The secular side of God (A sermon on Esther)

“When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman hadthrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Willhe even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words leftthe mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:8)

It’s hard to avoid the book of Esther when it pops up in the lectionary every three years, and yet, the more often this book comes around, the less comfortable I feel preaching on it. We need a woman preaching on Esther next time. I hate ripping into one of the few iconic female figures we have in the Scriptures. The problem though is that I really don’t like her!

I remember at Moore College when we had a woman rostered on to preach. That didn’t happen very often, tragically, so when we did have a woman rostered on, I would get quite excited, and probably had inflated expectations. And then she turned out to be just as boring and predictable as most of the men!

It’s not that Esther is boring and predicable, mind you – far from it. My issue with Esther is that she is so violent, and relatively unprincipled, but perhaps that’s just my white, male, middle-class perception of Esther. You be the judge!

What I can say is that lots of other white, male, middle-class fathers in the faith share my negative assessment of Esther), Martin Luther most obviously. He hated Esther and said, I am so hostile to this book that I could wish it did not exist at all; for it Judaizes too greatly and has much pagan impropriety.

Of course, Luther was notoriously anti-Semitic, so perhaps we should be cautious about taking his accusation of Judaizingtoo seriously. Other church fathers though were equally staunch in their opposition. Melito of Sardis, Gregory of Nazianzus, Theodore of Mopsuestia and the great Athanasius all rejected the book from the canon of Scripture completely, while Cyril of Jerusalem, John of Damascus and Origen relegated it to being the last book in their Bibles!

Yes, these are all the perceptions of white, middle-class, male scholars (with the possible exception of Origen who was African, and who reportedly castrated himself at an early age and so was perhaps gender non-specific). Even so, their problem was not simply that the book is violent, nor that it Judaized(whatever that means). Our fathers were thrown by the fact that the book never mentions God – a privilege it shares with only one other Biblical book – the Song of Songs.

Moreover, it’s not just that the word God itself that is missing. Esther doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious book. There’s no mention of divine law or faith or prayer or worship, or any of the great Biblical themes we are familiar with – covenant, grace, or mercy, let alone love and forgiveness.

Even so, I’ll give you an outline of the book and you be the judge. You decide whether Esther is an archetype of Biblical womanhood or whether she and her book should be quietly deleted from the Scriptural record (or something in between those two extremes)

The story is set in Susa – the capital of the Persian Empire – in the fifth century B.C. The Jews are a conquered people. Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians a hundred years earlier and its inhabitants carried off into the land of its conquerors where, by the rivers of Babylon, they sat down and there they wept when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137). Yet after a hundred years the weeping has stopped, and the exiled people of Zion were by that stage so thoroughly integrated into the Persian Empire that when Esther rose to prominence in the royal court nobody even realised that she was Jewish!

Esther rose to prominence via a beauty pageant. Queen Vashti, we are told at the beginning of the narrative, overstepped her prerogative in the royal court by refusing to snap to attention when her drunken husband called for her, and so she was dismissed from her position and the job was offered to the prettiest girl in the kingdom. That pretty girl turned out to be Esther!

The book sounds a lot like Cinderella initially (which was also a story about the patriarchal abuse of power, though with less violence). Esther – a young Jewish girl with no social standing whatsoever – suddenly becomes queen of all Persia. That’s how the story starts, and if it had stopped there with a happily ever aftermessage in the closing credits we might have found Esther’s good fortune heart- warming, even if not particularly spiritually inspiring.

This is not the only story in the Hebrew Bible, of course, were Jews rise to positions of prominence in a pagan court. Other obvious examples come from the Book of Daniel, where Daniel and his three friends likewise take on positions of power in the Babylonian court. That story is set a century or so earlier and it’s a very different kind of story. Daniel and his friends are constantly getting themselves into trouble because they insist on worshipping the God of their forefathers and on being true to the traditions and the religion of their people. We don’t see Esther struggling with any of those things. Indeed, we don’t see Esther struggling much until her uncle starts to make trouble for both of them.

The shift in the book of Esther from fairy tale to horror movie begins in chapter two, where we read of the animosity between Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, and Haman the Amalekite, who is Prime Minister to Xerxes, the king.

While, as I said, the exiled inhabitants of Israel had become thoroughly integrated into their new homeland after a hundred years, yet, as is so often the case, old ethnic animosities die hard, and Haman (who is referred to as ‘the enemy of the Jews’) and Mordechai are enemies from early on in the Book of Esther, basically on account of the fact that Mordechai is a Jew and Haman is an Amalekite, and even after a hundred years there was nothing more hateful to a Jew than an Amalekite and nothing more hateful to an Amalekite than a Jew!

The way it reads in the book, it’s actually Mordechai who opens hostilities between the two. Haman is appointed Prime Minister, and everybody bows and shows respect to him – everybody except Mordechai. Mordechai shows no respect to the man despite his office. Why not? Because he is an Amalekite!

If this were a New Testament story, St Paul might enter at this point and proclaim that there is no Jew and no Amalekite but that all are one in Christ Jesus. Even so, it’s not a New Testament story, and things go from bad to worse.

It is depressingly contemporary, actually. I don’t know if there any Amalekites left to hate in the world, but anti-Semitism is certainly still with us, along with any number of other forms of discrimination. Mind you, one of the most pronounced waves of racial prejudice we’ve ever experienced in this country came shortly after world war II. Theres only three things wrong with them. Theyre over- sexed, over-payed and over ere!Who were we talking about? Americans!

At any rate, it’s this tribal animosity between Jews and Amalekites that drives the drama in the book of Esther, and it all escalates very quickly. Mordechai disrespects Haman, and Haman decides to respond by not just killing Mordechai but by wiping out his entire people – the Jews! He convinces the king that eradicating this particular race from his empire will be good for everybody and the king, it seems, agrees without looking too closely into the details.

The key to the drama, of course, lies in the fact that neither Haman nor the king realise that Queen Esther herself is a Jewess as the girl had continued to keep this hidden, apparently at the behest of her uncle, Mordechai, who evidently anticipated some level of anti-Semitism from his tribal enemies. This allows Esther to eventually reach the king’s ear and make an appeal to him on behalf of her tribe before they are all subjected to wholesale slaughter.

The climax comes in chapter seven where Esther pleads to the king for her life and where Haman – realising suddenly what is going on and seeing that the tables have been turned upon him – falls on the couch of the queen and pleads for his life. The king then walks in to witness what appears to be some sordid attempt at sexual assault. “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” the king says, and we’re told, As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:8)

It’s graphic language that vividly anticipates the gruesome fate that meets Haman only moments later. Haman had, up to that point, been happily building a gallows in his backyard – a gallows upon which he intended to execute his enemy, Mordechai. As it turns out, of course, it is not Mordechai who is hanged there but Haman himself – hoisted (quite literally) on his own petard.

And yet the violence does not stop there! With the cooperation of the good King, Esther manages to have all of Haman’s children and extended family hanged there as well, with their bodies hung up on display afterwards for the world to see! And the violence does not stop there either! Esther requests of the king that she and her people might be allowed to go on killing their tribal enemies and so do unto their enemies as their enemies had intended to do unto them!

The book says that Esther and her tribe were so successful that they managed to kill the best part of 100,000 people over only a couple of days – a feat that, in the eyes of the author of the Book of Esther, ranks as a both remarkable and admirable though, by today’s standards, it would surely rank as a war crime!

As a postscript, we note that the story of Esther is remembered each year in the Jewish community at the Feast of Purim, where there is apparently a tradition that participants drink so much wine that after a while they can’t tell the difference between the cries of ‘blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘cursed be Haman’.

Some think that’s why the name of God isn’t mentioned in the book – because people are regularly so drunk when the Book of Esther is read that they might accidentally take the name of the Lord their God in vain! Thus the book becomes associated with drunkenness as well as violence and godlessness, which brings us back to the question about what it’s doing in the Bible in the first place.

You be the judge. Make up your own mind about the book and about its leading character. Is Esther a strong woman who saved her people from destruction or was she cunning and self-serving with no concept of proportionality.

My feeling is that we need to look beyond the gender dynamics and recognise that the poison that destroys both men and women in this story is power. As Lord Acton put it, all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sadly, that’s proven to be as true of Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto and Hillary Clinton as it has been of any of their male counterparts.

The other question, of course, is so whats the point?If the story of Esther isn’t given to us as an example of godly leadership, what is the book doing in the Scriptures? My feeling is that it’s there to remind us of the secular side of God.

God’s workings are not obvious in the Esther story. The Spirit of God does not shine through any of the characters and there are no miracles. Yet, when we stand back and look at the big picture, we recognise a story of God fulfilling the promises made to Abraham, even if it’s not being done in a very religious way!

In Esther we see the secular side of God, which is not what we are used to! It is easier for us to think of God as one who inhabits a world of religion. God is present in His holy temple. God is present with his people gathered. God is at work through the prayers of those who serve him, bringing miracles and healings and salvation and life, and all of this is surely true. And yet, it seems that the same God who is present in His holy temple is also present in the palace of the pagan king. God who meets us in worship at church is also with us when we get home. God who works through the prayers of his faithful people will still be at work when nobody is praying and when there are no faithful people to be found!

This is the story of Esther, where nobody prays, nobody talks about God, and nobody even seems to think about God, but God is at work anyway! Miracles don’t seem to be happening. In fact terrible things are happening. Even so, in the end God’s will is being done, and that has to be a ground of hope for all of us!

Stuff happens. People are bigoted, narrow-minded and selfish. They let us downand they damage us – sometimes accidentally and sometimes with clear and evilintent – and God, ultimately, works it out. This is not to say that things work outexactly as we wish they would or that, in retrospect, life looks like one perfectrose garden. Even so, God’s will will be done, and through the blood and thesuffering, love ultimately wins. Amen!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 30th September, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

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Encountering the Other (A sermon on Job 24:3-6)

 

3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.

6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.
(Job 42:2-6)

These are the final words of Job, from the book of Job. I hadn’t planned to preach on the book of Job this week, but when I read those words – “who is this who obscures my plans without knowledge?” – after emerging from another week of Synod, I knew I couldn’t preach on anything else!

Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

This is the very end of the book of Job. It’s where Job finally realises that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he knew, and that seemed particularly relevant to me, not only because of the carryings-on in Synod, but to so much of what goes on in our churches and in Councils and in Parliaments and in families, where we always seem to think we know what we are talking about but where, time and time again, it turns out that we are ‘speaking of things we do not understand(or barely understand).

I don’t exclude myself from that critique. Yes, I sit there in the synod, listening to the learned pontificate on issues of human sexuality (amongst other things) and so often I’m sitting there (along with any number of others like me) thinking ‘you guys don’t have a clue’, and yet I know in myself that I really don’t have all the answers either.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the case with false humility. My dad used to warn me, as a Christian, not to fall for the idea that humility requires you to say that we’re not sure about things we can be sure about. He used to quote Deuteronomy 29:29 to me:

“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but the things revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Yes, there are secret things that belong to God alone, but there are also things revealed – things that we do know – and we do nobody any favours by pretending that we don’t know them.

Faith, hope and love – these three abide – and the greatest of these is love. Let’s never pretend that we can’t be sure about that. Let’s never compromise the truth of the Gospel – the love of God and the gift of life. These are the things revealed and we can proclaim them with confidence.

At the same time though, when it comes to understanding so many of the big and really vital existential issues – why we are the way we are, and why the world works the way it does (and so often fails to work the way we think it should work) and why good people suffer – these are hard things to understand.

Some would say that these aren’t really secret things so much as things revealed over time. Certainly, that’s the way wisdom works, in contrast to most learning. With most things, the more you learn the more you know. Wisdom often seems to work the other way around – that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know, and the more your realise that the things you thought you knew – that you don’t really know them as well as you thought you did.

That certainly seems to be the way it works when it comes to understanding the mystery of suffering, which is the focus of the book of Job, and is played out in the book through the drama of the life of Job.

Job is a good man and yet he suffers. He suffers terribly, losing his children in a terrible tragedy and then losing his livelihood and even his good health. When Job finishes his spectacular fall from grace he ends up in an ash-heap, scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery and wishing he were dead (Job 2:8-10). He is in a miserable situation, and nothing makes sense to him anymore. Many of us have been there. Many of us will go there yet – that place where nothing makes sense.

When I was a young man – particularly when I was a young believer – I knew everything. and, certainly, the problem of human suffering was not a problem.

People have free will. That’s why we have sin in the world. In order for there to be real love you have to have free will, and if you have free will then people are free to do evil. That all makes perfect sense until you encounter real tragedy in your life or in the lives of those you love. When your marriage breaks down or your daughter dies or you’re struck down by some debilitating illness, all the good arguments about free will suddenly seem over-rated.

I still remember my first moments in the lobby of the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus in 2013 – my first visit to Syria – with an elderly woman tugging at my cassock and showing me a crumpled photo of her dead son. “Why did they kill my Muhamad? They put a bomb in his pocket and killed him. Why did they kill my little boy?” Suffice it to say that I didn’t discuss free will with her.

What do you say to a woman like that who is looking for answers? This is not a rhetorical question, for isn’t this exactly the sort of situation where, as Christian people, we do need to make some sort of response? What would you have done? Would you have walked away? Would you have thrown your hands in the air and said “I don’t know”? Would you have talked about free will?

It’s informative, I think, that when Job’s three friends initially come along and find him in the ash-heap, the first thing they do is just sit silently with him in the ash-heap. Indeed, it says of Job’s three friends that they sat with him there for a week – seven days – saying nothing! But then, inevitably, they begin to talk and to try to make sense of everything that was happening.

It’s human nature. We need to make sense of things. Mystery is unnerving and difficult to live with, and so we rely on our intellects to help us find light in the darkness. We debate things through with our friends, just as we debate things through in synod, just as members of Parliament debate things, just as Job and his three friends debated, and the outcome is almost always the same. Nothing!

I think it’s worth reflecting seriously on this. We intelligent, middle-class, educated people always seem to believe that a good debate will help bring things to light and will persuade people of the truth. In all seriousness though, when was the last time you saw anything really change as the result of a good debate?

If you’ve been listening to what’s going on in Parliament lately, some powerful things have been said about the need to bring the suffering children of Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. For most of us, the case for these people is black and white. When we hear their being case made we find the argument completely convincing.

Strangely though, not everybody finds the argument as convincing as we do. On the contrary, unbelievably, nobody seems to change their mind. Those who opposed bringing the children of Nauru to Australia remain opposed. How can this be? Are they unintelligent? Did they simply fail to understand what was said?

Wouldn’t it be great if, when someone pointed out in Parliament the terrible suffering of these people, the whole house would suddenly rise and say, Wow! Thank you. We had no idea! Something obviously needs to change and needs to change now!”

It doesn’t work that way, does it? We know how the system works. We know that these arguments don’t really change anyone’s minds. Despite the esteem we give to the persuasive power of a good speech, we know full well that people make their minds up long before the speeches are made, and if they do change their mind it is almost never the direct result of impression the speech has made on them, but rather the effect the speech seemed to have on their constituents who vote for them.

Am I being cynical? Not really. As I’ve often said, the most important things we hold to in life don’t come to us through logic. We don’t fall in love as a result of logic. Logic doesn’t bring us to God any more than it dictates which political party we support or what football team we barrack for. Logic, so far as I can see, plays very little role in forming our core beliefs, so why would expect logic to change them?

I have a friend who works in the prison system call me recently, saying that he was working with a Christian man who’d been convicted on charges relating to terrorism. He wanted me to give him some Bible verses that might help bring the guy around. My response was that quoting Bible verses probably wouldn’t make much difference.

Of course, this is pretty much what Job’s friends did too, to help solve his problem. They didn’t so much quote chapter and verse as they did draw on fundamental Biblical principles to help Job make sense of what he was going through.

People only suffer if they deserve it, Job’s friends say. God is just, and if people are suffering, then it is because they have done something wrong. ‘But I haven’t done anything wrong’ says Job. ‘Who are you to say that you haven’t done anything wrong’ they say. ‘No one is perfect.’ ‘OK’, says Job, ‘but I haven’t done anything to deserve all this.’ ‘Who are you to say what you deserve’ his friends say. ‘You can be confident that God won’t mete out to you any more than you deserve. If you’re suffering greatly, then it’s an indication that you must have sinned greatly. If you’re in denial, then that’s an even more significant indicator of just how serious your sinful condition is…’ And so Job’s three good friends go on.

We’ve met these friends have we not? Perhaps we’ve met them in church, trying to be helpful. Perhaps they’ve come to visit us in hospital. Perhaps we’ve heard them on TV, explaining that if people are dying of AIDS, that it’s their own fault. We’ve met these friends. Dare we confess that at times we may have been these friends – feeling that, as religious people, we always needed to have a simple answer for every complex problem, even if it was the wrong answer!

“Reflection is endless. Action is lost” said Epictetus some 2,000 years ago, and nothing has changed. Most debates and arguments are like soccer games where one team kicks the ball up one end of the field and the other team kicks it back down, but nobody ever scores, which is why I’ve suggested on numerous occasions that if we really want to move forward in decision-making in the church, we really should consider setting up a boxing ring at the centre of synod.

If you’ve read my first book, I argue there that we really should elect our Archbishop this way too. We set up a cage at the centre of synod. Half a dozen candidates enter the cage. One Archbishop emerges. It would help bring people back to church too!

We could resolve a lot this way. I can see the marriage equality issue being resolved this way. Some bishop would be in the red corner, gloving up, and I’d come prancing into the blue corner and, moments later, we’d have a whole new style of church!

In truth, of course, Job doesn’t resolve his issues through a punch-up any more than he does through logical argument. He has an encounter with the Almighty, and that’s what changes everything for him.

I mentioned earlier my friend who works in the prison system with people charged with terrorism-related offences. I met up another friend last week who has had extensive experience with people involved in terrorism. It was Anne Aly – Australia’s first female Muslim MP and a former professor of counter-terrorism.

We did a great interview together, and I’ll publish it in full some time soon, but the thing she said that stuck with me the most was on exactly this subject. She said that no one she had ever met who had broken with their terrorist ideology had done so because they’d been talked out of it – either persuaded by good logical arguments or compelling Bible verses or anything of the sort. In every case, she told me, change happened because the jihadist met someone from the other side – the enemy – and discovered their humanity! Arguments don’t change people. People change people. Encounters change people.

This is what changes Job too. He could have argued about the Almighty endlessly, but meeting the Almighty was another thing altogether! He couldn’t meet God without trusting God. He didn’t understand God’s ways any better than he did before but now he knew he was dealing with someone he could trust.

This is where real change begins, I think – most obviously for church communities and for the Sydney synod, but, really, for all of us. Change begins with a deep experience of the love and the grace and compassion of the Almighty.

Lord, grant us wisdom, but even more so, grant us a true experience of yourself, andhelp us to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is your love for us, so that wemay be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19-20).

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 28th October, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

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Ending the Demonization of Russia

Words of wisdom from my friend (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Mairead Maguire

Father Dave and Mairead Maguire in Tehran, April 2014
with Mairead Maguire in Tehran, April 2014

Demonization of Russia in a new Cold War era- By Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace laureate

In examining the future, we must look to the past.

As we watch the media today, we are spoon fed more and more propaganda and fear of the unknown, that we should be afraid of the unknown and have full faith that our government is keeping us safe from the unknown. But by looking at media today, those of us who are old enough will be reminded of the era of Cold War news articles, hysteria of how the Russians would invade and how we should duck and cover under tables in our kitchens for the ensuing nuclear war. Under this mass hysteria all Western governments were convinced that we should join Western allies to fight the unknown evil that lies to the east. Later through my travels in Russia during the height of the Cold War with a peace delegation, we were shocked by the poverty of the country and questioned how we ever were led to believe that Russia was a force to be afraid of. We talked to the Russian students who were dismayed by their absolute poverty and showed anger against NATO for leading their country into an arms race that they could not win. Many years later, when speaking to young Americans in the US, I was in disbelief about the fear the students had of Russia and their talk of invasion. This is a good example of how the unknown can cause a deep routed paranoia when manipulated by the right powers.

All military is expensive, and we can see in Europe that the countries are reluctant to expand their military spending and find it hard to justify this to their people. In looking at this scenario, we can ask ourselves what is beneficial about this hysteria and fear caused on both sides. All armies must have an enemy to deem them necessary. An enemy must be created, and the people must be convinced that there is need for action to safeguard the freedom of their country. Right now, we can see a shifting of financial power from old Western powers to the rise of the Middle East and Asia. Do we honestly believe that the Western allies are going to give up their power? My suggestion is: not easily. The old dying empires will fight tooth and nail to protect their financial interests such as the petrol dollar and the many benefits that come through their power over poverty-stricken countries.

Firstly, I must say, that I personally believe that Russia is not by any means without faults. But the amount of anti-Russian propaganda in our media today is a throwback to the Cold War era. We must ask the question: Is this leading to more arms, a bigger NATO? Possibly to challenge large powers in the Middle East and Asia, as we see the US approaching the South China seas and NATO Naval games taking place in the Black Sea. Missile compounds are being erected in Romania, Poland and other ex-Soviet countries, while military games are set up in Scandinavia close to the Russian border to practice for a cold climate war scenario. At the same time, we see the US President arriving in Europe asking for increased military spending. At the same time the USA has increased its budget by 300 billion in one year.

The demonization of Russia is, I believe, one of the most dangerous things that is happening in our world today. The scapegoating of Russia is an inexcusable game that the West is indulging in. It is time for political leaders and each individual to move us back from the brink of catastrophe to begin to build relationships with our Russian brothers and sisters. Too long has the elite finically gained from war while millions are moved into poverty and desperation. The people of the world have been subjected to war propaganda based on lies and misinformation and we have seen the results of invasions and occupations by NATO disguised as “humanitarian intervention” and “right to protect”. NATO has destroyed the lives of millions of people and purposely devastated their lands, causing the exodus of millions of refugees. The people around the world must not be misled yet again. I personally believe that the US, the UK and France are the most military minded countries, whose inability to use their imagination and creativity to solve conflict through dialogue and negotiation is astonishing to myself and many people. In a highly militarized, dangerous world it is important we start to humanize each other and find ways of cooperation and build fraternity amongst the nations. The policies of demonization of political leaders as a means of preparing the way for invasions and wars must be stopped immediately and serious effort put in to the building of relationships across the world. The isolation and marginalization of countries will only lead to extremism, fundamentalism and violence.

During our visit to Moscow we had the pleasure of attending a celebration of mass at the main Orthodox Cathedral. I was very inspired by the deep spirituality and faith of the people as they sang the entire three-hour mass. I was moved by the culture of the Russian people and I could feel that their tremendous history of suffering and persecution gave them sensitivity and passion for peace.

Surely it is time that we in Europe refuse to be put in a position where we are forced to choose between our Russian and American brothers and sisters. The enormous problems that we are faced with such as, due to climate change and wars, mass migration and movement of peoples around the world, need to be tackled as a world community. The lifting of sanctions against Russia and the setting up of programs of cooperation will help build friendships amongst the nations.

I call on all people to encourage their political leaders in the US, EU and Russia to show vision and political leadership and use their skills to build trust and work for peace and nonviolence.

Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace laureate September 13th 2018
www.peacepeople.com

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Australia’s Pro-Putin, Pro-Syria, Celebrity Anglican Priest (Russia Insider, September 29, 2018)

I felt rather privileged to find myself subject of a major article in Russia Insider. The transcript it contains has a few typos. Even so, it portrays my views very accurately and comprehensively. Russia Insider – September 29, 2018

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What’s your story? (Mark 8:27-38)

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah(Mark 8:27-29)

We find ourselves again in the centre of Mark’s Gospel, at a passage that most of us regular church people will be familiar with – the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples that begins with Jesus’ question “who do people say that I am?”

As I say, most of us regular church people will be familiar with this passage, and if you’re a regular member of an Anglican church you are entitled to feel particularly familiar with it, as this is the second time we’ve read this passage this year!

Two times in one year might not sound overly repetitive, but if you consider that our lectionary works hard at making sure we don’t read the same passage more than once every three years, twice in one year is relatively relentless!

Of course, there are other bits of the Scripture that the lectionary ensures reach our ears more often than once every 1,000 days or so. The Christmas story and the Easter story are two obvious examples, and they make sense, given that the Christmas and Easter stories are integral to events that we celebrate every year, but that’s not the case with this story.

I assume that the reason this story appears so often is because the church considers it important, and it certainly is important within the narrative of the Gospels.

In the Gospel of Mark, it is indeed the very centre – not only in terms of it being in the physical mid-section of the book, but in terms of it being the axis upon which the rest of the story about Jesus hinges. And maybe it’s more than that too – maybe it’s the text upon which our identity as Christians hinges?

That was certainly the way this dialogue was presented to me when I was at University. This was the key question – ‘who do you say Jesus is?’ If you answer that question the same way Peter did, you’re a Christian. If you answer it any other way, you’re going to hell! This is the exam that you cannot afford to flunk!

I seem to remember that this form of Gospel presentation was quite successful when I was at Uni (roughly a millennium ago). Perhaps life was simpler back then? Perhaps it still works?

Either way, after going on to study the Bible in greater depth myself, I came to realise that this presentation can only work so long as you don’t read the whole passage – most obviously the bit where Peter, who gets the identity of Jesus right, is referred to by Jesus as Satan’ only a few moment later, suggesting that, even if Peter did get Jesus’ identity right, this didn’t necessarily put him on the happy side of the Heaven/Hell divide!

In truth, whether or not you see this question as being of apocalyptic significance, it certainly is the key question that identifies you as a card-carrying member of the church. This is what distinguishes us, as Christians, from Jews and Muslims in particular.

If you ask a Muslim, for instance, who she thinks Jesus was, she will likely give the same answer that a lot people were giving in Jesus’ own day – that He was ‘one of the prophets.’

I remember my beloved friend, Dr Hassoun (the Grand Mufti of Syria) saying to me that one of the things he loved about being a Muslim was that he was able to revere all the prophets – prophet Jesus, prophet Moses, prophet Mohammad, and more – and I remember thinking at the time that I was grateful that I didn’t then have with me any of those University-type Christians that might have been tempted to say to him, ‘I’m sorry, but that’s not adequate. Off to hell you go!’

I appreciate that, from the perspective of many of my Muslim friends, it’s as if we Christians are saying ‘You’ve got to give Jesus top billing! In the credits for the movie version of the history of the universe, you have to recognise Jesus as the star of the show’ and our Muslim friends are saying ‘well … we’ve got Jesus right up there in the opening credits. We just don’t have Him as a solo star.

The differences seem rather trivial when you put it this way too, and it seems even more ridiculous to condemn people to hell because they didn’t get Jesus’ place in the credits quite right.

Of course, I don’t believe all Muslims are going to hell because they got this wrong (or all Jews or all-anybody-else for that matter). At the same time though, I don’t think that the issue at stake here is trivial either. Rather, I suspect we’ve misunderstood it.

The key, I think, is Peter – the one who gets so Jesus right, saying, “You are the Messiah, and yet gets Him so wrong at the same time.

If you’ll allow me to continue with the movie analogy, Peter is indeed saying of Jesus

‘you are not just one of the lead players in this drama. You are the star of the show’

and Jesus accepts this recognition from Peter and yet, a few moments later, he’s telling Peter that he is Satan himself! The problem, as I see it, is not that Peter made any mistake by placing Jesus’ name at the top of the list of credits. It’s rather that he’s cast Jesus in the wrong show!

Jesus is the star of the show! Yes, but can you tell me a little more about the show Jesus is staring in? What has happened in the show thus far? Who are the other main characters? Who are the heroes and who are the villains? And most importantly, how do you expect this show to end?

If we’d asked Peter those questions, he might well have said that the story thus far was all outlined for us in the Hebrew Scriptures, as indeed it is, but those Scriptures can be understood in more than one way!

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading lately in the areas of ancient myth and meta- narrative. I managed to get half way though Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” until the author’s fascination with the Upanishads and the ancient Sanskrit texts of India got the better of me.

If you’re not familiar with Campbell, he was probably the world’s most well-known mythologist (expert in ancient myths), and they made a documentary movie about him in 1987, called “The Hero’s Journey”. I haven’t seen the movie, but I have read most of the book of the same name that came out as a companion to the movie.

Campbell’s great thesis was that all great myths and stories (including the Biblical drama) follow the same basic storyline – a storyline that he called the hero’s journey

The hero’s journey has twelve distinct stages, according to Campbell, and I won’t outline them here, but I will give you Campbell’s summary of the journey.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (from ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’)

As I say, Campbell saw this basic storyline as being at the heart of every great myth and legend, including the Biblical narrative, and his work had a big influence on people like Robert Bly (father of the modern-day men’s movement) and on George Lucas, who apparently developed the original Star Wars saga entirely in accordance with the twelve stages of the hero’s journey.

According to Campbell, individuals, as well as communities and countries, must have a story. He spent 38 years lecturing at a women’s-only college, and he said that when his students came back to see him in later life, it was immediately obvious to him who had followed the muse and lived out an adventure and who had simply been pulled along with the crowd.

For Campbell, this was the great danger – that you could hear the call to follow the hero’s path but instead get seduced by the temptations of money and power and spend your life desperately climbing to the top of the ladder, only to realise when you got there that the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall!

Campbell’s concept of the one great ‘monomyth’ has come under a lot of criticism since his death in 1987. More modern commentators have questioned whether Campbell took seriously enough the differences between different myths and stories as found in different cultures and traditions.

Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, for instance, have written about ‘The American Monomyth’ and how it differs from the standard hero’s journey. They published a number of books, with titles that speak for themselves, such as ‘The Myth of the American Superhero(2002) and “Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism(2003).

Small differences in the archetypal narrative can have profound ramifications, and when the narrative goes toxic, it can cost the lives of millions of people.

This brings us back to Peter and his narrative – “You are the Christ! You are the star of the show!” What kind of show are we talking about, Peter?

I remember having a rather intense chat with a friend of mine where we were talking about a group of people who had struggled, gone through very dark times, had to face the possibility of being completely wiped out, but through grit and determination had clawed their way back to not only survival but to real success! It was a real hero’s journey. Who were we talking about? Newtown Rugby League Football club.

I imagine that Peter would have spoken about his people in similar terms, though with even greater passion that my fellow Newtown supporter.

The Jews were a people with an epic story. Their adventures had led them through dispossession and slavery, through years of testing in the desert, and through countless battles where they had regularly been outgunned and outnumbered, and yet they had survived! And now they awaited their final liberation under the leadership of their Messiah – God’s chosen one, the Christ!

It was a hero’s journey, and I don’t doubt that Jesus’ narrative had all those same elements in it as did Peter’s story. Even so, I suspect that Jesus framed His narrative a little differently to Peter. The result, at any rate, was that it turned out to be a different story altogether – a darker story, a story of suffering!

Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.(Mark 8:33)

My guess is that Peter just stood there with his mouth open when Jesus said this. How could he have got Jesus so right and so wrong at the same time? It was going to take a lot of rethinking and reframing on Peter’s part before he could fully come on board with Jesus. They were speaking the same language, but they were living out different stories!

What’s your story? Everyone has a story, or, at least, everyone should have a story. Don’t settle for living somebody else’s story or adopting whatever pre-written story- line society hands down to you. Find your own story and live your hero’s journey!

What’s your story? That’s the first question, and the second question is this: is your story a part of the same show that Jesus is performing in?

These are big questions, and they’re worth taking time to reflect on.

For me personally, I often find myself with other Christian people who speak about Jesus the same way I do and yet, when we speak a little about our hopes and dreams, it seems as if we’re working from entirely different scripts! And then there are other people that God places in my way who would not answer today’s question about the identity of Jesus the same way I would, and yet we find that we’re on the same hero’s journey together!

Who do we say that Jesus is? It’s a question that we have to keep coming back to again and again, for it’s not just a challenge to get Jesus’ identity right. It’s an invitation to join Him on in the adventure of a lifetime.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 16th September, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

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Arise, my fair one! (A sermon on the Song of Songs)

“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:10-12)

Words from that rarely-read book from the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs, and appropriate words they are for this, the first Sunday of Spring.

Flowers appear. The time of singing has come. Winter is now officially behind us, and this regardless of whether the wind and rain have fully acknowledged the new reality on the ground! It is a time of regeneration, of fertility, of celebration and of romance, and it is romance, of course, that is the central theme of this book.

I say ‘of course’ because I assume that you’re familiar with this book though you have every reason not to be familiar with it. Not only is the Song of Songs nestled deeply in the wisdom section of our Old Testament (almost certainly the least well- read section of our Bibles) but it is not a book that our fathers and mothers in the faith have never really encouraged us to read.

There is a problem with this book! The problem is not simply that it is a romance novel. The problem is that it is also quite explicitly a celebration of sex. And the problem is that this book not only celebrates sex in the abstract, but that the celebration is played out between two people who are clearly not married.

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away ” (Song of Song 2:9-11)

Evidently the action section of this story lies somewhat ahead of this slice of the story where the man is depicted as stealthily scuttling around his lover’s garden in the middle of the night, throwing rocks at her window and trying to entice her to sneak out and join him. Even so, it’s clear where the whole affair is heading, and ‘affair’ is almost certainly the right word, for they wouldn’t be sneaking around if they were in a publicly legitimized relationship. The two lovers are not married, or if they are married, it’s not to each other!

Now … I appreciate that our church community in Dulwich Hill is often seen as being a bit controversial, most obviously because we try to be an inclusive community and have a history of support for issues like same-sex marriage. Those who would criticize us in that respect generally do so suggesting that we have succumbed to popular pressures impinging on us from outside of the community of faith.

My feeling is that what really threatens to radicalize us is not pressure coming in from the outside. It’s the radical forces agitating from within that are the problem – Scriptural truths that confront us through texts like this in the Song of Songs.

“The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Songs 2:13)

The church has always had problems with this. In truth, our Jewish mothers and fathers in the faith had problems with this long before the church even inherited these texts!

As late as the Council of Jamnia in the year 90, our Jewish Fathers were debating the place of The Song in the Scriptures, after which the battle that was taken up by Church Fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia until the Second Council of Constantinople eventually ruled in favour of the Song in the year 553.

During the Reformation the Scriptural status of The Song came up again, with Sebastian Castellio facing off against John Calvin.

We might find it encouraging that both the synagogue and the church did ultimately accept the Song of Songs as holy writ, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that this was because they were broad-minded.

With the Church Fathers, at least, those who defended the place of The Song in the canon of Scripture did so on the basis that the romance in the book was to be understood as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church! Given the overtly sexual nature of that relationship though, the allegory defense does initially strike me as a little weird!

This controversy is all very ancient, and yet it all seems so very contemporary too, and I can’t help but see parallels between those ancient ecclesiastical debates and the contemporary church’s attempts to mandate what constitutes an appropriate sexual relationship between men and women and between men and men and between women and women (and combinations of the above).

It all gets a little messy, doesn’t it? Even so, we (the church) can’t simply stay silent on these matters either, can we? We can’t condone young people racing around and engaging sexually with each other when they aren’t married because it says very clearly in the Scriptures that you can’t have sex unless you’re married.

For instance, it says it in … hang on … I’ve got a verse here somewhere …

The believers are those who protect their sexual organs except from their spouses.”

Whoops. Sorry. That’s the Qur’an (23:5-6)

OK. It does say very clearly “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) but that’s not exactly the same thing and, even there, commandments like this need to be understood in their context.

Now … please don’t hear me saying that we should disregard the prohibition against adultery, but I think we should recognise that, in the context of the commandments of the ancient Israelites, the seventh commandment is basically a law prohibiting property theft.

Thou shalt not commit adultery” is right alongside “Thou shalt not steal”, and in many ways anticipates the more comprehensive tenth commandment against coveting.

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.” (Exodus 20:17)

The use of the male pronoun here is deliberate and instructive, as the prohibition is directed against men who would take another man’s property – be it his house or his ass or his wife or any of his slaves (manservants or maidservants).

We don’t live in that kind of world any more (thanks be to God) – a world where men own women and where men and women own other men and women – and while I’m not suggesting that this makes the ancient commandments redundant, I am suggesting that we need to do our due diligence before directly applying these mandates to our relationships.

We live at a time when, as a society and as a church, we are being challenged to rethink our understanding of both sexuality and marriage. The church at large has been in the forefront of defending traditional models – maintaining the primacy of heterosexual monogamy to the exclusion of all other forms of relationship – but we who are more evangelically minded (who take the Bible as our starting and ending point in these considerations) recognise that the Bible itself embraces a number of different forms of marriage, and that on the subject of sex, our Scriptures have almost nothing to say.

You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds counter-intuitive. Those who haven’t read the Bible in detail might well assume that it has a lot to say about sex because the church has always had a lot to say about sex, and yet the truth is that both the Christian and Jewish Scriptures have very little to say on the subject of sex at all!

This is particularly obvious when we put the Biblical writings in their historic context and compare what is said in the Bible with the role sex played in competing religions.

When we think of the Hebrew Bible, the battle was always between the God of Israel and the Baals – the gods of the Canaanites. The word ‘Baal’ is somewhat generic in that it can be applied to a variety of gods, but when these Baals were turned into graven images, they were generally depicted as bulls with oversized genitals, as they were always fundamentally fertility gods.

Sex was a divine power in the religion of Baalism in all its manifestations. Hence the common practice of temple prostitution. Baalism was a religion of sex because sex was about life, fertility and abundance, and hence about survival.

The contrast between the religious environment of the Old Testament world and that of the New could not be greater in this respect. While Baalism divinized sex – making it a divine force – the religion of the Ancient Greeks, which dominated the spiritual landscape of the Roman Empire, demonized human sexuality!

It wasn’t just sex, of course, that was considered degenerate in the thinking of the Ancient Greeks. It was all that was fleshly. The goal was to elevate mind and spirit above the flesh and the baser instincts, which led to both misogyny towards women (who were seen as being more fleshly) and, simultaneously, to the promotion of pederasty, where older men would enter sexual relationships with younger men, as this was somehow seen as being more spiritual.

I think it goes without saying that the New Testament doesn’t buy into any of this. Indeed, it may be that St Paul’s statements about homosexual sex were directly targeting this kind of pederasty.

My key point, at any rate, is that whereas the religions of Baalism and Gnosticism either divinized or demonized sex, the Hebrew and Christians Scriptures do neither. In the Bible, sex seems to be regarded as human phenomenon.

Before leaving the world of the Bible, and issues of religion and sexuality in the ancient world, I feel compelled to mention briefly the most disturbing thing that I came across in my research on this subject, and that was the data on Roman religion and sexuality – male cult sexuality in particular – as uncovered by Craig Williams in his book on the ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity1.

You’ll have to forgive me for using a rather explicit term here, but there is no other way of putting it. According to Williams, Roman male sexuality, as enshrined in their ‘cult of virility’ was all about penetration. The Roman male penetrated others – women, other men, children, etc. – but was never penetrated himself because this was how Rome dominated the world. Rome penetrated and dominated others – individuals and countries – but was never penetrated itself.

What makes this so repulsive, in my view, is that it explicitly combines religion with both sex and domination. A religion that combines sex and power is surely the very definition of perversity and spiritual corruption.

If we consider this Roman model alongside the beautiful text of the Song of Songs, the contrast could not be greater.

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely ...” My beloved is mine and I am his(Song of Songs 2:14-16)

Here we read of no relationship of domination but one of beautiful reciprocity and mutual enrichment. The man speaks, the woman speaks, and neither is subordinated to the other, but both share equally in the joy of their romantic engagement.

This love is not a participation in any divine mystery any more than it is the work of the devil. Their love is theirs, and theirs to enjoy – a beautiful embodiment of what it means to be human, and indeed … an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church.

Yes, I’ve come around on this one. Of course, I don’t think the relationship between Christ and His church is about sex but, having said that, I don’t think sex is really about sex either. When done right, I believe sex is about intimacy, and the relationship between Christ and His church is indeed also an intimate one – intimate and passionate.

“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Songs 2:10-13)

1

Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 2nd September, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

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Grant us Wisdom (A sermon on 1 Kings 2-3)

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That’s not my normal opening prayer for a sermon but I suspect that many of you are familiar with it nonetheless. You may know it as the AA prayer for the NA prayer, as it’s a prayer used regularly by those in 12-step programs. What you may not know (and I didn’t know until I did a bit of research on it) is that the prayer is believed to have been written by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The only thing that has always puzzled me about the prayer is why it’s called ‘The Serenity Prayer’ when it’s not really a prayer for serenity!

Well … it is a prayer for serenity, but it’s also a prayer for courage and a prayer for wisdom, with the emphasis really falling on this final petition – ‘grant us the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot change’, and indeed, that’s something worth praying for!

I thought of that prayer this week as I read again King Solomon’s prayer, which is, even more straightforwardly, a prayer for wisdom:

“O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (I Kings 3:7-9)

Wisdom – that’s the focus of the prayer and, frankly, that’s the focus of all of today’s readings, though most obviously with this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures where the newly anointed king Solomon prays for the wisdom needed to govern his people.

Wisdom – I feel that this great theme has been thrust upon me today as a preacher, and it’s probably very appropriate that I do preach on wisdom every now  and then because it is a very prominent theme in the Scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible where entire books such as Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes have come to be classified as ‘wisdom literature’. Even so, wisdom is not something I generally ever preach on, and this for one extremely solid reason – it’s a very boring topic.

‘Boring’ may not be the first word that comes to mind for you when you hear the word wisdom’, and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone for whom the Book of Proverbs is their favourite book in the Bible. Mind you, I don’t know anyone for whom Proverbs is their favourite book (or I don’t think I do) and if that is you it probably reflects the fact that we are on quite distinct spiritual tangents.

Mind you, ‘boring’ is not the first word that comes to mind either when you read Solomon’s prayer in the context of the greater story told in these chapters from the first Book of Kings where ‘wisdom’ seems to be all about knowing who you should kill in order to secure your throne!

The beginning of Solomon’s reign was indeed bathed in blood. First, he kills his brother, Adonjiah, which involves him in breaking a vow he has made to his mother. Then he kills both his high priest and the general of his army, demonstrating that, like his father David, he could be a real man of blood!

Is this wisdom? These killings happen before his prayer so perhaps they displayed his lack of wisdom at the time? Perhaps if he’d had more wisdom he would have seen a way of securing his throne that didn’t require him to murder so many people?  Either way, this is the business of wisdom, which essentially involves having an understanding of the way the world works. In Solomon’s case that meant understanding the workings of the court and the way power structures operate. In our context the application of wisdom is inevitably more mundane.

I still remember some of the lectures I had back at Moore College on the wisdom literature. I remember enough of them, at least, to remember that amongst the many boring lectures I received there, those were amongst the most boring!

I remember too one year we had a visiting speaker from the US who gave an entire series of evening addresses on the topic of Biblical wisdom literature, and those evening talks were even more boring than the lectures I endured by day!

Mind you, I still remember from those evening lectures how the speaker defined Biblical wisdom for us, as an understanding of the way the world worked, and for some reason I still remember the illustration he gave us.

He told us how he’d been building a cupboard (or something like that) and that he’d discovered that if you hammer a sharp nail directly into wood it tends to split the wood but that if you blunt the nail a little bit first it tends to make an appropriate hole without doing the wood any damage. The great academic had, in fact, composed a proverb on the basis of this insight that ran something like ‘the sharp nail splitteth the wood but the blunt nail goes straight through’. This could indeed be a very useful piece of wisdom to have if you’re trying to build a cupboard, but not withstanding that, if you’re sitting up late trying to endure yet another lecture, it’s still very boring!

Wisdom is an understanding of the way things work – whether it be nails or nature or business or politics – and while that can be boring, the truth is that it is all rather necessary too and, in all honesty, it’s something I personally need a lot more of.

I’m not wanting to pretend that I’m an idiot, but in terms of the serenity prayer that asks for wisdom, peace and courage, I do a lot better at the courage end of that spectrum than the wisdom end. Over the years I’ve shown myself to be pretty good at summoning up courage to jump into a boxing ring or wrestling cage and put my body on the line to fight for some great cause. What I’m realizing now is that I never had the wisdom to know how to make the most of those events. If I had, our work today would probably still be being sustained on the strength of those performances.

I’m pretty good at breaking into detention centres on Manus Island, even if it means almost drowning as I spin around in a disabled boat, trying to escape the local navy. What I’m not so good at is knowing how to use that experience and the knowledge I gained through that experience (and the enormous store of unpublished film footage that we still have) such that we can really make a difference for those poor men.

I’m really good at leaping into warzones in Syria – boxing in the ancient ruins of Palmyra where ISIS held their ghastly executions, and engaging with kids in a part of Homs where suicide bombers had just blown apart half the street. What I’m still learning, and seem to be learning very slowly, is how to use those experiences to make a real and tangible difference in the work of peace.

I really struggle with this. I’m struggling particularly at the moment with the whole ‘Freedom for Julian Assange’ campaign.

I really want to make a meaningful contribution to the man’s freedom, and, of course, It’s not just about the man himself but about the things for which he stands – for freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, for the need to keep private information private but to make public officials publicly accountable for crimes they commit.

All those things are deeply important, I believe, and I’m more than ready to put on my boxing gloves or sneak into a detention centre or parachute into a warzone if that will help. The problem is that none of those things will help. What I need here is not more courage but wisdom.

I had breakfast with Julian’s dad last week and he’s a wise man. He gave me a much clearer understanding of the constraints our politicians are under – those that would like to help Julian.

Apparently, there are a number of politicians who would like to help but they are never totally free to speak out or to act as they please. Even the most senior political figures in our country have very limited options. They have colleagues in the wings, waiting to destroy them if they make the wrong move, and, unlike Solomon of old, they can’t just order an assassin to go and take out those who are limiting their hold on power. For better or worse, our system just doesn’t work like that.

I’ve been focusing on issues particularly close to my own heart, but we face the same need for wisdom in everything we do as a community.

We have a strong and passionate movement in our church, wanting to see refugees and asylum-seekers get a fair go. Even so, it is not always obvious how best to channel that energy. We need wisdom (and guidance).

I believe, likewise, that all of us who are the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill are passionately committed to maintaining an inclusive community where everybody is welcomed, and where everyone, regardless of race, gender, education or orientation is accepted and affirmed, where their humanity is valued. At the same time, we don’t want to unnecessarily alienate ourselves from other sisters and brothers in the broader church community who don’t see eye-to-eye with us on these areas, any more than we want to unnecessarily alienate other faith communities. In other words, we need wisdom as well as passion.

I’m tempted to say that we need a balance, except that the word ‘balance’ normally implies that you have to reduce one side of the equation in order to increase the other. In this case I’m not suggesting that we decrease passion in order to temper it with common sense. On the contrary, we need passion running at full throttle! We just need wisdom running at full throttle too.

That’s how Parish Council meetings are supposed to operate, I think.

I note that this is, in fact, the first time I’ve mentioned the Parish Council in this sermon though I suspect that for many listening the Parish Council has already come to mind more than once over the last ten minutes. I’ve used the word ‘boring’ quite a number of times now, and I think that for some of us the two concepts – ‘Parish Council’ and ‘boredom’ – are so intrinsically linked that you can’t say one without bringing to mind the other. If you fall into that category, don’t feel bad! One of the core themes of this sermon is that mundanity is a vital part of the process.

I’m not really suggesting that all our Parish Council meetings are boring either. They aren’t – not all of them, at any rate, and none of them are boring all of the time. Even so, in my twenty-eight years in this parish I am yet to hear one of the faithful say to me, “Oh, I can’t wait for the Parish Council meeting next week!”

In truth, that is not a criticism. Parish Council meetings aren’t supposed to be like a trip to Luna Park. Wisdom doesn’t work that way. Wisdom is the more softly-spoken sister in the family of faith. She keeps her head down for the most part. She does the maths. She balances the budget. She negotiates quietly. She connects with the right people and earns their trust. She gets the job done.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I can never say that prayer without remembering the time I said it at the death-bed of a man named Les who used to live here in Dulwich Hill.

Les had been an alcoholic for many years and yet he got sober and in his later years he devoted his time to working as a boxing trainer with young men, helping to keep his young charges on the straight and narrow. He was a beautiful soul who had an enormous impact on the lives of many people. I buried him more than 20 years ago and yet I still her his name mentioned regularly (and always with great respect).

In his final days his doctor suggested that he lighten up and have a few beers to help relieve the pain. He refused. The doctor said he’d write out the order for the beers on a prescription form, but Les wouldn’t do it. He was a wise man to the end. And so, in his final hours, we stood in a circle around his bed – me with his wife and children – and we all prayed the prayer together.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We need more wise men in this world. We need more wise women. We need more wisdom. Yes, we need passion, daring, charisma, commitment and compassion, but we need wisdom too. We need it in abundance.

Lord God, grant us wisdom, grant us courage, and grant us your peace. Amen.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 19th August, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

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I have sinned against the Lord (A sermon on 2 Samuel 12:7-13)

I have sinned against the Lord

2 Samuel 12:7-13

“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.””

Thus reads one of the most dramatic attacks on imperial power that we read of in the entirety of the Bible. Nathan the Prophet is railing against the anointed king of Israel – David – in a way that would normally be considered both inappropriate and dangerous for a person in his position. Even so, the faithful king, who had up to this point been extremely unfaithful, is suitably chastened by the words of Uriah and he repents.

The larger dialogue is quite gripping too, I think – beginning, as it does, with Nathan’s parable about the two farmers – one rich and one poor – where the rich guy pillages the flock of the poor guy in order to feed a guest. This is Nathan’s very clever way of getting around King David’s defenses. Rather than confronting him with his crime head-on, Nathan tells David a story that gets him emotionally on-side before revealing that his story is, in fact, a story about him (David), where the king is the villain!

The story is also a good example of the importance of understanding parables in context. If you don’t know the story of David and Bathsheba, and how David had slept with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, and then tried to cover up his role in the pregnancy by trying to get her husband to sleep with her, all of which ultimately led to the murder of the uncooperative husband who, strangely perhaps, chose death over sleeping with his wife. If you don’t know the broader story, the parable won’t make much sense, and perhaps that’s true of other parables too – that we need to understand all of them in context if we are going to understand them at all.

Even so, what makes this passage so memorable is not the academic insights it yields concerning the interpretation of parables. It’s the gut-wrenching nature of the confrontation between the prophet and the king, where David is forced to face squarely what he has done, and where he is given the choice of continuing to behave like an oriental despot by violently silencing his accuser or of accepting responsibility for his actions and turning back to the real power behind the throne in obedience and faith.

Happily, David chooses the latter alternative. Even so, the story doesn’t then resolve into a happy ending. David will be punished nonetheless, but not directly. David will be punished indirectly, through the rape and degradation of his wives and through the death of his soon- to-be-born child, all of which seems extraordinarily unfair on the women and on the child. Even so, there is one line in this story that has always rankled me here even more than the apparent injustices meted out against those who were surely not responsible for David’s transgressions, and that’s the statement made by David himself at the conclusion of this passage: “David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”” (2 Samuel 12:13)

That line always bothered from the first time I read it many, many years ago.

“I have sinned against the Lord” says David. Fair enough, but isn’t that something of an understatement, and doesn’t that rather miserably fail to grasp the full extent of your criminal responsibility? David might indeed have sinned against God, but didn’t he also sin against Bathsheba – the woman whom he raped – and against Uriah – the man whom he murdered?

At the risk of offending anyone who feels impelled to champion the powerless at this point, I want to recognise that questions can be raised concerning the innocence of Bathsheba in her dalliance with David, and even over the possible complicity of Uriah in his own death.

That may sound ridiculous at first, but I read a rather good book recently – ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes removing cultural blinders to better understand the Bible’ – that focused on the importance of understanding the culture and context in which these Biblical stories take place. The author (Randolph Richards) spent most of his life working as a missionary in remote parts of Indonesia, and he spent some time focusing on this story of David and Bathsheba as he sees it as an archetypal example of where our failure to understand the cultural context leads us to misunderstand the narrative as a whole.

Richards suggests that the story of David and Bathsheba is not a simple tale of royal rape and murder, any more than it is a story of modern-day romance. There would have been no way that Bathsheba, bathing in the nude on her rooftop, would not have been acutely aware that she could be seen clearly from the rooftop of the palace. Nor could she have been unaware of the king’s presence on the rooftop, as he would have been accompanied by a sizeable entourage.

Moreover, Bathsheba’s presence in the royal bed-chamber would never have been a secret between the two adults (whether consenting or non-consenting). Every member of the palace staff would have been fully aware of what was going on, and it is likely too that Uriah would have heard about what had happened long before he returned from the battlefield.

Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, would have been fully aware of what the king was playing at when he encouraged his soldier-on-leave to go home and relax with his wife. He would have recognised straight away that the king was giving him an opportunity to resolve a delicate situation. Uriah’s refusal to play along though makes us wonder what he was playing at. Was it really Uriah’s integrity that stopped him from going along with the king’s plan or was the man hoping to play the king for some greater gain? Was Uriah perhaps looking for money or for some privileged position in the royal household, or was he just stupid?

By saying all this I don’t mean to sanitize the behavior of David, nor suggest that he was not a rapist and a murderer. I’m simply suggesting that all the players in this drama are players.

Having said this, even if no one is completely innocent in this story, that doesn’t really make anybody less guilty either. Whether we think David is guilty of rape, murder, or simply property-theft as the parable suggests, there is no question that David has sinned grievously. And I don’t think that the fact that he is depicted as having sinned against God really makes his victimization of both Bathsheba and Uriah any less serious.

“I have sinned against the LORD.”, says David. “Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, he says again in Psalm 51 (verse 4).

Does this mean that Bathsheba and Uriah have been forgotten in the reckoning on David’s transgressions? On the contrary, what I think it means is that the violation of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are things that God takes very personally. To violate them is to sin directly against God!

It has taken me a while to come to this understanding. Initially, when I read this passage, it did seem to me that both David and the prophet Nathan were trivializing David’s crimes against Uriah and Bathsheba by seeing the whole thing as a religious issue. I now see it the other way around – that every crime that we commit against our sisters and brothers in the human family is something that God takes very personally. Conversely, I see too that, from a Biblical perspective, there really is only one sin – idolatry.

If that seems like a crazy or overly-pious thing to say, perhaps that’s because you, like me, have been used to dividing the world into two – distinguishing what is religious from what is secular, the spiritual from the scientific. In reality there is just one world, and every false thing we do in this world is a form of idolatry.

Moses gave us ten commandments, you will remember. Jesus reduced the ten to two – the love of God and neighbour, – but it was Saint Augustine who reduced the two to one – “love, and do what you want”. There was wisdom, I think, in Augustine’s reductionism, for it is true that you cannot love God, whom you cannot see, and not love your brother or sister who you can see (1 John 4:20). In practice, the one does resolve into the other.

Likewise, with idolatry – love’s opposite. To worship the idols is to pursue an abusive and obsessive lifestyle, and to pursue and abusive and obsessive lifestyle is a form of idolatry.

I personally grow more and more convinced that this world is being overtaken by the worship of Molech – the ancient God of the Ammonites. This is the God cited in the Hebrew Bible, most often associated with child sacrifice.

I don’t like to point fingers at other countries and other peoples, but I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the USA, simply because of its size and power, has led the way in the worship of Molech since I’ve been alive. I am not an expert in these sorts of things and I’m happy to be corrected, but I haven’t seen any other country in the last generation that has so consistently sacrificed its children on the altar of war.

I remember hearing an excellent speaker reflecting on the election of Donald Trump at the last US Presidential elections. The speaker held up an iPhone and said “if you become CEO of Apple Corp you might change the colour of these things and you might fiddle with the markets a little but you’ve still got to sell these things because it’s what you do and your existence depends on those sales. Likewise, if you take over as CEO of USA Corp., you’ve got to make war because your economy depends on it!

If you’re President of the USA, you have to sell weapons and you have to use weapons, and you might decide to downscale military intervention in one part of the world, but you’ll soon have to upscale it somewhere else because you can’t survive except by killing people! You have an economy based on death. If that’s not the worship of Molech, I don’t know what is!

I hope my American friends aren’t taking too great an offence at this because I love the American people and I love the country, and I’m hoping that they’re going to let me back in there the next time I try to visit, though I appreciate that getting into the USA is far from automatic for me now due to the number of recent trips I’ve made to both Iran and Syria.

At any rate, my point is not to target one country and its people, but to recognise the subtle way in which idolatry can overtake an entire culture and country, even when churches and other religious organisations are booming!

You’ll never see a more overtly Christian country than the USA, but this doesn’t mean much, for this was always the way it worked for the prophets as well. When a prophet like Amos or Hosea or Jeremiah went about railing against the people of Israel and telling them that they had abandoned the God of their fathers and were worshipping idols, this didn’t mean that the

people had closed down their synagogues and replaced them with pagan temples with great stone statues in the middle. On the contrary, the orthodox religious system was often booming, and the Bible was being read and hymns were being sung and prayers were being said. It took God’s prophets to come along and say ‘this isn’t Yahweh, the God of your fathers, you’re worshipping. This is Baal’!

If you know your Hebrew Bible, you’re familiar with the term ‘Baal’. It was a generic term, literally just meaning lord. Accordingly, it was a word that could be applied quite legitimately to worship of the God of Israel, and in the prophecies of Hosea there’s a fair degree of wordplay concerning God’s role as baalor lord. The point is, of course, that it’s never just been about words and names. It has always been about the big picture.

What form of idolatry do we practice in this country? Are we as devoted to Molech as our American cousins? Perhaps not. I suspect that our devotion in this country is focused more on the regular Baals of the Canaanite pantheon.

If you’ve seen images of the Baals of the Ancient Near East, as dug up by archeologists, you know that they are generally depictions of bulls or other animals associated with fertility, often boasting radically oversized genitals. Baal worship hence becomes associated with the divinizing of sex, though the greater goal was always productivity and abundance. Worship of the Baals, in other words, was the spiritualizing of the thirst for sex and money.

“Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, says King David (Psalm 51:4)

To see David’s failure as a spiritual issue is in no way to minimise the serious nature of the crimes committed against both Uriah and Bathsheba. It is though to recognise that this story is more than a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting your sex drives get the better of you. It’s an illustration of what happens when an individual and a country loses its focus.

“’Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strengthThis is the great and first commandment(Deuteronomy 6, Matthew 22)

This isn’t just a rule that we are supposed to work at, along with the nine that follow. This is about how we orientate our lives as individuals, and it’s about how we orientate ourselves as a community and how we orientate ourselves as a country.

As we’ve noted numerous times in recent months, Australia was the first country in the world to sign on to the Charter of Compassion(in 2010) which extolls the central importance of compassion in our common life. When though we look at our country’s recent treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, what we see is not simply the result of poor policy-making, any more than it is the work of a small group of particularly misguided and morally- compromised politicians. It is rather symptomatic of a country that has lots its focus and forgotten the centrality of compassion, and gone chasing after the Baals instead!

Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” (Joshua 24:15). These were the words of Joshua to the people of Israel, challenging them to regain their focus as a community.

This is the big question. This is always the big question confronting us all, every day, as individuals and as a community and as a country – which God will we serve? Behind every sin and failure, great and small, behind every war and death in custody, this is the question.

Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served or the gods of the Amorites … But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 5th August, 2018. 

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org

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Evacuate Manus and Nauru Rally (Sydney Town Hall, Sat July 21st, 2018)


A couple of weeks ago our church was privileged to have a visit from Lebanese Sufi master, Sheikh Nour Kabbani, and, together with him, members of our community signed the “Charter of Compassion” – a document developed by Karen Armstrong some ten years ago that urges communities and governments to reaffirm the central importance of compassion in our common life.

Tragically, on almost the same day, Australia’s Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, (in The Weekend Australian) urged our nation to beware of the ‘danger of compassion’ when it comes to our treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees – suggesting that showing compassion to these people whom we have placed in indefinite offshore detention might undo all our good work.

The good work being referred to, of course, is the fine job we have been doing in ‘turning back the boats’ – turning back boatloads of people who come to our shores seeking shelter from danger and persecution.

We have indeed had great success in turning these boats back so that those who were seeking safety are sent back to the places of danger and persecution from which they fled. Either that or we subject them to a new form of persecution by placing them in never-ending detention in one of our country’s offshore detention centres!

Whether or not this is really a good work is made entirely clear, I believe, by the fact that we have to be urged not to show compassion in order to make this system work. Any system that requires us to deny what is most fundamentally human in us – love and compassion for our fellow creatures – in order to work, is a sick system indeed!

I had the privilege of visiting the men of Manus Island last year in their detention centre. That was last November, just before the men were forcibly moved from the compound where they had originally been confined to new compounds which, as we saw for ourselves, were very much unfinished.

At the time I was flying to Papua New Guinea and making the connection to Manus, there was a lot of discussion taking place here at home as to why these men had not moved to the new facilities that had been built for them.

Why would the men want to stay in a compound that reportedly been unfit for human habitation even before it was decommissioned, after which the electricity and water had been cut off, making it more uninhabitable. Many of us wondered whether the experience of long-term detention might have damaged the men such that they were not thinking straight.

When I reached the detention centre and had the privilege of being shown around in the early hours of the morning, it became obvious very quickly why they had chosen to stick it out where they were. They had a very well-functioning community!

They had a very well-organised leadership system, with democratic meetings held each day. They had a centralized health-care system where medications were pooled and distributed as needed, and where the mentally-ill were cared for on a rostered basis, with different people walking them around the compound. The engineers were working together as a team to keep the electricity and the water flowing! It was a very well-functioning community!

I understood right away why these men hadn’t separated and moved off to the new facilities that had supposedly been built for them. Why would these men abandon their band of brothers, who they knew they could trust, on the word of the Australian government, who they knew they could not trust?

They were a remarkably functional community, and perhaps I had forgotten that this was not a group of poorly-educated criminals. These were professional people – journalists and engineers and people with a variety of professions and skills that might truly benefit this country.

The more I talked to these men the more impressed I was with them as individuals and as a group, and the more sick I felt as an Australian, somehow connected to the torture of these men, who are being used by our country’s political leaders as an example to asylum-seekers world-wide – ‘don’t try to sneak into this country unannounced or we will do to you what we are doing to these people!’

Parallels with other inhuman regimes come to mind, but I will not mention them by name. Suffice it to say that any country that openly rejects compassion and instead tortures people who we know are innocent in order to make of them a deterrent – any country that would do that has somehow lost its soul!

The irony is that the Australian government was actually the first government in the world to recognise and affirm the Charter of Compassion back in 2010, and I don’t think that was just a political stunt. I believe the government of the time signed on to the Charter of Compassion because they recognised, rightly, that Australian people, on the whole, do value compassion. Indeed, that we are a compassionate people.

We are better than this – that’s my message today. We are not the heartless, greedy bastards our political leaders think we are. We do actually believe what our National Anthem tells us – that we have “boundless plains to share” – and we are ready to share them. We still have compassion for the vulnerable.

Let’s let our politicians know, and let the world know, that the Australian people are still capable of compassion. Let’s give the good men of Manus, and the men, women and children of Narau, a chance. For the sake of all that is still decent in this country, five years of disgrace is five years too long and the blood of the dead is on our hands! Stop the torture! Show compassion. Bring them here! Amen.

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