Extremists for Love (A sermon on Luke 6:27-30)


But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.(Luke 6:27-30)

I suspect that no one remembers the last time I preached on this passage. If you do remember, your name is Jan, as Jan Pickering is the only parishioner who was a part of Holy Trinity when I last spoke on this passage, which was in February 2001

The reason that I haven’t spoken on this passage since is because these words from the Gospel of Luke have not been publicly read in this church since February 2001. Indeed, this is my 29th year in the parish, and I believe that this is only the second time in that period that we have ever had this Gospel passage read aloud in church!

Why, you might ask, have we been working so hard to avoid these commands to love our enemies, to give to those who ask, and not to judge. Why indeed?

I’ll try to offer an authoritative answer to that question a little later. Let me say now though that it’s not because these words are not popular. Indeed, I suspect that this passage (or the variation of it that appears in Matthew’s Gospel) has appeared on more posters and more Powerpoint presentations (with soothing and inspiring music playing in the background) than any other snippet from the New Testament!

As a younger Christian, I had exactly such a poster blue-tacked to my bedroom wall. It was an image of a sunset, if I remember, highlighting rolling hills and natural beauty with these words overlaid on top. They included the Beatitudes of course – Matthew’s version, that is (the one that blesses the ‘poor in spirit’, rather than Luke’s version, where Jesus simply blesses ‘the poor’) – and it concluded with these commands that we love our enemies and give without expecting anything in return.

I am not sure how these words from Jesus managed to make it into the Helen Steiner Rice lectionary of gentle and insipidly-inspiring spiritual words. Even so, what I am reasonably confident of is that, when they were originally spoken, these words must have been amongst the most offensive things Jesus ever said!

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you(Luke 6:27-28)

To appreciate the deeply offensive nature of this language, we only need to ask ourselves who Jesus was referring to when He spoke of our enemies.

When we use the word enemyin our own context, we probably think of any number of persons who wronged us over the years – the guy who used to bully me at school, the woman who spreads rumors about me at the office, and my former partner who has made life hell for me and for the kids – and I don’t doubt that we can make real enemies in this life. Even so, when Jesus spoke of the enemy I don’t have any doubt that for His listening audience only one group of people came to mind – the Romans.

It would be exactly the same if you went to the birthplace of Jesus today and started telling people to love their enemies. Regardless of how people responded, there’d be no ambiguity as to who you were referring to when you spoke of the enemy. You’d be referring to the occupying army (in today’s case, the Israeli Defense Forces).

I read a rather gut-wrenching article by Dr Ghada Karmi, written last Christmas, about her perception of modern-day Bethlehem.

She quotes the carol, O little town of Bethlehem/How still we see thee lie/Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by” and says Nothing could be further from the truth than the image of a sweet, untroubled Bethlehem as depicted in a carol originally created by the pious imagination of a Victorian Western-Christian.

She then goes on to outline what it is like for the modern-day residents of Bethlehem – Christian and Muslim alike – walled in from the outside world and surrounded by twenty-two Israeli settlements that have taken their land and uprooted their trees.

Regardless of what you think of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, my point is simply that if you wandered the streets of Bethlehem today, telling people to love their enemies there would be no doubt who you were referring to. Likewise, with the Jews of first-century Israel, when Jesus told them to love their enemies there would have been no ambiguity as to who He was referring to. It was to the occupying army.

This is even more obvious in Matthew’s rendering of these commands, which includes the exhortation, And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matt. 5:41), as the reference is clearly to a Roman soldier.

It was Roman law that a soldier could compel any Jew to carry his backpack for him for one mile (1,000 paces) – a backpack that normally weighed around 30 kilograms – and if you refused to drop what you were doing and comply you would be flogged.

Jesus commands His followers to go an extra mile, which would mean you’d have to go four miles out of your way by the time you’d finished the task (two miles there and two miles back). That was a big ask, but not nearly so big an ask as the greater command to love these people, who were not simply unwelcome foreigners, but the people who killed your uncle and had put your brother in prison!

It’s impossible to know exactly what it would have been like to live under the Roman occupation but historians like Josephus say it was a brutal experience. According to him, in one case, 20,000 Jews were killed in a riot that started when a Roman soldier ridiculed some pilgrims at the Passover with an obscene gesture. Some think Josephus prone to exaggeration, but even if the casualties were only a tenth of that number, it’s still a horrible example of the abuse of power and of military brutality.

As I say, it’s easy to take these words out of context, where they sound lovely and sweet and inspiring, but in the context of a violent and bloody military occupation, the command to love those who oppress and persecute you is a big ask, and the command doesn’t translate easily into our context – most especially into my context.

Speaking as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, I must be a part of one of the least persecuted groups in human history. If you’re black, female, gay and financially struggling (or any combination of the above) you probably have a better appreciation of the enormity of what Jesus is asking of us here. Even so, and even for me, it seems like a big ask, as we seem to be required to open ourselves to abuse!

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again

What happened to dont let people treat you like a doormatand ‘stand up for your rights? There doesn’t seem to be room here for self-defense, or even for justice!

Mind you, one person who took these words extremely seriously and who took a firm stand for justice was Martin Luther King, Jr. He often quoted these words from Luke chapter 6 and said that they showed Jesus to be an extremist – an extremist for love!

When I think of King and his work, one image always comes to my mind. It’s the image of African-American protestors trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7th, 1965. I expect that all of us who have seen newsreel clips or photographs from that event will likewise remember it.

It’s the event the Civil Rights movement remembered as Bloody Sunday, where unarmed protestors were sprayed with tear-gas, charged by police on horseback, and hit on the head with truncheons as they tried to peacefully cross the bridge.

Perhaps particularly memorable was the image of Amelia Boynton (one of the organisers of the march) who was beaten unconscious by state troopers and photographed lying bleeding on the road of the bridge.

It is a terrible thing to watch defenseless people brutalized by armed representatives of the state, especially when they seem to be doing nothing to provoke the violence. King though believed that this sort of non-violent resistance to injustice was exactly what their master – the extremist for love – demanded of them, and indeed, these verses do seem encourage this willingness to allow yourself to be abused.

I’m not sure I can do that. I remember being invited last year to a protest in support of asylum-seekers that was organised by a Christian group with an explicit commitment to pacifism. I asked them whether I had to make a commitment to total non-violence in order to be a part of the protest.

I wasn’t sure I could do it. I figured I could probably take a beating myself if I had to, but I can’t imagine I could have stood back and watched Amelia Boynton being beaten unconscious, or that I could watch anyone else get beaten unconscious without wanting to step in and try to do something, with my fists if necessary.

How far do you take this? Yes, Jesus was clearly offering a challenge to the Jews of first century Palestine in terms of how they should respond to their Roman overlords, but what would Jesus have done if He had been living in the Warsaw ghetto in German-occupied Europe during World War II? Would Jesus have really simply embraced the brutal Nazi persecution and gone willingly to the death camps?

I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but one thing I am sure of is that those academics who have suggested that Jesus was really a zealot revolutionary, intent on the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation, are way off track.

I don’t know if many others here have read Reza Aslan’s recently-published book, Zealot, but Azlan is the latest in a long list of academics who have suggested that the historical Jesus was just another revolutionary who failed in his goals and who was later transformed into a supernatural figure by his first followers who had a far different agenda to that of their master.

I mentioned Azlan’s book only because it is current and popular, and not because I think it is a particularly good book. Indeed, I found his cherry-picking approach to New Testament to be annoying, and I still can’t work out why he thinks that Matthew 22:21 – render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are Gods– proves that Jesus was really a revolutionary.

No matter how you interpret that verse (which can be interpreted in a lot of ways) you’ve still got to take into account other things Jesus said that were directly relevant to the Roman occupation, such as, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.(Luke 6:27-28)

By trying to place these commandments from Jesus where they belong – in the context of the first century Roman occupation of Palestine – I do not mean to suggest that they are not relevant to us in 21st century suburban Sydney. My point is rather that if Jesus expected his disciples to love, bless and pray for those who were murdering members of their family, taking their lands, and persecuting and oppressing them, how much more does He expect us to forgive and forget when it comes to the petty grievances that most of us deal with.

I’m not suggesting that all of our grievances are petty. Some are not, but none of our grievances would be more serious than those suffered by the people to whom Jesus originally addressed these words. If Jesus’ initial hearers were expected to respond to violence and persecution with love, blessing, patience and forgiveness, how much more should we be expected to do the same?

The problem is that it’s hard. It’s really hard to forgive those who just make us feel uncomfortable, let alone those who genuinely injure us, and yet that is exactly what we are commanded to do!

I said at the outset today that I’d try to offer you an authoritative answer as to why this is only the second time we have read this passage in church in the last 29 years. In theory, it’s all to do with the date that Easter falls on, and hence when the season of Epiphany ends and Lent starts, and the readings are rostered accordingly. We don’t normally have this many Sundays in Epiphany, but Easter is coming late this year (for reasons I totally don’t understand) and hence we have these extra passages from Luke’s Gospel.

That sort of explains the issue, though it doesn’t explain why the church chose to schedule this reading at a point where they must have known that it would almost never get read. As a person who loves a good conspiracy-theory, I’m tempted to think that the historic church, which has a prolific history of meting out violence to its enemies and of waging war in the name of Christ, knew exactly what it was doing when it structured the lectionary the way it did.

I’m going to conclude today’s sermon with the same illustration I used when I preached on this passage in 2001, with the story of the little boy who goes each week to the corner store with his mother to do the shopping.

Each week when mum goes to the checkout, the proprietor, Mr Jones, encourages the boy to put his hand into the lolly jar and take as many lollies as he can. Each week the boy declines the invitation, and each time he does, Mr Jones reaches into the lolly jar himself and gives him the boy a handful of lollies.

The boy’s mother eventually asks her son why he always refuses the invitation to put his own hand into the jar and instead lets Mr Jones do it for him. He replies, because his hands are much bigger than mine.

We find ourselves in a similar position, facing these commandments to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It is really difficult. Yet His hands are bigger than ours. His heart is greater than ours. His capacity to forgive is endless

Lord, give us your hands, give us your heart, give us your capacity to forgive. Amen.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 24th February, 2019.

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Dreaming the dream of Jesus (A sermon on Luke 4:21-30)


When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.Luke 4:28-30

I can never read this story about the lynch mob trying to kill Jesus without being reminded of my own experience of almost being lynched. Interestingly too, my near- lynching experience happened not that far from where the mob tried to kill Jesus!

It was April 2004, outside Ashkelon prison, south-west of Jerusalem. I was waiting to greet my friend, Mordechai Vanunu – the nuclear whistle-blower– as he concluded his 18-year prison sentence (11.5 years of which had been spent in solitary).

Morde had been punished because he told the world about Israel’s secret nuclear weapons facility, hidden under the Negev desert. Like those whistle-blowers who came after him (Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, …), Morde was targeted and, in his case, successfully abducted by Mossad agents, shipped back to Israel and made to pay for exposing the lies being told by his country’s leaders.

Over the 18 years of his confinement I had written to Morde every month, who had been a part of my church and Bible-study group, and I always promised him that I would be there, waiting for him, on the day of his release. Somehow, I always envisaged that it would only be me and a few friends waiting for him. As it turned out, there were thousands there, and the vast majority were baying for Morde’s blood!

I was close to the front gate of the prison which was secured by a cordon of police officers who were holding back the crowd, and we were pressed against each other so tightly that it was very difficult to move at all. When Morde finally appeared and was then thrust into an armored car that went rocketing out of the gates and away from the crowd, the police cordon broke and the crowd rampaged on the streets.

I tried to make my way back to the bus that had brought me to Ashkelon but was stopped by a French woman from a TV station who asked me if she could interview me right there in the street. I said sure, but no sooner had she started the interview than we were surrounded by a mob of men who started cursing and spitting on me.

I don’t think they specifically knew that I was a friend of Vanunu’s, but I was wearing my clergy collar and was obviously a supporter. Apart from the occasional go home, they were screaming at me in a language that I didn’t understand. And then I was getting kicked and punched instead of spat upon, and as the numbers grew I could no longer see any daylight between the members of the mob enclosed around me.

As the blows increased, I realised that there was nothing I could do to defend myself. I put my hands together in a position of prayer, hoping that someone (or God) might intervene. And then a hand grabbed me in the middle of my back and pulled me out of that ruck and pushed me in the direction of my bus, and I didn’t look back. I kept walking, and have no idea what happened to the woman who was interviewing me.

Forgive the long introduction to a sermon that’s not about me or Morde, or even primarily about mob violence. In my defense, the draft was originally twice as long. Once I started reliving that day, it all came out. These things leave an impact on you.

What is interesting, by contrast, is how briefly the Gospel deals with Jesus’ incident. We are told “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way(Luke 4:29-30).

Are we supposed to see a miracle here? Was the lynch mob suddenly blinded, such that they could no longer see Jesus, who glided through the crowd without anybody realizing He was gone, or was it something closer to my experience where there was such confusion amidst the mass of angry bodies, writhing and pushing each other, that nobody was probably entirely sure exactly who they were trying to beat up?

We don’t know the details. That’s probably because none of the disciples were a part of that mob, and because Jesus probably never spoke about it, as most people don’t talk a lot about these sorts of experiences. It would be interesting to know, if He had talked about it, how He understood it. Did Jesus see it all as a big misunderstanding or, more likely, did He recognise that this was just a foretaste of what was to come?

What we do know is that this is Jesus’ first experience of mob violence. It will not be His last. Eventually the mob will kill Him, with the help of the Roman government, of course, which, in a sense, was just another kind of mob.

Why do we do such terrible things in groups that we would never do as individuals? The process is called deindividuationin social psychology. It’s a term that describes the astonishing way normal, educated, and often apparently moral people become murderous fanatics when part of an uncontrolled mob.

What causes it? One theory is that individuals feel anonymous in the larger group and sense that none of their actions will be counted against them as individuals. Kierkegaard believed that the problem with every crowd was simply that the weight of individual responsibility was always divided by the number of persons in the mob.

However we understand it, people do things in groups that they would never do as individuals. The lessons passed down from the early chapters of Genesis, and from the Tower of Babel story in particular, remind us that while sin has always been a part of the human condition, it’s when sinful people get together to make a name for themselves(Genesis 11:4), that things really start to unravel.

That’s why I can never take seriously these horror movies about Freddy Krueger or any of the terrible super-villains, no matter how revolting their crimes. Criminal people can do terrible things, I grant you, but it’s when we get together as a community that things get really awful. Jack the Ripper killed a lot of poor women, but it took a whole country working together to create the Holocaust.

When you walk around Syria or Yemen, and even when you see the conditions being experienced by the men on Manus Island, it’s not wicked individuals that are causing all this. It’s takes a whole pack of us, working together. The question is why? Why do we do it? Well … why did the mob that went after Jesus want to kill Him?

The Gospel-writer makes it clear that it was something Jesus said. Luke begins, When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.(Luke 4:28). The potentially confusing thing here though is that Jesus had said a lot of things.

Jesus was in Nazareth. He was at the synagogue. He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read and he read from chapter 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.(Luke 4:18-19)

Is this what upset people, or was it the very brief (8-word) sermon that Jesus gave on the passage – Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.(Luke 4:21)

Some commentators have suggested that these are exactly what upset the people. Jesus was proclaiming God’s Jubilee Year– a time of true freedom and abundance when the gap between rich and poor would disappear and when debts would be cancelled. Some suggest, understandably, that this announcement would have enraged the rich members of the synagogue who stood to lose out in this great redistribution. That would make sense, except that the Gospel writer says that Jesus was well-received up to this point. It was what He said after that that upset people.

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, “Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”” (Luke 4:23)

Clearly people were looking for a sign (a miracle) from Jesus to show that He was qualified to make His announcement – proclaiming God’s Jubilee Year. Jesus says that they’re not going to get a sign, and he follows this by giving two examples from Biblical history that make the point that miracles aren’t simply produced on-demand.

It’s at this point that everyone gets upset, and no doubt they would have been upset with the way in which Jesus seemed to be so presumptuous. Even so, when you think someone is presumptuous, you tell them to pull their head in. You don’t try to kill them. Is there another piece to the puzzle here? Of course. It’s the occupation!

If you want to know the problem that was plaguing the Jewish population of Palestine in the first century, the answer is always the Roman occupation. I’m not saying that individual people weren’t struggling with their own issues. For sure, people were struggling with illness and with debt, and no doubt plenty of parents were struggling with the good-for-nothing guy that their daughter was infatuated with. Even so, as a group, as a community, and as a mob, the problem was always the occupation.

It’s exactly the same in Palestine today. I’ve heard people suggest that Palestinian education system is to blame for bringing up children to hate their Israeli neighbours, or that the ideology of Hamas is to blame. No. The problem is always the occupation (in this case, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank).

Whatever form of freedom Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lordthat day in Nazareth, what the people of Nazareth would have heard was the promise of an end to the occupation.

The Roman occupation was a political problem – yes – but it was also a spiritual issue. It was about the place of the people of God in the plan of God. It was about history, Scripture, covenant and promise. It was about everybody’s dream for a better world, and what Jesus did in Nazareth, in the scene depicted for us in Luke chapter four, was that he tapped into the dream of the community for an end to the Roman occupation and, from their perspective, he then threw it back in their faces!

On the one hand, Jesus clearly announces Himself as the spirit-filled Messiah spoken of by the prophet Isaiah – the one who would bring in the new world order. On the other hand, he made clear that He was not interested in leading them in any armed revolution, and you can’t do that – not to the people of Nazareth at any rate.

Our dreams are important to us. We have dreams about who we want to be. We have dreams for our families and for our children. We may even have dreams about what we want our house to look like one day. There’s nothing wrong with having dreams, and surely nobody has the right to come and simply smash our dreams. The problem is just that not all of our dreams are in alignment with Jesus’ dream.

Of course, there are no shortage of preachers around who will tell you that Jesus is just waiting to give you whatever your heart desires. Name it and claim it, they say. Jesus will give you a bigger bank balance and a better sex life! Whatever it is that you want, ask and you shall receive. Well … tell that to the congregation in Nazareth

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.(Luke 4:18-19)

I believe Jesus’ vision of the coming Kingdom fully included an end to the Roman occupation of Palestine, just as I believe that the unfolding of that Kingdom today fully includes the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Kingdom includes both of these acts of liberation, and it includes a whole lot more! It includes the ending of all wars, of child abuse, violence, the persecution of asylum-seekers, the imprisonment of those who tell the truth to power, and even of death itself!

The dream of the Kingdom is something that we can all tap into. Even so, both in terms of the content of that Kingdom and in terms of how we get there, we need to work on taking on Jesus’ dream, rather than relying solely on our own imaginations.

There’s an old joke about someone who is being shown around Heaven on their first day there. They are being introduced to all sorts of amazing places and all sorts of amazing people from all sorts of backgrounds and faith traditions. Then the new- comer asks what the big walled-off section is in the middle of Heaven that they can’t see into. She’s told that that’s the Sydney Anglican section, as those people dreamed of a Heaven where they would be the only ones there.

We all dream of a better world, but our dreams need guidance too. Let the dream of Jesus be our dream. It is a big dream – a dream of freedom, justice, peace and love. And as Dom Helder Camara said – “when one person dreams it is just a dream, but when we all dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 3rd February, 2019.

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Epiphany 2018 (A sermon on Matthew 2:1-12)


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

“Someone in your life is about to burst out of his or her shell – make sure you’re there to cheer them on! … This is your chance to be someone’s personal hero and personal cheerleader. Get out there and lend a helping hand”

As is my habit this time of year, I’ve checked in on my daily horoscope. That was the advice offered me today – Sunday, January 6th, 2019 – from astrology.com, which I thought sounded like the authoritative place to hear what my stars had to tell me.

I only check my horoscope once per year, largely because I can still hear the voice of my father in the back of my head, saying “don’t you believe any of that rubbish!”

That was the stance I was brought up with – that it was all a load of rubbish – and then, while I was at seminary, someone pointed out to me – ‘well … there must be something to it. The wise men followed their stars and it led them to Jesus!’

Yes, today is Epiphany – the Feast of the Epiphany – and we are blest indeed that this year Epiphany does fall on a Sunday!

Today is the day when we remember the visit of those wise men to the infant Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel according to St Matthew, chapter two – and if ever there was a day to consult your stars, I figure that today is the day!

The Feast of the Epiphany is much more than a day for star-gazing though, and over the last 2,000+ years of the existence of the church a lot of fascinating traditions have become associated with this day.

Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, as celebrated in the song that I’m sure none of us have ever been able to forget, even if we can’t remember exactly whether the gift for day twelve was lords a leaping or ladies dancing or drummers drumming.

Either way, the song is a good reminder that the Twelve Days of Christmas have a history in the church, as does the Twelfth Night, remembered in the famous Shakespearean play of the same name.

In some sections of the church, this Twelfth Day of Christmas is considered to be as significant as Christmas itself, and in Spain and in some Latin American countries it is still a public holiday. Traditionally, it was the day when you opened your Christmas presents, and it was the day when you took down your Christmas decorations.

In Siberia today – this Epiphany as every Epiphany – a goodly number of our Russian Orthodox sisters and brothers will take a dip in water as cold as fifteen degrees below zero, jumping in through a whole cut in the ice by the priest who first blesses the freezing water so that they might wash away their sins.

As if we needed more reasons to remain Anglican!

In some areas of England and France, a far more tame Epiphany tradition is to have a communal celebration with an Epiphany cake which has had a pea and a bean baked into it. According to the tradition, whichever man finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes king for the night and whichever woman finds a pea becomes queen! I couldn’t find any explanation as to what is supposed to happen if a man finds the pea or a woman finds the bean.

How any of these traditions grew out of the story of the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus is anybody’s guess. I can’t see any obvious connection, beyond the general theme of celebration, as Epiphany event does indeed proclaim a truth that is worth celebrating. That truth, I believe, is simply that Jesus belongs to everybody.

“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1b-2)

We use this term, ‘wise men’, but the original Greek word is ‘magi’, from which we get our word ‘magic’. These visitors are magicians of sorts, though not of the conjuror variety, such as we see on stage. They are court magicians, such as might act as advisors to the king, as members of the royal court.

If you’re familiar with the book of Daniel, where Daniel and his three friends became part of the Persian royal court, their position in the court would have been as magi. Hence, they played a special role in all matters requiring spiritual wisdom, such as the interpreting of dreams and predicting the future, so that they might help prosper the king and the kingdom, both economically and militarily.

These magi at the heart of the Epiphany story are likewise understood to be court officials, and, if we are to take this story literally as history, religiously speaking, they would almost certainly have been Zoroastrians.

I learned a little about Zoroastrianism, reading the Reverend Dr Niveen Sarras’ commentary on this text. She’s a Lutheran pastor in the USA.

According to Dr Sarras, Zoroaster himself (the main prophet in Zoroastrianism) was also believed to have been miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin (a 15- year-old Persian girl in his case). Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30, after defeating all of Satan’s temptations, and he predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”

Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars and, like the Jews, the Zoroastrian were, at the time, anticipating the birth of a universal savior.

What this means is that these magi come to Jesus, not on the basis of any prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures, but on the basis of the Zoroastrian virgin-birth prophecies. Dr Sarras believes that this was certainly the understanding of Matthew, the Gospel writer, who is proclaiming that religions unrelated to Hebrew monotheism, and other sacred texts, outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, did indeed also point to Jesus.

All this reminds me very much of our own Epiphany experience that we had here in Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Christmas Day, when we were visited by our own magi.

If you missed it, I’m referring to the visit paid us by Sheikh Shoaib Naqvi and his colleagues of the Muhammadi Welfare Association in Granville.

Sheikh Shoaib isn’t a Zoroastrian, of course, and he might not appreciate the comparison. He’s a Shia Muslim cleric, of course. Even so, if you were here, you’ll know that he read to us from his own Scriptures some words of prophecy regarding both Mary and Jesus, and he and his colleagues came here to honour Jesus!

If you missed it, it’s on the church’s Facebook page, as Sheikh Shoaib had his brief speech videod, and he posted it to his Facebook page, and I then shared it on ours.

Interestingly, I spent some time with Sheikh Shoaib the weekend after that visit, and he told me that he’d received quite a bit of negative feedback on his Facebook page.

He said that while he’d been 100% supported by how own faith community, the video had been shared and re-shared around the world, and he’d been criticized by some of his old associates back in Pakistan and elsewhere.

It seems that a lot of people in Pakistan think that if you turn up at a church, you have to drink the wine we serve. Shoaib assured them that this was not the case – that the consumption of alcohol here is entirely voluntary.

I note with some pride that we received zero negative feedback from the Christian community (at least as far as I know). Having said that, I suspect that a number of our less-regular visitors that day might have assumed that Sheikh Shoaib was just part of the Nativity scene.

And why wouldn’t’ they? It’s the season! The week before we had half of the Sunday School children dressed up like Bedouin Arabs, roaming around the building. Additionally, we’ve got models of saints dressed in plush, red winter garb alongside woolly sheep and other stable animals. Why would a wise man in a turban look out of place?

In truth, I love this time of year, and I love the pageantry, and the way we dress up, and I love our special visitors, as it’s all a part of the central Epiphany proclamation – that Jesus belongs to everybody.

It’s interesting that the word ‘epiphany’ has another use in our language, entirely independent of this Gospel story. According to the dictionary, it can also mean “a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation.”

I suppose the two epiphanies are not really unrelated, as they are both tied to the Greek word, “epiphainein”, meaning, ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’. The star suddenly appeared as a revelation to the magi and, in similar ways, things suddenly occur to us when we have our own ‘epiphanies’.

I’ve had a few epiphanies in my life.

I think the first was when I was eighteen and one night I had a life-changing epiphany when I realised that God was really ‘out there’, or, to be more precise, that God was really close to me, and was deeply interested in what I was doing with my life! That was the most life-changing epiphany I have ever had.

Many years later (and I’m embarrassed to admit that it was many years later) I had another epiphany – that same-sex orientated people were probably no worse sinners than I was (and, in many cases, were far less so). As I say, I’m embarrassed to admit that it took a number of years before I had that particular epiphany but, again, it proved to be life-changing.

A few years after that I had yet another epiphany, when I realised that the Spirit of God was as actively at work in the heart of my friend, Mansour – a Muslim Sheikh – as He was in mine! That epiphany would also prove to be life-changing!

I may have more epiphanies to come, but I note that all my more recent epiphanies have been what I would call ‘Epiphanal epiphanies’. In other words, they have been situation-specific realisations of the greater truth that Epiphany teaches us – that Jesus belongs to everybody, and that ‘everybody’ really does mean ‘everybody’.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

So says St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, for indeed that is where the New Testament is taking us. It ends there – in the affirmation of our oneness in Christ, where all the divisions between rich and poor and slave and free and gay and straight and orthodox and heretic and us and them are broken down and resolved and all are one in Christ Jesus.

It ends there, but it begins here, in the opening chapters of the first book in the New Testament, with this odd story of these unfamiliar men in turbans who come to stand alongside us and pay their respects to Jesus.

I started my sermon today by sharing with you some of my horoscope reading for today. In case you’ve forgotten, it mentioned that someone was going to “burst out of his or her shell” and that my role was to be there to “cheer them on!

“Get out there and lend a helping hand”, was the closing exhortation of that prophecy and I really don’t know if this sermon has been that helping hand for anyone today. If that’s you, and this sermon has helped you burst out of your shell, do let me know.

That, at any rate, was the extract from my daily horoscope on astrology.com. What I found even more interesting though, from the same site, was my weekly horoscope, which gave specific recommendations for each day of the week, concluding with, “express yourself eccentrically on Sunday.”

I thought about that for quite a while, and wondered whether concluding this sermon with an ‘ice-bucket challenge’ might help bring the Epiphany message home. I decided though that most of our church thought I was already eccentric enough.

It did occur to me though that if ‘eccentric’ means being ‘out of step’ and ‘non-conformist’, then there is probably nothing more eccentric that we can do than simply proclaim the message of Epiphany – that despite all our differences (of gender and class and race and education and religion, and all the other factors that distinguish and divide us), we are one, and that the Lord Jesus belongs as much to the Sudanese Muslim woman on the other side of the globe as He does to us.

Happy Epiphany!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 6th January, 2019.

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Jesus revealed His Glory! (A sermon on John 2:1-11)


When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.(John 2:3-5)

Here we are at one of the driest times of the year, and yet today is the day our lectionary chooses to present us with the story of Jesus the winemaker!

Some people refer to this whole month as Dry January, as it’s our period of recovery after the ‘silly season. Some of us get more silly than others over the Christmas period, of course, and some of us let the frivolity extend right on into the first few weeks of January as we take the kids away and sun ourselves on various beaches and continue to consume far more alcohol than either our livers or our credit card can handle. We dink like Princes, which means we’re paying up to $50 per bottle but partying like it’s 1999!

Either way, by this time of the month, we are all starting to sober up, surely. The school holidays are coming to an end and even the most slothly amongst us is being drawn back into the workplace. Yet now is the time when Jesus brings out the best wine – right at the end of the party!

It really is odd timing, especially when you consider that our Gospel readings for this whole season are being taken from the Gospel of Luke. I guess the church inserted this reading from the Gospel of John into the series because it is Epiphany – the season of ‘revelation’ – and this passage concludes by noting that Jesus ‘revealed his glorythrough this miracle (John 2:11), but what an odd way for Jesus to choose to reveal Himself, and exactly what glorious aspect of Himself was Jesus revealing through this miracle anyway – that He is the source of unending streams of alcohol?

I don’t mean this as a flippant question either, for in the other Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – Jesus’ miracles are referred to as ‘signs of the Kingdom(semeionin Greek), as they are concrete illustrations of the message that Jesus is preaching.

Jesus is proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God – an age where there will be no more violence, disease or death – and He illustrates His message through His signs that show us what the new world is going to look like.

The blind see because there is no more blindness in the Kingdom of God. Lepers are cleansed because there is no leprosy in the Kingdom of God. The dead are raised because death itself will be no more in Jesus’ Kingdom, but if this miracle too is a sign of what is to come, what’s it saying about the new world coming – that the alcohol never stops flowing? If so, I wonder how some of our Baptist brethren are going to cope?

Personally, I have no problem with that as an image of the Kingdom of God. Even so, I think we run the risk of trivialising this passage and missing what the Gospel writer is trying to say to us here if we reduce the whole message to one about the Kingdom of God being a non-stop party. It is a party – no doubt – but there’s a lot more going on at this party than just drinking!

We are in the Gospel of John, and John is a book with a lot of levels to it, and where there are often a lot of double-meanings and hidden messages.

I’m not suggesting that there are scandalous truths hidden in code anywhere (as the authors of The Da Vinci Codemight have us believe) but rather that John, as the last of the Gospels written, was crafted very artistically, and you often need to read over John’s words multiple times to get their full meaning.

This is the Gospel where Jesus speaks of how the wind blows where it will(John 3) but he’s really talking about the movement of the Spirit of God and it’s easy to get confused! Likewise, He speaks about flowing water, or was that living water, and was He talking about the Spirit again?

Those who have looked for hidden meanings in this particular passage have often done so by looking at parallels between this miracle story and some of the ancient myths about the Greek god, Dionysius, who is probably better known to us by his Roman name, Bacchus. He was the god of wine, and turning water into wine was something he was very good at. Interestingly too, Dionysius was supposed to have been the result of a virgin birth, and his birthday was celebrated on December 25! This has, of course, led some to suggest that the early church simply stole this story about Jesus from the myths of Dionysius, but this is hardly likely.

Lots of Greek and Roman gods and demi-gods were the result of virgin births, or at least of strange sexual encounters between the gods above and the mortal women who fell victim to their lusts, and when it comes to December 25th, the reason the Greeks and Romans celebrated Dionysius’ birthday on that day was probably the same reason that Emperor Constantine decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday then (in 388 AD) – not because anybody really thought that that was when Jesus (or Dionysius) was born, but because it was the beginning of the Winter Solstice and a good time to celebrate.

In terms of the miracle of water into wine though, is the Gospel writer subtly trying to let his Greek and Roman readers know that anything their gods can do, Jesus can do better? This is possible, but it’s hard to be clear about anything like this in John’s Gospel. The wind blows where it will, and so can your imagination when you’re reading the Gospel of John.

I might add at this point that I do genuinely believe that any similarities we might find between the stories in the Gospels and the myths of ancient Greece and Rome are entirely superficial, and I believe this not only because of differences in the stories themselves, but more so because of the entirely different role that these traditional Greek and Roman myths played in their respective societies when compared to the Gospel stories.

For the worshippers of Zeus and Jupiter and their respective pantheons, nobody really cared whether any of the stories about these characters were historically true. I suspect that many worshippers probably thought that their stories had some basis in history but it really didn’t matter because the way you practiced your religion was by participating in the cult and doing the sacrifices. Nobody ever asked you what you believed as it didn’t matter.

The whole concept of orthodoxy(right belief) really only starts with Christianity, where all of a sudden it became very important what you believed because the historical facts about Jesus were seen as being very important.

For this reason, I think we’re frankly on much firmer ground in our speculations about John’s Gospel when we look for connections within the Gospel itself. For instance, when John begins this passage by saying On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee(John 2:1), is there some double meaning to the words, third day? John didn’t seem to be counting days up to this point. Is this a subtle allusion to the resurrection?

It’s impossible to know for sure, of course, but that would connect this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to what happens at the end of the story – namely, the crucifixion and resurrection – a connection that is made more explicit in the odd dialogue between Jesus and his mother.

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come(John 2:3-4)

Jesus seems to be being disrespectful, referring to his mother simply as ‘woman’, but this is not the case, as is made clear by the only other mention that is made of Jesus’ mother in John’s Gospel, which happens at the foot of the cross, where Jesus speaks to her again:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” (John 19:25-26)

Some translate both references as dear woman, as it’s obvious, in this second case especially, that Jesus is speaking to His mother with tenderness. Even so, the exchange in Cana it is a mysterious one, and the mysterious statement of Jesus – my hour has not yet comeconnects this early scene to the later one. For some reason, Jesus sees His mother’s invitation to do something about the wine as the beginning of the end!

Why is that? Is there something going on here between Jesus and His mother that is not obvious? Is there something about wine that has a special significance for Jesus? Is there something in the water (so to speak)?

I believe the water is the key, in fact, because we’re told quite explicitly that

there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding about one hundred litres(John 2:6), and the water in these jars was not for drinking – not as water, let alone as wine! This water was holy water (or sorts) used to make people ready for worship.

The Torah strictly regulated how you had to purify yourself with water before coming to pray, and so you would rinse your hands with this water, symbolically washing away your sins so that you could be close to God. It is this holy water that Jesus takes charge of – water that is meant to purify people and bring them closer to God – and He turns it into something radically different, and then He makes it available for everybody to drink!

Now … I don’t want to start making connections here between water and wine and blood and the cross and the Eucharist, but Jesus evidently saw some of these connections, and the Gospel-writer, John, obviously saw connections. How exactly all these things connect, I don’t hazard to guess, but this is John’s Gospel, and maybe we’re not expected to figure it all out.

Now … you’ll have to forgive me if I’ve overworked the brain this morning, venturing into Greek mythology and exploring convoluted connections between the beginning and the end of John’s Gospel. As a preacher, the danger in preaching like this is that everybody checks out at around the 10- minute mark as that’s about as long as most people’s concentration can last. Mine (with all the hits I’ve taken to the head) normally only lasts about half that distance.

Even so, I haven’t finished yet, as there is one more thing I want to draw attention to in this passage, but it’s something really obvious that doesn’t require any subtle guesswork or intricate knowledge of the text. It’s the fact that this is a really big miracle that results in lots of wine!

We are told that there were six massive jars, each holding around 100 litres, and Jesus quite explicitly tells the staff at the wedding to fill the jars with water, and we’re told that they filled them to the brim(John 2:7), meaning that they ended up with at least 600 litres of liquid!

If you think of this in terms of wine for the party, that’s the equivalent of around a thousand 750 ml bottles (which is the standard size) and would go around a long way between one hundred or even two hundred guests!

The figures look even more extreme when you think of this liquid in terms of it being holy water that washes away sin. According to the Torah, you only needed one cup of this sort of water to purify a hundred worshippers. Now … I haven’t attempted to do the maths as the figures get quite astronomical, but I think that might have been a part of John’s point – that what Jesus has done here is to create enough holy liquid to cleanse the sins of the whole world!

Of course, Jesus acting on a crazy large scale like this is nothing new. When Jesus goes fishing, there are so many fish caught that the nets can’t hold them all! When Jesus organises lunch for a crowd, there is so much food left over that it fills a dozen baskets! Jesus provides, and He provides abundantly, especially perhaps for those who follow the instructions given by His mother, Do whatever he tells you(John 2:5).

That is a useful thing to be reminded of at this time of year especially – in this Dry January, when Yuletide merriment has all but frittered away and been replaced with sober contemplation of the credit-card bills. Jesus provides!

When the friends and family have all gone home and we’re coming to terms with being alone again, Jesus provides!

And most importantly, as we continue to struggle with our own weaknesses and watch things collapsing around us and feel the weight of our own sin and failures pressing in upon us, Jesus provides!

There is plenty of wine to go around. Nobody need be left out, and if you’re feeling like you’ve run your race and it’s all too much and you can’t go on any further, then grab yourself a glass and break open another bottle! It’s all good! We’ve saved the best till last!

I appreciate that some might find this imagery offensive, as indeed many of us might find John’s Gospel impenetrable. Even so, this is how Jesus first chose to “reveal his glory”, “and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 20th January, 2019.

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Meet the men of Manus Island

I must share something that has touched my heart today and brought me great hope. It’s this video with the relatively innocuous title, “PHILOXENIA Episode 3 MANUS”, but there’s more to this production that the title suggests!

In November 2017 I travelled to Manus Island, accompanied by Jarrod McKenna and Olivia Rousset (who was the genius behind my Compass documentary back in October 2014). I was greatly disappointed though afterwards as hardly any of the footage taken by Olivia on Manus Island was made public. This was due to concerns expressed by the lawyers who felt that screening the footage might jeopardize the futures of some of the men we interviewed.

Some footage made it into the story done by ABC Lateline, and more of it was shared in a compilation that we screened last April when our church did a Manus Island fundraiser. Even so, my fear was that most of that excellent material – footage  that so well exhibited the character of the men in captivity on Manus Island – would never reach the public eye. Thanks to documentary film-maker, Angus McDonald, it now has!

This documentary only goes for 13 minutes and 40 seconds, but it is well worth watching. Indeed, it is well worth sharing. I am excited to think that we may finally have something here that could be a force in the cause of freedom.

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Julian Assange nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

PRESS RELEASE – EMBARGOED – MONDAY 7th JANUARY, 2019

MAIREAD MAGUIRE, NOBEL PEACE LAUREATE, 224 LISBURN ROAD, BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND  email:  info@peacepeople.com  website; www.peacepeople.com;  Tel(O28) 90 663465

RE; NOMINATION OF MR. JULIAN ASSANGE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WIKILEAKS, FOR THE 2019 NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

——————————————————————————————————————–

Mairead Maguire, has today written to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, in Oslo, to  nominate Julian Assange, Editor-in-Chief of Wikileaks, for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

In her letter  to the  Nobel Peace Committee, Ms. Maguire said:

‘Julian Assange and his colleagues in Wikileaks have shown on numerous occasions that they are one of the last outlets of true democracy and their work for our freedom and speech.  Their work for true peace by making public our governments’ actions at home and abroad has enlightened us to their atrocities carried out in the name of so-called democracy around the world.  This included footage of inhumanity carried out by NATO/Military, the release of email correspondence  revealing the plotting of regime change in Eastern Middle  countries, and the parts our elected officials paid in deceiving the public.   This is a huge step in our work for disarmament and nonviolence worldwide.

Julian Assange, fearing deportation to the U.S. to stand trial for treason, sought out asylum in the Ecuadorien Embassy in 2012.   Selflessly, he continues his work from here increasing the risk of his prosecution by the American Government.  In recent months the U.S. has increased pressure on the Ecuadorian Government to take away his last liberties.  He is now prevented from having visitors, receiving telephone calls, or other electronic communications, hereby removing his basic human rights.  This has put a great strain on Julian’s mental and physical health.  It is our duty as citizens to protect Julian’s human rights and freedom of speech as he has fought for ours on a global stage.

It is my great fear that Julian,  who is an innocent man,  will be deported to the U.S. where he will face unjustified imprisonment.  We have seen this happen to Chelsea (Bradley) Manning who allegedly supplied Wikileaks with sensitive information from NATO/US Middle Eastern Wars and subsequently spent multiple years in solitary confinement in an American prison.   If the US succeeds in their plan to extradite Julian Assange to US to face a Grand Jury,  this will silence journalists and whistle-blowers around the world, in fear of dire repercussions.

Julian Assange meets all criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize.   Through his release of hidden information to the public we are no longer naïve to the atrocities of war, we are no longer oblivious to the connections between big Business, the acquisition of resources, and the spoils of war.

As his human rights and freedom are in jeopardy the Nobel Peace Prize would afford Julian much greater protection from Government forces.

Over the years there have been controversies over the Nobel Peace Prize and  some of those to whom it has been awarded.  Sadly, I believe it has moved from its original intentions and meaning.  It was Alfred Nobel’s will that the prize would support and protect individuals at threat from Government forces in their fight for nonviolence and peace, by bringing awareness to their precarious situations.  Through awarding Julian Assange the Nobel Peace Prize,  he and others like him, will receive the protection they truly deserve.

It is my hope that by this we can rediscover the true definition of the Nobel Peace Prize.

I also call on all people to bring awareness to Julian’s situation and support him in his struggle for basic human rights, freedom of speech, and peace.’

MAIREAD MAGUIRE  – NOBEL PEACE LAUREATE

www.peacepeople.com

Father Dave and Mairead Maguire in Tehran, April 2014
with Mairead Maguire in Tehran, April 2014
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Fighting for the Men of Manus – December 2018

It was December 19th – just a week before Christmas 2018 – when I travelled to Port Moresby to fight alongside Ezatuallah Kakar – Manus Island detainee and professional boxer. The idea was to support him personally and to help raise awareness as Ezatullah fought “for all Manus and Nauru”

We had a lot of local media coverage in Papua New Guinea:

The Guardian also took up the story, and this helped spread it around the world

There was also an excellent post-fight wrap-up feature in Pakistan’s Express Tribune.

Even so, the most encouraging coverage, from my perspective, came when AAP picked up the story and it appeared in numerous Australian publications, including SBS online.

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Afflicting the Comfortable (A sermon on Luke 3:1-6)

I think I am right in saying that today is a historic anniversary for me. I think I am rightin saying that today marks for me the end of my 28th year as incumbent in this parishwhich means that I have now officially spent half my life here!

Yes, I was a young man of 28 when I arrived in Dulwich Hill in 1990. I am now 56, which means I have spent exactly half my life in this position!

]I don’t pretend that this is by any means a record. There are some younger members of the parish here who have spent a much greater percentage of their lives as members of this community, one of whom is Ange, who, while she has been here for slightly less years in total, beats me in the percentage stakes due to her younger age, and another of whom is our youngest, Francesca Trinity Smith, who has spent 100% of her life as a member of this parish!

I think Jan is the only member who beats me both in terms of total years present and life-percentage, but only assuming that we include her years as a member of our once-branch-church, St Aidan’s. Either way, I think I am now fully qualified to speak of this as my lifes work, and what a life it has been!

I am reminded of the words of my great mentor, Soren Kierkegaard, who, when noticing the number of things being invented around the world to make life easier for people, said that he would dedicate his future to making life more difficult for others by becoming a preacher. What can I say except that I have done my best to follow in his footsteps and make life more difficult for others through my preaching for twenty- eight years now, and from the number of worn and weary faces I see looking back at me, I would say that my life’s work has met with an encouraging degree of success.

And speaking of making life more difficult for others:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.(Luke 3:1-2)

I’ve always seen these early verses from the Gospel of Luke as an example of the Gospel writer’s sense of humor – that in a year when larger-than life people like the Emperor Tiberius and Herod, king of Judea, were doing big things in a grand and headline-grabbing way, God was at work in the backwaters of some remote desert, working through a complete unknown – John, son of Zechariah.

There is that in the passage – an encouraging reminder that the most important things happening in our world may not be the things that are grabbing the headlines. Even so, there is more to Luke’s introduction of John than that too. As well as reminding us that God works through the poor and relatively insignificant people of our world, Luke is reminding us too that God is not oblivious to what is grabbing the headlines. God knows what the Caesars and Herod’s of this world are up to, and God can be relied upon to raise up people who will make life more difficult for them.

[John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:3-6)

What we’re given in today’s Gospel passage is a very broad description of the message of John, devoid of any of the provocative language for which he is rightly famous. I have, accordingly, resisted the temptation to reprint my signature John the Baptist Christmas greeting-cards, which their unique message of Yuletide cheer – You brood of vipers! Bear fruits that befit repentance! Merry Christmas. I will, likewise, avoid commenting on the content of John’s sermons as outlined in other passages, but will instead focus on what we have here in today’s passage – the portrayal of John simply as the one who prepares the way.

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and … the rough ways made smooth

This image is not unfamiliar to me, and will not be unfamiliar to anyone who drives regularly on dirt roads. Every time I drive out to our bush retreat, Binacrombi, which is never less than once per month, I cover at least 70 kilometers of dirt road, and as with every dirt road in this country that is under the curatorship of a local Council, there are a team of people whose job it is to prepare these ways – to fill in the holes, to lift the troughs and lower the peaks and make the rough parts smooth.

This road-smoothing process is normally referred to as grading, and, as a driver, the difference between driving on a freshly graded road, as against an ungraded road, is monumental. Driving on a well-graded dirt road is an almost indistinguishable experience from driving on an asphalt road, whereas driving on an ungraded road can be both painful and dangerous.

John takes this metaphor of the road from the prophet Isaiah, and, taken in context, the road Isaiah was envisaging was one that the exiled people of Israel would use to return to their country. In John’s application of the road image, it is not the exiled people who are going to use that road, but rather God who is going to use the road to come to these same exiled people. Either way, it seems that a lot of smoothing out is going to need to take place before God and God’s people can successfully meet, and John sees himself as God’s appointed spiritual grading machine.

As with dirt roads, John would find, of course, that the smoothing-out process would need to be focused on a small number of crucial hazards. When driving to Binacrombi, I know the dirt road well and, even when it’s been a long time between gradings, most of that road doesn’t present a problem. And yet there are a couple of points where the soil gets particularly boggy, and others where the ridges run particularly deep, and it is here that the grading team need to focus their efforts.

Likewise, with John, he encountered little resistance to his message, except at a handful of crucial hazards. One of those hazards gets an explicit mention in Luke’s introduction – namely, Herod, king of Judea. John would spend a lot of energy trying to smooth out that bump in the road – a bump that ultimately got the better of him.

It is hard to contemplate the Baptist without thinking of others who have followed John in the spiritual road-smoothing business. One person who came immediately to mind for me was Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the German pastor, prophet and teacher who made a similar impact on Hitler’s Germany as did John on Herod’s Judea.

Indeed, I thought it might be useful to go through some of Bonhoeffer’s writings to see what influence the Baptist might have had on him, and so I got hold of two collections of Bonhoeffer’s works in preparation for this sermon. The first was a collection of short devotional reflections by Bonhoeffer on the lectionary readings for Advent. The second book was a larger collection of Bonhoeffer’s Christmas sermons that included homilies given in the Advent and Christmas periods over the many years of his preaching career, both in Germany and around the world.

I was rather surprised and disappointed to find that in none of the advent devotionals nor in any of his sermons did John the Baptist get a mention! This could, of course, be because Bonhoeffer’s John-the-Baptist sermons were all confiscated and burned by the Nazis before they could be published, or it could just be that Bonhoeffer didn’t feel any great need to refer to the Baptist, even when channeling his message.

Either way, both men lived in similarly oppressive times, and while the list of atrocities committed under Herod in no way parallels those attributable to Hitler, I don’t doubt that the two tyrants themselves were equally power-hungry and ruthless.

Both Bonhoeffer and the Baptist showed zero tolerance to corruption in high places. On the day the Nazis came to power, Bonhoeffer hit the radio waves, warning his fellow Germans of the dangers that lay ahead of them – a message that was never broadcast in full, as the radio station prudently decided to switch Bonhoeffer’s microphone off before he had finished.

Like John, the German prophet didn’t tolerate religious hypocrisy any better than he did political corruption. When the church ruled that it would no longer ordain as priests persons who were of Jewish descent, Bonhoeffer recognised this as the thin end of the wedge and declared the church that does not ordain Jews is not the church of Jesus Christ, and so he started the Confessing Churchas a breakaway movement from his state-compliant mother-church.

Like John, of course, brother Dietrich also met his fate in prison – hanged in Flossenbürg Concentration camp in 1944, just a few weeks before the end of the war. Bonhoeffer succeeded in making life more difficult for the Fuhrer and for the Nazi elite, just as John had succeeded in being a bur in the saddle to the rich and powerful of his day. Both men paid the familiar price for their prophetic vocations.

You’ll have to forgive me if you feel I’m downgrading the spiritual pedigree of this homily by mentioning Julian Assange at this point, but I can’t think of these issues, and of the price paid by those who speak truth to power, without thinking of him too.

I’ve spent a bit of time with Julian’s dad lately, who I still consider a member of our church, and I’ve been in daily contact with Ciaron OReilly, who preached here once, and who is currently living and sleeping outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, All the indications are that it will be days, not weeks, before Julian is forcibly taken into custody.

Yes, I appreciate that Julian is hardly a spokesperson for religious orthodoxy, but neither was John the Baptist when you come down to it.

However we assess Julian’s work, the parallels with both the Baptist and with Bonhoeffer are not hard to see. Julian has been fearless in speaking truth to power. He has uncovered corruption in high places. He has made life more difficult for a lot of wealthy and influential people, and now, like the prophets who went before him, he is under the threat of paying the familiar price for his vocation.

I believe we need to pray for Julian. We might not all agree with his politics any more than we do with his theology. Even so, as followers of Jesus and as the spiritual descendants of John the Baptist, it is surely our role to support those who shine the light of truth into the dark crevices of political power and corruption, not simply because we have a commitment to light and truth in some abstract sense, but because, as Julian himself said, if wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.

And what about us? Might we as individuals, and as a community, have a God-given role to play in making life more difficult for others? I appreciate that, as Christians, it’s far more straightforward to feel called to comfort the afflicted than to afflict the comfortable, but we know too, ultimately, that these really are the two sides of the same coin.

I head back to Papua New Guinea next week. Why am I doing that?

  • To get beaten up again?
  • To add another win to my boxing record (hopefully)?
  • To support a friend?
  • To tell a story? Of course, it’s all of the above, but, primarily, my hope is to be another bur in thesaddle of the Australian government – making life a little more difficult for those areresponsible for the indefinite detention and the ongoing suffering of the men ofManus Island and of the men, women and children of Nauru. Will you support me in this work of spreading discomfort? I trust you will. Pray for methat I might have a safe trip and return in one piece, and so be spared reaping thewages of a prophet. Pray even more so though that together we might play our partin afflicting the comfortable in the hope that the afflicted might ultimately find comfort. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate wasgovernor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of theregion of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the highpriesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariahin the wilderness.” and in the year of our Lord two thousand and eighteen, here inDulwich Hill, Sydney, Australia, this Word comes to us still – a word that continues tochallenge the systems of our world and that threatens to bring down the mighty fromtheir thrones and lift up the lowly. Open your ears and you will hear it! Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and thecrooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shallsee the salvation of our God.’” (Luke 3:5-6)

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 9th December, 2018.

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

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Sacrifice and Survival (Armistice Day 2018)

[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money intothe treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put intwo small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples andsaid to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who arecontributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of theirabundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had tolive on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money intothe treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put intwo small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples andsaid to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who arecontributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of theirabundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had tolive on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

You probably thought that you were going to hear a sermon focused on Armistice Day today – the time being rather close to the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – rather than a sermon on the widow’s mite. In fact, the majority of this sermon is going to be focused on Armistice Day, rather than the widow, so I probably should have begun with a disclaimer rather than with the reading.

Please understand that the views about to be expressed are mine and mine alone. They are not necessarily the views of other members of this church, let alone do they represent the views of the bishop (as far as I know). I can’t even guarantee that my expressed opinions reflect the views of God, though I’m pretty sure they do! 😉

My disclaimer is, of course, with reference to my views on Armistice Day – on war, Queen and country – rather than my views on the widow in today’s Gospel reading, though she too may have been a subject of controversy in her day. Here is a woman who gave of herself completely, and you have to admire her for that (as Jesus does). At the same time though, she gave it all up for the Temple, and a great many people – Jesus and His disciples included – would surely have questioned the value of giving anything to that corrupt and oppressive institution.

I suspect that you have already intuited the sort of connections I make between this woman’s actions and the issues we reflect on today on Armistice Day. Even so, let’s stick with the woman for a little longer.

I’ve known people – elderly women in particular – who have chosen to bequeath everything they have to the Sydney Anglican Diocese upon their deaths, and you’ve got to admire this sort of selfless generosity. At the same time though … actually, let’s focus on Armistice Day, as my views on that may be less controversial!

On Armistice Day, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we remember the end of World War I – the greatwar, the war to end all wars’.

We refer to it as the greatwar though, of course, it was not great for anyone who live through it. The horrendous death toll is perhaps the clearest indication of that:

The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million. Estimates range from 15 to 19 million dead and about 23 million wounded. You know that you’re dealing with unimaginable carnage when you round off to the nearest million. Nine to eleven million of the dead were military personnel. The civilian death toll was about 8 million, including about 6 million due to war-related famine and disease.

It is impossible to imagine carnage on this sort of scale. What can be more readily envisaged are individual names, like those names that appear on the honour boards at the back of our church building, and individual stories, such as that of the Rev. Digges La Touche, formerly of this parish, who died at Gallipoli and is remembered still in the stained-glass window built into the side of our building. Still his memory is a source of light for us all!

The stories of heroism are indeed as inspiring as they numerous and it’s entirely appropriate, I believe, that we celebrate and revere their sacrifice, just as Jesus celebrated and revered the sacrifice of the widow. At the same time though, just as Jesus called into question the institution for which the widow sacrificed herself, we too must question the governmental and political systems that sent so many men, women and children – but young men in particular – to their deaths.

We called it the war to end all wars, and so it should have been – surely – and yet, twenty years later the world headed back into an even more deadly conflict! Total casualties for World War II were around 60 million – half as many again as World War I (around 3% of the world’s population at the time), and for those of us who think of that War as being primarily a European war, be assured that around two-thirds of those who died were citizens of either the Soviet Union (26.6 million) or China (20 million).

The casualties-from-war figures since World War II are a little more encouraging, at least on the surface. Politicians such as Bill Clinton have been keen to point out that the raw death-rate from wars since World War II has been in constant decline. Statistics though can be misleading. I’ve read some articles that estimate that as many have died due to war since World War II as in World War II, and according to the maths done by journalist James Lucas, the US alone has killed more than 20 million people in 37 nations since the end of that conflict.

We who are alive today are experiencing what I assume to be the tail-end of the wars of the United States. Certainly, the remarkable thing about the US-led wars since the infamous 9/11 incident of 2001 – the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Venezuela and the Ukraine – is that the US hasn’t won any of them. Indeed, it’s hard for most of us to see any winners coming out of any of those wars, with the very notable exception of the arms manufacturers who are doing really well indeed.

And so we must ask, did we learn anything from the Great War? Surely all those good men, and all the men, women and children who suffered and died in that Great War did not die in vain? Surely humanity learnt something from that conflict?

My answer to that question is that I’m not sure. What I am reasonably clear about though is that two things changed from that point on in military history, and even if humanity didn’t gain a lot from that terrible conflict, things did degenerate from the end of the first World War onwards due to two particularly terrible developments.

The first of those developments was a change in strategy – namely, that after World War I military strategy started to explicitly include the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. The second very significant development, of course, was the development of weapons of mass destruction.

Let me pause here and say that my understanding of military and political history since World War II has been particularly influenced by two books I’ve read this year.

The first is James Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable– a book primarily about the assassination of US President, John F. Kennedy, and related issues such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but one that tries to analyse broadly how the US war machine works. This book was recommended to me when I was in Iran earlier this year and met with a number of former CIA operatives and former US government officials. They said to me if you want to understand how our system works, read this book.

The second book is Daniel Ellsberg’s recently published, The Doomsday Machine. Most of us would know Ellsberg from his publication of the The Pentagon Papersin 1971 – a publication that revealed the extent to which the US government had been lying to its people about the war in Vietnam.

For blowing the whistle on his government, Ellsberg was put on trial and charged with conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property. In the book he says that one thing he wasn’t asked at the trial, thankfully, was the question of how much time he had spent copying down classified government material. He says that if he had responded to that question, it would have been obvious that he’d made copies of a lot more classified material than just that dealing with Vietnam. In fact, he had also made copies of papers pertaining to the development of the US nuclear weapons program, but he then waited until the end of 2017 before publishing that material.

These two books, in particular, have given me some insight into these two terrible developments since Armistice Day – namely, the deliberate targeting of civilians and the development of weapons of mass destruction – and these two developments are, of course, intricately related. If there could be no targeting of civilians, weapons of mass destruction could never be used. Having said that, the targeting of civilians didn’t begin with the atomic bomb, and there’s some controversy as to who started it.

I was brought up believing that it was the Nazi’s who first targeted civilians. According to Ellsberg though it was the British, followed by the Americans. At least in terms of written orders, the suggested date is February 1942, when the Royal Air Force, under Sir Arthur BomberHarris, was ordered to shift its focus toward destroying “the morale of the enemy civil population” which led to the aerial bombardment of Berlin and the retaliatory bombing of London.

Probably the most infamous civilian bombing raids of World War II were the attacks on Dresden and Tokyo, both of which made use of incendiary bombs and the weather. Extensive research was done so as to ensure an inescapable firestorm for the residents of these cities. In both cases the results were spectacularly successful.

Dresden, which is in the east of Germany, was targeted, not because of any military significance, but because it was then home to huge numbers of civilian refugees, fleeing the Russian advance from the East. Between 22,700 and 25,000 people were killed in the Dresden attack. In Tokyo, where many of the houses were made of paper and wood, the casualties were far higher – at least 100,000 dead and a million homeless. Stories from survivors of Japanese mothers trying to find refuge with their children in troughs filled with water that had been dug into the streets, only to become flaming human candles, curdle the blood.

The mass targeting of civilian populations, as I say, did not start with the dropping of the atomic bomb, but the development of nuclear weapons did indeed take the targeting of civilian cities and infrastructure on to a whole new level.

The single bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed somewhere between 129,000–226,000 people between them, mainly civilians. Even so, I was brought up believing that these killings were necessary because, had these bombs not been dropped, as many as a million US military personnel might have lost their lives had the war been continued via conventional means.

That figure goes back directly to US President Harry Truman, who justified the dropping of the bombs in this way. More recently declassified material though calls his calculations into question. Indeed, a more up-to-date estimate on the number of casualties that might have resulted had the bomb not been dropped is zero, as the Japanese had by then apparently been trying to surrender for some weeks.

Former candidate for the Democratic nomination for US President, Dennis Kucinich, quotes the great General MacArthur as saying that while he was never consulted about the dropping of the bomb, he saw no military justification for it. The war might have ended weeks earlier, according to him, had the United States had agreed, as it later did anyway, to the retention of the institution of the Emperor.

I won’t continue further with these questions of history, but I do want to highlight a key point that Ellsberg makes in The Doomsday Machine– namely, that the destructive potential of individual nuclear weapons has developed enormously since World War II, as has their total number. What hasn’t been developed though, according to Ellsberg, who once worked at the heart of the US nuclear weapons program, is any real plan on how to contain their destructive capacity.

Ellsberg recounts a meeting with US military staff where it was pointed out that the retaliatory nuclear strike that was planned against the Soviet Union, should incoming missiles from the USSR be detected, would kill an estimated 300 million residents of China (around a third of the country’s population at the time) in addition to Soviet Citizens, and many in Europe, who would be unfortunate collateral damage. Ellsberg says he asked one of the Generals what the plan was if the Chinese weren’t involved in the military aggression towards the US. He said that the general got very agitated, suggesting that this surely wouldn’t happen as it would require a whole new plan!

Ellsberg says that the people who make these plans aren’t bad people, just as the scientists who design the bombs and the engineers who manufacture them are not bad people individually. Even so, collectively, they produce something entirely demonic, and something that he believes will almost certainly bring about the end of all human and animal life on this planet if it is not somehow constrained. I believe that the onus is upon us – on us most especially as people of faith who believe in the real possibility of peace – to become that force of constraint.

I could talk on this subject a lot more, and I think we need to talk on this subject a lotmore, but not now. My message for today is a simple one – lest we forget. I see thenames on those honour boards – each the name of a young man who once warmedthese pews – and I see their families sitting here in prayer, mourning their loss andsaying to us ‘No more war! No more war! Never again! Lest we forget!’

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 11th November, 2018.

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

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