God is NOT FAIR! (a sermon on Matthew 20:1-16)

It’s been a hard week for me in many ways. I buried an old friend on Wednesday (who, while an ‘old friend’, was significantly younger than me) and that was all very confronting and draining. More draining still though this last week, was my attempt to deal with my Twitter and Facebook feeds!

This was not a problem any of us had a few years ago. Facebook fatigue is a very 2017 problem! Never before, in the history of humankind have we been able to express an opinion and instantly have the whole world weigh in on that opinion and its author, which is lovely when the whole world is telling you that you are a rock-star, and less lovely when they are telling you something else.

I’m not an expert at calculating my ‘reach’ in social media. Even so, I do know that the link to my recent article in support of same-sex marriage had been retweeted 222 times (at time of writing) and was ‘shared’ on Facebook 75 times, in addition to the countless likes and dislikes, and the commentary, which, if printed out and published could be turned into a decent-sized book (though not one, I think, worth purchasing).

I tried, for the most part, to resist the temptation to add to the dialogue, as I figured I’d already expressed my thoughts in the article. Even so, I did lose my cool a little the other night, and I came very close to suggesting that the boxing gym might be a better venue to resolve the issue with my online antagonist, given that, in my opinion, the nature of his attack on me was little more than verbal slugging.

It has been a learning experience for me, reading through the often long and passionate dialogues from people on both sides of the divide, and I did have what I felt was a bit of an ‘ah ha’ experience the other night. It clicked with me the other night that one of the reasons that a number of religious people involved in this debate feel so strongly about maintaining the status quo regarding marriage is because the issue really confronts their belief in the justice of God. The connection might not be immediately obvious, so let me spell it out for you as I perceive it.

God mandates laws for us to live by. If we obey those laws, God rewards us (if not in this life, then in the next) and if we disobey those laws, we are punished (if not in this life, then in the next)! In as much as we might find God Himself incomprehensible, His laws are not hard to understand, and the system of reward and punishment is straightforward and intuitive. If you start to dismantle that system by saying that it’s OK to break some of those laws, how do we stop the whole system from falling apart? We might as well abandon any sense of law, sin, reward and punishment!

I trust I haven’t done anyone an injustice in framing the issue this way, and I’m not suggesting that everybody who disagrees with me online necessarily buys into this sort of theological framework, but I do believe that for a lot of religious folk, it’s not the issue of same-sex marriage as such that is the problem, so much as the way this issue threatens their greater understanding of God and God’s justice – a God who is wise in His decrees, unchanging in His will, and reliable in the way He rewards those who are good and punishes those who are evil. And it seems to me that Jesus, in His parables, goes to great lengths to challenge this sensible understanding of God.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for one denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing in the marketplace without work. He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard, too, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So off they went. He went out again about noon and about three o’clock and did the same thing. About five o’clock he went out and found some others standing around. He said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day long without work?’ They told him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard as well.’ ” (Matthew 20:1-7)

I’ve only read you the first half of the parable, as it’s a long one. Many of Jesus’ parables are short and pithy –

  • the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that grows into a great big bush’ (Matthew 13:31-32),
  • the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field’ (Matthew 13:44).

This isn’t one of those short and pithy parables. It’s long, and I’m sure that there must have been people listening to Jesus who didn’t hear all of it or who had to go home mid-parable, before the story was over.

“What was it like, listening to Jesus today, son? Did you learn anything?”

“I had to leave before he was finished, dad, but Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of Heaven was like a vineyard-owner, taking on workers to help with the harvest.”

“Well, you know the prophets teach us that our nation is like a vineyard. In a sense, we are all workers in that vineyard, my boy! Did Jesus have anything specific to say about what us workers should be doing?”

“No, but he was just saying that some workers start at dawn, because they are up bright and early and ready to work, whereas others start work much later in the day. Indeed, Jesus said that the vineyard owner keeps heading back to the market-place, looking for more people who have nothing to do, and whenever he finds someone hanging about, he invites them to come and join the team and get to work!

Indeed, even at 5pm in the afternoon – not long before the sun goes down and the harvesting is over – this vineyard owner is still offering work to anyone who wants it – even to the layabouts who stayed in bed most of the day because they were hung over from the night before and couldn’t be bothered putting in a full day’s work!”

“Wow! Did Jesus explain what he was getting at with this story?”

“Like I said, I had to leave before he was finished, but I figure he was saying that it’s never too late to start doing the work of God – that it’s never too late to pitch in and do your bit, for the country, for our people, for the Kingdom!”

“Hmm … it sounds to me as if Jesus is looking for more disciples himself and is saying that it’s never too late to sign up!”

And it does sound like that. And maybe Jesus did mean that, at least in part. These, at any rate, are the sorts of ideas that come to mind as we listen to this story, but those of us who know the full story know that the sting comes in the tail!

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ Those who were hired at five o’clock came, and each received a denarius. When the first came, they thought they would receive more, but each received a denarius as well. When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner, saying, ‘These last fellows worked only one hour, yet you have made them equal to us who have endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’ (Matthew 10:8-12)

And that’s exactly what I would have said! Indeed, that’s what we all would have said! It’s not fair, and surely the Kingdom of Heaven has to be fair!

Those of us who are parents of more than one child have no doubt heard those three words a lot – “it’s not fair!”

If you’ve ever had any doubts as the innate nature of the human sense of justice and fair play, try dividing a stash of lollies between two young children. The complaint will never be “I didn’t get enough” but always “she got more than me!” That is why King Solomon developed the principal that, if diving a piece of cake between two children, one cuts and the other chooses! (I think it was Solomon)

In truth though, it doesn’t stop when we are kids. We just come up with more sophisticated ways of making our case as we get older.

I once heard a trade union leader quoted, saying that there had never been a strike called over low pay, but only over ‘pay differentials’.  In other words, it’s never that what we are getting isn’t ‘enough’ (in some abstract sense of the word).  It’s that we’re not getting as much as the guy next to us!

A hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s wage – that is basic to our sense of justice, is it not? This is what our parents taught us as children, and this is what we teach our children – you get what you deserve!

I remember back in my school days, I learnt the importance of discipline and industry, and I knew that when one of my classmates, lazy Joe, would say, “hey Dave, can I see your homework? I had a big night last night!”  I could say, “sure”, because I knew that in the end this guy was only hurting himself!  He wasn’t really learning. He wasn’t ever going to get ahead this way. And then, the exam results come in and lazy Joe and I get the same mark! It’s not supposed to work like that!

Good, honest, hard-working people like us are supposed to get rewarded for all our hard work, while useless good-for-nothing lay-abouts, who spend their days at the pub and who can’t be bothered to get a real job and who take up our tax dollars and use it to buy weed for themselves and won’t even get themselves a decent haircut … don’t you tell me that they get the same heavenly pay-cheque at the final checkout?

This is a very confronting story!  If the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t about justice, what is it about? I know ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is rough, but it’s fair, and if you’ve been working all day since dawn, and enduring the heat of the midday sun, you deserve some sort of recognition for your effort. It’s only fair! Have we somehow got our whole concept of justice wrong? I don’t think so. I think the problem is not our concept of justice. The problem is the vineyard-owner!

“But [the vineyard owner] said to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m not treating you unfairly. You agreed with me for a denarius, didn’t you? Take what is yours and go. I want to give this last man as much as I gave you. Am I not allowed to do what I want with my own money, or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

It’s hard to argue with the vineyard-owner’s logic, isn’t it? It’s just that it’s not the logic of justice. It’s the language of generosity – of mercy – and there is always going to be a degree of tension between justice and mercy.

  • Jesus saying to the woman caught in adultery “I don’t condemn you either” (John 8:11) – that’s mercy. It’s not justice. Justice would have seen the woman pounded to death by stones.
  • Jesus saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) – that’s mercy, not justice. Justice would have seen those who mocked Jesus strung up on crosses alongside Him, seeing how they liked it!
  • ‘Doing unto others as they do unto you’ (or even ‘doing it to them before they get a chance to do it to you’) – that’s the language of justice. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) – that’s the language of mercy, because that’s how we want to be treated by God and by others – mercifully. We don’t really want justice – not for ourselves, not if we’re honest.

“In the same way”, Jesus concludes, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16), which doesn’t quite make sense, as the people who come last don’t really end up ahead of the people who came first. They all end up as equals, except perhaps in terms of the affection they feel towards the vineyard-owner where the late-comers are probably well ahead of their beleaguered early-rising colleagues.

The point, at any rate, Jesus says, is that the Kingdom of Heaven is just like that!

Really? Is the Kingdom of Heaven really that confusing? Is Heaven really filled with labourers, some of whom are exhausted, whereas others, still suffering from hang-overs from the night before, barely lift a finger? Is it really a place of resentment and of arguments, where no one in management takes seriously the concept of a hard day’s work deserving a good day’s pay, and if so, is God perhaps not really just?

I’m not sure how many elements of this story Jesus really wants us to adopt as part of our understanding of God’s Kingdom. Even so, if justice is about everybody getting what they deserve, then maybe God isn’t just (not in that sense, at any rate). What God clearly is, according to this story (and according to the whole life and ministry of Jesus) is merciful.

If you’ve ever been to court, you have probably seen an image of Justitia – the Roman goddess of justice. She is a well-known figure, even in the twenty-first century. She is robed, holding a pair of scales in one hand and a sword in the other, and she is blindfolded, showing no partiality and being no respecter of persons.

The God of the Bible is never depicted that way – with eyes blindfolded or closed.  On the contrary, God’s eyes are always open, and God shows great partiality!     God bends towards the poor and the needy, the weak and the oppressed, and God has mercy upon all – from first to last and from last to first!

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday, October 1st, 2017

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There are two kinds of people in this world (NOT) – a sermon on Matthew 21:28-31

What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?  (Matthew 21:28-31)

I promise you that after this week I will stop starting each sermon with reports on what’s been happening on my Facebook page and Twitter feed. It’s just that it’s been rather intense for me online over the last few weeks, ever since I published my article in support of same-sex marriage and then shared the link on social media.

The article is still getting new shares, and I am still receiving fresh messages from people, coming primarily through comments on my social media feeds, but also through emails, Facebook Messenger messages, text messages, phone calls and, this week, even via ‘snail mail’!

A lot of these messages are positive, of course, tough some of them are quite toxic.

I try not to read through the toxic ones in full, though sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve been warned multiple times now of imminent divine judgement – indeed, that it would have been better had ‘a millstone been tied around my neck and I had been cast into the sea’ (Matthew 18:6). I had another guy recently conclude by saying “I can’t call you Father any more”, which was painful, but kind of curious as the guy is a Muslim and I didn’t think he referred to me that way anyway.

Anyway, what I wanted to say about this was that I had another ‘ah ha’ experience the other day in relation to all this, and it came when I read a rather encouraging comment made by one of my most vocal online antagonists!

I won’t quote my Facebook feed directly as I don’t want to identify the peple involved. Suffice it to say that on this particular Facebook thread, there were two guys on the attack, and one noble woman who was doing her best to plead my case (or at least, the case for marriage equality).

The exchanges were lengthy, passionate, and certainly bordered on abusive, and I think my defender eventually became exasperated, so she tried to wind up the argument by saying, “what I don’t understand is, if you think Father Dave is such a dork [nb. this is not an exact transcription], why are you still following him?” To this my antagonist replied, “but I don’t disrespect Father Dave. I love what he stands for. I just can’t agree with him on this issue.” And I found that really refreshing!

As I said, it was a bit of an ‘ah ha’ experience, as it made me realise that these guys (and so many others like them) are not simply writing me off as an idiot or an infidel. They feel conflicted! They had me down as one of the good guys, and now they’re trying to work out what one of the good guys is doing aligning himself with all those bad guys!

It’s very confronting, isn’t it, when one of our idols falls off his or her pedestal. I’m not suggesting that we all see things in black and white, but we do tend to take certain persons as our archetypes – people who are fundamentally decent, or who are fundamentally flawed – and it’s easier to make sense of the rest of humanity in relation to them, at least until they fall off their pedestals, at which point it becomes much harder to make sense of the world!

Jesus said “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:28-31)

This short parable from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, is not a particularly well-known one. Even so, if you’re a parent of a teenager, the story may sound familiar. Perhaps one of these sons is your son? Perhaps you gave birth to both of them?

I think most of us start out as parents with high expectations of our children. We don’t anticipate making any of the same mistakes that our parents made, and so we don’t expect our children to be as stubborn and rebellious as we were. Even so, it’s generally just a matter of time before our little angels grow up into persons capable of demonstrating exactly the same attitude on display in today’s parable, where you come to your son with a perfectly reasonable request – hey son, hows about cleaning your room?’ but, instead of smiling compliance, you get told to take a hike’

I’m using a deliberately fictitious example in this case, as in our house our son keeps his room in immaculate condition. It’s the girls in our family who struggle to defend their domestic environments against the unrelenting inertia towards chaos. That is not to say that our son is therefore easier to deal with and never abusive. Indeed, he’s probably not much better than I was!

The important thing though with the boy in Jesus’ parable is that, despite his obvious disrespect (which would have been a far more serious issue in the minds of those Jesus was speaking to than it is for us), the boy ends up doing what his father asked of him. He does what he’s told – moaning and complaining the whole way through perhaps, but he does it!

Of course, there is a second son in Jesus’ story, and while the second son looks a little less familiar to me, perhaps you’ve met him too? He is full of smiles, says all the right things, and appears to be ever-ready to do his father’s will. The only problem is that when it comes to the crunch, he does nothing! He is all talk!

Jesus asks, which of these two did the will of his father? and it is clear enough that Jesus favours the first son – the one who actually does something – as the better of the two, but, in truth, neither of the boys are anything to write home about!

The first son is rude and disrespectful, and is probably the bane of his fathers’ existence, even if he does eventually do as he’s told. The second son appears to be the golden boy – smiling, cheerful, well-dressed and well-mannered. Unfortunately, it’s all an illusion. He’s actually a useless couch potato!

And just in case we weren’t sure who Jesus had in mind when he spoke of these two boys, He concludes this exchange with the ‘chief priests and elders of the people’ (Matthew 21:23) by saying “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31)

We should pause here for a moment, for that is a remarkable statement. Jesus says quite clearly to those at the pinnacle of his society that, despite their pious words, these people who are considered the dregs of society are doing a better job, in terms of their spiritual integrity, than are their leaders (both civic and religious)!

it seems clear here that Jesus believed that saying the right thing and sounding right was actually less important than doing the right thing and acting right, and that’s really significant for us Christian types, for we have a proud history that emphasises saying the right thing and sounding right. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole history of the Christian church has been constituted by our ongoing struggle to say the right thing and to sound right.

‘Orthodoxy’ we call it, which is all about having the right language to express the right thoughts, in contrast with what trendy leftists call ‘orthopraxis’ which emphasises doing over thinking. Yet even us trendy leftists like think the right thoughts as we do the right things because that’s what Christians do – we believe – and we believe the right stuff, because a Christian is defined by what they believe.

If that all sounds too obvious, consider or a moment how the faith of the first Christians differed from that of their contemporaries in the Greek and Roman world. I’ve been doing some study of the religious world of the first century recently, and when it comes to what constituted orthodox belief in the ancient Greek and Roman cults that worshipped their great pantheon of gods (quite possibly including the emperor) there really wasn’t any central dogma.

To participate in the ancient Greek or Roman cults, it really didn’t matter much what you believed. What mattered was that you joined in in the feasts and sacrifices, ate appropriate food at appropriate times, and participated in certain rituals. There never was an inquisition in those ancient cults, held to weed out heretics. Indeed, the whole concept of heresy, targeting people who think and say the wrong things, is an essentially Christian concept.

We might ask how this emphasis on thinking and saying the right thing developed in the church, and I think it probably started with our attempts to distinguish ourselves from the greater Jewish community from which we emerged, and then left behind, and then turned on and persecuted! One can only imagine how different the history of the church might have been had we focused our energies on being more like the ill-spoken but nonetheless obedient brother in the parable, rather than his sibling.

Many of you would have seen on YouTube the interview I did earlier this year with Father Toufiq Eid of Maaloula (in Syria). Father Toufic was in Maaloula in October 2013 when Jabhat Al Nusra (the Syrian end of Al Qaeda) invaded the town, beheaded the men at the gate when they refused to convert, and then went on to destroy and steal and murder a great number of residents until the town was eventually liberated by the Syrian Arab Amy six months later.

Father Toufic survived the occupation, of course, as did most of his flock, but they then had to come to terms with the fact that it had been some of the Muslim families in the village who had betrayed them into the hands of Al Qaeda. If you’ve seen the interview, you’ll remember Toufic speaking of the challenge this put before the Christians of Maaloula, to be reconciled with their Muslim neighbours despite the history of betrayal. It is in the context that Toufic says, “the love is more important than the doctrine”

I think this sums up too what we learn from the two brothers – that doing it right is more important than saying it right – that love is more important than doctrine.

In saying all this I am not, of course, wanting to downplay the importance of thinking it right and saying it right! Indeed, it would be a great irony if I was wanting to downplay the significance of speech in a sermon, which is itself a form of speech.  On the contrary, I put a lot of time into researching and developing my sermons because I take thinking and speaking very seriously!  And there is, of course, normally a very significant relationship between thinking it right and doing it right, despite the example of the two brothers. Normally, when you believe the right thing and say the right thing you will end up doing the right thing, and so saying it right and thinking it right is important. It’s just not as important, in and of itself.

I mentioned at the outset some of the nasty stuff I’ve been bombarded with lately as a result of my article in support of same-sex marriage. Let me balance that report a little as I close by showing you a lovely card I received in the post this week with words “Thank you so much” splashed across the front very colourfully.

The card was sent to me by a friend who I haven’t seen in 25 years. We were part of the same church a long time ago, when she was only a teenager. She wrote to me after all these years to thank me for my article, which she said gave her some peace.

Apparently, my friend’s sister is gay, and it’s evidently been hard for her and for her family in the church they are now involved in, which is heavily pushing the ‘no’ campaign. From subsequent communications, it appears to me that there’s not a lot of love in that community – not for a young gay girl, at any rate – which I think must be the most terrible indictment that can be made against any Christian community, but which is the sort of thing we are always in constant danger of when we let the doctrine become more important than the love!

Let us leave that saga there, along with the little family that we hear about in Jesus story – the Father and his two sons. Neither of those lads had a particularly impressive record as sons, and yet, as we leave them, the father hasn’t disowned either of them. He is still their loving father, and the two boys are still brothers.

You’ll have to forgive me if I seem to be squeezing the parable for more than it’s intended to give here, but I do find it comforting that the father in this story has no ideal children. One child certainly outperforms the other in this story (despite all expectations to the contrary) just as the prostitutes and tax-collectors apparently out-perform their political and religious and leaders, but in the end, the father still has two sons and they are still brothers, and even though the prostitutes and tax-collectors are going into the Kingdom ahead of the hypocrites, there seems to be room for the hypocrites too, even if they are a fair bit further back in the line.

The father has no ideal children. That’s the critical thing in my view, and that, I think, is what my online critics have failed to realise. My conflicted critics – those who thought I was one of the good guys but can’t come to terms with the fact that now I’m behaving like one of the bad guys – need to realise that the father actually has no ideal children, and in the end, I’m not one of the good guys or one of the bad guys. I’m just one of the guys – just one of the Father’s struggling children, doing his best to get it right and to do it right, but often failing.

The father has no perfect children, but I do believe that we, sisters and brothers, have a perfectly loving Heavenly father, and that gives me hope.

first preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on October 1st, 2017

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Do we ever get Jesus right? (a sermon on Matthew 16:13-23)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” …

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”” (Matthew 16:13-17, 21-23)

You’ll have to forgive me today for attempting to deal with such a long passage from Matthew chapter 16 in one session. In church it is read over two weeks. Matthew 16:13-20 is read the first week and is followed by verses 21-28 of the same chapter the next week.

The first week’s reading focuses on Peter’s proclamation that Jesus as ‘the Christ, the son of the living God’. It is an account of a climactic insight by Peter, making explicit the hitherto ambiguous identity of Jesus, and the response from Jesus is a blessing – ““Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:20)

The second reading, by contrast, begins with Jesus unfolding what it means for Him to be ‘the Christ’ – defining His mission in terms of suffering – to which Peter makes a strenuous objection. The response from Jesus to Peter in this instance is a curse – “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)

I can understand why those who designed the church’s lectionary broke this scene in half, giving us the happy part one week and the distressing part the next. The reality is though that this combination of blessing and cursing is all a part of the same conversation!

I find this a little unnerving, as it resembles what psychologist R.D. Laing called a ‘double-bind’. A double-bind is where you get confusing contradictory statements or signals from the same person.

A boy goes up and hugs his mother and she stiffens coldly.  The boy pulls away and the mother says ‘what’s wrong son?  Don’t you love me?’  The boy finds himself in a double-bind – both drawn to his mother and repelled at the same time. It was Laing’s belief that such situations could be precursors to schizophrenia.

I suspect that Peter in this scene must have found himself similarly both drawn to Jesus and repelled at the same time! Perhaps the whole scene left him exasperated and confused, and he may have wondered if he was going mad.

We who have the advantage of seeing the big picture know though that the problem here was not Jesus, but Peter and his team. It wasn’t so much that Jesus was full of contradictions, but that his closest followers had radically misunderstood Him. Indeed, they had managed to get Jesus completely right at one level, and yet completely wrong at the same time. This too is unnerving.

This bizarre ability to get Jesus both completely right and completely wrong is something we, the church, have never lost.  Indeed, this was forcibly brought home to me again this week!

Those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook will know that this week I made mention again of an article I published seven years ago, entitled Why every Christian should support same-sex marriage. Well … it was originally entitled Why every Christian should support gay marriage, as the terminology was by no means fixed at the time. Either way, it should be clear what the article is about.

Perhaps it was unwise of me to draw attention to the article again in the current climate. In truth though, I’d had a number of persons asking me for my thoughts on this subject, so I thought it timely to broadcast the article again.

The result, at any rate, was that I started a bit of a fire-storm in my Twitter account, and an even bigger one on my Facebook page, where the article link received 152 ‘likes’ (or other such responses) and so many comments that were they all to be printed off, I think we’d have enough material for a short book!

It’s been interesting, reading through these comments, many of which are both lengthy and impassioned. Some of them I found very encouraging and others I found rather disturbing.

The most disturbing comment, I felt, was the one that referred to me as ‘a traitor’. For me, that was a clear indication that I was dealing with tribalism rather than theology. The idea that by taking a stand in favour of same-sex marriage I was betraying the team is concerning. Is that really how we want to define our team – the Christian team? If so, do I really want to be a part of that team, and do I have a choice?

People get very passionate about tribal issues. Treason is one of those crimes that has always been punishable by death, as betrayal of the team tends to be seen as something that threatens every member of the team!

As I say, there were also a large number of very positive comments on my Facebook page. Indeed, the positives and the negatives were pretty evenly balanced in terms of volume. What really surprised me though, when I did a bit of research, was that I discovered that of the 152 like-and-dislike responses I’d had to the post, only 4 of those were actually negative!

Forgive me if that doesn’t make immediate sense. You have to have some understanding of how Facebook works to grasp the significance of this. When you make a post in Facebook, readers can respond with a ‘like’ (which is a thumbs-up icon) or with ‘love’ (which is a heart icon) or with tears, shock or anger (each with their own appropriate icons). In the case of this post, those last three icons (the negative ones) only accounted for 4 of the 153 responses. By contrast, at time of writing, there were 128 likes (thumbs-up) and 21 expressions of love!

Why this fascinated me was because the amount of dialogue that filled out the comments was, as I mentioned, about equal on both sides, meaning that the 4 unhappy people were making just as much noise as the other 149 happy people!

Whether that balance is what we are seeing mirrored in the broader debate across the community, I don’t venture to guess, but it did make me wonder. What was unambiguous to me though was that the persons on both sides of the debate were mainly orthodox Christians, meaning that we all, surely, had Jesus right (in a sense) while at the same time, some of us evidently have got Him really wrong!

I’m not going to devote time today to discussing which side of that debate is right and which is wrong. Given the title of my article, you already know where I stand. Same-sex marriage though was not the issue under discussion in our Gospel reading, which is what I am focusing on today. The issue at the centre of Matthew chapter 16 though is also a divisive and contentious subject – namely, Jesus’ teaching that the Christian life is all about suffering!

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21)

And just in case you thought this was just about Jesus and not about us, this is followed by:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

This is not a teaching that the first disciples found easy to come to terms with, and I don’t think it is something we have ever really come to terms with. The idea that following Jesus means choosing a life of torture makes it all sound very unreligious, most especially in contemporary Australian society, where religion is generally seen (at best) as a path to self-improvement.

I’m not suggesting that people in this country only follow Jesus because He promises them a bigger bank balance and a better sex-life, though there are some preachers out there who preach along those lines. I do think though that whenever we, the church, proclaim the Gospel, we inevitably want to tell people about all the positive outcomes associated with following Jesus. Instead of promising more money and sex, we probably focus on eternal rewards. Either way though, the teaching of the church has always been that following Jesus is a good deal.

Jesus does speak this way Himself, of course, and even here He promises that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Even so, it’s not really clear what He means. Is Jesus saying that dying for Him will earn you a better life on the other side of death, or is He saying something more psycho-spiritual – that you will find your true self when you sacrifice yourself for others.

In truth, I think our religious yearnings tend to be shaped by the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

If you go to church in Syria at the moment, what do you think they are praying for? They are praying for an end to the violence that surrounds them. Of course they are.

When we look at the New Testament, what were the disciples of Jesus praying for? They were praying for an end of the Roman occupation and all the violence and oppression associated with that occupation. Of course they were, and their expectations of Jesus were shaped accordingly.

In our own context, what are we praying for, and what is it that we are expecting Jesus to deliver? Life after death perhaps? We may feel that we have everything else covered. We may have very few other worries in this life, such that all of our religious yearnings are focused on that one area.

What comes through to me from this scene in Matthew 16 is the extent to which Jesus fails to accommodate our spiritual yearnings and expectations!

I’m not suggesting that Jesus will not give us all eternal life (in the literal life-after-death sense of the word), just as I’m not suggesting that Jesus isn’t involved in bringing peace to Syria, just as I’m not suggesting that Jesus wasn’t concerned about ending the Roman occupation in first century Judea. What I do think this passage reminds us of though is that Jesus agenda and our religious hopes and yearnings are never a precise fit.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mathew 16:24-25)

Instead of Jesus meeting all our expectations, it seems to me that what we are being asked to do here is to sacrifice our expectations and our agendas for the sake of Jesus’ agenda.

Discipleship, I’d suggest, is a lot like soldiering. Soldiering is something that we should know a lot about in this parish. You only have to look at the remembrance boards at the back of the church building to know that this church has generated a lot of soldiers in its time, and indeed we still have soldiers in our ranks.

What is the goal of soldiering? Is it to be courageous? Is it to become a great warrior and win lots of medals? Not really, is it? The goal of soldiering is to win the war. It’s not really about us and our performance at all. It’s about something far greater than ourselves, and to be a good soldier you have to be willing to sacrifice all the hopes you might have for yourself for that greater cause.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

All of this is rather unnerving, of course, just as the fact that Jesus can both bless Peter for his insight and then call him ‘Satan’ on account of his ignorance is likewise unnerving, and yet there is good news in this passage.

If the bad news is that Jesus calls the one he blesses ‘Satan’, the good news is that the one he calls Satan is also the one He blesses.

Now I know that the cursing of Peter comes after the blessing, but this is not the end of the story. Indeed, Matthew chapter 16 is not even anywhere near the end of the Gospel of Matthew!

Peter and the other disciples get Jesus completely wrong – here and at multiple other times and places – and this is by no means the only time that Jesus gets upset with them. The good news is that Jesus sticks with them anyway!

Those who fail Jesus, and who indeed ultimately abandon and betray Jesus, remain His beloved disciples. They make some progress, though by the time we leave them they still seem far from perfect. Even so, the one who Jesus denounces as Satan is nonetheless retained as the rock upon which He builds His church!

This is good news, and the good news is that it’s not about us because it doesn’t depend on us. We just need to keep trying to take up the cross and follow. Jesus will do the rest.

We will continue to get things wrong. We will stumble and fall, and most likely will never really get our act together. Even so, we can have every confidence that Jesus will stick with us and will see us through to the end. For this is ultimately Jesus’ fight. For His is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Wrestling with God – a sermon on Genesis 32:24-30

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

There is no growth without pain. That’s as true for the butterfly that must fight its way painfully out of its cocoon before it can use its wings as it is for a young woman who has to fight her way through a suicidal depression before form a meaningful relationship. Growth always involves struggle and pain.

This is true to human experience, and so it should not surprise us to find that when societies have ritualised growth-stages in life, their rituals have always involved blood.

Robert Bly, in his book Iron John, tells of an aboriginal tribe that used to take all the boys, when they reached a certain age, to a special place where they would tell them the ancient stories of their forefathers and where they would point to a distant tree where their great forefather (an Adamic figure) used to sit and where he lost a tooth in a fight with some terrible demon. And while the boys strained to look at the tree, the adult males come by and knock out a tooth from each of the boys. And then the boys return home as men.

In our white Australian culture, we no longer have official coming of age rituals for boys or girls any more, though, as most of you would know, we have done something to address that deficiency in our Fight Club, where I actively encourage young people, as they reach the ages of 16 and 17, to start training for a fight. Some ask, but what if I get hurt? to which the proper response is If it doesn’t hurt, you didn’t fight!

Why are you so keen to see young people fight? Even though I’ve been teaching boxing and the martial arts for more than 25 years, I still get asked that question quite a lot because it still seems so incongruous to some people that a so-called man of peace should be teaching young people to do something as ostensibly violent as to belt one another in the face! And the answer, of course, is ‘because it works!’ (as indeed, it worked for me)!

There is nothing quite like it – climbing into that sacred space, where all the normal rules of civilised society that try to prevent us from tearing away at each other are suspended for a few intense minutes! The ropes around the ring – people assume that they are there to keep the fighters in, but I think their main function is to keep civilisation out (at least for a moment), lest anyone should try to climb in and interfere!

What goes on in there is sacred! While their friends watch on from a distance, the fighters stand centre-ring, under the spotlight, all but naked, staring across that short, deadly space at their equally ill-clad opponents, knowing that they only have your own limbs with which to defend themselves. And then the bell rings and your heart pounds and fist hits face and everything becomes a blur until that final bell, when you walk back to your corner, bruised and bleeding, to embrace your mentors, who welcome you back into the human community.

Real growth always involves struggle and pain. And so, Jacob, in our reading from Genesis 32, wrestles all night with a dark and shadowy figure by the river Jabbok. He struggles. He fights. He is wounded. He is blessed. In the morning he limps away from his violent spiritual encounter as a new man with a new name, saying, “I have encountered God face to face, and I have survived.

The great Rabbi, Maimonides, believed that this whole episode was so impossible that it had to be a dream, or if not a dream, then perhaps Jacob wrestled with his brother Esau, or if not Esau, could it perhaps have been that Jacob was wrestling with himself? For how can a human wrestle with God? And yet the one thing that seems clear to me from this story is that, so far as Jacob was concerned, it had to be God that he was wrestling with, for it is this violent encounter with the Almighty that makes sense of Jacob’s whole life

If you know the story of Jacob you know that his whole life was characterised by struggle – indeed, that the violence started before he was born! Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, had twins, and we’re told that the birth was so painful, she thought she was dying. The children, we’re told were wrestling within her.

When Jacob was born he came out second, but grasping his brother’s heel, and so they called him ‘Jacob’, meaning grabber’, and as he grew up, his name increasingly became his personality, as he went around grabbing and grasping everything he could for himself, especially those things that belonged to his dumb older brother, Esau.

Jacob, it seems, was a rather nasty child who grew up to become a rather nasty man, and yet he was also the child of the promise about whom God had given an undertaking, that through Jacob He would build a great nation!

Jacob had no doubt been told from an early age that he lived under this promise, and it appears that all his wheeling and dealing was his attempt to achieve for himself that very destiny that he had been promised. It’s as if Jacob couldn’t trust God to take care of it but had to grab it all in his own way!

Jacob struggled with Esau and stole his birth right. He struggled with his poor old father and fooled him into giving him Esau’s inheritance. He then had to leave town because Esau (understandably) wanted to kill him, and he went and struggled with his uncle Laban in a faraway land.

Laban, if you know the story, turned out to be an even bigger grabber than Jacob was, though in the end Jacob wrestled away from Laban most of his wealth too. And so, uncle Laban joined the list of persons who would have liked to have seen Jacob dead, which brings the scene we read about today.

Having made himself even more unwelcome in his uncle’s house than he was in his father’s house, Jacob left his uncle’s land and headed home. He took with him all the wealth he had acquired through his years of wheeling and dealing, along with the women and children and servants he had acquired, along with everything else that he had managed to grab and grasp and wrestle away from people who had more rights to it than he did. And as he nears home, with Laban pursuing him from behind, he hears that his brother Esau – the original victim of his conniving – is coming out to meet him from up ahead, along with four hundred men – a force that was far greater than anything Jacob had with him. And so, it would seem, Jacob was finally going to get his comeuppance!

It’s curious, isn’t it, that after all Jacob’s years of wheeling and dealing and grabbing and grasping and stealing from his uncle Laban and particularly from his brother, he still couldn’t stand up against either of them in a straight fight? Despite all that Jacob had gained, Esau was still stronger than he was. Jacob didn’t have 400 mates to stand beside him. He didn’t even have the strength to stand up against Laban!

So, Jacob sends on ahead of himself gifts and offerings, aimed at appeasing his brother, Esau. And then he divides up his entourage into two groups, in the hope that, if push comes to shove, one group might escape while the other is being destroyed. And then he sends the women and children across the river in front of him, in the hope that, presumably, even if they don’t sway his brother’s sympathy, at least Esau’s arrows will strike them first.

And Jacob spends the night alone on the far side of the river – quite possibly alone for the first time in years – alone with his own thoughts, with time to think, to reflect, to pray perhaps …

And yet Jacob is not alone. There is another figure there on the far side of the river with him, lurking in the shadows – a dark figure who has always been there, moving about in the background, a figure with whom Jacob has always avoided a direct confrontation. This shadow-dweller waits as He has always waited – waiting until Jacob is finally totally alone, and then He assaults him!

This is one of the few stories in the Bible where having a good knowledge of traditional wrestling does help quite a bit in your understanding what‘s going on. When Jacob and God wrestle, they’re not competing according to modern Olympic rules – looking for a shoulder pin and a count of three. They’re wrestling in the traditional style – in an all-in brawl that can only end in either submission or death.

Most countries and cultures have their own traditional wrestling styles – from Silat in Indonesia, to Jiujitsu in Japan, to Sambo in Russia, to the Pankration of the Greeks. Each style has its own look and feel, but one thing they all tend to have in common is that, in their traditional forms, they were all quite brutal.

I know a man who spent his teenage years wrestling his way through the sandpits of India, where every village had its own distinct style of wrestling. He told me how he stayed with a family in one town where their style involved wrestling with a large metal spike attached to one arm. Apparently, you were allowed one good shot with the spike when you got the other guy to the ground. And so almost every member of the family was carrying some horrific wound a missing eye or a great hole in the face. This is traditional wrestling!

When Ange and I were in Greece many years ago we saw a statue of Hercules and Atlas wrestling in a way that reflected the way the ancient Greeks used to wrestle. Hercules has Atlas in the air and is about to drive his head into the ground but Atlas has hold of Hercules’ genitals and was ready to tear them off! This is the way the ancients wrestled at the original Olympic Games! It was said of Ulysses that when he returned from Troy after twenty years of battle his own mother couldn’t recognise him, but when the winner of the wrestling returned home after the Olympics, even his own dog couldn’t recognise him! It was a rough sport, and this is akin to the sort of wrestling on view in Genesis 32.

We are told in Genesis 32:25 that when God saw that He couldn’t get the better of Jacob in the fight, He delivered him a shot to the inside thigh. Presumably this is a euphemism. The image we are given, I believe, is of Jacob receiving a hit to the groin. God was applying a wrestling technique colloquially known as the squirrel, giving Jacob an injury that would leave him limping for the rest of his life!

This is not a comfortable image of God – the one who fights with his chosen people and both blesses them and wounds them with shots below the belt! This is an image of a God who brawls with his chosen ones and beats them into submission, which seems a long way from our more familiar and comfortable images of gentle Jesus meek and mild!

We live in an age where popular religion is about getting in touch with your spiritual side and it tends to be sugar and spice and all things nice, but with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, there is a lot of blood and struggle!

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, for if you’re going to deal with this God you are going to have to deal with God on God’s terms. That may not be the whole of the Good News of the Gospel, but neither is it the whole of the Good News to give testimony to how we came to Jesus and He solved all our problems. For a lot of us, our problems never really began till we started following Jesus!

Have we wrestled with this God? – that is the question. Have we gone beyond thinking about God to actually coming to grips with God? Have we felt the fingers of God sink deeply into our own flesh? Have we screamed, unable to break God’s suffocating grip? Have we thrashed it out with God and reached that point where we limp away, damaged, and yet saying with Jacob I have wrestled with God, yet I am still alive.’

John Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis (published in 1554) makes the bold claim that all the servants of God in this world are wrestlers.

For the Lord exercises us with various kinds of conflicts. Moreover, it is not said that Satan, or any mortal man, wrestled with Jacob, but God himself: to teach us that our faith is tried by him; and whenever we are tempted, our business is truly with him, not only because we fight under his auspices, but because he, as an antagonist, descends into the arena to try our strength. This, though at first sight it seems absurd, experience and reason teaches us to be true.  For as all prosperity flows from his goodness, so adversity is either the rod with which he corrects our sins, or the test of our faith and patience.  And since there is no kind of temptation by which God does not try his faithful people the similitude is very suitable, which represents him as coming, hand to hand, to combat with them. Therefore, what was once exhibited under a visible form to our father Jacob, is daily fulfilled in the individual members of the Church; namely, that, in their temptations, it is necessary for them to wrestle with God.

Do we dare to step into the ring with God? For Jacob, it was the transition point, not simply to becoming a man, but to becoming a man of faith. Do we dare to make that transition ourselves by confronting God in our humanity and thrashing it out with Him until we too become true men and women of faith? Will we dare to have it said of us that we wrestled with God and survived?

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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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