Keep on Punching – a sermon on Luke 18:1-8

My late, great friend, Clifford Warne was the one who told me a story about an elderly Jewish man who went to the ‘Wailing Wall’ in the Old City of Jerusalem to pray every day. For any who don’t know, this section of the greater ‘western wall’ is a holy site within Judaism, as it’s the last remnant of the wall of the ancient temple – the only section that survived the visit of Titus and his Roman legions in the year 70.

This elderly man comes to the wall every day and prays, and on this particular occasion he is interviewed by a young reporter who is fascinated with his devotion.

She asks him, “how long have you been coming here to pray?”. He says, “I’ve been coming here every day for the last 57 years. I’ve only missed a handful of days over that time. Normally, I am here every single day at around this time, and I pray.

“And what do you pray for?” she asks. He says, “I pray for a lot of things! I pray for my family. I pray for my daughter – that she won’t marry that rotten tailor. I pray for my people. I pray for the Palestinian people. I pray for a lot of things.”

“And in 57 years, have you seen many of your prayers answered?”, she asks him, to which he replies, “Well … no! To be quite honest with you, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single prayer answered. In 57 years … not a single prayer answered! I tell you, sometimes you feel like you’re praying to a brick wall!”

This is our experience too, isn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I pray quite a lot, My prayer-times are very important to me, and yet they are often very emotional times too, and the emotion is so often tied up with the fact that my prayers don’t seem to be getting answered, so I’m praying for the same things every day, even when a part of me is saying that it’s pointless.

A pertinent example: I poured myself out in prayer every day for at least six months, praying that my family would stay together. Prayer not answered.

More recently I’ve been pouring myself out in prayer every day for our church – praying for unity, for grace, for love, for a lot of things for a lot of people. Some of those prayers have been answered, but a lot of them haven’t – not yet, at any rate.

Perhaps it’s not helpful to say, ‘I pray a lot’. What I mean is that ‘I pray a lot for me’, in the sense that I’m praying more now (for longer periods of time and with greater regularity) than I ever have at any other period of my life. Even so, I am sure that there are others in our church community who pray far longer and harder than I do.

In case you’re interested, I combine my prayers with my breathing exercises, and it’s a pattern that really works well for me as it helps me focus in my prayers. If you’ve been on one of my weekend bush camps, I’ve probably taught you these breathing exercises, which involve taking a series of deep breathes, after which you breath out and then hold it there, and stop breathing for as long as possible. I say my prayers during that period of stillness, while not breathing.

As I say, I pray a lot now – a lot for me – and part of the reason for that is because I’ve learnt to pray without taking a breath for up to half an hour at a time now.

Some of you may find it hard to believe that I can hold my breath for half an hour, especially when the Guiness World Record for breath-holding is only 24 minutes. You’ll remember though too that I broke two World Records in 2012.  I’m planning on breaking this one soon too, and I will pray as I break it.

At present I’m doing three cycles of breath-holding each morning, and the quiet time adds up, and I always seem to have enough time to intercede for my family, my friends, the church, the fight club, the bush camp, the bishop, the people of Syria, Yemen, Gaza, Manus Island, etc.

I recommend this as a prayer discipline as I find it’s a good way of staying focused. Does it though result in seeing more prayers answered? I don’t think so.

Mind you, I have seen some prayers answered recently. Last week we saw the US end its military occupation of Syria, and that’s something I’ve been praying for very specifically every day for many years now. 

Mind you, perhaps I should have specified in those prayers that the US leaving wouldn’t mean sacrificing the Kurdish population of Syria to the Turkish Army! Indeed, it does make me wonder if, while I’ve been praying for a US withdrawal, there have been a larger number of Kurdish people praying this wouldn’t happen.

How does it all work? It’s all a bit of a mystery – why some prayers seem to get answered and others do not. It’s a mystery, which is a pious way of saying that it doesn’t make any sense, and indeed, if you think too hard about it you might be tempted to give up altogether, which is why Jesus tells us this parable.

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” (Luke 18:2-5)

Now, that’s the story, and Luke tells us quite explicitly that Jesus shared this story in order to encourage people ‘to pray always and not to lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). This story is designed to encourage us, and yet I suspect I’m not the only person who finds this story more confusing than encouraging.

If this parable is a metaphor of sorts for a person at prayer, the details of the metaphor just don’t seem to work. If God, who hears our prayers, is here being represented by the judge who hears the petition of the widow, it’s not a healthy comparison. Indeed, we are told repeatedly during the parable that the judge has no principles – no moral compass whatsoever!

This judge does not fear God and has no respect for his fellow human beings. He doesn’t give a damn about the woman or about her ‘just cause’. He has no interest whatsoever in her plea. Indeed, his only desire is to shut her up so that he can go and get on with his golf game. If this story is meant to encourage us to keep sending those petitions to the Almighty, this isn’t a very encouraging image to start with!

I appreciate, of course, that Jesus’ stories aren’t always allegories. In other words, not all the characters in Jesus’ stories are meant to align with figures in real life. Even so, for a story to work, it has to connect with us at some point, and if there’s no connection between the judge in the story and our Heavenly judge, where does the connection take place?

Perhaps we are meant to connect with the widow – a person who is by definition alone and without real support in this world. Is that meant to be us? We are told that she persisted with the judge because she claimed she had a just cause against whoever was allegedly persecuting her. That’s a possible point of connection. Whenever I’m praying for victory over my enemies, I always believe my cause is just.

In truth, I think the connection between us and the widow is a bit tenuous too, and yet there is a connection, and I think I’m in a privileged position to be able to spot it as I have two great advantages over most people approaching this text.

Firstly, I have a rudimentary familiarity with the original language in which this story was written (Koine Greek), and secondly, it turns out once again that being a professional fighter is also a big help when it comes to understanding this text.

The unprincipled judge eventually gives in to the persistent widow. Why? According to my translation, he says “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (Luke 18:5). It’s a sanitized translation. The actual Greek verb used here in the Gospel is hypopiazo, which means “to give a black eye”.

This is a boxing language, and the image of the widow’s ‘continual coming’ is that of the boxer relentlessly driving in on her opponent. Think Joe Frasier. Think Mike Tyson. Don’t think of one of those boxers who dances around, waiting for the right moment to land a quick shot before running back to the other side of the ring. Think of Iron Mike on the warpath against Trevor Burbick or Michael Spinks, relentlessly driving forward and happily distributing black eyes with each hand.

I appreciate that this sort of boxing chatter is not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you miss the metaphor you miss the humor that has been infused into this story.

Mind you, as Biblical scholar F. Scott Spencer recognises, the humor here is not comic relief. The story-teller is poking fun at the powers-that-be, “lampooning and upending the unjust system stacked against widows, orphans, immigrants, and the like.”[1] Like a modern-day political cartoon, Jesus is satirizing the corrupt system of his day, and I assume He wants us to laugh along with Him.

So our hero in this story is a boxer of sorts, and, as I say, not just any boxer, but a determined and relentless bully of a boxer who never knows when to back down. Understanding that, I believe, is the key to really grasping this parable.

Where are we supposed to connect with this parable? It’s not through the judge, and I don’t think it needs to be through the character of the woman either. The point of connection in this parable is, I believe, in the struggle itself, for dealing with God in prayer – really dealing with the real God – is a battle!

I note that we had a choice of two Old Testament readings today. One was from Jeremiah 31 and the other was from Genesis 32. I opted for the Jeremiah reading, only because we’d had Jeremiah last week and I thought continuity would be good. I can see though why the Genesis reading was on offer as it has a lot in common with today’s parable. Genesis 32:22-31is the story of Jacob wrestling with God.

I won’t read though that story now. I assume you know it: Jacob, son of Isaac, child of the promise, had been lying and cheating his way all through life until he had that violent stoush with his creator by the river Jabbok.

Jacob at that point in time was being hunted down by two armies, or so it seemed. He has his uncle, whom he’d cheated out of all his wealth, pursuing him from behind with one small army. He had his brother, whom he’d cheated out of his inheritance, coming towards him from the other direction, accompanied by 400 of his mates.

That was the night of truth for Jacob, and so he wrestled all night with God, refusing to let go until his antagonist had given him his blessing. And so, the fight went on until dawn, at which point God ended the thing by hitting Jacob with a low blow!

Is this another parable of sorts? It’s presented to us as a true story, and John Calvin, many years later, would claim indeed that it is only God that we have to fight with!

“our business is truly with [God], not only because we fight under his auspices, but because he, as an antagonist, descends into the arena to try our strength. … 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.” (Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, published 1544)

This is prayer. It’s a brawl where you cling on to God as your only source of hope but where you can never quite get the grip you’re looking for. It’s pouring yourself out like Jacob did by the river Jabbok. It’s tirelessly pummelling the unjust judge with lefts and rights, hoping to land something but never seeming to get that clear shot! It’s Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, where we are told, being in conflict, He prayed more intently. And his sweat became as great drops of blood, falling down upon the earth” (Luke 22:44).

This is prayer, and it’s no easy thing, but the challenge is to keep going.

And so I set the alarm early enough this morning to allow me to do my three cycles of breathing, and my three cycles of prayer – praying for my family, for the my friends, for Binacrombi, for the Fight Club, for the church, for Syria, for Julian, etc.

Were things looking any brighter as I prayed this morning? Are many of my hopes and dreams looking like they’re about to come to fruition? Not really. Even so, I must keep going, as I really do believe that in the end all my prayers will be answered.

Unlike that guy at the wall, I can say in all honesty that I feel that, over time, all my prayers thus far have been answered – not every one in exactly the way I would have liked, of course, but in a surprising number of cases, exactly as I liked.

We are not praying to a brick wall. Persist, sisters and brothers! Keep coming forward. Keep throwing those punches. Don’t let go. God will give us His blessing. We just have to keep on pummelling for a little while longer.

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday, October 20th, 2019

[1]               F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 292-93.

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From Resentment to Thanksgiving (A sermon on Luke 15:1-10)

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So He told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:1-4)

So begins one of Jesus’ best-known and best-loved parables, even for those of us who have never owned a sheep, let alone lost one. For those who do find this a bit inaccessible though, let me offer you my alternative story of the lost bunny.

It happened a couple of weeks ago. It was late at night, past midnight, and for some reason I decided to take the garbage out before going to bed. I guess it was the combination of me fumbling with the garbage bag and the fact that I was tried that allowed Honey (the bunny) to dart through the open door as I tried to reach the bin.

I appreciate that in any number of other households, bunnies are allowed to roam in their back yards with impunity. In our case though there is a cat living next door to us who always seems to materialise whenever our bunny makes an appearance, and so I spent a good half-hour, chasing the bunny around the backyard in the dark, and it was raining, and it was cold, and it was a miserable experience that more than once had me raising my voice at bunny who would regularly stop and start munching on some tasty grass and allow me to creep up right behind her. Then she’d wait until I bent down to pick her up and she’d dart off to the next clump of grass.

Eventually, bunny snuck through a crack in the fence and I abandoned my pursuit.    I returned to the house, dejected, but left the back door open that night in the hope that she might find her way home. After a fitful night’s sleep, I awoke to find no bunny in the house, and then had to break the news to Fran, who responded, as expected, with uncontrollable sobbing – first in the bedroom, and then in the backyard, where she stood on the wet grass, calling out bunny’s name in between sobs.

Eventually, all the noise woke Imogen who quickly worked out what had happened and then joined us in the backyard, still in her pyjamas but wearing shoes. She announced that she might have an idea of where bunny was, exited the backyard via the gate in the fence that leads into the old rectory garden, and a few minutes later returned with an unharmed bunny in her arms. And there was much rejoicing. 

Now, even for those of you who are not bunny-owners, I trust that you can see the parallels with Jesus parable of the lost sheep. Both stories start with the hapless beast wandering off into the unknown. In both cases the lost creature is in danger, and in both cases there is much rejoicing when the lost is found. There are also a couple of significant differences though between my bunny story and Jesus’ story.

Most obviously, Imogen’s quest in search of the lost bunny did not require her to abandon ninety-nine other bunnies while she went in search of the one (perish the thought). Also, while the effort we put in to rescuing the family pet makes sense in terms of the way families work, the effort the shepherd puts in to finding the sheep makes less sense, for the sheep is not a pet. The sheep is stock, and the effort put in by the shepherd makes a lot less sense in terms of the way businesses work.

Jesus begins His story, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4) and the obvious answer to that question, I would think, is that no business owner in their right minds would treat their stock like that, and the same question raises itself even more pointedly in the next story Jesus tells:

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

In the history of interpretation of this parable there have been numerous attempts to make sense of this woman’s behaviour by suggesting that the silver coin she was looking for must have been very valuable – a part of her dowry perhaps – and yet Jesus makes no suggestion of this. An alternative rationalisation involves supposing that she must have been very poor, such that even one coin meant the difference between life and death. Again, there is no indication of that, and the woman appears to own her own house, and she throws a lavish party with her friends after finding the coin, which makes no sense at all if she were that poor! In truth, in both stories, when it comes to profit and loss and the strictures of running a household or running a business, the main characters in these stories come across as sentimental fools.

The temptation, I think, is to try to make sense of these two stories by reading them in the light of the third story in the series that Jesus gives – the even better-known ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ – but it is interesting that our lectionary this week does not include this third parable, even if all three were originally delivered together. 

I wasn’t sure what to think about that initially and, indeed, whenever I’ve preached on this passage in the past I’ve added in the third parable as I figured they need to be understood as a group. I’ve questioned that this time around. I note that the ‘Parable of the lost sheep’ is found in the Gospel of Matthew (18:10-14) as well as in Luke, where there’s no accompanying ‘lost son’ story, and so perhaps it’s a mistake to think we always need to interpret the earlier parables in the light of the third.

Forgive me if you don’t know the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ (Luke 15:11-32). I’m not going to read it out in full but it’s a story of a foolish young man who claims his father’s inheritance early, while his father is still alive, then takes the money and wastes it, finds himself impoverished and hungry, and eventually “comes to himself” (Luke 15:17) and realises that he would be better off as one of his father’s slaves than as a free man in the situation he is currently in.

It’s a beautiful story, and it has become an archetypal story for the church. It’s a story of a repentant sinner who realises his impoverished state, confesses his faults and returns to his Father to find mercy and forgiveness. Many say that the whole Gospel is contained in this story. Certainly, I’d say the whole philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous and associated twelve-step programs are contained in this story.

We reach ‘rock bottom’, we recognise that we are unable to help ourselves, and so we reach out to our ‘higher power’. That’s the philosophy of AA, NA and the myriad of other 12-step programs, and for many people these are also the fundamentals of the Christian Gospel – God loves those who come to their senses, repent and turn back to the Father in faith. The question I want to raise today though is whether that’s really the message of these lost sheep and lost coin stories or whether we might do best to look at them independently of the prodigal son story and the subsequent history of interpretation that has been based on interpreting the first two stories in the light of the third.

The ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ is well named as it is indeed a story that focuses on the character of the son (at least in the first half of the parable). In the so-called stories of the ‘lost sheep’ and the ‘lost coin’ though, the focus of those stories is never really on the sheep or on the coin. The focus in those stories, respectively, is on the shepherd and on the woman who do the searching for that which is lost.

And unlike the prodigal son, the sheep does not ‘come to itself’ in any way, and more than our bunny suddenly came to it senses and started trying to find its way back to the house. No, in both cases, the lost beasts just continue to focus on mowing their respective lawns.  All the work is done by those who do the searching.  With the lost coin, the case is even more obvious. The coin doesn’t repent and turn from its wicked ways. The coin doesn’t do anything! It’s a coin!

The sheep and coin stories turn out to not really be stories about sheep and coins. When you look at who Jesus addresses these stories to that starts to make sense.

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. So he told them this parable …” (Luke 15:1-3)

The ‘them’ to whom Jesus addressed these parables were not the ‘tax collectors and sinners’. The ‘them’ He was speaking to were the religious people – the Scribes and the Pharisees – which means that these stories were not designed primarily to proclaim to us sinners that we are loved. They were designed to address the resentment felt by Jesus’ religious peers about the way He structured His priorities.

We can understand that resentment. When Luke speaks of the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ hanging about with Jesus we must resist romanticising this group as being ‘the humble poor’. Tax collectors were not poor. On the contrary, they were traitors to the national cause who had become rich off the oppression of their own people! 

Likewise, when Luke mentions ‘sinners’ we must assume that these were what the old prayer book used to call ‘open and notorious sinners’ – convicted paedophiles and abusers of women and the like – the sort of people who would equally lead good religious folk like us to shake our heads and say, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

For let’s be clear that Jesus was not baptising these people or leading them in the sinner’s prayer or even preaching at them so far as we know. He was eating with them, drinking with them, and having a good time with them.

Of course us good religious folk get resentful. If Jesus is a prophet sent by God, why isn’t He spending more time with us – with God’s own people? We have needs. We need pastoring. We could benefit from the love and the healing power that Jesus has on offer and, at some level, surely, don’t we deserve a bit of His time?

The very fact that Jesus was laughing and joking with these degenerates when He could have been (should have been) spending time with us is offensive. Of course these people were resentful, and so Jesus told them a parable. He told them a series of parables, in fact, each of which climaxes with the one great thing that can cure the curse of resentment – namely, gratitude

The shepherd and the woman (and the father in the third parable) all end their stories by joyfully giving thanks, just as Jesus’ religious peers should have been joyfully giving thanks – not for what Jesus was doing for them, but for the changes that were taking place in the lives of those painful and difficult people whose lives Jesus was touching and transforming (if only they had the eyes to see it).

We have much to be thankful for here in Dulwich Hill. I was visiting a nursing home last week and unexpectedly bumped into my friend Lorraine. It turned out that we were visiting the same person, and that was a privilege to see her loving being extended in a difficult situation. On the way home I bumped into another member of our community – Adrienne – and we talked about her plans to head off and support an old friend who was similarly struggling. Again, it was love being extended in a difficult situation and again, it all left me feeling very thankful.

God is at work – that’s the bottom line. God is at work all around us. Even when it’s not obvious what God is doing in our own lives, if we can pause and take a good look at what’s going on around us, we’ll see the hand of God at work everywhere, and often in the lives of people we never expected God to bother with. We often can’t see it. Resentment blocks us from seeing God’s work. Any number of things can cloud our vision, but God is at work. There is indeed much to be thankful for.

Lord, give us eyes to perceive the movement of your Spirit amongst us. Heal us from all jealousy, bitterness and resentment such as might blind us to your presence amongst us, and give us grace at all times to celebrate your love with gratitude. Amen.

First preached by Father Dave, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 15th of September, 2019

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Counting the Cost (A sermon on Luke 14:25-33)

“Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:28-33)

I want to begin today by sharing with you something that happened to me yesterday that made quite an impact on me.

I was sitting at home, trying to make a start on this sermon actually, when Imogen came in through the back door and told me that there was a young girl wandering around the street near the front of our house and that she seemed to be having an episode of some kind. I ran out on to the street and couldn’t see her. Imogen indicated that she had been with a woman who was trying to help her and that they had both been moving towards the bottom of the street. 

As I made my way down the street a car pulled up near me and someone cried out, “are you looking for the little girl?” and I said “yes”. I was then directed down Charlecot Street, which leads into the High School, where I found the girl with two rather distressed women who were doing their best to help.

The girl was a bit younger than my Fran – probably around 8 or 9 years old – and she was clearly struggling. Whether she was having ‘an episode’ or not was hard to say. She wasn’t speaking, and her eyes were not engaging with anything in particular, so far as I could tell. She was though pushing the woman who was standing with her in a very particular direction, with both arms outstretched, as if she had somewhere that she needed to go urgently.

I had thought I might recognise the girl and know the parents, but I didn’t. She had a middle Eastern complexion but bore no obvious resemblance to anyone I knew. I tried to engage her by asking her name and whether she went to school but she didn’t seem to be able to communicate. She just kept pushing.

We had rung the police and they were apparently coming. One of the helpful women had somehow also managed to contact the parents, who were apparently also coming. We made it out to Marrickville road where we were joined by a distressed man who said that he’d been trying to reach me by knocking on the old rectory door. I took that as a great compliment – that someone thought I was the person to help – but thought it equally obvious that I didn’t really have a clue what to do.

At that point a swarthy-skinned young man came running down the street and cried “Mariam! There you are!”

This man was obviously not her father, but then, in an instant, all the pieces fell into place in my little brain. This girl was a client of the disability-services group who use our hall on a Saturday. She had been in their care, and the young man did indeed turn out to be one of her carers. He was soon joined by another carer (a young woman) and together they took Mariam back to the hall.

The four of us who were left as Mariam departed shared an awkward moment together. We sort of waved each other off, not knowing exactly what to say. I then joined the three returning to the hall and discussed with the workers the problem they have of not being able to lock the doors from the inside (due to the fire-safety regulations), meaning that clients can walk out at any time they please if they are not being constantly monitored. “We only took our eyes off her for a couple of seconds” they said.

By the time we got back to the hall, Mariam’s parents were waiting for us. They seemed very young, and they were both quite emotional. I didn’t hang around too long after that. I returned home to continue on with this sermon, but I found it very difficult to focus on anything beyond the image of that poor young girl, desperately trying to get somewhere, but quite probably not having a clue as to where she was actually going.

It struck me forcefully at the time that so many of us are like that so much of the time. We put enormous focus, drive and effort into projects that are likely to take us somewhere, we know not where, and when we get there, we are left wondering why it was that we wanted so much to go there in the first place. 

The poor girl impacted me, as did the hapless carers (of which I was one). All of us – both volunteers and professionals – seemed out of our depth with young Mariam. At the same time, there was a lot of love and concern shown there, and together we did achieve something positive, and that was truly encouraging.

The ones who impacted me the most though were the young girl’s parents. I’m sure this was not the first time they’d had to deal with a problem like this and it would likely not be the last time. Moreover, I suspect that the stress of this particular incident would have paled in comparison with any number of other struggles they have had to deal with as parents of a disabled child. 

I have no idea how they do it – God bless them. I have struggled hard enough, trying to be a decent parent to blessedly healthy and fully abled children.

‘Count the cost’, says Jesus. ‘Know what you’re getting yourself into before you take it on!’

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? …
Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?
(Luke 14:28, 31)

And which parent among you, before you decide to have children, doesn’t first sit down and soberly talk things through with their partner – working out whether you are going to have the financial and emotional resources to do a decent job as parents? 

Of course, Jesus doesn’t really use the example of parenthood, perhaps because He never parented anyone Himself, though I don’t think you actually need to be a parent to know how hard parenting is. If you’re not a parent, you have likely had parents, and we know what we put our parents through.

For me, in all honesty, it’s been the most difficult challenge of my life – trying to be a good father to my children. I feel like I finally started to get the hang of it the fourth time round, but I still would not class myself as a great parent. 

I struggle. I’m often too possessive, too protective, too disengaged, or otherwise, too overly-engaged. I don’t spend enough time with my children or I don’t give them enough freedom to develop independently. I’m sometimes overly aggressive or pathetically weak. There’s a balance in there somewhere but I struggle to find it, and I know I’m not the only one who struggles.

Parenting is hard, and it costs us, though Jesus warns us that there is at least one vocation in life that costs us even more than parenting, and that’s following Him.

“None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33), 

It’s not just money in the bank that Jesus is talking about. When you read through the full itinerary that Jesus gives us in Luke chapter 14, the trade-off for a life of discipleship is that it’s going to take from us in all the three areas that are most important to us – our families, our possessions, and our health.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

‘Following me is going to cost you everything’, Jesus warns us. You will pay for it with your family, your wealth and your health, and that’s why we must sit down soberly and think things through first, before we get in too far, because we need to be honest and ask ourselves whether this is really the sort of life we want.

In truth, none of us do that because none of us really sees at the outset where following Jesus is going to take us!

Parenthood works exactly the same way, of course. We might say, ‘yes, I understand that being a mum or dad brings heartache and sleepless nights, etc., etc.’, but none of us really has any idea what we are getting ourselves into until it is way too late!

Thanks be to God, I have never lost any of my children (which means that I have been more fortunate that some dear friends of mine). Even so, I have come close, and nothing has so stressed me, and the nightmares still sometimes torment me. 

And then there’s the times when my children haven’t been talking to me – for good reason or for bad. Alienation and pain and communication breakdown and misunderstanding are all a part of the package, and I won’t go into details about the personal lives of my children, but I will say that I had no idea at the outset what I was getting myself into.

Following Jesus has been, in that respect, an almost identical experience. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. 

How could I have known, when I made my initial commitment to Jesus, some forty years ago, that it would cost me all that it has.

When I think of all the people Jesus brought into my life who robbed me, betrayed me, manipulated me, and put my family at risk.

When I think of all the places Jesus has led me – into drug houses and war zones and multiple boxing rings full of people tyring to punch my head in.

When I think of all the times I’ve almost been killed – by mobs or by drowning or by bombs or bullets – or the times I’ve felt that it would be better to die and be at peace, rather than have to continue struggling …

How can you know what you are getting yourself into? How can you possibly know any of this when you’re a teenager? How can you possibly look ahead at the rest of your life and see all the poverty and pain and the scars and bruises?

Well … I guess we have no excuse because Jesus warns us. He warns us quite explicitly that following Him is going to cost us everything. It’s going to hit us where we hurt – in our bodies, in our families, and in our hip-pocket.

As you will remember from my long opening illustration, I had started writing this sermon before the encounter with young Mariam yesterday afternoon, and up to that point I had planned to begin my sermon, not by talking about a little lost girl, but by referring to a figure from my childhood that had come to mind when reading this passage – namely, Super Chicken.

I don’t know whether anybody else listening to this remembers Super Chicken, but he was an animated super-hero parody of sorts from my childhood. Having checked in Wikipedia, there were seventeen episodes in all, first released in the US in 1967 and replayed for my benefit during the formative years of my youth.

Super Chicken, like all super-heroes, had a sidekick – Fred – who was a lion. The climax of every episode was always the showdown between the chicken and the super-villain featured in that episode. Super Chicken would, of course, always prove victorious, but Fred, his sidekick, always seemed to end up as collateral damage – being struck by lightening or having an anvil dropped on his head etc., and whenever this happened Super Chicken would say, “you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred”.

As I say, Super Chicken came to mind for me this week when reading Luke 14, or rather that catch-phrase came to mind, and I wondered if Jesus will ever say that to me – “you knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Dave”.

In truth, we do know what we are getting ourselves into. Jesus warns us that the job is dangerous and He urges us to count the cost before we get in too far. The problem, as I say, is that, like parenthood, you have a concept, of what it will be like, but dealing with the concept is always easier than dealing with the reality.

I do hope that no one today has heard me say that I am not eternally grateful for the experience of being a parent. Despite all the struggle and the pain, being a dad has been the greatest privilege of my life. And similarly, even if I could have known all the beatings and robberies and drownings and betrayals that lay ahead when I first gave my life to Jesus, would I still have made that commitment? Oh yeah! You betcha! Following Jesus has been the great adventure of my life. The cost is real, but the joy eternal.

First preached by Father Dave, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 8th of September, 2019

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Bad Religion (A Sermon on Luke 13:10-17)

I can’t read this passage without being reminded of my recent experience in Jodidi – a little village on the road to Damascus (in Syria). 

Jodidi is, quite literally, ‘on the road to Damascus’, and is supposed to be the actual place where Saint Paul (then ‘Saul’) fell off his horse and met Jesus! There’s a huge statue of horse and fallen-rider in the middle of the village commemorating this, and a lovely church building a short walk away where regular worship takes place, as well as special services, focused more on that great event, and it was on account of one of these special services that we were there – invited as special guests. 

Having said that, when we turned up at the gate, we didn’t see any church officials waiting for us. There apparently was a church service going on somewhere but the only people there to greet us was a group of young boys wearing boxing gloves! 

The scene reminded me very much of the time I visited an orphanage near Mashad (in Iran) and was greeted again by a group of young boys wearing boxing gloves. On that occasion I responded by walking up to the smallest boy and holding up my two hands, with palms open in front of me – that being the universal signal amongst boxers that I’m inviting you to throw some punches into my open hands. In the case of that young boxer though, his response was to punch me straight in the groin! 

Foolishly, perhaps, I did exactly the same thing in Jodidi – offering my two open palms to the first boy in the group. Happily though, this time the young man responded according to protocol and targeted my hands. 

What took place there over the next hour struck me at the time as being a lot like a scene out of the New Testament. There was indeed a service going on somewhere in the background, but where we were, surrounded by local young people, there was only good-hearted merriment and lots of punches being thrown. And then parents started bringing their children to me, asking me to pray for them, which, of course, I did, and then I heard someone say “bring out the blind girl. Let him pray for her”, and at that point I started wondering whether I was in over my head! 

A lovely-looking girl, about 10-years old, was then led out. Apparently, she had been blind since birth. She was about the same age as my youngest, of course, and I prayed for her very sincerely. The parents then asked me if she could be healed, and I had no idea. I then remembered though that Dr Lou Lewis was a part of our group and I called Lou over. Lou looked closely at the girl, took a picture of her eyes with his phone-camera, and then announced that the girl had glaucoma and that she could be healed. Lou then found himself being swamped, just as I continued to be swamped, with me doing the prayers and him giving the medical advice – a scene that was only interrupted when a fresh group of young men ran up and asked me if I would referee their boxing match, to which I readily agreed. 

It was as I went to do that – to referee the group of young boys – that I received a tap on the shoulder. I turned around and saw a young priest, fully decked out in ecclesiastical garb.

I was delighted to see him, at least until he opened his mouth and asked, “what are you doing?”, to which I replied that I was about to referee a boxing match. He said, “you cannot do that!”. I said, “why not?” He said, “because you are Abouna (ie. a priest) and because the service is still going”. He then turned and walked away. I stopped and reflected, and then went on and refereed the boxing matches.

I look back now and am glad I made that decision. At the time though I had a lot of conflicting thoughts going through my head.

  • Am I offending our hosts?
  • Could I be giving a bad name to our team and maybe even to our country?
  • What would Jesus do in this situation?

It was reflecting on that last question though that clinched it for me. I was pretty sure Jesus would have refereed the boxing matches, and it was this Gospel reading (and any number of others like it) that immediately came to mind.

Yes, this scene from the life of Jesus did help me make a decision as to what to do that day in Jodidi. Conversely though, that experience in Jodidi, I feel, gave me greater insight into this scene in the Gospels, as it reminded me that the people Jesus was normally in conflict with were his hosts, and exactly the sort of people who should have been His colleagues.

We tend to overlook this, I think. We think of those religious leaders – the priests, the scribes, the Pharisees and the Levites – as a sort of gang of hoodlums, roaming around, trying to bring down Jesus.  On the contrary, these people are us, or rather, they are the best of us. These people represent the religious community. Indeed, they are those we have elevated to positions of leadership in our spiritual community because they are capable and because we trust them, and they are Jesus’ enemies!

We can’t enter into the mind of Jesus, of course, but I wonder now when I read stories like this whether Jesus wrestled at all with how to respond. Did He question himself along the lines of ‘well … these guys are my hosts. Perhaps I should respect them and their traditions even if they’ve got the Scriptures back-to-front?’ Did Jesus question Himself like that or did He just think ‘these guys are idiots!’

Interestingly, you don’t have this problem in the Qur’an, so far as I can see. In the Qur’an, the enemies of Prophet Mohammad were not his fellow believers. The enemies of the prophet were the unbelievers and the idolaters. Mohamad’s fellow monotheists were his colleagues. In the Gospel stories though, time and time again, the enemy is us! We are the problem!

Think how many Gospel stories work like that – Jesus is saying something or helping someone or healing someone, and then some religious nut walks in and starts causing trouble. It’s never a sex-worker or a tax-collector or a soldier that causes the trouble. It’s always one of us religious people!

I think we’re approaching much the same climate in Australian society today. Religious persons are becoming increasingly suspect! The dismissal of the appeal of Bishop George Pell this week didn’t help matters of course. I still don’t know what to think about that tragic situation, but I do know that it’s helping to turn the church into an institution that people fear rather than trust.

I was walking down Seaview Street in my collar the other day as the kids were coming out of school and one of the boys points and me and makes a sign of the cross at me – not the pious sign of the cross that you make on your chest, but the crossed fingers used to keep vampires at bay – and he yells out ‘stranger danger’!

And it’s not just Bishop George who has brought us to this point, and it’s not just the latest round of child sexual-abuse scandals that have so damaged our reputation. We have 200+ years of tainted testimony behind us – a history that regularly has the guys in the pub in Dulwich Hill introduce me to their friends as a boxer rather than as a priest as they don’t want me to make a bad first impression.

The enemy is us! It’s true, and that’s one reason why I’ve never been able to buy into any of the Islamophobia that certain sections of our community peddle – urging us to beware of the Muslim community and their secret ill-intent!

It’s true, of course, that any number of horrible crimes around the world have been committed by people who claim to be Muslims, but when I think of my own history, how many Muslims have attacked and injured me or anyone that I really care about?

No! When I think of all the people who have damaged me in my life – from those who crucified my mum when I was little, to those who made life so difficult for my dad (in both cases on account of their marriage breakdown), to everybody I have struggled with since – they have all been good, church-going, Christian people, every last one of them. Where did we go wrong? How did we, God’s chosen representatives, tasked with the work of proclaiming the forgiving and empowering love of Christ to the world, end up with such a record of moralism, judgmentalism and abuse?

Tradition! That’s the common Protestant/Evangelical response. The problem is that we miss the commandment of God by clinging to the precepts of men. Certainly, clinging to outdated traditions can be a problem, but was that the problem Jesus was dealing with in our Gospel scene? Personally, I’ve got a lot of time for tradition.

I picked Fran up from school on Wednesday in the car, to drive her to her piano lesson, and she immediately asked, ‘Can we go to 7-11 on the way?’ I said, ‘the problem with going to 7-11 is that we’ll lose fifteen minutes and end up getting to piano lesson late’, to which she replied, ‘but it’s tradition!’ I replied, ‘you can’t argue with tradition’ and we went to 7-11, and ended up getting to piano lesson late.

I appreciate that going to 7-11 whenever I pick Fran up from school by car is a very different sort of tradition from that we’re dealing with in the Gospel today, or whatever tradition I was battling when the guy in Jodidi told me that it was inappropriate for a priest to referee a boxing match. Even so, traditions have their place, and I’m tempted to think that our society could do with a few more traditions, even some along the lines of those instituted by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day!

“the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So, come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”” (Luke 13:14)

He had a point, didn’t he? The Sabbath was supposed to be a quiet day of worship and reflection, and I imagine Jesus’ healing of the bent-over woman would have created an enormous ruckus!

I imagine the now-upright woman would have been leaping around and dancing, and the synagogue congregation would have been in an uproar as well – applauding and cheering and dancing along! We’re told that the woman had been crippled for eighteen years. How much difference would one more day have made?

I spent some days with an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi in Iran last year. We were both speaking at the same conference on the same day. Indeed, he spoke right after me, and it was a Saturday – a Sabbath. It was a big meeting with a lot of people, but when the Rabbi got up, he switched off the microphone because it was the Sabbath, and it wasn’t appropriate to use a microphone on the Sabbath. Thankfully, he had a booming voice, and thankfully, I (with my bad hearing) was sitting quite close anyway

We spoke together to a University faculty after that too, and I spent a bit of time talking to him about life in his community. You can imagine what it’s like there, especially on the Sabbath. You won’t find kids playing with their mobile phones on the Sabbath. You won’t have to tell anybody to stop playing computer games so that they can come for lunch. I can see a lot of benefits to Sabbath traditions like that.

When it comes to ‘what would Jesus do?’, I don’t think Jesus would have any issue with forbidding mobile phone use on the Sabbath or any of those traditions, but what is significant is that when it comes to this woman – a woman who has been suffering for eighteen years from her paralysis – Jesus was not willing to let her continue on in that way any longer. Jesus does not say ‘she’s put up with this for eighteen years already. What difference is one more day going to make?’ No! From the perspective of Jesus, her healing cannot wait one more day or one more hour or one more minute! The time for healing is now!

““Woman”, He says (not even taking time to find out her name), “you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.” (Luke 13:12-13)

The issue here is not tradition. It’s compassion. There’s nothing wrong with tradition but it gets trumped by compassion every time. Forbid the use of mobile phones on the Sabbath by all means, but if someone goes into cardiac arrest and you need to call an ambulance, you turn your mobile phone back on. And by all means keep your synagogue nice and quiet, but if there’s the opportunity to give life back to a crippled woman then we all join in the dancing. And while it may look bad to have a priest refereeing a boxing match, if it means bringing a little joy to kids who’ve been living in a warzone for the last seven years then you get over it!

“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16)

This was the problem in the synagogue that day, and it’s the same problem for us religious people today. It’s not that we have too much tradition or too many rules or too much of anything in particular. It’s simply that we show too little compassion. Somehow, we lost the fundamental connection between religion and compassion, and I don’t think it matters much how strong our structures are or how intelligent our social analysis is or how well-coordinated and well-financed our outreach programs are. If we lack compassion, we fail.

They say that the most important thing is to make sure that the most important thing is always treated as the most important thing – that the number one priority is to see that the number one priority remains the number one priority. Whether in Judea or Syria or in Dulwich Hill or anywhere else, the number one priority for Jesus is always compassion. Morality, judgement, law and tradition all have their place but … the greatest of these is love.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity on Sunday the 25th of August, 2019.

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What is faith? (A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-16)

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1-3)

I’m focusing today’s sermon on our epistle reading from the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’, and I appreciate that Hebrews is not a book of the New Testament that we tend to spend a lot of time with.

There are obvious reasons for that. Hebrews is one of those ‘how did he get in?’ books of the New Testament. It’s one that most of us feel no particular kinship with, as it seems to be written for a very ethno-specific audience, namely for Hebrews.   It’s full of references to high priests and blood sacrifices in a way that seems alien to those of us who aren’t don’t have any of that as a part of our direct spiritual heritage.

It’s not one of the letters of Saint Paul, such that the early church might have felt they had to include it in the canon of Scripture. We don’t know who (male or female) wrote the book. What was it that led the early church to insist that this letter should be included in the collection of books to be recognised as the ‘word of God’, whereas any number of other early writings, claiming to be inspired by God, were excluded?

My guess is that it was sections of the book such as those we deal with today from chapter 11 that clinched the deal for Hebrews – not so much the opening verses that I just read, but the great list of heroes of the faith that fills up the rest of the chapter.

It’s a list that starts with the Abel, whose faith, we are told, earned him favour with God, in contrast to his brother, Cain, and Abel is followed by a great list of other ancient heroes such as Enoch, Noah, and, of course, Abraham and Sarah. 

As you proceed through the chapter, the other greats of the past are rolled out too – Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets … It’s a bit like a line-up of the who’s who of old-time Biblical celebrities, and the point is that each one of these greats only achieved what they were able to achieve because they were people of faith, just as we are people of faith. 

As a young Christian man, I used to find this list inspiring, and Indeed I remember giving one of my first sermons on this passage when I was a part of Saint John’s church in Kings Cross, back in the 80’s. If these ordinary people achieved great things through the workings of their faith, what is to stop us achieving great things?

That was when I was a younger man. Now I read through this list of superheroes and find the comparison more humiliating than inspiring. What happened?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Tony Robbins seminar or read one of his books. I know a lot of good people who have been helped by that sort of thing, but I only got about a third of the way through one of his tomes and couldn’t stomach it. It was all his ‘power of positive thinking’ stuff – the ‘you can do anything if you only believe you can do it’ line. I just can’t buy into that anymore.

They said that it could not be done.
He said, ‘just let me try’.
They said ‘other men have tried and failed’.
He answered, ‘but not I’.

They said, ‘it is impossible’
He said, ‘there’s no such word’.
He closed his mind, he closed his heart
to everything he heard.

He said, ‘within the heart of man
there is a tiny seed
It grows until it blossoms.
It’s called ‘the will to succeed.

Its roots are strength, its stem is hope,
its petals inspiration.
Its thorns protect its strong green leaves
with grim determination.”

“Its stamens are its skills
Which help to shape each plan,
For there’s nothing in the universe
Beyond the scope of man.”

They thought that it could not be done.
Some even said they knew it,
But he faced up to what could not be done …
And he couldn’t bloody do it!

That may be the only time you ever hear the late, great Benny Hill quoted from the pulpit. Even so, ‘they said that it could not be done’ really strikes a chord with me.

How long have I been pursuing that World Middleweight boxing title now? I’m nearly 58 now and I’m still looking for that breakthrough fight. Is that faith or is it stupidity?

Mind you, one book I really got a lot out of was Steven Pressfield’s “Do the work”, and Pressfield says that we have just two assets in life – stubbornness and stupidity. Pressfield suggests that we resist the temptation to give them high-sounding names like ‘perseverance’ and ‘daring’. Let’s call them what they are – stubbornness and stupidity. His point is that we need plenty of both if we are going to accomplish anything worthwhile in life.

Perhaps that’s right, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got plenty of both. Perhaps we could even translate the Letter to the Hebrews using those terms: 

‘Abraham was stupid enough to set out for a place that he would receive as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going, and he was stubborn enough to live there in a tent as a foreigner, as were Isaac and Jabob after him!’ (Hebrews 11:8-9)

Both Pressfield and Tony Robbins would have been proud of them. Even so, as I say, I’ve got lots of stubbornness and stupidity. Why haven’t they worked for me?

Perhaps I’m being unfair to our Biblical superheroes. Indeed, one of the key points made by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is that none of these great spiritual archetypes ever actually saw in their own lifetimes the things they were working for.

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they desire a better country – a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13,16)

Is that what faith is – the strength to die without seeing the outcome you’ve been working for but believing that better things are still ahead? Perhaps it is, and it’s certainly worth recognising that the Biblical superheroes we find in the letter to the Hebrews bear little resemblance to the graduates of Tony Robbin’s seminars.

I’m sure that if you look those who’ve harnessed the ‘power of positive thinking’ you’ll see a list of CEO’s and big-money executives who have ‘made it’ in life, according to contemporary standards. When you look on at the superheroes in Hebrews chapter eleven, most of them didn’t crack the big time in any way that we would recognise. On the contrary, a disturbingly high percentage of them had lives characterized by persecution and poverty that concluded with a grisly death! 

Is this what faith is – the ability to endure pain and failure and misunderstanding throughout your life because you believe that good will eventually come out of it?

I’m reminded of the story of the Henry Francis Lyte – a fellow Anglican priest who lived in the first half of the 19th century. Lyte’s life work was his vocation as priest to the fishing village of Lower Brixham, in Devon. He was rector there for twenty-three years and was so successful in building up the parish that the church building had to be enlarged, resulting in what his grandson referred “a hideous barn-like building”.

However, from about the twenty-year mark people in the parish started to leave. Some say this was because they didn’t like Lyte’s high churchmanship, and others say it was all due to arguments between families in the congregation. Either way, he lost the entire choir in 1846, with many joining ‘dissenter’ congregations, such as the Plymouth Brethren, and all this left him very depressed. 

The following year Lyte decided to take a holiday but discovered he was seriously ill just before leaving. He died while on leave in France at age 47. A couple of hours after his final service in his church though, just before he left and not long before his death, he penned the words of a hymn that were published posthumously:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

And so the man was able to contribute more to humanity in those final hours through that hymn than he might have done through a dozen careers as a parish priest!

Is that what faith is – is it doing what God inspires you to do even if you don’t know whether it’s ever going to accomplish any good? In point of fact, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us exactly what faith is at the opening of this passage:

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen… By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1,3)

Faith, in other words, is always hanging on to the big picture. It’s believing in the good things God has promised, even when there is absolutely no sign of them, and this is a hard thing to do. It is hard to pour your life’s energy into things that never give you the results you are looking for!

I think of so many of the kid’s we’ve worked with over the years here – lovely young men like Daniel, who was a part of my fight club and became a part of our church and eventually even became one of our paid youth-workers. He was at rock bottom when he joined the club after being expelled from Dulwich High school. We helped him become a champion kickboxer and an asset to the community. The local paper even featured a lovely picture of him with Father Elias that we still have – all from the glory days, before things fell apart for him again and he suicided. I think of him every time I walk past his ashes that are contained in our memorial wall, and wonder why.

Or dear Shannon, who was a part of our church community only a couple of years ago. Again, he came in through the fight club and we had him gainfully employed at our bush camp for more than a year, and I thought we’d helped him make a fresh start in independent living again, before he threw himself off a building.

The problem is seeing how these stories (and so many like them) can be woven into any great tapestry of love and triumph. Maybe they can, and maybe I will see how it all fits together one day but, as Kierkegaard said, even if you can understand life in reverse, it unfortunately has to be lived forwards! That’s the challenge of faith – seeing it backwards while living it forwards!

I think of the time and passion I’ve poured into our work in Syria over the last eight years, and in Palestine. I think of my night spinning around in a boat off the shores of Manus Island in the blackness, sure I was about to drown, and I wonder what it all achieved. Have we saved any lives in Syria? Have we liberated anyone in Gaza? Have any of our friends from Manus Island found freedom?

And what of the vision I’ve always had for our church. I’ve always seen us growing to have a regular congregation of more than a hundred each week – one hundred plus souls from diverse backgrounds, representing many nations and expressing every aspect of social, cultural and sexual diversity known to humanity while all being one in Christ! That’s been my vision that has kept me going at all those times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel (and there have been many). Now I need to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to see that. I guess faith is seeing it anyway!

“I’ve been to the mountain top. I’ve seen the promised land!” Who said it? Martin Luther King Jr, of course. Yes, he did, but who said it before he said it? Moses said it, and before Moses, Abraham and Sarah both shared that vision and they said it too. In fact, all the great heroes of the faith said it, and that’s what faith is!

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen”. It’s having your stupidity, stubbornness, daring and perseverance focused on Christ.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 11th August, 2019.

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Media Advisor of INHR to Syria met Mufti Hassoun

Thanks to my friend, Nahad (‘Nana’) Lancaster for this account of my 2019 meeting with my friend the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Hassoun, appearing on the UN International Human Rights Council website.

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IHRC representative in Damascus met with Father Dave Smith

Thanks to my friend, Nahad (‘Nana’) Lancaster for this account of our meeting with Dr. Nabil Toumeh appearing on the UN International Human Rights Council website.

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The Rich Idiot (A sermon on Luke 12:13-21)

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
(Luke 12:13-21)

“Jesus is the Answer!”

When I first became an active Christian back in the early 80’s, that was a popular catch-cry amongst my peers. I’m sure I had a T-shirt with ‘Jesus is the answer’ imprinted on it. Indeed, the slogan became so popular that some others came out with a counter-slogan, with T-shirts, displaying the words, “what was the question?”

The popular pious response to that counter-slogan, of course, was “Jesus is the answer to all your questions”, but, of course, that is simply not true. I had a stand-up comedian convince me of that one night as a part of his routine. As he said, if Jesus were the answer to every question, imagine how boring game shows would become:

“Round two, hands on your buzzers. The first question is …

Bzzzz … Jesus?

That is correct. Next question 

Bzzzz … Jesus?”

Jesus is not the answer to all our questions, as illustrated in today’s Gospel reading:

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13) ‘Speak to the hand’, says Jesus. ‘Ask someone who cares!’ 

Ok. That’s not exactly what He said, but that’s pretty much the gist of it.

“Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14) is the precise response, but it amounts to the same thing. Jesus is radically uninterested in helping this man solve his problem, which is not what we are used to.

It wasn’t’ a trick question from what I can see. Indeed, it may well have been exactly the sort of question that you’d take to your local rabbi and expect him to sort out. This was a family issue, it was a justice issue and, yes, it was a money issue, and I know that money isn’t the most important thing in the world, but, as Zig Ziglar said, “money is not everything but it ranks right up there with oxygen”

When I was young, I never worried about money. I suspect most of us were like that. Why is it that when we don’t have money, we don’t seem to care much about it? We get older and we get credit cards and we get mortgages and some of us get stock portfolios, and then we hire accountants and brokers to keep us out of trouble,

I am ashamed to confess that in recent years I have spent many hours lying awake at night, worrying about money. I used to think that was other people and that I was too spiritual for any of that. Having come close to bankruptcy now on one too many occasions, I confess that it is me too.

Why was I so carefree when I had nothing, and yet have been so anxious when I’ve had relative plenty? The answer is straightforward enough (in my case, at any rate). When I was young, I always knew my dad had my back. He’s not there now.

I think that’s why most of us worry about money. I think it’s just fear.

I appreciate that for some people money is about power. It’s about personal and social significance. It’s about being a somebody and standing out from the pack.

When we look at some of these business people who earn enormous pay-packets, and companies that generate squilliions of dollars in profit, but just seem to want more and more, that’s not about security , is it? It’s something more pathological – a lust for power, a desire to be like God perhaps?

That’s not us, is it? At least it’s not most of us, most of the time, or is there a fine line between wanting security for the future and wanting to replace God?

“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

G.K. Chesterton said “Now we could have quite a good debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. That would be a matter of which we could have endless speculative discussion.  However, there is no debate to be had over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble.  The evidence in Scripture is just too great, there are too many stories.  Jesus said too much on the subject.”

It’s true, though we don’t like to admit it. Even the most fundamentalist of preachers who insist that we take everything literally when it comes to the Scriptures, somehow don’t take literally Jesus’ commands about money.

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out.” (Luke 12:33) Jesus didn’t mean that literally, of course, did He, of if He did mean it literally, He obviously wasn’t talking to me.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ … ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? (Luke 12:16-20)

Death is such a sobering reality. It helps us put things in perspective. Indeed, the thing that amazes me, having now taken hundreds of funerals, is not how people find clarity at funerals and suddenly see life in perspective, but rather how quickly they seem to forget after the funeral and manage to go straight back to the treadmill!

Let me conclude by telling you one of my own funeral stories – a simple funeral I took in Dulwich Hill that has always stayed with me.

I can’t remember the name of the deceased now but what I do remember was that she was one of this country’s greatest circus performers. She had been the trapeze artist whose performance was the climax of every show in the big top of one of Australia’s great circuses.

And I spent time with the son of this amazing woman both before and after the funeral, and he told me how, as a boy, he could never watch his mum perform. Indeed, he said that she would always conclude her routine with a particularly dangerous manoeuvre (a triple-somersault with a double twist, or something like that), and that she’d always perform this stunt ‘old school’ (without a safety net)!

The son said that he’d always stand outside of the tent at that point and listen to the crowd. When he heard the drum roll and the crowd gasp, this was when his mum was making the leap, and he would hold his breath. When (an eternity later) he heard the crowd break into rapturous applause, he knew his mum was okay.

She only ever missed the jump once, he told me. She survived, but she never went back to the trapeze again after that.

Anyway, what stayed with me the most from the funeral of this great woman was that in the family reminiscences during the funeral itself, her amazing life on the trapeze barely got a mention! It’s as if the children barely remembered her incredible athletic accomplishments. All they could remember was what a wonderful mum she was!

That says it all for me! When we get to the end of life, all the things that obsess us most today – nobody’s going to remember any of them! That might not be entirely true, but for the most part, the things that we sweat and strain over today, along with all the professional accomplishments that we’ve achieved and the records we’ve set and the degrees we’ve earned – they may get a footnote in our eulogy, but I don’t think my friends and family are really going to care about any of those things very much, let alone about my net worth (if I have any).

Be assured that we all have the same net worth when we are dead. I don’t know the actual value, but dead bodies aren’t worth a lot.

We worry so much about things that really don’t matter, and the flip side of that is that we don’t have the resources – financial or emotional – to devote to the things that really do matter. The trick for me, I know, is simply to keep reminding myself of what I knew when I was young – that my dad has my back, because our Heavenly Father really does have our backs. 

Seek first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will fall into place.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 4th of August, 2019.

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Hosea; how much further can you push the prophecy envelope?

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 1:2)

There is so much to dislike in that snippet of Scripture, and it’s just one verse! As the story unfolds, things don’t get any better. Indeed, they degenerate further! Even so, as an opening line, I don’t think you can get much more offensive than this.

It’s the language, I think, that I find so jarring – “take yourself a wife of whoredom”! Of course, I thought it might just be the translation I was working with (the New Revised Standard Version in this case) so I compared it to some of the other translations, and it didn’t help a lot:

  • “Go, take thee a wife of fornications, and have of her children of fornications” (Douay Rheims Bible)
  • “Go, take unto you a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry”
    (American King James)
  • “Marry a prostitute and have children with that prostitute.”
    (God’s Word translation)

I think a part of my problem here is that a lot of the words used are words that have been used over the ages to specifically denigrate women who fail to stay chaste!

The point is often made that our language has a whole variety of awful words that are applied to women who fail to live up the standards of sexual purity set by the community, whereas when men behave in similar ways they are often admired and referred to as ‘studs’ or something similar.

Indeed, from the reading I’ve done, it seems to me that there has been a consistent campaign through history to control female sexuality, sometimes in very obvious and horrible forms, such as chastity belts or female genital mutilation. At other times the mechanisms of control are more subtle, such as through language.

The curious thing that has paralleled that, according to anthropologists Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha (in “Sex at Dawn”) has been a constant insistence by anthropologists and biologists that the female of the species is naturally more ‘coy’ (to use the term that Darwin regularly employed) – that women are by nature far more subdued and restrained in matters of sexuality.

Ryan and Jetha make the point that both these things cannot be true. If Darwin and his colleagues are correct, why has there been such a consistent history of the repression of female sexuality. Why build a barbed wire cage with an electric fence to contain a tame bunny that doesn’t want to go anywhere anyway?

My point is that these opening verses of the book of the prophet Hosea seem to immerse us right away in that awful context of female repression though the use of these words – whore, harlot, etc. – and if we take the whole story literally it appears that Gomer (the woman of notorious reputation that Hosea chooses for his project) is simply a tool in the hand of the prophet, used to make a point.

“Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” 3So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.” (Hosea 1:2-3)

It all sounds very contrived and deliberate, as if Hosea, after hearing God’s instructions, wandered down to the local brothel, found a likely-looking candidate, and put the proposition to her:

“How about we get married so that I can use our relationship as an example of how terrible this society’s relationship with their creator is, and then we have children and we’ll call them horrible names to reflect the doom coming on the land?”

Gomer replies, “Hey, why not?”

Call me a skeptic, but I just wonder if that’s how it really happened, and, in truth, a lot Biblical scholars question whether it could have really happened that way.

The alternative explanation, of course, is that Hosea and Gomer got married as a regular couple with all the hopes and dreams that regular couples have, but that their marriage went disastrously wrong. Gomer took on other lovers, and Hosea, in an attempt to make sense of what was happening to him and his family, interpreted his personal tragedy as being a reflection of what was happening in the life of his nation.

Whichever interpretation of the life of the prophet Hosea is correct, one thing is obvious – namely, that this man made no distinction between his personal and his professional life.

It’s curious that this is something that modern churches today almost insist upon (at least at the Protestant end of the ecclesiastical spectrum). I remember when I was at Moore College there was a lot of discussion about this – about the importance of separating your family from the ministry and how you should try and make sure that they rectory is a long way away from the church, so as to shield the rest of your family from the comings and goings of church members, let alone from the dubious characters who tend to descend on rectory properties in the middle of the night to get assistance from the priest.

Suffice it to say that I have never been an advocate of this model. I’ve always seen ministry as being a lot like boxing, in that you can’t afford to hold anything back.

I remember hearing Kostya Tszyu talk about this once – specifically, about why he lost his title fight against Ricky Hatton in 2005. He said that, while he was tipped to win that fight, he went into the ring not ready to die. His point was that, as a boxer, you’ve always got to be ready to die in the ring rather than lose if you want to win.

I totally believe that, and I think if that’s good enough for boxing, that surely should be our attitude when it comes to the main event – to the real fight of life: the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil. You’ve got to be willing to commit yourself completely to what you’ve been called to do, even if it kills you.

Having said that, I don’t think I could have pushed the envelope to the extremes that Hosea did. He didn’t just commit himself and his family to his prophetic ministry. He was the ministry. They were their message. They were the living embodiment of Hosea’s prophecy, and let’s remember that it was not a happy prophecy.

“[Gomer] conceived and bore [Hosea] a son. 4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:3-4)

The naming of Hosea and Gomer’s first-born son takes us straight into the nitty-gritty of Hosea’s prophetic message, and indeed it is one of the only places in the book where Hosea speaks in specific terms about what exactly Israel has done wrong.

If you read though the whole book of Hosea – all fourteen chapters – you’ll find that most of it is an extended poem, and most of that poem revolves around the metaphor of God, the faithful husband and Israel, the unfaithful wife.

Amos, Hosea’s predecessor, had been very specific about the way the people of Israel had failed. They would “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6). Israel had become a very stratified society, with the rich and the powerful working with the courts to exploit the poor, and Amos said God hated that.

Hosea, who seems to have started his prophetic ministry at around the same time Amos concluded his, is not so specific as to what he saw as being Israel’s great sin. He rarely speaks outside of the metaphor of God’s marriage to His unfaithful partner, and while there are references to idol-worship, where Hosea says the people have opted to worship the Baal rather than the God, it’s not clear whether he means that they had literally changed religion in some obvious sort of way or whether it was their behavior towards each other that amounted to idol worship.

Part of the problem here is that the Hebrew meaning of the word ‘Baal’ is literally ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’ or even (in a patriarchal society) ‘husband’. Hence the prophet plays on words, saying “In that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master” (Hosea 2:16). It’s a play on the word ‘Baal’.

The worship of Baal can take on a lot of different forms, and it doesn’t necessarily involve the casting of a golden calf or any such obvious forms of paganism. Those whom Amos had railed against for exploiting the poor were, I think, to Hosea’s  mind, worshipping the Baals instead of worshipping God – the God who created both the oppressor and the oppressed and loves them both equally.

Biblical scholar Tom Wright says that in the end there is only one sin in the Bible – idolatry. All sinful acts towards ourselves, towards our neighbours and towards creation itself are, from a Biblical point of view, Wright says, ultimately just another  failure to worship the creator.

I think Wright may be right, and I certainly think Hosea was of this mindset – that all forms of moral failure and relationship breakdown are ultimately forms of idolatry, though, as I say, the naming of his first-born son, ‘Jezreel’, does give us a clue as to one of the specific forms that Israel’s idolatry took.

Those who are familiar with their Hebrew Bibles will recognise Jezreel as the place where Jehu put an end to the household of Ahab, and bloody end it was.

It’s all recorded in the second book of Kings, chapter ten, if you haven’t read it, but be warned that it is a grizzly chapter in a grizzly saga, and the highlight is the piling up of the heads of the seventy sons of Ahab at the entrance to the city of Jezreel.

Interestingly, in the book of Kings this is recorded as being part of a great cleansing of the land after the tyranny of Ahab and Jezebel. Even so, by the time of Hosea, it must have been obvious that nothing good had come from this cleansing, and that the violence at Jezreel was just another dark chapter in the history of a nation that had been built on blood rather than on the love of Israel’s ever-faithful partner.

This is Hosea’s prophecy – that in the exploitation of the poor and in the violence of Jezreel and in more obvious forms of idol-worship perhaps, Israel had turned away from their creator to worship other gods. It’s only right that we do hear the message, rather than just get caught up in the personal life of the prophet, as bizarre as it was.

I don’t doubt that if Hosea was prophesying today over our country that he would see bemoan the multiple instances of violence and bloodshed in our own history just as he did in Israel, and no doubt he would see idolatry everywhere.

He would see it in our worship of the almighty dollar. He’d see it in the way we idolize celebrities simply because they are celebrities. He’d see it in the way we, as individuals and as a nation, repeatedly choose security and stability over freedom and compassion. He wouldn’t call it greed or stupidity or poor foreign policy. He’d give it the name it deserves – idolatry.

As I say, it’s important that we hear the message of Hosea, rather than simply get caught up in the biographical details of the prophet and his family. At the same time though, in Hosea’s case, as we’ve recognised, you can’t divide the man from the message all that easily. Hosea was his message. Hosea and Gomer together were the message. Hosea, Gomer, and their poor children were a living parable to the people of Israel, urging the nation to change direction before it was all too late!

In a sense, of course, it’s true for all of us that our lives are our message.

As St Francis was supposed to have said, “preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” We are always preaching the Gospel of Christ to those around us in the way we live and work and connect with them in love. The problem comes, I think, when the message we feel called upon to embody, looks more like Hosea’s prophecy of doom than it does like St Francis’ Gospel of peace.

Having said that, I find some encouragement here in the person of Hosea too, as he is a reminder that we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order in order to be embodiments of the message. On the contrary, perhaps even the hopeless parts of our lives can become a part of the proclamation of the Gospel of grace.

I remember my brother once sent me a graphic of one of those inspirational posters which has motivational words written on it. When I looked closely at this one though it was a picture of a ship going down at sea, and the writing said, “perhaps the purpose of your life is to be an example to others of what not to do”.

This was sent to me at a different stage of my life and I took it in good humor, and of course I’d like to think that I will leave behind me more than an example of what not to do. Even so, the encouragement I get from Hosea is that we don’t have to be examples of perfection either in order to be embodiments of the Gospel of truth. In the great things we do and in the small things we do, and even in the things we do really badly, God can speak. God will speak.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on July 28, 2019.

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