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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Media Advisor of INHR to Syria met Mufti Hassoun

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

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