The murder of the Innocents (Matthew 2:13-23)

 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18)

Words from our Gospel reading today (from Matthew) that echo the words of the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) that echo the words of mothers (and fathers) of every generation who lose their children due to political violence.

As Herodotus wrote in the fight century before Christ, “in peace, children bury their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to bury their children.”  It should not happen. It violates the order of nature, and yet it happens still.

Many of you know that I came back from Syria this year with a complete set of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) fatigues – the pants, the hat and the flak jacket – and that I wear my SAA gear regularly when I’m not required to be in my clerical uniform (minus the flak jacket when we’re in the middle of summer).  When people ask why I wear clothes so closely associated with death, I tell them the story that the person who gave me the uniform told me about what the people of Douma had told him.

Douma is a suburb of Damascus, about 10 km northeast of the city centre, and best known for being the site of an alleged gas attack in April of last year. This particular story though had nothing to do with gas attacks but was about the day these people in Douma had looked out their windows and saw the black utes of Jabhat Al-Nusra driving down their streets.

We have seen those vehicles ourselves in news footage – the black utes with the machine guns mounted on the back. Jabhat Al-Nusra is the Syrian franchise of Al Qaeda, and I think they changed their name again recently so that they can keep enjoying support from the West. They are, at any rate, the key rebel group still operating in Idlib, where the Syrian Arab Army, backed by the Russians, is currently finally closing in with a view to ending the war.

In this story I was told, the people of Douma see the black utes and they immediately go inside their homes and lock their doors and get out their guns. From what I was told, they got out their guns, not to shoot it out with the rebels, who they knew they had no chance of defeating, but to use on their own families, to save them from capture. They knew what these people did to children, and even to babies. They would prefer to see their family make a quick and dignified exit from this world than endure what these people would inflict on them.

Then they look out of their windows again and see the colours of the Syrian Arab Army. Now they know their kids will be going to school the next day, instead of to the graveyard. This is the Syrian army that I know – an army of dads and mums, brothers and sisters, defending their own families. I’m not suggesting they are all saints, but I believe that at the core of that army are ordinary people just trying to defend their homes, and that’s why I wear their colours with pride.

It shouldn’t happen – innocent children being under threat – and yet this has always been a part of the cycle of our history. Children burying their parents is hard enough, but God save us from that time of trial where parents bury their children.

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18)

The Gospel writer’s focus, of course, is on the murder of the boys of Bethlehem:

“When Herod saw that he’d been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16)

I know some scholars suggest that this slaughter never really happened. They say that because there are no independent historical records of any such slaughter in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great. My thought is ‘why would there be any records kept?’ What newspaper would have thought it wise to publish that story?

I’m not only suggesting that the great powers back then probably controlled the public narrative, though that’s bound to be the case. Why would anyone have bothered to record this? Things like that happened all the time, just as they do today in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, and most of these terrible events go unreported.

Bethlehem was a small town too. The number of children killed probably would have been dozens rather than hundreds. Who would have cared? Of course, the parents and the people of Bethlehem would have cared, but I imagine Herod’s advisors would have seen this as a shrewd move – a proactive action aimed at stemming potential rebellion before it started.

If word was getting around that a new king was being nurtured in Bethlehem, the long-term consequences for upheaval within the empire might have been enormous. Better to snuff out the fire before it gets going.

We are talking of ‘Herod, the Great’ here, of course, and not the relatively impotent Herod we meet later in the Gospels at the trial of Jesus, and one of the reasons this Herod was so ‘great’ was because he acted like this all the time.

Long before turning his bloodthirsty eyes on the children of Bethlehem, he murdered most of his own children, conniving with his son Antipater to have two of his other sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, falsely accused and executed.  Then, later, towards the end of his life, he had Antipater executed as well.

His bloodlust didn’t stop with his own children either.  He also had his wife, Mariamne, executed, along with most of her family (her brother, mother and grandfather), and this chiefly for the crime of being popular.

Herod, like all those who cling to power, was constantly watching his back, constantly fearing that one of those close to him was about to wrench the throne from him, and so he butchered all those who were closest to him, along with anyone else who got in his way, and so it comes as no surprise to find that the report of a king being born in Bethlehem draws a swift and merciless response. 

Jesus escapes the genocidal purge, of course, courtesy of another dream given to Joseph, and there’s a fair degree of dramatic irony in the way the story unfolds here.

Joseph has a dream that leads him to flee to Egypt, and if you know your Old Testament history, you know that his namesake –Joseph, son of Jacob (best remembered for his technicolour dreamcoat) – also had a dream that eventually led him to Egypt. Egypt became a place of refuge for the original Joseph and his family, just as it did for the later Joseph and Mary and their baby.

Eventually, of course, Egypt became a place of enslavement for Joseph and his people, and they made an exodus and settled in their own land. Now, ironically, the oppression is coming from their own people, and so the family returns to Egypt.

I guess that’s another reason why some scholars believe this slaughter never happened – because the whole story seems too neat and symmetrical.

Joseph has to go down to Egypt just as his forefather Joseph went down to Egypt, and if you remember the final act of violence from Pharaoh that led to the exodus, it was Pharaoh’s attempt to kill all the baby boys descended from Joseph. This time it is Herod who attempts to kill all the baby boys, and just as Moses escaped that genocide, so Jesus will escape Herod’s genocide and then come up out of Egypt.

Does that all seem a little too neat and lovely? Personally, I don’t think so. Indeed, I think if I were going to construct a story about Jesus in parallel with the story of Moses, why not have all baby boys of Bethlehem saved, just as all the first-born Israelite children were saved at the original Passover?

There are so many ways in which this could be made a nicer and happier story, for the truth is that this story is not nice or happy, which raises the obvious question – why is this story being told now, while the Christmas tree is still up and our homes are still covered in tinsel and we haven’t even finished opening all of the presents?

This isn’t a Christmas story at all, is it? It’s a story of murder and misery – of Rachel weeping and parents burying their children. What has that got to do with Christmas?

In truth, the Christmas story can be told of lot of different ways, and there are some competing narratives in the mix. I know we like our peaceful nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph looking serene and the gentle animals looking on respectfully, and the little Lord Jesus (‘no crying he makes’) at the centre.

You think of that image and you can hear the dulcet tones of ‘Away in a Manger’ playing in the background, and it brings back memories of happy times with family, and of times when we felt loved and secure. I don’t think that was the Gospel-writer’s intention when he related that scene. I think the whole point Luke was making when he passed on the story of Jesus, the stable, the manger and the shepherds, was that the story of God’s coming into our world in Jesus is a story that does not begin well.

I don’t know how we managed to romanticise the whole ‘no room at the inn’ part of the story. It seems to me almost incomprehensible that nobody had a bed for a woman about to give birth, and most especially in a Middle Eastern culture.

Yes, you hear of Palestinian women today giving birth at the roadside because they’ve been held up at a checkpoint by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), but that is rightly considered scandalous when it happens, and, of course, it reflects the animosity between the IDF and the Palestinian people. In this case, it’s not the Roman occupiers of Bethlehem who are denying Mary a bed. It’s her own people!

I’ve spent enough time in the Middle East to know that hospitality is one of the most cherished values in their culture. I remember once visiting the home of two martyrs in Damascus. The two sons in this family had both been soldiers and both been killed, and the mother and father invited our group into their small home where photos of their deceased sons were on display everywhere.

They were poor people and there were about ten of us. The immediate problem they had was that they needed to provide refreshments for all of us and they just weren’t equipped to do so. They were desperately brewing coffee and trying to give something to each of us, but they only had four cups, and so we had to take turns sharing from these cups lest we dishonour these people by refusing their hospitality.

Hospitality is everything in that culture, which is, again, why some scholars question the historical accuracy of the traditional nativity scene. For how could anyone in that culture deny a woman about to give birth a proper bed?

Personally, I believe that the reason Mary was denied a bed, and the reason why Herod was able to get away with murdering all the baby boys in Bethlehem, came down to the same thing. I suspect that people had become hardened by so many years of the Roman occupation of Judea that many of them had lost their humanity!

There’s only so long you can put up with living in constant tension and fear. Ultimately, it destroys your soul. You have to do something. You fight back, or you join the occupying forces and become complicit, or you get high and escape the pain in that way, or perhaps you just try to focus in on yourself and your family and keep your head down and mind your own business, and if pregnant women can’t find a bed for the night, or if somebody else had their son killed because they got on the wrong side of the king, how is that my problem?

“He came to his own people and his own people received him not”, says the Gospel-writer, John (John 1:11). That wasn’t because they were particularly bad people. They were just exhausted by generations of violent military oppression.

“Joy to the Word. The Lord has come!” That’s our hymn of joyous celebration that marks this special season. God has come into our world in a special way in this baby but, according to the Gospels, this amazing journey doesn’t begin well. It begins with inhospitality, pain and murder. Is this really something we should be celebrating?

The simple answer to that question, I think, is ‘yes’, because we are not celebrating the darkness. We are celebrating the light shining in the darkness. Yes, the darkness surrounding the Christmas message may tarnish the sheen of the Christmas baubles and, yes, we might have assumed that when God came into the world in Jesus that things would get immediately better, but that’s the Santa Claus version of Christmas.

As I say, there are a number of ways of telling the Christmas story and not all of them gel neatly with each other. The story of the plush red elf, flying around the world, distributing presents to those who already have more than they know what to do with, has never fitted in comfortably with the story of the Palestinian peasant woman unable to find somewhere to give birth, and that’s because the Santa narrative is for kids – kids who have been blessedly shielded from some of the harsher realities of life. The Gospel stories were written for the rest of us.

The Gospel Christmas narrative is for the people of Douma in Syria. It’s for the people of Iraq and Libya and Bethlehem, and for it’s for us too – perhaps especially for those of us who have become hard and cynical through years of struggle and failure and addiction and relationship breakdown. The Gospel Christmas story is a story of God coming into our world – into our world, the real world – immersed, as it is, in broken dreams, violence and pain. It’s a story of a God who doesn’t just give us a nice present and then fly off again for another twelve months, but of a God who sticks in here with us, endures all the violence with us, and ultimately leads us through to a new tomorrow.

“Rachel is weeping for her children.” (Matthew 2:18) That is indeed a part of the Christmas story, but it’s not the end of the story. The story ends in the new Jerusalem, where “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 29th of December, 2019.

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Christmas 2019 (John 1:1-14)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

I don’t know if any else here is a fan of Melbourne-based journalist, Caitlin Johnstone,. I’m a big fan. I’ve never met here in person though I have had the privilege of appearing alongside her in podcasts supporting Julian Assange.

She’s a cutting-edge journalist and activist, in my opinion, though you’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of her. As far as I know, her work appears in no mainline publications, and she’s one of those persons who constantly runs the risk of being de-indexed by Google and having her Facebook and Twitter accounts closed down because she says things that are unpopular, so unless you’ve favorited, it’s possible you’ll never find her!

Ms Johnstone describes herself as ‘a rogue journalist, operating from the edge of the narrative matrix’, and indeed, discussion of ‘the narrative matrix’ is one of her most persistent themes.

If you’re not familiar with the term, the ‘narrative matrix’ is that interconnected web of stories through which we make sense of our lives and of our world. Of course, I’m sure that many of us have convinced ourselves that we understand life through the strength of our own observations and rationality. Not likely! We make sense of life through stories.

I had the privilege of watching the final installment in the Skywalker Star Wars series last week, and I don’t know if you watched the way that epic adventure was promoted in the trailers but it was telling – “the saga ends”, the trailer says, “but the story lives forever”!

Powerful words, and there is a powerful truth in that too. Some of you may not know that when George Lucas wrote the original Star Wars narrative, he very deliberately drew on the work of Professor Joseph Campbell and his study of ancient myth.

Campbell wrote “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, which I found a difficult read, but at the heart of it was his concept of ‘the hero’s journey’, which he believed was the story at the heart of every great myth and religious epic.

“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.” (Campbell, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Princeton University Press, 1949. p. 23).

‘The hero’s journey’ is an archetypal narrative through which we interpret our own lives and history, and there’s no doubt that one of the key reasons why Star Wars has been so popular is because it follows exactly the storyline of this ancient archetypal myth, which is also why George Lucas invited Professor Campbell to Skywalker Ranch to see Star Wars previewed before it was ever released to the public.

Mind you, when Caitlin Johnstone talks about the ‘narrative matrix’, she’s not normally referring to these epic myths through which we interpret our history, but rather the narratives that are fed to us by the media and by politicians that are designed to help us interpret what is going on around us at the moment.

You can’t start a war without a good story.

I don’t feel that I’ve been alive all that long, but I’ve already lived through a whole series of wars, and each of them had their own narrative.

  • There were stories of Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators that fueled the first invasion of Iraq.
  • Tales of weapons of mass destruction, of course, fueled the second.
  • There were stories of wholesale rape and murder by the troops of Muammar Gaddafi that necessitated the destruction of Libya.
  • More recently it’s been the narratives surrounding the so-called dictator of Syria – Bashar Al Asaad – and his gas attacks on his own people.

I was talking to a friend in Syria the other evening who was telling me about the hardships they are experiencing there. The winter is settling in and there’s no diesel available for people to heat their homes, and you can’t go anywhere to get away from the cold because you can’t get fuel for your car.

This is all because of the sanctions placed upon Syria by countries like ours – sanctions that prevent people getting fuel, building materials and medicines.  Why are those sanctions in place? Well … it all makes sense if you buy into the narrative matrix presented by so many in the media. If you buy into that story, you’ll believe the sanctions are actually the way we help Syria!

Of course, for every narrative there is a counter-narrative, and when it comes to Syria or Palestine or Julian Assange, there are people like Caitlin Johnstone who are outstanding spokespersons for the counter-narrative.

Of course, the question we want answered is ‘which narrative is true?’, and the cynical answer to that is that it doesn’t matter much, as the future will be determined by which narrative we believe rather than by the one which is true.

This is true on a personal level too, I think. We have our own stories through which we make sense of our lives, and which stories we buy into very much determine the people we become.

Do you see yourself as being on your own hero’s journey? Are you venturing into the unknown, battling with mystical forces, and believing that you are eventually going to prove victorious, and do something that will bring real benefits to the rest of humanity?

I must confess that my hero’s journey feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy of late. I wonder if my story has become one of ‘the rise and fall of Father Dave’, with me currently on the downhill trajectory.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m being melodramatic, but we all have our own stories – our own way of weaving together where we have been and where we are going – and some events in our lives throw our story into confusion.

Is my story (and your story) a hero’s journey or a Shakespearean tragedy? Perhaps, again, the real issue is not which option is true but which is believed, for it’s the story that is believed that will shape who we become.

You’ll have to forgive me if all this reflection on the narrative matrix comes across as far too ponderous and philosophical for the holiday season, but this is Christmas, and Christmas – whatever else it is – is a time for telling stories.

The Christmas season is a story-telling season and there are actually lots of stories in the Christmas narrative matrix, and some of them are competing narratives.

The story of the plush red elf flying around the world distributing presents to those who already have more than they know what to do with is a story that doesn’t gel easily with the story of the Palestinian peasant woman, looking for somewhere to give birth, and yet these are only two of a myriad of stories that become part of the greater Christmas matrix – a mixture that includes so many colourful characters; from shepherds and their sheep, to kings in their palaces and angels in the sky, to wise men from the East, and Santa and his elves from the West, and with the little drummer-boy in there somewhere too.

There is narrative and counter-narrative mixed into this matrix too. Are all the stories true? Perhaps the more important question, again, is rather which story we choose to buy into.

I chose for our Christmas reading today the opening verses of John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

It might seem like an odd choice as it’s a passage that contains no reference at all to any of the characters we normally associate with Christmas. Jesus is referred to, yes, though not by name, and there is no mention at all of Mary and Joseph, let alone the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, or any of the other figures in the Nativity scene. What happened to our Christmas story? Well … from the perspective of John, the Gospel writer, this is in fact the same story, though it’s part of a different narrative!

Like it or not, the Christmas story is one that has shaped our history as a nation, and one that is deeply embedded in our culture. Love it or hate it, we can’t escape the Christmas narrative. Even so, there are lots of different ways of telling this story, and perhaps the real issue is less which story is the most historically accurate, and more so which story we choose to embrace.

The Gospel-writer, John, sees the same things we all see. He sees Mary and Joseph looking for somewhere safe for Mary to give birth. He sees the gritty details of the inn and the manger, and no doubt he knows of the shepherds and the sheep too, but John sees something of cosmic significance going on in all this grit too. He sees God reaching out in love to a world in distress.

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

Could this be true? Could it be that in the baby Jesus we see God reaching out to us in love – offering us forgiveness, hope, and a new beginning? Of course, there’s no way of proving this to be true, and, at any rate, the greater issue is more whether we have the courage to believe it, for this is one of those stories that, if we believe it, will determine the persons we become.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Christmas Day, 2019.

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We know neither the day nor the hour! (Matthew 24:36-44)

 “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, (39) and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (40) Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. (41) Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. (42) Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:38-42)

And so we christen our ecclesiastical new year!  

Yes, it is the first day of the Christian year – the first Sunday in Advent – which for me means that it’s the official beginning of the Christmas Season. It’s also the first day of summer (commiserations to those tuning in from the Northern hemisphere) and the first day of the last month of the year, which I think means it’s officially the 29th anniversary of my arrival at this church – the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill – my first service here being on the first Sunday in December in 1990.

One other key thing this means for me is that next week I’ll celebrate the 30th birthday of my dear eldest daughter. Veronica took her first steps in the driveway of the rectory here and would afterwards often stand beside me at the communion table on a Sunday until her legs gave out, at which point I’d have to juggle holding her with one arm while consecrating bread and wine with the other. This also means that next week will be the 30th anniversary of my priesting. Yes, as I’ve often pointed out, I became a father twice in the same week.

Indeed, it does feel like an auspicious day to me, and it feels like an auspicious time for the parish too, as we head into unchartered waters, calling on God to lead us forward into a future that, for all of us, I think, is far from perspicuous.

So we christen this auspicious Sunday – the first in Advent, the first of Christmas, the first of December, the first day of Summer, with this awful reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, about those who are taken and those who are left behind!

Now, my apologies if there’s someone out there thinking ‘but that’s my favourite passage in the New Testament!’ I doubt if there’s anybody in Dulwich Hill thinking that, but there may be someone turning in from the other side of the globe who holds this passage close to their heart. If that’s you, let me confess that the reason I find this passage so painful is because I can’t read it without thinking of the way it’s been interpreted and used by certain elements within the church – most obviously in the works of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, authors of the ‘Left Behind’ series.

In case you’re not familiar with their work, ‘Left Behind’ ended up as a series of 16 best-selling works of Christian fiction, all based on the scene depicted in this passage! They are books describing the end of the world, or at least, the beginning of the end, which is the ‘rapture’, where all the faithful believers suddenly disappear from the earth as they are snapped up into Heaven, leaving behind all the unbelievers and those who thought they were believers but who didn’t fit the definition of believers as understood by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.

if you haven’t read these books, congratulations, but be aware that more than 80 million copies have been sold and that seven of the books in the series reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list!

The books have also spawned four movies, none of which I’ve seen, though I did consider watching the last movie as part of my sermon preparation, particularly as it had Nicholas Cage in the lead role, so I figured it couldn’t be all that bad. I figured that, at least, until I read the review by Variety magazine, which suggested that the special affects must have been inspired by ‘Sharknado’ and which concluded with:

“The film hits theatres this weekend, but as for when believers can expect to see the tenets of their faith reflected with any sort of sophistication or intelligence in a mainstream genre film, we still know neither the day nor the hour.” (Variety 2014)

I did watch the trailer to the Nicholas Cage version, where you get various glimpses of the day when ‘the rapture’ happens, and some are taken and others are left.

A plane is hurtling through the sky and suddenly the pilot and co-pilot disappear, leaving the members of the crew who were left behind to figure out how to land! Likewise, numerous cars, speeding along the freeway, suddenly lose their drivers, resulting in terrible and spectacular accidents! In the maternity wing at the hospital, all the babies suddenly disappear, which is a nice touch of course, though the overall depiction of the day of rapture is indeed one of Sharknado-style calamity and carnage (though I didn’t actually notice any sharks falling from the sky).

Is this what the end of the world will look like? I really have no idea, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not what is being depicted in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 24, which is indeed a scene of calamity and destruction but where Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins seem to have got everything back to front.

You’ll forgive me if this doesn’t make the scene any more palatable, but I think it’s worth clearing up the technical point that those who suffer in the scene depicted in Matthew 24 are not those who are left behind but those who are taken.

“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man … they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away … Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” (Matthew 24:37,39, 40-41)

If the parallel is really supposed to be with the coming of the great flood where people were suddenly and unexpectedly ‘swept away’, it’s pretty obvious that when the waters strike, the person who is in trouble is not the person who is left behind but the one who is taken. That may be a small point but it’s a good indication that Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins may have profoundly misunderstood Jesus.

In truth, I don’t think it’s just that they’ve got it back to front in terms of who is being judged and who isn’t being judged. I think the whole depiction of this scene as one of judgement, where the true believers are being rooted out from amongst the unbelievers, is seriously problematic. Indeed, it seems to me that the most painful part of the scene that Jesus is depicting is the apparent randomness of the way calamity hits some people and by-passes others, which is exactly how wars work.

It really all reminds me of my first visit to Syria in 2013, when the war was at its worst. We visited a hospital in Damascus where we heard people tell their stories.

One man told of how he was on his way to work and a mortar shell handed near him and blew off his leg! Others near him were killed and others somehow unharmed. Some, it seems, were taken and others were left for reasons hard to explain!

An even more horrible example was a woman we were taking to who was working in her hairdressing salon when a mortar shell came in through her shop window! She survived the blast but the woman whose hair she was working on did not. Again, some were taken and others were left. ‘Thank God I gave my baby to the shopkeeper next door just before it happened’, the woman said to us.

We had our own brush with a mortar shell in our 2014 visit to Damascus. Two shells landed in the carpark of the hotel we were staying in. They made an enormously loud explosion that shook our room, where I was having a shower at the time. Beyond being shaken though, most of us were unaffected, but two were taken – two dear souls who were members of the hotel staff who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were taken, the rest of us, happily, were left behind.

I think this is the kind of scene Jesus is depicting – that terrible scene that is so familiar in war and in natural disaster where waters strike or bombs fall and some are taken and others are left, and if often seems so horribly random.

Saint Augustine reflected on the fall of Rome in the same way – noting that the believers fared no better than their unbelieving neighbours when the city was sacked. Wherever the axe fell, there people died.

Is this the sort of scene Jesus is depicting in these verses in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew? I think it is. Could Jesus in fact have been prophesying about the fall of Rome, or the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, which was similarly terrible, or the siege of Damascus in 2013, or all of the above?

Well … I’m not exactly sure, but what I am sure about is that this prophecy is supposed to be good news. It might not sound like good news, but I believe Jesus intended these words as good news and I think we see that when you look at His words in their broader context.

This prophecy from Jesus comes as part of a dialogue He’s having with His disciples that takes place outside the temple in Jerusalem. It begins with the disciples marveling at the majesty of the temple building itself, which prompts Jesus to give them the sobering message that the building was not going to last. Indeed, “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:2)

In that statement, and in everything that follows in that scene outside the temple, two great assumptions were being addressed. The first was that the great gifts of God, like the temple, will last forever. As for the second assumption, we need to keep in mind that this dialogue between Jesus and His disciples takes place directly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where He has been welcomed as Israel’s king. If the first assumption is that the good things of God will last forever, the second assumption Jesus addresses is that now He is here, the bad things are going to get a whole lot better.

This should be obvious to any seasoned reader of the New Testament. We know what people expected of Jesus. We know they were expecting him to lead a political coupe of some sort and wrest the government back from the Romans. We know that on the other side of that coupe they saw a return to the good old days of peace and prosperity where God’s own people could live in God’s own land under God’s good rule. And we know that they were wrong. We just find it harder to recognise when we keep making the same mistake ourselves.

Maybe we don’t say it as bluntly as Jesus first disciples did, but we tend to assume the same thing – that once Jesus is in the house, everything is bound to get a whole lot better. The marriage problems will go away, the kids will be better behaved, and hopefully that bald-spot I’ve been noticing lately will disappear as well!

Isn’t that how religion is supposed to work? As you get closer to God, you gain not only greater inner peace, but you find yourself being blessed abundantly in multiple ways. And isn’t that what we should expect of Jesus, the son of God. If He is now reigning as king, shouldn’t we expect everything to get a whole lot better and easier?

I don’t know why it doesn’t work that way, but what I do know is that Jesus spent a lot of His time trying to get through to us that while things will get a whole lot better one day, it’s not going to happen right away. Indeed, between now and the coming of the Kingdom of God – where every tear will be wiped away and where the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea – between now and then there is still a lot of pain we are going to have to live through.

That was the key theme of Jesus’ teaching outside the temple that day. ‘Don’t believe it when people appear, saying ‘I’m the Messiah. Everything will be fine. These people are lying to you! Things are going to be fine one day, but not yet.

As I say, today is the anniversary of my start in this parish. Today I begin my 30th year in ministry here, and what’s interesting is that, despite the fact that this passage from Matthew 24 comes around every three years in the lectionary, I’ve managed to duck and avoid it on the previous nine occasions I was confronted with it.

I’ve told you why I didn’t want to deal with it – because I’ve never bought into the ‘left behind’ theology that depicts Jesus as grabbing all the true believers and plucking them up from the earth to leave the rest of the world to rot. I don’t buy into that and in my earlier years I could never see anything else in this passage worth spending my energy on. Now, thirty years on, I see a lot more here.

I see Jesus reminding us of the inevitability of conflict. I hear His sobering reminder that even the greatest gifts of God – marriage and family, beautiful temples and wonderful churches – don’t last forever. I hear Jesus’ sobering words and I also hear the Good News alongside that – that when these terrible things happen and when things are at their worst, this is actually a sure sign that God is about to act!

This too I know to be true after thirty years in ministry – that when things are at their darkest and when we are tempted to lose all hope, ‘look up!’ God is at the gates! Love, joy, health and peace are on their way. God has not forgotten us. What we are experiencing is simply the darkness that precedes the dawn. Never lose hope, for the Son of man will come at the very hour you least expect! (Matthew 24:44)

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 1st, 2019.

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It’s all about Family! (Matthew 1:18-25)

 “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25)

There you have it – our Christmas story! If that seems like an abbreviated form of the story, it’s not. It’s just Matthew’s version. If you’re wondering what happened to the shepherds and the angels and the manger and the inn, all that is in Luke’s version of the Christmas story, but Matthew’s version is relatively terse –no trip to Bethlehem, no ‘no room at the inn’, no stable, no manger, no animals, no shepherds, and no little drummer-boy (who actually doesn’t turn up in any of the Gospels).

Was Matthew trying to conserve space by keeping the story short and simple? I don’t think that’s it, as Matthew precedes his nativity narrative with one of the most lengthy and turgid passages in the entire New Testament – namely, his genealogical history of Jesus that takes up the first seventeen verses of his Gospel.

We never read that part of the Gospel in church and there’s a good reason for that. It’s just too boring. I’ll give you a two-verse snippet:

“Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram”
(Matthew 1:2-3)

OK. I’m stopping there and, as I say, that’s two verses. The genealogy as a whole stretches on for seventeen! It’s not because Matthew was trying to be succinct that he left out all the elements of those Christmas narrative that we hold closest to our hearts. It was because his version of the story had a different emphasis. For Matthew, the birth of Jesus is all about family!

It’s all about family! That sounds like an appropriate Christmas theme, doesn’t it? That’s what most of us think about when we think of Christmas – getting together with family – and that’s also why there’s such a high suicide rate at Christmas time, because a lot of us don’t want to be reminded of what’s happened to our families.

I can understand why so many of us feel humiliated and alone at Christmas time. Many of us started out with hopes of building a family that would be worthy of its own nativity scene. For some of us, that family simply never came. For others of us, it came and went. Even for those of us who still have families that are holding together, we known full well that so many parts of that working machine are dysfunctional, such that the cogs are barely turning over. We have skeletons in the closet. We have members of the family that we try to keep from the public. We have whole chapters in our family history that we really wish could be erased. We really don’t look too good alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus … or do we?

As I say, I’m not going to read out the full genealogy of Jesus as outlined by Matthew in the first chapter of his Gospel. Even so, it’s a list that is worthy of careful scrutiny, particularly when it comes to some of the women who are listed.

Matthew’s genealogy is very clearly a history of Jesus’ male lineage. Luke has a genealogy too, and it focuses on Mary, but Matthew’s version is entirely male-centric. Even so, four women are mentioned –Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – and each of these four were highly controversial figures. Perhaps ‘controversial’ is not the best word. Perhaps ‘tragic’ or ‘notorious’ would be better in some cases.

The story of Tamar is in Genesis 38. She pretends to be a prostitute and has sex with her father-in-law, who then tries to have her burnt alive! It’s a sordid story where Tamar is repeatedly abandoned by all the men in her life, though she does go on to become the mother of Perez, the father of Hezron, the father of Ram …

Rahab was the sole survivor of battle of Jericho, as recorded in the book of Joshua, chapter two. She was spared by the Israelite army because she sheltered their spies – the army who slaughtered every other man, woman, child and animal ln Jericho.

Whether you can ever truly survive an experience like that is, of course, open to question. Either way, Rahab was not thereafter known as ‘Rahab the survivor’ or ‘Rahab the protector’ but was always referred to with reference to the profession she had in Jericho before its fall – namely, as ‘Rahab the prostitute’.

That would not have been an identity that could have been easily erased. People would not forget. Even so, Rahab did go on to become the mother of Boaz, the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, who went on to become king!

My point, or rather Matthew’s point, is simply that there were some skeletons in the closet of Jesus’ family too. Indeed, it would have been quite a colourful Christmas gathering if they had somehow all managed to come together.

“Oh, Tamar! Good to meet you at long last. I’ve heard so much about you! And Rahab … you look great! Uh … sorry, I don’t mean that in any inappropriate way!”

It’s not just the women, of course, though Ruth, the Moabitess, is mentioned (a woman from the wrong land and wrong religion), as is Bathsheba, King David’s wife who went on to become the mother of King Solomon.

I mention Bathsheba here by name but, interestingly, Matthew does not. Matthew, chapter one, verse six, refers to her only as the woman who “had been Uriah’s wife”.

We know the story. King David got Bathsheba pregnant while she was still married to Uriah, the Hittite. Whether she was complicit in that or whether she was raped is hard to know, but David’s attempt to cover up the pregnancy and his subsequent murder of Uriah is well known.

Matthew is making a point. The birth of King Solomon was surrounded with pain and controversy, as is the birth of Jesus – and that is where all this is leading, of course.

The story of Jesus does not begin well, and if you look back at the family of Jesus, it is full of problems. Perhaps Jesus’ family is a lot more like ours than we first thought!

When I was a young man – not even twenty years old – I started doing voluntary work with what was then the ‘Sydney City Mission’ at a place called ‘Swanton Lodge’ in Surry Hills. It was a shelter for alcoholic men and women that was largely not rehabilitation orientated. In other words, most of the people there were never going to get better and many didn’t want to get better.

I used to organise my youth group to go and sing Christmas carols there at this time of year, and we used to get into some interesting conversations with the residents. One chat I had with one elderly man has always stayed with me. Being young and idealistic, I tried to talk to him about the possibility of rehabilitation – getting off the grog. He told me that he wasn’t interested and when I asked him why he said, “because this is the only way I can get back at my family”.

That’s how families work – a lot of families. Maybe that’s not your family exactly but we all have our issues, our skeletons, our failures. Jesus’ family was no exception.

In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus begins in controversy. Mary is found to be pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the father. The two of them were engaged at that time, which made it all quite serious.

If Joseph had followed in the line of his forefathers, we might have expected violence to follow! After all, Joseph was the descendent of Judah, the father-in-law of Tamar, who tried to have her burnt alive when she became pregnant out of wedlock, even though it was his child! Certainly, according to the Deuteronomic code, Joseph was within his rights to have Mary dragged into the public square and stoned to death!

We are told though that Joseph was a good man, and so he decided to separate from Mary quietly (Matthew 1:19), which is interesting in itself for it suggests that being a good person means that sometimes you have to disregard God’s law.

Is this a turning point in the family history – a movement from violence and legalism towards love and mercy? Not really. There are plenty of examples of love and mercy in the genealogical history of Jesus’ forebears too. There was plenty of good mixed in with the bad. Even so, Joseph’s merciful attitude is a reminder that none of us needs to be controlled by our history.

And it’s pure speculation, of course, but is it possible that this example set by Joseph had a formative influence on Jesus Himself? Jesus, as an adult, would go on to teach people that mercy is greater than sacrifice (eg. Matthew 12:7) and that they needed to focus on the spirit of the law rather than on the letter.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44)

We don’t want to underplay the extent to which the character of Jesus was formed by His Heavenly Father. Even so, it seems to me quite plausible that God might use some of the wisdom of Jesus’ earthly father to help establish Jesus on the right path.

We know very little of Joseph from this point in the story onwards. Mary, Jesus’ mother, goes on to play a significant role throughout His earthly life, while Joseph apparently disappears from the scene quite early on. Even so, while his contribution was short-lived, it may nonetheless have been formative.

This is our Christmas story. It’s a story about a mother and a father and a baby. It’s also a story about family and about history. Our Christmas story is also a story about shepherds and sheep and the baby in the manger, but not today! Today our story stops short of those details and focuses just on family.

Today we remember the family of Jesus – not just His immediate nuclear family, but the greater family line to which Jesus was connected – and the key point is that it is all highly dysfunctional.

It was a family with a history of violence, deceit, misery and failure. It was also, of course, a family with a history of godliness, love and hope. It was a family where the good, the bad and the ugly were all mixed in together. In other words, it was a family much like ours. The good news, and indeed the great news, is that out of the chaos of this archetypally dysfunctional family line, salvation comes!

God is not going to be limited by our history. God is not going to allow the future to be a simple repeat of the past. The salvation of the world is coming, and it is coming through the line of David, through the line of Tamar, through the line of Ruth, of Rahab and Bathsheba. Emerging from that dark tunnel where there has been so much pain and suffering and all the collateral damage that is the fallout of human frailty, love and joy and peace are on their way! Merry Christmas!

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 22nd, 2019.

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The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Reframe! (Matthew 3:1-12)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)

The Yuletide season is well and truly upon us!

I suspect that it is slightly different for each of us – the trigger that brings us to that realisation that indeed there are only sixteen shopping days left before the furious shredding of gift-wrap begins – but I no longer pay much attention to the department stores, where they generally start putting the Christmas paraphernalia up as they take the Halloween material down (and sometimes with a fair degree of overlap).

I no longer recognise the Christmas season by the arrival of cards, which are becoming increasingly rare in their physical form, but which seem to circulate in virtual form all year round.

For me it’s not the decorations nor the cards that herald the advent of the Christmas season, but rather the arrival of this uniquely unhygienic Yuletide figure – John the Baptizer – who, courtesy of our lectionary, pushes his way to the front of the Christmas stage each year at about this time, announcing the coming of the Christ.

John is wonderfully out of place in the nativity scene, with his rugged appearance, his no-nonsense style, and his wonderful disregard for what everybody else thought of him, and so I thought that since this may be my last John-the-Baptist-Christmas sermon in this parish, I might as well wheel out my traditional John-the-Baptist-Christmas-Greetings-card for the occasion.

I couldn’t find the original version, which was in black and white and featured a more dour image of the Baptist. I’ve reproduced instead the more colourful version, which was the second incarnation of this card, featuring a relatively jovial looking Baptist on the front, where he appears to be both waving to his supporters as well as baptizing.

“Christmas Greetings in the words of John the Baptist”, it says on the card’s front, and on the inside, we are treated to John’s very specific form of Christmas cheer:

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. … Merry Christmas

I can’t remember the first year I produced one of these cards, but it was definitely more than twenty years ago. What I do remember is when I stopped producing them, after one of our dear elderly parishioners said to me one year, “I know just the person to give this card to”, which sort of suggested she’d missed the point.

That’s not how Christmas cards are supposed to work, of course, but the truth is that it’s hard to know where to put John the Baptizer in the nativity scene. If the message of Christmas is ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’, it’s pretty obvious that this is not John’s message, and so it’s hard to know what to do with him.

As I say, this is not the first time I’ve preached on his very unique Yuletide figure, though in my previous treatments of John, I’ve tended to do little more than reflect on the discontinuity between his sober and angry persona and the other characters in the nativity scene – the meek and mild Mary, for instance, the gentle baby Jesus, and, of course, the plush, red elf who always hovers in the background.  I thought this year it would be worth spending some time focusing on what John was so angry about, and it occurred to me that this is not particularly obvious.

People tend to summarise John’s preaching down to one word – ‘repent’ – and if you did have to pick one word to sum up John, that would indeed be it. Even so, I don’t think it’s immediately obvious what the word ‘repent’ means, or, at least, what John meant by the word.

We tend to think of repentance as being the equivalent of ‘saying sorry’, and that is more-or-less what the word means in English, which frankly makes it a poor translation of the Greek word ‘metanoia’.

‘Metanoia’ is a combination of two Greek words – ‘meta’, meaning ‘after’, and ‘noia’, meaning ‘thought’. To have a metanoia is therefore to have an ‘after-thought’ or, more accurately, to have a ‘rethink’.

John the Baptist called on people to rethink things. Perhaps we could even use the term that I’ve heard so often in modern therapeutic literature – to ‘reframe’.  This was indeed the message of the Baptist, I believe – that people needed to reframe their world so that they could rethink themselves and their future!

For those who have no idea what ‘reframing’ is, forgive me if I give an example from a movie that you may have never seen, but for some reason it’s the example that always comes to mind for me.

The movie is Apollo 13, which came out in 1995 and starred Tom Hanks. If you haven’t seen it or you don’t remember it, that’s OK. I remember very little of it.

You’ll be forgiven too if you don’t remember the original Apollo 13 mission of 1970. Those of us who lived to see Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 will remember that, but Apollo 13 was far less memorable, as it was a mission that was aborted due to a mechanical failure in the lunar module.

“Houston, we have a problem” – that was the byline for the movie, as everything starts to go wrong with this spacecraft as it hurtles towards the moon and viewers like myself (who had forgotten what happened in the actual Apollo 13 mission) were left thinking that there was no way these three astronauts were going to survive.

Now … the scene that really stuck with me, and the one I want to relay to you, was of the Houston control room in panic mode, where everything seemed to be going wrong  but where everybody was working frantically to try to hold things together. The guy in command was losing hope, and he says something like “this is our worst nightmare” but his 2IC says to him, “sir, this may yet prove to be our finest hour!”

That’s reframing. It’s looking at your situation from a different angle and giving it a rethink. From one angle it looks like a complete catastrophe. From another, it’s the challenge your team spent their working lives preparing for!

I’ve pushed myself through this reframing process a number of times when we have problems in the church.

I start to feel overwhelmed and think “this is going to destroy us” and then I reframe and say to myself, “this may yet prove to be our finest hour!”

I can’t tell you how many times, on a personal level, the process of reframing has been critical to me. When I’ve felt overwhelmed by the chaos – and I’m sure we’ve all been there, whether it be due to grief, to false accusations, to betrayals or misunderstandings or relationship breakdowns – the temptation is always just to give up and sign yourself into the psych unit (or whatever happy place you can escape to)

The life-giving alternative is to reframe, and to view each element in the chaos as simply another challenge that can be overcome! This is easier said than done, of course, but I believe we get better at it as we get older, probably because we simply get more practice at it.

I see Saint Paul doing a lot of reframing in his writings. There was a man who was constantly being physically abused by his opponents as well as verbally slandered, and yet instead of taking these things to heart and allowing them to destroy him, he reframes each of them as elements in his participation in the sufferings of Christ.

Likewise, with Paul’s notorious ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) – whether it was a physical ailment that he couldn’t get rid of or a struggle with his sexuality or something else that he just couldn’t really deal with – instead of interpreting this as a sign of his ultimate hopelessness, Paul sees this as his Lord’s challenge to help make him completely reliant on God’s grace!

Now with the Baptist, it’s not individual experience that John is trying to reframe. John’s role is to prepare the way for the one who is to come – God’s Messiah – and what he needs is for us to reframe our world and our lives in the light of that future – Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 3:2)

I think the key to understanding how John wanted people to reframe, and the key to understanding why he was so angry, is to recognise that John’s vision of the future that God had planned was radically different from that of most of his contemporaries.

What were John’s contemporaries hoping for and praying for? What are most Palestinians today hoping for and praying for? The answer to both questions is the same. They look for an end to the Occupation. In John’s case it was the Roman occupation, and in the case of contemporary Palestine, it’s the Israeli occupation, but in both cases its quite straightforward.

You couldn’t go around the West Bank or Gaza today and speak about hope for the future without promising an end to the Israeli Occupation. That’s not to say that Palestinians believe that ending the occupation will solve all their problems. It is to say that they know their problems cannot be solved without ending the Occupation

It was exactly the same in first century Palestine. The Roman occupation was not their only problem, and yet they all knew that their problems would not all be solved without ending the Occupation. Whatever future John was prophesying about, a return to national sovereignty would be assumed to be at the heart of his vision.

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

What does that tell us about John’s view of the future? It tells us that John didn’t foresee a simple takeover where the Jewish army defeated the Roman army and then the Jewish leaders took over from the Roman leaders, leaving all their religious and secular leadership structures in place. No! John say a great shake-up taking place in the established order of his people as their leaders were corrupt.

“Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely and be content with your pay.”” (Luke 3:14)

Now that certainly wasn’t what they were expecting. I suspect that the soldiers expected John to tell them to sharpen their swords for the service of a new master – the Messiah – who would lead them to throw off their overlords, the Romans! Instead, John tells them not to abuse their power and to be content with their wages!

There’s a reframing going on here. John is urging people to reframe their vision of the future. No doubt, it’s a vision of national sovereignty – of God’s own people living in God’s own land under God’s own rule – but it’s also a vision of a community where people don’t abuse their power and where leaders truly serve the common good.

Walter Brueggeman and John McNight wrote a fantastic book, entitled “An Other Kingdom” where they systematically go through the different dimensions of the Kingdom that both John the Baptist and Jesus spoke of, and of the ways in which this Kingdom requires us to reframe the way we look at our world – embracing mystery over certainty, seeing abundance in the place of scarcity, valuing the common good over individual rights, upholding public sharing over private ownership and building a community on the basis of cooperation rather than competition.

I watched a movie about Julian Assange in our church hall last night, along with about 50 other people. I find it encouraging to see how many people have changed their attitude towards Julian in recent months, and I think that’s because people are reframing the way they see him. Now that all talk about rape allegations has evaporated, and now that it’s clear that he was right in saying that it was really the Americans who were after him, people are seeing him in a new light.

Julian is himself, of course, one who (like the Baptizer) calls on people to reframe their way of looking at the world. In the movie we watched last night, Julian urged us to view ourselves as being at war with the great governments and global companies who are trying to rob us of our privacy and our rights to free thought and speech. For many of us, seeing things that way would require a process of truly radical reframing!

Rethink/Reframe/Repent – if there’s one thing that comes through to us clearly from the witness of John the Baptist, it’s that this is a cold and wet and painful experience! It hardly seems very Christmassy, yet perhaps it’s the only way to reach the real gifts at the back of the tree! Do we have strength enough to be honest with ourselves, and the wisdom to be able to cut through the propaganda and embrace the truth? This is a big ask for any individual human being. Our hope must be that by the Grace of God, we’ll have the wherewithal to do it together.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 8th, 2019.

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Does God really love the top-wealthy 1%? (A sermon on Luke 19:1-10)

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.” (Luke 19:12-6)

According to the most recent report made by Credit Suisse, the richest 1% of the world’s population now owns more than 50% of the world’s wealth. Indeed, while the world’s total wealth has apparently grown in recent years, this wealth is becoming ever-increasingly concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of the world’s citizens, such that, according to Oxfam, the world’s 8 richest men now own as many assets as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.

If you’ve read Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (and I have, twice, though I struggled to fully understand it both times), you’ll know that (at least according to Piketty) it’s all to do with capital ownership and the way capital works, and that the really rich are making most of their money off their money and not off anything particularly productive that they are doing with that money.

Bill Gates, for example, doesn’t make most of his money from the sale of Microsoft products anymore but from the interest he earns on investments made with money that originally came from the sale of Microsoft products. In as much as we might think that uber-rich geniuses like Gates have a right to their riches due to their entrepreneurial genius, it’s not genius that is responsible for the biggest ongoing incomes nowadays but simply money itself, which is why so many those who own so much of the world’s wealth are people who were simply born into the right families.

I find all this a little disturbing.

Is that because I’m jealous? Why don’t I have a billion dollars? It may be that in part.

Is it because I’ve spent so much of my life trying to combat global poverty, and have seen first-hand how the bottom 1% of the world’s population are forced to live? No doubt that is a part of it too.

Either way, I recognise there is an issue of prejudice on my part. I don’t struggle with prejudicial feelings towards people of different races or gender or sexual orientation, but when it comes to the 1% – to the wealthy elites of our world – I confess that I do struggle to see them as truly being my sisters and brothers in the human family.

If I ever get to meet one of these 1%, will I struggle to show them respect? Moreover, if it’s not Bill Gates, who I know has a philanthropic side, but someone who’s made most of their money from investments in armament companies, will I shake their hand or will I self-righteously walk away, or do something even more outrageous?

The point I want to make here is that Zacchaeus – the man whom we meet in Luke chapter 19 and man Jesus parties with – is part of this 1%.

I grew up with Zacchaeus. It’s one of the privileges of being brought up in a Christian household with a dad who was a preacher. You become familiar with a lot of the characters of the Gospel stories, and we used to have a song about Zacchaeus:

Zacchaeus was a very little man.
Zacchaeus was a very little man.
Zacchaeus was a very little man.

That’s all I can remember of the song, and that’s just about all I knew about the man, except that he was a jolly sort of fellow with a penchant for climbing trees. And then I grew up and discovered that none of this was true – Zacchaeus probably wasn’t jolly, he most likely didn’t like climbing trees, and he wasn’t necessarily short either!

Now I know that in the Gospel story it does say “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” (Luke 19:3) but the original Greek is as ambiguous as the English at this point. The ‘he was short in stature’ could be a reference to Jesus and not Zacchaeus.

This would still make sense in the story as, if Jesus were short, it would indeed be difficult to see him if He was submerged in a crowd. It is though a disturbing thought if you’re used to thinking of Jesus as an archetype of rugged masculinity.

Regardless of Zacchaeus’ stature, it is highly unlikely that he was in the sycamore tree because he loved climbing or because the tree was an obvious vantage point, for the sycamore is just not a climber-friendly tree.  They tend to be very high in the leaf-to-wood ratio.  There’s lots of foliage, but not much to stand on!

Apparently the word ‘sycamore’ comes from two Greek words, meaning ‘fig’ and ‘blackberry bush’, and there are indeed similarities between these forms of flora, not least in terms of their ‘climbability‘.  Certain things were never meant to be climbed, and I suspect that blackberry bushes, cacti and sycamore trees should all be on that list.  Moreover, you’d need a good size sycamore just to bear an adult’s weight.

If Zacchaeus were both short and slender, this would, of course, lessen the demands he would have placed on the tree, but if indeed he was (like so many rich people) short and stout, the tree may well have been swaying under his weight, which might, of course, have been what attracted the attention of Jesus to him in the first place – the absurd figure of short, fat man, desperately trying to maintain his balance, perched in a tree that was barely able to support his weight!

The key point I’m making here is that the reason Zacchaeus was in the tree wasn’t because it was a great place to be. Zacchaeus was there because he had no choice.

Some of you have been in Dulwich Hill long enough to remember the Sydney 2000 Olympics when the torch was carried to within a block of our church by one of our parishioners – a young lad named ‘Johnson’. All of Dulwich Hill turned out to watch Johnson carry the torch down Canterbury road. Some of those who lined the streets were shorter than others, of course, and yet everyone got to see the torch go by and nobody had to climb a tree! Why? Because we put the little ones on our shoulders and let other shorter people come to the front. Zacchaeus was a guy nobody wanted on their shoulders, and nobody was going to make way to let him through to the front. Why? Because they hated him.

Why did everybody hate Zacchaeus? It wasn’t because he was short, and it wasn’t even because he was a part of the 1%. It was because he was a part of that 1% who made their money explicitly from the misery and oppression of other people.

Zacchaeus was a tax-collector, and not just any tax-collector. He was “a chief tax collector and was rich”, Luke tells us (Luke 19:2), and I don’t think you could have been a chief tax-collector and not been rich.

The way the Roman system worked was that when they took over a country they auctioned off the collection rights on a district-by-district basis. Wealthy men would buy the rights to a district and then they’d auction out the rights to specific gates.

Levi, son of Alphaeus, who we read of in Mark chapter 2, was a man who had purchased rights to one of these gates (to the lakeside gate at Galilee in his case). Zacchaeus was chief tax-collector for the entire district of Jericho! The position would have cost Zacchaeus a small fortune, but with the Roman tax rate set at 2.5%, and the tax-collector able to set his own commission on top of that at whatever rate he pleased, there was a lot of money to be made through the Roman occupation!

You were betraying your own people, of course, and profiting off their misery, but what did you care? They can’t hurt you or slow you down when you have the most powerful army in the world at your back. People will grumble quietly but nobody will openly stand up to you! Having said that, if the Jews had been successful in one of their uprisings, people like Zacchaeus would have been amongst the first lined up against the wall after victory was won.

This is what we do to those who collaborate with an occupying force. Think of what happened to the Vichy French after World War II, after the liberation of France. It’s the same thing that happens to Palestinians today in Gaza or the Wet Bank who are found to be collaborating with the Israeli Defense Forces. It is hard to sympathise with people who collaborate with the enemy, especially when they do so solely for the sake of making money.

I remember last year when Mr Trump ordered that missile attack on Damascus in response to an alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government (an allegation that has subsequently been thoroughly discredited). I read an interesting article that asked the question ‘who stood to benefit from this attack?’, and the answer was given in very stark dollar and sense figures. The arms manufacturers (Lockheed and Raytheon corp.) made a killing (literally).

Zacchaeus is one of those who made a killing off the misery of his own people. If you’d been thinking of him as one of the good guys, think again. Zacchaeus was a collaborator, a thief, a traitor – the worst end of the 1%. Having said that, before we write him off completely, we need to bear in mind that Jesus really liked him!

“Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham.”” (Luke 19: 9)

These are challenging words indeed! Just when we’ve worked out that Zacchaeus is not one of the good guys but is, in fact, one of the bad guys, Jesus tells us ‘No – he’s just one of the guys!’ He is your brother, in fact! He’s not one of them – for good or for bad. He’s one of us!

This great declaration of Jesus – that Zacchaeus is one of us – comes, of course, after Zacchaeus starts behaving like one of us, by sharing out his great wealth.

“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8)

Evangelical scholars like to assert here that while Jesus declares Zacchaeus’ salvation after he makes his commitment to share his wealth, this doesn’t mean he receives salvation because he shared his money, which is no doubt true, so far as it goes. Even so, we wouldn’t be doing justice to this story if we didn’t take seriously the centrality of the issue of money here, and this focus becomes particularly clear when we realise that Zacchaeus is being held up alongside the figure of the ‘rich young ruler’ who appears in the previous chapter of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:18-30).

I won’t go through that story in detail now, but you will remember, I suspect, the story of that rich young man who comes to Jesus wanting to be a disciple, and Jesus says to him, “one thing you lack. Go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, …  and come, follow me” (18:22) That’s in the chapter immediately preceding this one, and the story ends with the rich man failing exactly where Zacchaeus succeeds!

We don’t really know if these two encounters took place near to each other in time, but we can be sure that Luke put the stories side-by-side for a reason, and I assume that it’s because he wants us to see these two as archetypal figures, depicting for us the challenge of discipleship.  Both men are very wealthy when they come to Jesus. Both are forced to make a choice between building God’s Kingdom or continuing to work on their own empires.  One makes the right choice, one the wrong choice.

The story of the rich young ruler concludes with Jesus shaking his head and saying, “how hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God” and that, “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom” (18:26). This leads to an outcry from the disciples, who say, “who then can be saved?”  And Jesus say, “what is impossible for humanity is possible for God” (18:27).

In the very next chapter, the impossible happens. The camel goes through the eye of the needle, the rich man sheds his possessions, and salvation comes to his house.  Both men come to Jesus with faith, high hopes, and with wealth.  One could not let go of his wealth, and we’re told that he, “went away sad” (18:23). The other opened his hands and his heart and, we’re told, “received [Jesus] joyfully” (19:6).

I won’t dwell on the implications of this for all of us here, except to quote one more interesting statistic that I came across when researching the distribution of the world’s wealth. One figure that caught my eye indicated what you needed to be worth to rank in the top 50% of the world’s wealthiest people, and the answer was around $3,000, which I’m guessing would put almost all of us here in the top half of the world’s wealthiest people. Perhaps if we were living in first century Palestine with our current level of wealth, some of us would be in the top 1%! Who knows?

In truth, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the 1% or the 99%. The issue for Jesus, from what I can see, was never how much you had but what you were doing with what you had, and whether you’re behaving like a part of the team. For we’re all in this together – no good or bad guys, no us and them. Just us – all Abraham’s children.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, November 3 2019.

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Love is eternal. Marriage isn’t! (A sermon on Luke 20:27-38)

“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

I’m not sure if those who chose who designed our lectionary were thinking of Remembrance Day when they chose this reading for today. I’m guessing not.

The passage doesn’t say much about war and peace. It seems to be about an unfortunate woman and her many partners, though a closer inspection suggests that it may be less about the woman than it is about the resurrection of the body, and possibly about a lot of other things too. Even so, I find it a painful passage, as it’s an account of a rather antagonistic dialogue between Jesus and a group of theologians on a subject that many of us are quite sensitive about – namely, marriage.

Some of us are sensitive about marriage because it’s something we associate with a lot of pain. Others are sensitive because the institution of marriage is at the heart of a fiery communal debate at the moment, most especially within the church.

Most of us here will be well aware of the words of our Archbishop at synod a few weeks back where the phrase ‘please leave us’ was applied with regards to certain persons pushing for a particular view of marriage, seen by the Archbishop as being contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures and the church.

You may have also read the press release this week about the splintering of the Anglican church in New Zealand over exactly the same issue. A breakaway Anglican church is being formed there, specifically around this question.

It seems that Christian churches in this country are increasingly defining their identities around this issue. Perhaps the days are coming when denominational labels will be irrelevant in terms of how we position ourselves in the community. Perhaps titles like ‘Anglican’, ‘Catholic’ or ‘Orthodox’ will soon no longer appear on notice-boards, replaced by something indicating the church’s marriage policy.

We’ll have the broad church of Dulwich Hill at one end of the street – blessing both same-sex unions and multi-partner relationships – and the narrow church at the other end – allowing only one-man-one-woman marriages and no divorce! In between we’ll have other variations that people will be invited to choose from, according to their preferences and life circumstances.

I’m not really joking about this, as I’ve been frankly astonished how significant this issue has become for Sydney Anglicans. I didn’t see it coming – the million dollars donated to the ‘no’ campaign last year, and I didn’t anticipate seeing the church rupturing over this issue, especially when we have teachings from Jesus like today’s reading, reminding us that while faith, hope and love are eternal, marriage isn’t.

The Sadducees ask, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her. 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (Luke 20: 33-35)

There you have it – love is eternal, marriage isn’t! That doesn’t mean marriage is unimportant, but it’s evidently not designed for eternity, and why not?

‘Why not indeed?’ some of our newly married sisters and brothers might be asking. I remember when I was at Moore College, the then principal told us how, in the early years of his marriage, his wife would quietly cry whenever she heard this passage read. It was evidently just too painful for her to think that their marriage might not be eternal. That was in the early days, he said. His point was that she got over it.

I think that the reason that marriage is not eternal is clear enough from this passage, and I’m not even thinking of the metaphysics of resurrection here.

If you followed the story of the seven brides for seven brothers, with the same woman playing the role of the bride each time, the background to this bizarre story is the law regarding levirate marriages.

It’s all outlined in the book of Leviticus and it’s played out in the book of Ruth too, but the law was basically that if a man died childless, his brother would be required to marry his widow so that she might not remain childless, though the first child born to the woman would be considered the descendent of the deceased brother.

At one level this might seem like a compassionate institution designed to take care of widows, since women owned no property and were seriously at risk if they had no man to look after them. Even so, the institution was really less designed to take care of single women than it was to maintain the male bloodline, as the rule about the first child being the deceased man’s heir makes clear.

In truth, the law of levirate marriage is a very patriarchal institution, found today in only the most patriarchal societies, where the woman is considered nothing but the goods and chattel of her male owner, and where she has no property and no real rights and no way of surviving without some male being appointed to protect her.

I don’t think I’m saying anything radical by suggesting that Biblical Israel was a very patriarchal society, and this is reflected very clearly in the marriage laws, which are a form of property ownership.

This is reflected in the ten commandments, where the commands not to steal and not to commit adultery appear side-by-side, and where the 10th commandment tells us not to covet “our neighbour’s house, nor his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything else that is his” (Exodus 20:10).

You don’t covet your neighbour’s property, and a man’s wife is a part of his property.  So when we hear the story of the poor widow who is passed around between seven men so that each of them can have a go at producing an heir through her, and when Jesus tells us that this sort of marriage won’t be with us for eternity, I say ‘great’!

Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:35-38)

As I say, in as much as this story is about marriage, it’s really about something more than marriage. It’s about the bodily resurrection of the dead, so let me focus the rest of my time today on that topic.

These Sadducees, we are told, don’t believe in the resurrection of the body after death. Of course they don’t. How many people do? I’m not going to attempt any embarrassing survey today by asking people to raise their hands if they really do believe in the physical resurrection of the body after death, but I doubt if I’d get a 100% show of hands in our church or in any church across our city.

We are modern, 21st century people. We don’t believe in bodies coming back to life after death, except in zombie movies, and we’re pretty sure that the Kingdom of Heaven is not supposed to look like a scene from any of those movies anyway.

I think the reality is that most of the church cashed out on belief in the resurrection of the body years ago and substituted for it a belief in the immortality of the soul, which is a distinctively Greek metaphysical position historically, but which is a lot easier to integrate with a western 21st century scientific mindset.

If you believe in the immortality of the soul, you believe that people are made up of both bodies and souls as two distinct entities, and that at death these two are separated, with the body going down into the earth and the soul rising up to its proper spiritual home.

Perhaps you were brought up believing that this was the Christian understanding of life after death. It’s not. The New Testament writers believed that our bodies would be raised just as Jesus’ body was raised – raised in the flesh (though not necessarily in exactly the same sort of flesh). Either way, it’s not a belief that gels easily with any contemporary scientific paradigm, so who can believe it? Well … for the record, I do believe it, but that may be because I’m a great disbeliever when it comes to science.

I don’t admit that I don’t believe in science very often, as people tend to look at me like I’m some sort of flat-earth society luddite. In truth, I don’t mean to take issue with any specific scientific discovery or medical breakthrough. My issue has always been with scientific method itself, and science is first and foremost a method, rather than any body of knowledge.

Without wasting too much time on this, let me suggest that human beings recognised that things that go up tend to come down long before Sir Isaac Newton turned that observation into a ‘law of gravity’. Newton didn’t discover anything new about the world, but what he did do was introduce the word ‘must’ into our perception of the way things work. Newton went beyond noticing that things going up come down. He introduced necessity into the equation. Things come down because they must!

Some of you will have read the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume’s, classic work, “A Treatise of Human Nature” in which he takes apart this concept of ‘laws of nature’ and the concept of ‘causation’ which are at the heart of scientific method.

Science works on the idea that if we run a thousand tests on throwing a ball into the air, with all the other variables such as air pressure and ball integrity unchanged, and if the ball comes down every time, we are justified in saying that it must come down.

Why must it come down? Who says it has to work that way the next time we do it? Hume says that we import the idea of necessity into our analysis of these events because it’s how our minds work. Our brains seem wired to believe that if something always seems to work in a particular way that it will always work that way. The thing going up will always come down. The sun will always rise and the future will always be a repeat of the past. There is nothing new under the sun. Jesus says ‘rubbish’!

At the very heart of the Gospel message is the announcement that things are going to change. The future is not going to resemble the past. Indeed, everything is going to be turned upside-down. The first are going to be last and the last are going to be first. Nothing is going to be left as it was!

“Behold, I make all things new”. That’s the great promise Jesus gives us at the end of the book of Revelation (21:5) and it is a great promise, and it is Good News, so long as we’re not too invested in the current order of things. Yes, if we’ve been busily building up our empires on earth, the Good News is probably not going to sound too good to us. We’ll do best to try to keep everything going exactly as it is for as long as possible, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and with everything inevitably ending in entropy and death.

What Jesus promises is a new world coming – one that does not resemble the old world in a thousand fantastic ways. The lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things. Broken hearts are mended and there will be no more wars. Yes, for better or worse, marriage is no more, but death itself is going to be defeated, and those who have died ahead of time will experience a bodily resurrection! Does that all sound impossible? Yes, if you assume that tomorrow has to resemble yesterday, then none of it is remotely possible, but if you’re open to the possibility of something truly new taking place in our world, maybe you’ll be ready when it happens!

If you’ve ever seen images from the excavations of some of the great pyramids, one of the appalling things revealed there was how most of Pharaoh’s household were buried along with him (buried alive, presumably) so that when the resurrection took place on the other side of death, each of his servants would be ready to resume their rightful place and continue serving him. Pharaoh had all his soldiers and his cooks and his women and all his other attendants ready to get back to work in the afterlife, with the assumption being that if you were Pharaoh’s property in this life, so things would continue on unchanged in the next.

That’s the same mentality the Sadducees had when they asked Jesus about the widow – ‘and whose property will she be in the resurrection of the dead’. The answer is that she’s not going to be anybody’s property because everything is about to change! A new day is dawning. The Kingdom is coming. The world to come is not going to resemble the world that has been. Repent, and get on board!

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, November 10 2019.

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What is faith? (A sermon on Luke 17:11-17)

I’ve been having more regular contact lately from some of the men of Manus Island – the asylum-seekers that I met almost two years ago in the detention centre there, though none of them still seem to be on Manus Island, but are now in Port Moresby or in this country getting medical help, though those getting medical help here aren’t expecting to be here long, and indeed have no idea as to where they’ll be going next.

One of the curious things about these ‘Manus men’ (who I’m hoping some of us will still be able to support in the coming weeks and months) is that not only do I still refer to them as the ‘Manus men’ (whether or not they are still on Manus) but they refer to each other in much the same way. Certain experiences impact us in such a deep way that they become a part of our identity, such that you’re no longer just a person who spent time on Manus Island. You’re a Manus man.

Some jobs, in a similar way, become a part of your identity. Being a priest, for example, is not just something you do. It’s someone you are. Being a doctor can be like that too, as can being a professional criminal. Indeed, who amongst us does not use the term ‘murderer’ to refer to someone who has committed a murder. Yes, it is something you do, but it becomes who you are! Likewise, with adulterers, liars, thieves and fornicators – a moment in your history can become your identity.

It was like that with leprosy too. In first century Judea you weren’t a person suffering from leprosy. You were a leper, and that’s exactly how these men are presented to us in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke  – as ten lepers.  We’re not told their names or their nationalities. We have no idea what their former occupations were or whether they had families. We don’t know anything about them but that they were lepers, and that there were ten of them.

I’ve read some learned commentators on this passage who suggest that some of these men probably didn’t literally have leprosy. Some of them may have had eczema or some other not-so-serious skin condition, but to the average Judean in first century Palestinian society they were all just lepers. They were all the same.

It’s called ‘outgroup homogeneity’. When the group you’re referring to is not your group, all the members of that group appear to be the same. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about black people or white or rich or poor or Christian or Muslim or about a church or a leper colony. They are all the same – always – and in the case of lepers, they are all equally unclean as well.

It’s like that for the Manus men too, of course. They’re all the same. They’re trying to get over here to take what is rightfully ours and steal our jobs and steal our women! Of course, most of us parishioners of the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill probably see these men in the opposite light. They are all a group of persecuted saints, as indeed I believe many of them are, though probably not every one of them.

In truth, I don’t think depicting the Manus man as being all virtuous is a lot better than depicting them as all villains, as it only takes one negative experience to flip your evaluation. We thought they were really special people but …

“Ten lepersapproached [Jesus]. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  (Luke 17:12-13)

They approached Jesus, and yet they stood at a distance and shouted at Him. Why? Because they were lepers and that’s what lepers do, because they are unclean.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t approach them, talk to them, ask them their names, let alone embrace any of them, as we might have expected. Instead, Jesus shouts back at them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”, which they apparently set out to do BUT, we are told, “as they went, they were made clean” (Luke 17:14)!

This is where the miracle takes place, and it’s beautifully understated, as are so many of the miracles in the Gospel stories.

I have fond memories of my late friend, Clifford Warne, telling a dramatized version of this story, where he’d begin by explaining the problem with leprosy – how it destroys your ability to feel pain, so that when you get a pebble in your shoe, for instance, it can dig a great big hole into your foot before you realise that it’s there.

At this point in the story, as they all head off to see the priests, Clifford would imagine one of the ten struggling to keep up with the group and calling out to his friends, “Hang on a second. I’ve got a stone in my shoe”

However it happens, the ten lepers are suddenly lepers no more. They have become whole people again, fit to be readmitted into normal human society. Whether this great truth impacted them all simultaneously or whether some of them stood around bewildered for a while, trying to comprehend what had happened, we do not know. All we do know is that one of the ten turned around and presumably never made it to the priest. Instead, he went back to thank Jesus.

“one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’feet and thanked him.” (Luke 17:15-16a)

Then the Gospel writer drops a clanger: “And he was a Samaritan.” (Luke 17:16b)

Well … perhaps that explains why he never made it to see the priest. The priest would not have wanted to see him. This man was from the wrong religion. He was a Samaritan! Interestingly, when we first met him, he was a leper. Now he’s a Samaritan. His identity has shifted from one outgroup to another!

When we’re talking about ‘us’ and ‘them’ – about ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’ –there is no more archetypal ‘us’ and ‘them’ division in the New Testament than that between Jews and Samaritans. It’s not our history, and so we may find the animosity between Jews and Samaritans a little hard to understand, but the feud between these two peoples had been seven and a half centuries in the making!

If you know your Old Testament history, you know that after the death of King Solomon, the kingdom of Israel split into north and south, with the north having its capital in Samaria and the south having its capital in Jerusalem. And if you know that history, you know too that three centuries later (in 721 BC) the Assyrian army under Tiglath Pileser III conquered the northern kingdom and destroyed Samaria, just as the southern kingdom would eventually be conquered by the Babylonians about 150 years after that.

The big difference though between the conquests of the north and the south though was that Tiglath Pileser did not just export large groups of his conquered peoples back to his own land (as the Babylonians did). He also imported a lot of his people into the conquered territories, meaning that in the case of Samaria and northern Israel, the people there became racially intermixed.

It was frankly a brilliant strategy on the part of the Assyrians to prevent rebellion in the empire over the long-term, but what it meant for the remaining Jews of the south was not only did the people of Samaria become ethnically distinct from them, but they ended up distorting the religion that defined them as a unified people too!

This wasn’t so much because the Samaritans mixed Assyrian religious myths and motifs into their worship but simply because their Bible stopped at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, presumably because that was as much as had been written by the time Samaria fell.

If you want to get a feel for the religious differences between first century Jews and Samaritans, read John’s Gospel, chapter four, where Jesus dialogues with the woman at the well. She’s a Samaritan, and she speaks of how you have to worship God on the right mountain and of the Messiah who will come and ‘explain everything’ (John 4:25) which indeed reflects the Samaritan Messianic hope for another teacher like Moses who will come back and explain to everyone exactly what is going on.

This sort of Messianic hope was a long way from what the Jews of Judea were looking for, and indeed these two religions, after seven centuries of independent evolution, were poles apart. Religiously speaking, Jews and Samaritans weren’t just different branches of the same faith. They were completely alien from one another. In other words, from our perspective, this healed leper is a Saudi Arabian Muslim.

As I say, before the healing took place, this guy was just another leper. Now he’s not a leper. He’s a Muslim. He’s changed outgroups though, of course, the one thing that Muslims and Samaritans and lepers have in common is that they’re all the same!

And so this man is still an outsider. He’s still one of them on account of his race and religion, or at least he is until he receives his parting words from Jesus: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)

Now … I think it’s easy to skip over those words as if Jesus was just saying, “Good on you, mate. Great to meet you.” But there is more to Jesus statement than that. “Your faith has made you well”, Jesus says, and I think that’s significant!

To feel the full impact of those words I think we need to go back a bit in Luke, chapter 17, to the chunk in the narrative that immediately preceding this story.

Luke, chapter 17, does not start with the story of the ten lepers.  It starts with Jesus teaching His disciples about sin and forgiveness, which prompts a request from the disciples – “increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).

Jesus then talks about what you can do with faith the size of a grain of mustard seed (Luke 17:6), suggesting that size might not be the issue. Even so, the plea for greater faith remains largely unresolved, and then we get this story of the ten lepers.

It may have been that the encounter with the ten lepers just happened to take place as Jesus was finishing up the discussion about faith, but I suspect that whether it happened then or earlier or later, Luke deliberately decided to put this story where it is because it responds very directly to the disciples’ question.

“Give us more faith”, the disciples ask Jesus, and then we get this story of a man of great faith – whose ‘faith makes him well’ and cures him of leprosy! If this man is supposed to be our model of faith, that’s a very uncomfortable thing to have to deal with, as this character is not one of us and he doesn’t look anything like us!

This guy is a leper (or he was) and he’s a Samaritan, and there’s no changing that! He’s from a different culture and a different religion. In what sense am I supposed to model myself on him?

More than that, if this guy really is an archetype of faith, what is it that he does that I’m supposed to emulate? All he seems to do is show up!

I assume that the faith the man is commended for – the faith that made him well – is the faith he displays before he is healed, and the only faith he and the other nine lepers display before their healing is that they all show up and ask for help. Is that what faith the size of a grain of mustard seed is supposed to look like?

He’s a difficult model to emulate, isn’t he? There doesn’t seem to be anything special about this guy, and he’s not one of us, and why would I want to be more like him?

In truth, if there’s one group of people in the New Testament who do come across as being all the same, it’s not the Samaritans or the lepers, and it’s not the sinners or the tax-collectors or any of those people we might want to put in the ‘them’ category. Rather, the most tragically homogeneous behaviour we see in the New Testament comes from us religious people. We are consistently legalistic, judgmental and closed to the outsider.

This story does indeed have something to teach us about what faith looks like, and the first thing we learn here is that faith manifests itself in ways that we don’t expect and in ways that we will struggle to understand.

The other thing we do learn from this ex-leper though that is easy to understand is that people of great faith are also thankful people, and that’s something work taking to heart.

Having a couple of weeks’ holidays has given me time to reflect on the many things I have to be thankful for – my wonderful children, my many friends, having my own boxing ring … I’m living the life!

Some days having faith will mean laying down your life. On other days it will just mean showing up. Faith is going to look different in different people at different times. We are not all the same and faith takes many different forms. Perhaps though true faith always ends in thanksgiving:

Thank you, Lord God, for health and safety, for the joys of community and for the privilege of service. Thank you, God, for the gift of healing, for the promise of better days coming. Amen.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 13 2019.

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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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