Jesus speaks in metaphor, and the metaphors all seem to point in the same direction!

In John, chapter 3, Jesus speaks of God using the metaphor of the wind: “The wind blows where it will. You hear its sound, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes!” (John 3:8)

I said earlier that water is one of the most fundamental elements of human life. Perhaps the only element in the universe more fundamental to human life than water is air! Human beings can live for quite a while without food – forty days and forty nights, at least. We only last a few days without water. We can’t last more than a few minutes without air!

Jesus speaks of God as both water and air!

  • “You must be born of water and of spirit” (John 3:5)
  • “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit” (John 3:8)
  • “those who drink of the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

The air and water Jesus speak of are the fundamental building-blocks of life! We are not talking here about some spiritual icing on the cake – how to cap off a life well lived by rounding it out with a spiritual dimension. The God that Jesus speaks of is One who penetrates to the very core of human existence!

  • You must be born again!
  • You must be born of water and of the spirit!
  • You must drink of this life-giving water if you are to have real life!

It is popular in our culture to think of religion as being an optional extra in life. We don’t mock anyone for being religious (so long as they don’t get too carried away) but neither do we see any necessity in religion, as if we couldn’t get by perfectly well without it. Obviously, this is not religion as Jesus understood it. Life without God, from Jesus’ perspective, is like living without air or water.   It’s just not something that is sustainable in any meaningful existence!

Now, I appreciate that there are lots of good reasons for not joining a church, and indeed, the church throughout history has done a pretty miserable job in terms of offering consistent witness to the life-giving stream of water that is supposed to be flowing through it. Even so, if we can get beyond the church to the message of the church, we know that that message is about what is as fundamental to human existence as the water we drink and the air we breathe!

This is surely at the heart of the message Jesus shared with both Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and if there is a second fundamental truth about God that Jesus wanted to communicate through the metaphors He uses in these conversations, it was surely this – that God is not easy to grab hold of!

Along with being fundamental to human life, this is perhaps the other most obvious quality that both air and water have in common – they are both difficult to hang on to. Getting a solid grip on water is not easy. Holding on to the wind is also difficult. And I don’t think I’m squeezing these metaphors here in a way that goes beyond what Jesus was doing with them. On the contrary: “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

We have real trouble keeping track of God. We have no trouble mistaking when the wind is blowing but we can’t work out whence it comes or whither it goes! God is like that! Just when we think we have God pinned down and think we know exactly what to expect, God turns up in the most unexpected places, such as alongside some notorious foreign woman in the middle of a desert!

In a similar vein, Jesus says to the woman, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jon 4:23). This is in response to her attempt to outline what constitutes true worship, in terms of where exactly you should go to pray. Jesus says it’s less an issue of where you go than of who you are, and it’s not about things visible but about things unseen – attitude, spirit, truth!

One of the great things about these two dialogues in John three and four is that neither of Jesus’ partners in dialogue really grasp what He is talking about! We might think that Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the teacher of Israel, would get it, or, being fans of Jesus and knowing the way He operates, we might think that the notorious woman would get it while the sophisticated intellectual misses it. Nope. Neither of them get it, and if the Gospel writer really is thinking of these two persons as something like bookends between which the rest of humanity is squeezed, perhaps we shouldn’t expect to grasp it all either!

I don’t know whether everyone saw the video I shared on Facebook on Friday, featuring a Rabbi, a priest and an Atheist smoking marijuana together. I didn’t create the video, and it already had around 3.5 million views before I got to it, so I can’t take any credit for making it popular either. Even so, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it, as I think you will find it strangely edifying!

The featured priest is an American Episcopalian (of course) and after about 45 minutes in to the session, he responds to the scepticism of the Atheist with a rather profound statement – “just think of God as all that is true, knowing that we don’t know all that is true!”

Now, I don’t know whether that was weed-inspired wisdom, but I thought it was pretty profound. Moreover, I thought it was a really good response to what Jesus teaches about God through these two dialogues in these two chapters from the Gospel According to St John.

God is mysterious! God is difficult to grasp. Just when we think we have God all worked out, God alludes us and frustrates us to the point where we want to give up. Even so, God is so essential to human life that we can’t go on without God. Such is the life of faith!

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on March 19th, 2017

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A New Hope (a sermon on Genesis 12:1-3)


Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Robert Bly – the founder of the modern men’s movement – says that whereas most animals pass on their wisdom to the next generation through instinct, human beings pass down their wisdom through the retelling of stories.  Accordingly, Bly spends a lot of time in his writings taking apart ancient myths such as the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ legend and, most famously, the story of ‘Iron John’.

Bly’s source material is generally European myths and legends, but we know that the Indigenous people of this land (Australia) similarly passed down their wisdom from one generation to the next through the re-telling of the Dreamtime.

What has been sinking in with me lately is the extent to which this has been equally the practice in both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. We too pass on our wisdom to our children through the retelling of stories – Biblical stories, in our case.

Indeed, it is worth recognising that the Bible itself is a story – one big story, in fact, that starts in a garden and ends in a city, with lots of other smaller stories within it. This may not be obvious to the casual reader, perhaps because most of us start in the middle and so have trouble working out where the story begins and ends.

Jumping in at the middle though shouldn’t, in and of itself, be too big a hurdle. Most of us started the Star Wars saga at Episode 4, and that didn’t stop us from grasping the larger narrative. Even so, the Biblical plot-line is more complex than that of Star Wars, and the characters far more nuanced.

What I want to do today, at any rate, is to reflect a little on the greater Biblical story, and today seems to me to be the obvious day to do that because our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today is from the book of Genesis, from the opening verses of chapter twelve, which introduce us to Abraham – the hero of the Biblical drama – and hence function as the starting point of the Bible’s greater story.

Now I appreciate, of course, that the twelfth chapter of Genesis is not literally the beginning of the story. Obviously, the story begins eleven chapters earlier with “in the beginning …” (Genesis 1:1). Even so, I think it’s once again a bit like the Star Wars series (or like any modern movie, really) where the film inevitably opens with some action-packed battle scene, after which we are properly introduced to Luke Skywalker (or whoever the main character is).

In the Biblical drama, the opening scene is of the great battle over creation that rages throughout Genesis chapters one to eleven. In the beginning, God creates the Heavens and the Earth, and it is good, after which human being begin to unpick the handiwork of God, turning what is good back into something chaotic and violent, and the whole scene ends at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) in division and confusion.

We could spend all of our allotted time today (and a good deal more) reflecting on those chaotic scenes that together create the backdrop for the greater Biblical narrative – the garden, the forbidden fruit, the murder of Abel, Noah and his flood, and the tower – but suffice it to say that it is a saga of growing alienation between God and God’s creation, where what was once good sours, and as Genesis eleven closes on the failed building project known as Babel, we see people who have lost all direction running about, unable to communicate with either God or with each other, and it is into this scene of chaos that Abraham steps forward as a new hope.

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Thus, we meet the hero of our story – the man whose name will dominate the entire Biblical drama from this point on. He doesn’t look too promising at this stage, but neither did Luke Skywalker when we first met him, and, of course, the new hope that emerges with Abraham is not really grounded in the nature of the man, but rather in the promises that are made to him by God – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and … through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

As these promises are reiterated and unpacked in subsequent chapters, it becomes clear that they are three:

  1. That Abraham will father a great nation
  2. That God will give his descendants a land to live in
  3. That through Abraham all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Of those three promises, the first two find their fulfilment early on in Biblical story, with the growth of the nation of Israel and with the resettlement of that nation in the land of Canaan. It is the third promise – the promise of the blessing to all the nations that will flow from Abraham – that remains elusive throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the context of the Bible’s opening scene, we need to understand this third promise – that through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed – as the vocation of Abraham and his descendants to undo all the damage that was done at the very beginning of human history. They are to reverse the curse of Babel and lead everybody back to the garden of Eden, or rather, to that even-better-than-Eden place that supersedes it in the Biblical imagination – namely, the New Jerusalem!

Of course we are dealing with metaphors here, and metaphors that are alien to our own culture. We don’t dream of gardens or of glimmering cities any more, and, if we do, we generally dream of escaping the city and getting back to the bush, rather than vice-versa. Even so, I think we can recognise behind these metaphors a hope that is familiar to us – a hope for a world that is truly at peace and full of love.

The Jews of the Ancient Near East were a very different people from a very different period of human history, and yet the Bible itself makes clear that their hopes and dreams were really not that different from our own. They yearned for a world where they could bring up their children in peace, just as we do.

Perhaps I’ve taken one too many trips to Syria in recent years, but those visits certainly have reinforced to me the centrality of the simple things of life – having people that you can love and trust, having enough food and clothing and clean water to get by on, and not having to live in constant fear. And let’s be clear that this is the essence of the happy ending that the Biblical story depicts as the New Jerusalem.

Generations of Christians have grown up with the idea that the goal of our religion is to help us escape this world to go to another world called ‘Heaven’ where we can live as disembodied spirits. This escape is generally supposed to happen when we die.

This form of religious hope was actually something we adopted from the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. It has little to do with the Biblical story that starts in the garden and ends in the New Jerusalem. The Biblical hope is for this world (albeit, a liberated version of this world) and it’s a hope for resurrection rather than for life in any form of disembodied spirit! It’s a very tangible, human hope, and it is this tangible, human hope that is the end-point of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis chapter twelve, and the Bible’s story of the history of the people of Israel (at the risk of over-simplifying it) is the story of Israel’s repeated failure to help humanity reach that goal.

The key point I want to make is that the great Biblical hope is the same hope that all human beings cherish – a hope for a world that is truly at peace and full of love. What is unique in our Judeo-Christian tradition is our understanding of how we reach that goal and what it was that got us into the mess we are in now in the first place, and what got us into this mess, from the Bible’s perspective, is idolatry!

Christian theologians normally describe humanity’s problem in terms of the far more abstract concept of ‘sin’ but the problem is really just idolatry. We worship the wrong god. We worship power and we worship money and we even worship other people – celebrities, rock idols and political leaders – and so we fail to worship God, and our failure in worship leads us into bondage – becoming slaves to the gods we worship.

It is idolatry that led the people of Israel into exile (with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BC) where they had to suffer for their sins – a tragedy that seemed to derail any hope we might have had that these descendants of Abraham might be the ones to bring God and humanity back together. It is in this context though that the New Testament writers point to Jesus as the one who comes into the world as the true representative of Israel, as the one who will suffer for the sins of Israel and so get them out of exile, and thus put the greater project back on track!

I’m going to stop the story at this point and raise what seems to me is the obvious question that arises out of the Biblical narrative when it’s framed this way – namely, ‘where do we fit into this story?’

It’s taken as a given in our culture that religion is a personal thing. That’s because religion in our culture is understood as being primarily about me! It’s about me and my personal relationship with God, me and my holiness, me and my salvation! The amazing thing I discover when I step back and look at the greater Biblical narrative is that it doesn’t seem to be about me at all! The story of the Bible is the story of Abraham and his descendants. It’s a very ancient story and it’s a very Jewish story. From a New Testament perspective, yes, it’s all about Jesus, but Jesus understood as the true representative of God’s people, Israel!

When Jesus spends forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and prevails over the devil, He does so, not to show me how to overcome my own temptations, but as the representative of Israel, who failed their 40-year period of testing in the wilderness. And when Jesus suffers for sin on the cross, He suffers first and foremost for the sin of Israel – the sin of idolatry that led them into exile.

Now I know that we ‘uncircumcised gentiles’ get included in the story towards the end, as the Apostles and the early church realise that God is expanding the family of Abraham to include all sorts of people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, and I recognise that this inclusion is indeed foreshadowed in those very promises made to Abraham at the very beginning of the story. Even so, to be quite frank, I had assumed that I played a more indispensable role in the greater narrative!

To translate this issue into the more familiar Star Wars context, let me ask, ‘at what point in the Biblical movie do we make our cameo appearances?’ We were not there at the beginning, nor at the climactic battle-scene.  Are we a part of the epilogue, right at the end? I’ve been giving this a fair bit of thought, and I reckon that we make our appearance in that extra scene that comes up after the credits have finished.

I’m not talking about the blooper reel that often appears in movies during the credits (though some of us might feel we deserve a spot in that). I’m talking about that extra scene that often (but not always) appears right at the end of the movie reel, after the credits are over and after the less-savvy movie-goers have already left the theatre. I’m talking about that thirty-second spot at the end that is the teaser for the sequel.

That’s our spot, I think. We are the teaser for the sequel. We are not the heart of the story. We are not the warriors in the great battle scene. The key victory was won long before we were born. Our role is simply to be the teaser for the sequel – signifying to the rest of the world what is yet to come.

My great spiritual mentor, Henri Nouwen, used to say that when you’re preaching the Good News, always make sure that it’s both good and news, and so I never finish writing a sermon without asking myself ‘where’s the good news in that?’ Where’s the good news in being told that the story of the Bible is not about you?

In truth, I think that actually is the good news – that it’s not our story – for it reminds me that the future of the world does not depend on me (thanks be to God).

The story of the Bible is Abraham’s story, it’s Israel’s story, it’s Jesus’ story, and ultimately, it’s God’s story, and it is God story that the world needs to hear because the world needs God, and not me!

Of course, we can make God’s story our story, and God invites us to do so – to make that story (as Kierkegaard put it) ‘the truth that is true for me, the truth for which I can live and die!’ Even so, that story will always be much bigger than me and much bigger than any of us, and indeed, that story will continue long after each of us has left the scene.

And so we pass on this story to our children, believing that this story not only contains the wisdom of our ancestors, but also a word from God for our world – a word of hope, of reconciliation, of freedom and of life!

first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on March 12th, 2017

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You can’t serve both God and Money – Matthew 6:24

 

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

One of the great advantages about working from the church lectionary, which rosters Bible readings each week in a three-year cycle, is that every three years you find yourself prompted to preach on the same readings, and when you’ve been preaching for as long as I have, and when you keep soft copies of every sermon you give, the cumulative effect of this process is a sizeable library of sermonic insights from years gone by that can be reworked into each upcoming sermon so as to minimize (if not entirely eliminate) the effort required to actually come up with anything original.

Unfortunately, I find that my most common reaction when I look back at sermons past is not, “Yep! That’s what I’m looking for!” but rather “No! what was I thinking?” That, at any rate, was my first reaction when I looked back at earlier sermons on Jesus’ words about the two masters and the exhortations that follow, urging us to model our lives on the birds and the lilies.

When I look back on those sermons given three, nine, twelve … and even twenty-four years ago, my assessment of those sermons can (sadly) be summed up in one word – smug!

Yes, there was a time when I would rale against those whose lives revolved around their pursuit of money and could do so from the perspective of a bird (more or less), but that was a long time ago!

‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go’ – take heed, you whose lives are controlled by your mortgages, you who live lives or quiet desperation due to your subservience to the Almighty Dollar, you who lie awake at night worrying about your wealth and whether or not you’re going to be able to hang on to it or whether thieves are going to break in and steal! Store up your treasure in Heaven, you fools!

It was easy for me to be haughty in those early days, and I confess that my early sermons on this passage contained a thinly-veiled smug self-satisfaction. But then, something terrible happened! I met … the other master!

It was my dad’s fault really. He never should have died!

In truth, I’d give anything to have dad back, but the reality was that when dad died in 2001 my life changed radically in more ways than one, and one of those ways was that, for the first time in my life, I had money, and lots of it!

I suppose these things are all relative, and some people wouldn’t consider inheriting a third of my dad’s house to be a significant endowment, but for me and my family it was completely transformative! Not only did it mean that we were able to take a family holiday to the US of A and buy a big TV set. It meant that we had assets to invest, such that we could set up share portfolios or even put a deposit on a house of our own!

As most of you know, I didn’t end up going with the ‘house of our own’ idea but opted instead to invest the money in a bush camp, in the hope of turning it into Australia’s greatest retreat centre for young people!

That then became the beginning of a new adventure, where we were able to house people and employ people and develop a property and see great things happen. At the same time, it was the beginning of an education into how easy it is to be defrauded by people, and how hard it is to make a business work, and how easy it is, as a business-person, to go bankrupt!

I don’t want to make this sermon about me, but I confess now before you all that I have never found anything more stressful than financial stress – than the stress of fighting off what seems to be the inevitable slide into bankruptcy!

I appreciate that in my case the prospects of bankruptcy are particularly nasty, as you can’t go bankrupt as an ordained priest and retain your priesthood.

I don’t know who brought in that rule, but there are three (and, as far as I know, only three) ways of getting yourself defrocked in our church tradition – namely, heresy, immorality and bankruptcy, and I really don’t want to be defrocked (that is, have my priesthood taken away from me)!

Yes, I know it’s all horribly unbiblical, but I like having people greet me in the marketplace and call me ‘father’. OK … I suppose I could get over the greetings in the marketplace, but the truth is that ‘Father Dave’ is who I am. It’s my identity. I don’t know how to be anybody else and the prospect of losing my identity is painful.

So I lie awake at nights, wondering how I am going to fix things up, wondering who I can trust, wondering how I’m going to get that million-dollar fight that will quickly pay all bills and put me back on easy street. I worry, I sweat, I stress about all the things that are going wrong and could go wrong, and it needs to be acknowledged at this point that this is EXACTLY what Jesus tells us we should NOT be doing!

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Consider the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you of much more value then they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to the measure of his life?…

And why are ye anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. …

Therefore, be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, How shall we be clothed? … Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:26-34)

‘That’s easy for you to say, Jesus! Did you ever try running a proprietary-limited incorporated company?!’

I suspect that I’m not the only person to have that gut reaction to these ‘what me worry’ teachings of Jesus. Even if you’re not managing a proprietary-limited company, what would Jesus know about life in this day and age? Did Jesus ever have a mortgage? Did He ever have to bring up kids in twenty-first century Sydney?

In truth, I suspect that Jesus’ contemporaries reacted in much the same way:

  • ‘What would you know about managing a fishing business, Jesus?’
  • ‘Have you ever literally shepherded a flock of sheep, Jesus?’
  • ‘have you had to bring up kids in first century Judea?’

In as much as we might like to romanticize life two thousand years ago, I suspect that it was not simpler to live then. For most people, life was a lot more difficult, and the truth is that the teachings of Jesus regarding material possessions, what we shall eat, what we shall wear, and money, have NEVER fitted comfortably into any culture during any period of human history.

Yes, I have met the other master, and yes, he has sunk his hooks into me, and yes, his servitude is harsh and exacting, and what I need is to be freed from my servitude to worldly wealth and freed to serve the better master, and I suspect that I am not the only one here who struggles under the same yoke!

In truth, I look back over church history and I wonder if we have ever got it right. Us Protestants, in particular, have always stressed the virtue of work and the virtue of savings, neither of which are ever extolled as virtues by Jesus. I appreciate that when the choice is between saving and spending that saving often appears to be a virtue, but we forget that there is always a third choice – namely, sharing!

There aren’t many people who live this way, apart from Jesus, and probably also apart from St Francis of Assisi – the man that G.K. Chesterton referred to as the world’s only Christian.

St Francis, in case you didn’t know, was the son of a wealthy businessman, but decided early in his life that he was going to become a ‘new sort of fool for Christ’. The upshot of this was a public confrontation with his father in the town square where Francis eventually stripped himself naked and declared that he had no father except his Heavenly Father (the idea being that he was returning to his earthly father everything that he had handed down to him).

Francis refused to even touch money, and when posed with puzzles such as what he would do if he came across some money in a field – the suggestion being that surely he should hang on to is at least until he could hand it over to the authorities – Francis famously warned that once we start hanging on to possessions, it won’t be long before we take up arms to defend them!

‘Consider the birds … consider the lilies’ … As I say, apart from extraordinary persons like St Francis, nobody really takes the teachings of Jesus regarding money and possessions particularly seriously. This is not the way we live. It’s not the way we were brought up to live and it’s not the way we teach our children to live, regardless of whether or not we are children of the church and followers of Christ!

The example of the birds is, frankly, too painful for us. These birds have no savings, no provisions stored up for the future, and no way of knowing for sure that they are going to able to feed their children tomorrow, and we don’t want to live like that – trusting, somehow, that our Heavenly Father will feed us.

The promise of Jesus, of course, is not simply that God will feed us because God is in the habit of feeding everything and everybody. The promise with which our passage climaxes is actually more specific than that: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (or ‘justice’) and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:34)

The promise, in other words, is actually an exhortation to focus our lives, not on satisfying our essential human needs, but on things of substance. The promise is that when we do that, all those essential human needs will be met as well.  All I can say about that is that whenever I have lived that way, perhaps more obviously back in the days when our lifestyles were a bit closer to that of the birds, God was indeed true to His promises. All our needs were met!

I don’t pretend to have all the answers today. On the contrary, I see myself as being enmeshed in the problem rather than a shining example of the way forward. And let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we can shelve these exhortations of Jesus as if they form part of the eccentric fringe of His wisdom teaching, for Jesus presents the issue, not as lifestyle advice but as a choice between discipleship and idolatry!

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24)

You can’t serve both masters! We might think that we can, and we might think that we can find a balance between the two. We might like to think of it as being like working two jobs or even just loving two children but it’s not! It’s more like fighting for two opposing sides in the same war! It can’t be done!

Let me finish with one final confession. Last week I got a visit from a friend who is a financial advisor. Admittedly, the reason I encouraged the visit was more because he was a friend than because he was a financial advisor, and because he told me that I would be doing him a favour if I let him give me financial advice as he’d only just started in his job and needed to show his firm that he had clients. Even so, I found the visit very discomforting, and when he challenged me with regards to my superannuation – ‘don’t you want to maximize your dividend on maturity?’ – I made a kneejerk response and cried ‘no!’ because the thought that I should restructure my life in order to maximize my dividend scared the hell out of me!

And I’m sure that wasn’t a particularly intelligent response, and I’m sure there has to be a better way forward than making knee-jerk reactions, where we kick feebly against the bars of the prisons in which we incarcerate ourselves.

In truth, I’m not sure exactly what form true discipleship takes for me or for any of us, but I know that the path begins with faith – faith in a God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field, faith in the God who promises that if we focus our lives on seeking His Kingdom and His Justice that all our other needs will be met.

first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on February 26th, 2017

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