Embracing the + in the LGBTQI+ (Sermon on Acts 8: 26-40)

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza’ (This is a wilderness road)”. (Acts 8:26)

It gave me a bit of a chill this week when I looked at our reading from the book of Acts and saw it opening with a reference to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. We are told explicitly there that it is a ‘wilderness road’ – a term which, when it appears in Scripture, generally suggests something more than it being just another dirt road. It was a desolate road – a forgotten road, one that is travelled by forgotten people. Certainly, it seems to be that today.

If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that at the end of that road today there are a battalion of snipers from the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) who have shooting and killing unarmed protestors on the other side of a fence that designates the border between Gaza and Israel!

It seems inexplicable to me that while three of the most powerful countries on earth – the United States, Great Britain and France – were recently bombing the hell out of Syria in retaliation for an alleged gas attack on innocent civilians, allegedly carried out by the Syrian army, a stone’s throw away, at the end of that road from Jerusalem to Gaza, there were hundreds of innocent civilians being shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Forces – a crime that nobody was disputing, and yet no one threatened to bomb Israel in retaliation. Indeed, none of those self-appointed judges of humanity were even talking about it!

Why is there such a disconnect? How did our world get to be like this? These are difficult questions to answer, but one thing that is clear is that this part of the world has seen a lot of unjust and unnecessary suffering.

Ange and I had the opportunity to watch the recently-released movie on the ministry of St Paul. I confess that the movie brought me to tears at more than one point.

The image that continues to haunt me from that movie was of the Christians locked up in cells beneath the Colosseum in Rome – men, women and children all crowded together in adjoining cells.

The Christians, of course, had been accused of trying to burn down Rome – a crime which is generally believed to have been instigated by the Emperor Nero himself. Even so, the Christians were convenient scapegoats, and they are pictured in the movie as waiting in their cells, not having a clue what is going to happen to them until they receive the news that there are going to be games held there the next day, and then the penny drops, and people begin to cry and scream.

Thankfully the movie does not depict the games themselves, though there is a short scene of Roman soldiers pushing children out though the cell gates towards the central stadium, where you can hear the roar of the crowd in the background.

As I say, that image still haunts me, and I did find the movie as a whole to be a sobering reminder of what life must have been like for many of our Christian sisters and brothers in the first century.

How did our world ever get to be like this? Why does God allow innocent people to be tortured and killed like this? These are questions we continue to ask ourselves, and we might expect that if we were going to find answers to such questions in the Scriptures, we might find them in the Book of Acts, where Christian people are constantly being oppressed and brutalised.

Indeed, today’s story in Acts chapter 8 is inserted between two accounts of violence – the first being the story of the stoning of Stephen, and the second being the account of the persecution undertaken by Saul, who heads to Damascus hoping to arrest members of the church there and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains.

Not all these persecutions were successful, of course (Saul’s being an obvious case in point), but most were, and yet at no point does the author of the book try to explain to us why God didn’t step in to stop these things from happening. What we are told though, explicitly and bizarrely, is that every time the church experienced violence, the result was that it grew, and it grew not just in size but in breadth!

In Acts chapter 7 (the chapter preceding today’s one) we’re told of the aftermath of the stoning of Stephen – namely, that the persecution scattered the early church across Judea and Samaria, resulting in … a mission to the Samaritan community!

I’m sure we remember the reputation Samaritans had (from the Parable of the Good Samaritan amongst other things). These were those half-brothers and sisters of the Jewish community who were generally much despised by regular Jews. Taken in context, this inclusion of the Samaritans is all part of the gravitational movement of the early church away from the centre of religious orthodoxy towards the periphery.

The church begins as a small group of entirely kosher Jewish men and women. At Pentecost (Acts 2), Jews from every nation come on board. In Acts 7 the Samaritans join the party, and from there the news about Jesus starts penetrating the thoroughly non-Jewish world (largely through the ministry of St Paul). In the middle of it all though we have this little pericope about the conversion of a character who is without parallel in the Scriptures – a man very much on the ecclesiastical periphery, not only because of his ethnicity, but because of he is sort of gender non-specific!

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:27-29)

Maybe I’m not correct. Maybe the Ethiopian Eunuch considered himself very much a man. I don’t know and it’s very hard to work it out as there aren’t a lot of eunuchs around now such that we can hear from them as to their own self-understanding.

Mind you, some scholars do suggest that the term ‘eunuch’ could simply be a designation of the man’s office as a high-ranking official in the court of Queen Candace, but I think that if Luke (the author) had wanted to say ‘official’ he would have used the word for official. He deliberately uses the word ‘eunuch’, meaning a male who had been emasculated, and I believe he did so because he had Deuteronomy 23:1 in mind – “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”

I’m a little reticent to make pronouncements about persons whose sexuality puts them on the periphery. Indeed, when it comes to the LGBTI community, I’m not even confident that I’ve got the acronym right. I think it’s LGBTI, but I know some people add a Q or a Q+, though I’ve been told by others to drop the Q, and I don’t think you can add the + unless you have the Q, but I’m not entirely sure about that either.

I do fully respect the difficulty in settling on a fixed form of the acronym, as the goal is to be inclusive, and it’s hard to be sure if we’ve included everyone once you fix the acronym, though I appreciate too that not everybody who feels left out can be included or necessarily should be included.

I don’t think any of us want to include those who have a sexual orientation towards children as a part of the ‘+ community’ or as a part of any community we’re involved in, regardless of whether the ancient Greeks found that form of sexuality acceptable! We tend to make a clear distinction between activities between consenting adults and abuse, and that certainly resonates with me. Even so, the ambiguities about who should be included and who not to include don’t stop with pederasty.

I just completed reading what I thought was an excellent book on the philosophy of love by Canadian philosopher, Carrie Jenkins, who lives a polyamorous relationship. She’s a heterosexual woman with two adult male partners. At the end of the book she details some of the discrimination she’s received as poly-person, and it’s been extensive and, curiously, much of it has come from people in the GLBTI community!

According to Jenkins, a lot of gay and lesbian people feel that people like her are discrediting their efforts to be accepted by the mainstream, and so she finds herself labelled as immoral rather than as different by people who, until very recently, were themselves labelled as immoral rather than different by the broader community.

Where in this spectrum would the Ethiopian eunuch have found himself, I have no idea. What we can be confident about is that he would have been on the periphery of the Jewish temple community.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)

That this man, who, presumably, was not a Jew, and would not have been allowed into the temple even if he had been a Jew, would nonetheless travel to Jerusalem to worship was itself remarkable! Evidently, somehow, this man had come to find in the religion and Scriptures of the Jews a form of spiritual integrity and truth that he could not find in his own culture and amongst his own people.

We don’t know his exact story, but we know that he travelled a long way to be near to the place where he felt God was, and we know he had his own copy of the Jewish Scriptures (or at least a section of them) and this must have cost him (or his queen) a small fortune, as in the days when these manuscripts were only copied by hand, they would have been hard to come by and distributed very frugally.

The other things we know about this man, and this is really the most remarkable thing of all, is that whatever understanding of the faith he had embraced up to the point where he met Phillip, he moved away from it completely and embraced the Good News about Jesus, all within the space of a short chariot ride!

What was it that so convicted this man as to the truth about Jesus? Acts chapter 7 gives us a clue by detailing some of the conversation that took place in the chariot:

“Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”” (Acts 8:32-34)

The passage the eunuch is reading is from is one of the well-known ‘servant songs’ of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 53), and Phillip, of course, takes this as a God-given opportunity to talk to his new friend about the suffering and death of Jesus who he no doubt identified as being the very suffering servant that Isaiah spoke of.

My guess is that for the eunuch (and I’m sorry to keep referring to him as ‘the eunuch’ but unfortunately, we never get to know his name) – my guess is that for the eunuch this is more than a ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense’ moment. This was rather the missing piece in the puzzle that he had been waiting for, because in Isaiah’s servant he would have seen (possibly for the first time) a depiction of a God who suffers.

As I say, we don’t know this man’s full story, but my guess is that, despite his money and high position, he was something of an outcast. Certainly, the only image we get of him, travelling half way around the world to be part of a religious community that would never fully accept him, is somewhat pathetic. What he finds in the church, of course, is immediate and complete acceptance. Philip has no hesitation at all in baptising him. He doesn’t feel any need to consult with the other Apostles first as to whether they should allow a eunuch into their assembly. He knows full well that, despite what is written in the law of Moses, the love of Jesus embraces everybody!

Those who know my sermons know that I like to make one point with one sermon, I seem to have made two with this one. I’ve been talking about the way God allows us to suffer and about the way God forms the church as an inclusive community. What I want to say in closing is that these are the same point for, in the Book of Acts at least, these two are one. We suffer in order to become more inclusive.

If you can’t immediately see the connection, read through the Book of Acts again   for yourself. It’s the pain and suffering of the early church that keeps pushing its members out on to the periphery, where they find Christ waiting for them, ready to introduce them to people that they had never intended to include in their fellowship. Likewise, God uses our pain to open us to other people. He brings us down so that we might encounter others at the bottom of the ladder who have nowhere else to go.

I’m not suggesting that all human suffering is simply a mechanism to build more inclusive communities. Even so, I do believe that God works through all suffering – through the martyrdom of unarmed protestors in Gaza as well as through the more mundane struggles of depression and relationship breakdown we experience here.

I do believe that through the violence and the pain, through the cross and through the humiliation of it all, God is at work to form us into a new humanity, and that through His suffering and ours, His Kingdom comes.

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 29, 2018. 

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Opening our minds to the Scriptures (Luke 24: 44-47)


“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)

I suspect that many in my community would be appalled if they knew how much time I spend each week on social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Indeed, I fear I rival some of our most ardent teenagers in terms of posts posted and tweets tweeted.

This week past I’ve spent a particularly intense time in the Twitter-storm, as I figure I have a duty to each one of my 34,106 Twitter followers (as it was at last count) to keep them up-to-date on what is really going on in Syria, though I do sometimes forget that not every one of those souls is necessarily on the same page with me.

On Thursday I tweeted the latest news I had received from sources inside Damascus – namely, that there had in fact been no chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta

What I reported was that an analysis of soil samples taken by the Russian army had come back, showing no signs of relevant chemical residues. Further, no hospitals in the area had reported dealing with patients carrying injuries consistent with any chemical attack, and that locals were apparently saying that the whole incident had been staged by the notorious ‘White Helmets’ (that supposedly humanitarian aid organisation who are, in my view, merely a propaganda tool of Al Qaeda).

One of the first responses I received to my tweet was from a gentleman who said that I “lost him and every intellectual when I mentioned Russian soil samples”.

I interpreted this to mean that I’d been unclear with regards the investigative work undertaken by the Russian army. After all, I’d kept my report to 140 characters to make it fit as a Twitter tweet. I replied by including more detail on the investigations. It then occurred to me that, of course, clarity wasn’t the issue at all. It was the fact that my source was Russian, when the Russians obviously could not be trusted.

I had forgotten, somehow, that to many people, the Russians are the bad guys, and that their testimony can never be trusted. This led me to question myself – ‘have I come to think of the Russians as the good guys, whose word cannot be questioned?’

Either way, this and my subsequent social media manoeuvrings last week served to remind me that every new fact we try to deal with is inevitably interpreted within the broader framework of related beliefs and assumptions that we already hold to.

With this latest global drama, as each new scene unfolds, we connect what is new to what already has a place in our conscious understanding, and we inevitably do so in a way that makes the new information consistent with the existing storyline, however we understand that greater storyline.  I believe the technical term for this greater storyline is the ‘meta-narrative’. In other words, it’s the ‘big story’, which both contains and helps us make sense of all the smaller stories.

Meta-narratives are a part of the scaffolding of our belief system. We may never have noticed the scaffolding going up, and yet these core narratives strengthen and support our particular beliefs and hold them all together. Like scaffolding too though, they are rarely directly on view, and we may not even be aware that they are there!

It took Noam Chomsky, the great linguist, to make me aware of the meta-narrative I’d absorbed as a child regarding the place of the USA in the global community. Chomsky pointed out that the US is cast in the role of a father to the global family, responsible for good behaviour in the household. Sometimes the father acts harshly to discipline a wayward child, but only ever with the child’s best interests at heart.

Once you take on this meta-narrative, you don’t see any hypocrisy in the fact that the US has enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons but nonetheless gets very upset if any other country tries to develop similar weaponry without its permission. After all, it’s OK for father to carry a stick, and to hit an errant child with it if he has to, but God forbid that one of the children should try to get hold of the stick and use it!

Religions too have their meta-narratives – big stories that tie together all the little stories and try to make a consistent whole out of them, and, as with politics, so too with religion, people can have different meta-narratives that string the building blocks of religious belief together in very different (and often competing) ways.

We are told that one of the key things Jesus did with His disciples after the resurrection was that he taught them the Scriptures.

“ [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45)

I suppose there is more than one way to envisage what this process of ‘opening their minds to understand the Scriptures’ might have looked like, but if by ‘Moses, the prophets and the Psalms’, Jesus meant the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible (normally referred to nowadays as the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings) Jesus’ point was that He is featured in every section of the Hebrew Bible.

This could, of course, mean simply that there are isolated verses in every one of those books where Jesus is mentioned prophetically. Perhaps He told them:

‘You see where Moses talks about another prophet like himself who will come? That’s a reference to me. And see those passages where the prophet Isaiah talks about the suffering servant? That was me he was talking about too!’

It’s not impossible that this was the process Jesus went through with His disciples after His resurrection – giving them a long list of proof-texts that they could use in future arguments with Jewish non-believers who accepted the Hebrew Bible as God’s word but weren’t convinced regarding the proper identity of Jesus.

It’s not impossible that this was the process but it’s unlikely, as most of these books don’t contain much prophecy! Far more likely, I’d suggest, is that what Jesus was addressing was the meta-narrative – the larger story that He understood to be weaving all the Scriptures together, and in which He played a pivotal role.

Of course, we would have had to have been there to know exactly what Jesus said. Even so, I don’t think it’s too hard to work out, broadly speaking, what Jesus might have taught His disciples, as we are in a pretty good position to grasp how those people understood the greater Biblical narrative prior to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles give us a pretty good idea as to how these same people understood that narrative after the crucifixion and resurrection. Hence, I think it’s fair to assume that what transformed their thinking was, at least in part, what the resurrected Jesus taught them.

What was it that changed in the Biblical meta-narrative of the disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? I don’t think it’s hard for us to answer that question. It was that the post-resurrection community came to see the Biblical meta-narrative as being less ‘Israel-centric’ or perhaps we should say less ‘Rome-centric’.

What was the last question the disciples asked of Jesus before He disappeared from their sight? According to the book of Acts, it was “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

Even at their last meeting the disciples were hanging on to what had been at the core of their earlier religious meta-narrative – namely, that God was going to act in history to end the Roman occupation and to restore Israel as a sovereign nation.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t answer that question directly and does not deny that political independence for Israel might still be a part of God’s plan. Even so, I think it is beyond debate that while this hope had been at the core of the religious hope of the disciples when they first signed up with Jesus, it played almost no part in the preaching and teaching of the early church as it evolved in the first century.

The change that takes place in the understanding of the disciples, as they make their transition from being the first followers of Jesus to becoming the early church isn’t in any simple reinterpretation of any particular text or group of texts. There’s a fundamental shift in the meta-narrative. Some would see this as a move away from the political towards the spiritual. I’d suggest that this transition might better be understood as a move away from being Israel-centric to being inclusive of all people, but we grasp this best by doing a quick sketch of that meta-narrative.

“In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth”, we’re told (Genesis 1:1). Not long after the beginning, God and human beings have a falling out, and by the end of the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis, things are in a bad state. Humanity have been kicked out of the garden, murder and mayhem have taken place, creation has already started to fold in on itself with a great flood, and human beings are no longer able to talk to each other due to the curse of Babel.

At the beginning of Genesis chapter twelve a new hope emerges in the form of the three-fold promise God makes to Abram – that He will make of Abram a great nation, that He will give Abram’s people a homeland, and that through Abram’s descendants “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The implication is that the process of degeneration that was outlined in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis will somehow be thrown into reverse through these promises. In many ways, the rest of the Scriptures (both our Old and New Testaments) are concerned with the unfolding of these promises made in Genesis chapter twelve.

God does build a great nation through the seed of Abram, and by the end of the books of Moses God has almost given them a land. Even so, the history of the people in the land is not a consistently happy one, and there is a great deal of murder and bloodshed and idolatry and all-round godlessness, such that the descendants of Abram, instead of becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth, find themselves constantly under judgement, suffering for their sins.

The way people suffer for their sins in this narrative is never arbitrary. The punishment for idolatry (which, biblically speaking, I believe, is really the only sin) is always that you have to live with the God you’ve chosen to serve.

The punishment for the sin of choosing Donald Trump as your President is that you have to live with Donald Trump as your President. Of course, that’s a tragedy that affects the rest of the world too, but it’s not arbitrary. It’s the inevitable consequence of your choice. Likewise, the suffering endured by Israel, enduring occupation by the Babylonians, by the Greeks, and by the Romans (in that order) was not an arbitrary punishment, but the inevitable result of their choice of the wrong leader.

Up to this point the meta-narratives of the disciples of Jesus, both before and after the cross and resurrection, would have been much the same. Where they changed, I’d suggest, is in how they saw this problem of sin and occupation being solved.

There is no doubt that the dominant meta-narrative for Jews in the first century was that God was going to send them a leader who would lead them to victory over their Roman oppressors, and so get the nation back on track towards fulfilling the second promise given to Abram – the promise of a land. What Jesus showed them was that Israel’s problem was not primarily with Rome but with God, and that Israel still needed to suffer for their idolatry. Even so, Jesus would do the suffering for Israel – enduring all that the violence that Rome’s false gods could throw at them!

Further, the way the story would continue from this point, in terms of what the resurrected Jesus must have taught His disciples, was that they would not simply pick up then on the old promise of the land, but would move straight on to the third promise – the promise of being a blessing to all the families of the earth!

Think this through! Get your Biblical meta-narrative right, for getting the big story right is far more important than getting any particular story or verse right. How we understand the core narrative shapes how we interpret all its component parts.

When we find ourselves in conflict with other believers, differing in our interpretation of particular passages on issues of sexuality or gender or in any number of other areas, the real issue is almost always a clash in meta-narratives, and not a failure in intellectual rigor by the other side, though that’s generally how we like to interpret it.

Allow Jesus to open your mind to the Scriptures, and get your meta-narrative right, though recognise too that this is full of dangers. People call me an Assad apologist because I question the official Syrian meta-narrative have doubts about the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons. They called me an apologise for Saddam Hussein years earlier when I didn’t buy into the weapons of mass destruction propaganda.

Don’t underestimate what it can cost you to be true to the core narrative of Scripture either – to hold fast to a belief in inclusiveness, mercy, forgiveness and love.

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 15, 2018.

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Easter 2018

Happy Easter … again.

When I say ‘again’, I’m not simply alluding to the fact that I’ve already given you Easter greetings today, but I mean ‘again, this year’, as this is now my 28th Easter as parish priest of the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill!

Who would have guessed that the romance would last this long? Who would have guessed we would spend so many Easters together, though, to be exact, I’ve only been present for 27 of our 28 Easter Sundays over those years. On the other one (2014) I spent the morning in Westminster Abbey and much of the evening in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in the company of our dear brother, Julian Assange.

I’ve been thinking a lot about dear Julian lately, as it seems unlikely that he’ll spend another Easter in the Ecuadorian Embassy (for better or worse). How good it would be if he could share next year’s Easter Sunday service with us here, though the possibility of that happening has never looked more remote than it does right now.

At any rate, there are many wonderful benefits that come with sharing so many special days like Easter with people you love, though the regularity of it all does also present special challenges to the preacher. How do I come up with something fresh this year – something that you haven’t heard twenty-six times already!

Of course, not everybody here today has been here to hear each of those twenty-six previous Easter Day sermons, but the evolution of our community does, in itself, bring its own challenges, for you guys are frankly a far more demanding audience than the happy flock I addressed here twenty-seven years ago!

I appreciate that I had the advantage back then of being the first cleric to accept an appointment in this place for what must have seemed like an eternity to the righteous remnant who were still hanging on here – feeling as if they’d been forgotten by the Diocese and left to atrophy and die. Dulwich Hill was just too rough a neighbourhood for any self-respecting family to move into the area. The fact that I was willing to be here, to share the Dulwich Hill experience with the band of brothers (and sisters) who were still holding out meant that I didn’t need to do much to feel appreciated. Indeed, so long as I was speaking English, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much what I had said. The good people of Dulwich Hill were just glad to have someone who was willing to get in the pulpit!

Moreover, we were a much more homogenous unit back then than we are now. We weren’t entirely white and middle class by any means, but there weren’t a lot of us then, and even fewer of us under the age of seventy. All being at a similar stage of life meant that we were almost all facing very similar life challenges, and that made it a lot easier to work out where the Scriptures really spoke to the community.

We are a far more diverse group today. We span a wide age-range, from those who can’t yet walk to those who are struggling to still walk. We come from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and some of us hold down high-paying professional jobs while others amongst us are struggling to find a job. Moreover, I believe that we have never been a more spiritually diverse community.

I take some pride in us being a spiritually diverse community, and by that I mean that were are not all the same kinds of Christians.

Perhaps some of us wouldn’t even call ourselves Christians (and that’s OK too) though I’m pretty sure that most of us would be happy to accept that label. Even so, I’m equally sure that there is a vast diversity amongst us when it comes to what it means for each of us to be followers of Jesus.

Of course, at one level, everybody’s spiritual experience is different, and so no two religious people of any variety are going to identical in their beliefs and self-understandings. Even so, there are a broad spectrum of distinct but nonetheless well-defined colours within the Christian spiritual rainbow (so to speak), and I think we see many of those different hues and colours represented amongst us here.

When I was a young believer, people would often ask me ‘what kind of Christian are you?’, and they’d be looking for a label like ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ or ‘Evangelical’ or some combination of the above, such as ‘liberal evangelical protestant’.

These labels can be helpful in defining what kind of Christian you are, but they function primarily to assign you to a particular tribe within the Christian family, rather than to say anything specific about what Jesus means to you. A more helpful way of appreciating Christian diversity, I think, is to look at what religious beliefs (or ‘dogma’s) are most central to your spiritual understanding.

When you think of yourself as a Christian (if you do think of yourself as a Christian) what exactly does this mean to you? Does it mean being part of a broad spiritual family who have a mission to accomplish in the world? Does it mean that your sins are forgiven? Does it mean that you’re going to Heaven when you die? Does it mean that you experience a personal relationship with Jesus?

Of course, you may want to say that it means all of those things to you and more. Even so, which is most central to your self-understanding? This is by no means a trivial question, as I remember being warned at seminary of those who would shift the deeper theological truths away from centre of our spiritual self-understanding.

I went to Moore College – a conservative Evangelical seminary. What theological truth do you think is at the core of their spiritual self-understanding? The atonement – the truth that God in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself through the cross. I remember there being warned specifically about those who put at the centre of their Christian thinking, not the atonement but the incarnation – the fact that in Christ God became human and shared our human experience with us.

That might not sound like much of a shift in emphasis. Indeed, it might not sound like a shift at all, as surely it’s possible to hold to a belief in both the atonement and the incarnation without the two being in conflict, and indeed it is, but don’t underestimate how such a shift in emphasis can transform you into a very different kind of Christian.

Without wanting to over-simplify the situation, let me suggest to you that those who’s spirituality centres on the atonement tend to be more Heavenly-minded, often seeing the whole point of Christianity as being a means to get you into Heaven when you die. That isn’t always the case, of course, but a focus on the atonement and forgiveness of sins tends to move us in that direction.

A focus on the incarnation, on the other hand, tends to be a more this-worldly focus. God shares our humanity in Christ, and if the human condition is good enough for God then humanity is something that is worthy of respect. God did not give up on humanity, so neither should we. As He came down and shared our condition, so we too must empty ourselves and share in the struggles of all our sisters and brothers.

Those who know me well and have been listening to my sermons for any length of time probably realise that for me, it’s neither the atonement nor the incarnation that are at the centre of my spiritual thinking. It’s Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of God

That was a shift in focus I made many years ago after reading the so-called ‘liberation theologians’ who saw in Jesus’ teaching about the coming Kingdom of God a hope for a whole new social order – a world where poor people were fed and where there is no more injustice or war or oppression of the weak.

What I’m talking about here are different spiritual orientations, each of which have Jesus as their focus, but which emphasise different aspects of His life or teaching. These three different areas of focus that I’ve mentioned are by no means exhaustive of what we find amongst those who call themselves Christians in different parts of our world. Indeed, one of the great discoveries for me in the last few years has come from interacting with more sisters and brothers in the Christian Orthodox tradition.

I was fascinated to find that in the Orthodox tradition – be it Greek Orthodox or Syrian Orthodox or in other branches of Christian Orthodoxy – the focus tends to be not on the atonement nor the incarnation nor on the Kingdom of God. The Orthodox tradition focuses on the Transfiguration – on seeing Christ in His glory, and in the hope we have of ourselves one day seeing Christ in all His transfigured beauty!

What kind of Christian are you? What is the focus of your spiritual understanding? When you think of Jesus, what do you see? Do you see someone with a bleeding heart, as depicted in so much Catholic art? Do you see a young man who is very good-looking with blond hair and blue eyes and who speaks with a sophisticated American accent? Do you see someone else entirely?

When you think of the teachings of Jesus, what teachings first come to mind? Do you think of John 3:16 – ‘for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son’? Do you think of the beatitudes – “blessed are the peacemakers … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice” (Matthew 5).

When you think of the life of Jesus, what do you see Him doing? Do you see Him touching a leper? Do you see Him giving dignity to women? Do you see Him healing the sick? Do you see him suffering on the cross?

There are many kinds of Christians, and the truth is that all of them are connected in some way to the Gospels and to the wisdom that has been passed on to us through our forefathers and foremothers in the faith. I’m not suggesting that all forms of Christian spirituality are therefore equally well connected to the Scriptures or to the wisdom that has been passed down, but the key thing that I do want to say today is that all forms of the Christian faith in their multi-faceted variety all have their starting point here – on Easter Sunday – in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

Wherever it ends up, Christian faith begins here – on Easter Sunday morning.

Whatever happened on Good Friday – however central that was to the life of Jesus and to the history of human-kind – no one would have bothered to interpret what had happened on the cross had it not been for the fact that Jesus’ tomb was empty three days later.

However wonderful the teachings of Jesus – however much He pointed us to a new reality and urged us to build a different kind of world – nobody would have bothered remembering those teachings were it not for the fact that Jesus, having died on Friday, was somehow found to be alive again on Sunday!

What I love most about the resurrection stories that we read in the Gospels is that they are all so incomplete and unsatisfying. We like stories that have solid conclusions just as we like stories that have happy endings, and we just don’t get any of that in the New Testament Gospels!

We heard the resurrection account from John’s Gospel this morning, which is generally assumed to be the last of the four accounts of the life of Jesus written. Indeed, there may have been fifty years between the publication of the first Gospel and the publication of this last Gospel. Even so, despite the fact that the early church had all that time to put together a properly connected story, it still comes across as being radically incomplete!

It’s the story of the resurrection, but there is no actual account of the resurrection – no description of the miraculous body of Jesus somehow coming back to life. Far from it, instead of any depiction of the spectacular and miraculous, we get a story of people running around and looking for Jesus, and of a person whom Mary initially took to be a gardener, but then later became convinced was Jesus!

If you find that unsatisfying, go back to Mark (presumably the first Gospel written) where nobody seems to even see Jesus initially, but where the account ends with the women scared and not knowing what to do while the men are all in hiding!

Christian faith begins with this sense of confusion at not knowing what to do with the empty tomb! Gradually Jesus’ followers start to work it out, and they go back and reinterpret things Jesus said and did in the light of His resurrection, but as we leave those early followers in their befuddlement, the story is anything but finished.

Christian faith starts at the empty tomb but the story doesn’t end there. The Gospel narratives seem to be deliberately open-ended. They don’t have a straightford happy ending. Where does the story end? It ends here – in all the diversity of interpretation and in all the various forms of Christian expression that we see around us today.

We are the conclusion of this story. I’m not saying that we are necessarily the final chapter of the story, as it’s a story that is still being written. What I am saying though is that we are the current end-point of the process of confused interpretation that has gone on for the last two thousand years – a process of trying to come to terms with what happened on that Easter Sunday morning when Jesus’ tomb was found empty.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Yes! That’s where our story of faith begins. It’s up to us now to help shape how our great story is going to end.

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Easter Sunday, 2018. 

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Getting Angry with Jesus (a sermon on John 2:14-16)

“In the temple [Jesus] found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:14-16)

This was not the reading I expected to be confronted with this week. I know we’ve left behind the Christmas story and, more recently, Epiphany (the story of the wise men from the East who came to worship Jesus as a child). I appreciate, indeed, that we’re in Lent now, and hence have been wandering with Jesus through the desert. I just didn’t expect Jesus to be tearing up the temple just yet! It’s a disturbing change of pace, and it depicts Jesus in a way that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I don’t know how many of us have seen the movie, Talladega Nights. It’s one of my favourite Will Ferrell comedies (which is saying a lot, as I’m a big fan of his comedy). What stands out for me in that particular movie though are the extensive prayers given by Ferrell’s character (racing car driver, Ricky Bobby) who always directs his prayers to the baby Jesus, beginning with “dear baby infant Jesus”.

During his saying of grace at a meal, his wife interrupts him and points out that Jesus did grow up, to which Ferrel responds by saying that it’s his grace and that when it’s her turn she can pray to whichever Jesus she wants to. She can pray to teenage Jesus, to bearded Jesus or to grownup Jesus. He just prefers Christmas Jesus!

I think a lot of us prefer the Christmas Jesus, and certainly we prefer Christmas Jesus to the Jesus we come across in this scene – namely, angry Jesus.

Angry Jesus is probably not the Jesus we direct our prayers to. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, yes, but angry Jesus, no. I expect most of us don’t see anger as a good thing. Perhaps we struggle with our own anger. Not many of us, at any rate would see anger as something we want to nurture and develop within ourselves, and few of us, I suspect, are comfortable with seeing anger as one of God’s divine attributes!

Yet, clearly, Jesus was angry, and in this scene in the Gospel according to St John, Jesus acts violently. Christian pacifists are quick to point out that Jesus doesn’t actually kill anybody, and that He probably only used His whip on the animals and not on the people He was turning out. Even so, we see aggression from Jesus here that is highly discomforting, and we see anger. Jesus gets angry!

I get angry. I get angry when I think about Syria. I appreciate that not everybody is as emotionally connected with what is happening in Syria as I am. Even so, I suspect that nobody has been able to avoid the latest news broadcasts reporting the hellish assaults on the civilians of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian army and its allies.

Once again, we are being told that unfortunate civilians are trapped in what the United Nations has referred to as a ‘hell on earth’, with latest reports putting civilian casualties at 520, with thousands wounded, under the heavy assault launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s ground forces, supported by Russian air strikes.

I wouldn’t want to deny for a second that the situation in Eastern Ghouta is horrible. Even so, what these latest media reports leaves out is that the reason the Syrian Army is engaged in Eastern Ghouta is because the entire area is under siege by foreign-backed extremist groups, such as the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front.

The area has been under siege for nearly six years now, and for all that time these people have been raining down mortar shells and sending suicide car bombs into the densely-populated centre of Damascus, which is only a few kilometres to the West!

I was in Damascus when two of those mortar shells landed in the carpark of the hotel we were staying in. It killed one of the hotel security guards and blew the leg off his friend. I was having a shower when I heard these enormous explosions. By the time I got downstairs though, the bodies had been taken away – one to the hospital and the other to the morgue – and life had returned to normal. It was such a daily occurrence in Damascus that few people were still talking about it half an hour later.

The civilians of Damascus who have been killed or injured by these militants based in Eastern Ghouta now number in the tens of thousands. I don’t doubt that the terrorists themselves are now having a hard time of it, and I don’t doubt that innocent civilians are being caught up in the crossfire as the Syrian Army finally routes these people from their well-established bases. Even so, the selective outrage of Western powers and their media outlets at the moment makes me very angry.

Lies emanating from centres of power are always disturbing, but it is not the lies as such that enrage me. It’s the needless loss of human life that these lies mask and, more so, the prospect of further loss of life that these lies potentially foreshadow.

Why are these lies being manufactured now, with ISIS having been beaten and most of Syria has come back under the control of the government? The only answer I can come up (and it’s one that I wish I could avoid coming up with) with is that this is a propaganda offensive, preparing the ground for an overt campaign of violence against Syria by the US and associated powers (that could well include Australia).

This prospect makes me sick to the stomach. After all the Syrian people have suffered, to suggest that we are waiting in the wings, ready inflict a whole new wave of suffering upon these people, makes me sick, and it makes me angry – very angry.

I get angry about Manus Island too.

I look back on my trip there and my time in the detention centre, which was more than three months ago now, and it all seems a little surreal! Arriving in the camp in the middle of the night was a little like being dropped into a warzone – a very intense environment, where all the stable parameters that mark out normal human life as we experience it are gone, replaced by darkness, desperation and human struggle.

I must confess that when I walk into situations like this I often have at the back of my mind that now, having uncovered this terrible tragedy, we – the good guys – will be able to do something about it. In the case of Manus, I have to remind myself that, no, this is a tragedy we have deliberately created! Moreover (at a government level at least) this is not only something we created. it’s a tragedy where we are actively trying to prevent others (such as the New Zealanders) from resolving!

I try to maintain some level of contact each day through reading the Twitter feed from men I met there – people like journalist, Behrouz Boochani, and Abdul Aziz Adam.

A few days ago Behrous wrote (February 22nd) “A refugee in East Lorengau camp tried to commit suicide this morning. He cut his neck seriously but his friends helped him and sent him to hospital. Just now they brought him back. There are no psychological facilities in Manus.”

A few days earlier, Aziz wrote (February 16th) “The 3 refugees are back from the hospital to the camp they have blue scars on their faces. One of them said we were just walking & 10 Navy guys with big muscles attacked & start beating us. They were so scared, traumatized by this horrible incident & similar to Good Friday shutting.”

These are not particularly sensational tweets, but they do give you a feel for the daily struggle experienced by the men of the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre – a processing centre that many of the inmates felt never seemed to process anybody!

It makes me angry, and one of the most infuriating aspects of the tragedy, of course, is the obsequious humanitarian gloss that the defenders of offshore detention use to justify their policy. They never speak of their desire to punish asylum seekers and to make an example of them to the rest of the world. Instead, they speak of ‘turning back the boats’ to prevent more unnecessary deaths at sea, as if they really cared.

It’s similar with Syria, of course. No one suggests defending Al Qaeda from the Syrian army. We speak of protecting the civilians of Eastern Ghouta. I don’t doubt for a second too that there was a similarly hypocritical moral gloss on temple operations!

These merchants and money-changers – they weren’t there to make money, but to help people in worship. After all, the system of worship required animal sacrifice, and if you were travelling to Jerusalem from out of town, nobody could expect you to drag your animals across endless miles of open countryside, so the system, whereby animals were sold to worshippers, was a service to the community.

The money-changers, likewise, were just there to help. You couldn’t expect God’s house of prayer to accept payment in the currency of the godless occupying army! The money-changers did you a great service by relieving you of your filthy Roman lucre and exchanging it for the shekels you needed to buy your sacrifice.

Somebody had to do it. If prayers were to be given and sacrifices were to be made, and if the community of the faithful were to be able to remain faithful in their religious observances then these mechanisms were as necessary as their buildings and alters and their clergy and Parish Councils. Selling animals and changing money, might not be the most glorious aspect of worship, but they were vital components in the greater worshipping life of the community. And Jesus bought into none of this! Instead …

“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:15-16)

Jesus saw clearly what was going on. It wasn’t about worship. It was about making money, and it made Jesus angry!

My guess is that everybody in Jesus’ day knew that the temple system was a rort and that their leaders were milking them, just as everybody today knows deep down that we are being lied to about Syria and Manus Island and so many other things.

I did wonder whether taking a whip of cords to the Australian Parliament would do any good? I suspect it would only get me arrested. At the same time, we might ask how much good Jesus accomplished through His actions?

My guess is that Jesus’ disruption of the temple’s business, from the point of view of its financiers, was a very minor glitch in overall operations. The merchants and money-changers were probably back at their tables the following day, if not the same day! The losses would have been quickly compensated for, the animals returned to their stalls, and all the money all gathered up and put back into circulation.

Does this mean Jesus’ actions were a waste of time? Perhaps Jesus wasn’t trying to reform the temple system – at least, not in the short term. Perhaps He was trying to send a message to the broader worshipping community, telling them that they didn’t have to put up with all this, or perhaps He was sending a message to the people in power – letting them know that their corruption would not be tolerated forever?

I recently wrote a letter of support for a young woman who is a friend of many in our church community – Poppy Danis – who, last November, climbed the Sydney Opera house and tried to drop a large banner, drawing attention to the situation on Manus Island. She didn’t quite succeed but was instead arrested and (despite my appeal for clemency) was later fined $5,000 – an amount that she really can’t afford to pay.

I can appreciate that Poppy does question whether her efforts were worthwhile. My exhortation to her was that she should not doubt the value of what she did, despite the fact that she didn’t fully succeed in her aims. You can never know the ripple effect of your actions, and the bottom line is that when you’ve got the anger of Jesus inside of you, you’ve got to do something!

We need to pray that God will give us the anger of Jesus. This is not something we are likely to feel immediately comfortable with. Praying for the heart of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus, the eyes of Jesus (who sees the value of every human being) – this probably comes naturally to us, and yet we need to pray too for His anger – for the wrath of God which (as Emil Brunner put it) is the ‘hot instrument of His love’.

We need to take deep into our hearts the hostility of Jesus towards all forms of corruption, and towards all forms of institutionalised violence and oppression, no matter how uncomfortable that may make us feel, and somehow, of course, we need to do all this without letting go of gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

It may not be immediately obvious how we do that, and yet this is the reality we have to come to terms with – that the Christmas Jesus and the Jesus who clears the temple are in fact the same Jesus.

Mind you, as we journey through Lent, we know full well that we are on our way to meet with a Jesus who is even more difficult to come to terms with than the one we meet in John chapter two – namely, the crucified Jesus, with whom our Gospel stories climax. If we have trouble identifying with Jesus in His anger, we are likely to have an even greater struggle, meeting Him in His agony?

Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday, March 4th, 2018

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The Men of Manus Island – a debrief of my recent visit

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:31-32)

Here we find ourselves at the end of another Christian year – at the feast of Christ the King – and our Gospel reading presents us with what I believe is the most glorious vision of Christ as king that we see in the Gospels.

Jesus gives us this image Himself, and it’s an image of a coronation celebration.   The new age is finally being inaugurated and the long-awaited king is finally being crowned, and all the king’s subjects are gathered before the throne, presumably so that they can express their loyalty to their new sovereign as he begins his reign.

This sort of scene would not have been unfamiliar to the people Jesus was initially addressing. Even if they had not been present at the coronation of Augustus Caesar or any of his successors, they certainly would have read or heard about such events, and would have been able to easily imagine the glorious nature of such a ceremony.

That original audience would also have understood that such coronations included not only the opportunity for the faithful to express their allegiance to their new monarch, but also the public banishing or punishment of the new king’s enemies. In the depiction Jesus gives, it is the king himself who discriminates between who are his loyal servants and who are his enemies, and he does so in a most surprising way.

According to Jesus, the new king assesses the loyalty of His people to Him – the King of the kingdom – by judging how well they have been looking after those who are at the extreme opposite end of the social spectrum!

“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40)

This is one of those Bible passages that is not hard to understand, as much as it is hard to understand what we are supposed to do with it, as most of us balk at the idea that our lives might be judged solely on the basis of how well we looked after the poor and the dispossessed. Indeed, I can understand why even those who pride themselves on taking the Bible literally are hesitant to take this passage too literally.

It’s a bit perplexing from a theological point of view. At the same time though, it is straightforward from a practical point of view. The very clear mandate coming out of this passage is that we should be spending a lot more time looking after the poor and the needy, and visiting those who are sick and imprisoned. And given that all of us who are a part of the Holy Trinity community have this week (either directly or indirectly) been involved in visiting those in prison, I thought I’d spend the rest of my time today debriefing that experience with you.

I arrived on Manus Island last Thursday. How I got there is itself a bit of a story, and it begins with Ruth. Or perhaps it began before that, when I started raising questions about what was happening on Manus Island and what the church was doing.

It seemed to me that there was no real media coverage of what was going on, but that people were clearly suffering. and I was keen to know what the body of Christ was doing about that.

As a member of the church in Australia, I was very concerned, as it seemed that my country was causing this suffering, and I wondered what we Christians in Australia were doing to hold our government to account. I also wondered what our Christian brothers and sisters in Papua New Guinea were doing about all this, as I figured that they would be equally concerned about it.

So, I started making enquiries – calling our bishop, calling the Anglican Board of Mission (who I knew had connections in PNG) and talking to other local church leaders, as well as raising questions online through my various social networks. It was when I posted an appeal on ‘Flocknote’ though (our church notice-board) that Ruth took hold of the idea and connected me with ‘Getup!’, which led to a series of meetings, that led to my boarding a plane for Papua New Guinea a few days later.

We arrived on Manus Island, which is a small island to the north of the mainland of Papua New Guinea (about 7 km deep and 30 km wide) on the Thursday morning, and we had the privilege of enjoying the hospitality of local residents who were also concerned about the plight of the men in the Immigration Processing Centre.

For any who don’t know the full story, the Australian government had been trying to close their facility, located near the town of Lorengau, that had housed around 600 men for the last four and a half years, ostensibly to move the men to other newly constructed facilities, also located on Manus Island. Most of the men though had refused to move, and the authorities had clearly been reluctant to move them forcibly, leading to a stand-off. When we arrived, the men had been holding out for nearly a month, pooling food supplies and constructing wells in an attempt to get fresh water.

I had heard lots of questions raised as to why these men refused to move when (according to Australian authorities) they had wonderful new facilities waiting for them. When I first arrived on Manus Island, I too had no idea as to why these men were holding out and trying to live on in a decommissioned dysfunctional facility. When I got to meet the men in that facility, it all became crystal clear.

That visit took place on the Friday night, after we were able to secure a small motor-boat, and were able to make our way around the island by water to the beach where the detention facility was located, being careful not to land at the naval base, which was located next door and shared the same beach.

This was not as easy as it might sound, as the whole trip was made in the pitch dark, with the inmates of the detention communicating with us via text messages, and trying to subtly indicate their presence on the beach by use of flashlight.

It was further complicated by repeated text exhortations of “for God sake, turn off your engine. We can hear you!”, which meant that we had to try to drift in over the last kilometre or so, using the tide. Even so, somehow, after some hours on the water, we were able to successfully rendezvous with the men, and it was certainly worth the effort.

There was no functional lighting in the decommissioned facility, but the men had become very adept at using the lights on their mobile phones to get around, and they managed to give us a comprehensive tour of their environment over the hours I was with them. They showed us the wells they had constructed to keep fresh water flowing, and explained also how local police had come in and smashed those wells and poured rubbish into them, in an attempt to force the inmates to leave.

The descriptions they gave of regular harassment by the police was distressing, and yet their commitment to non-violence was extraordinarily impressive. They were physically pushed around and verbally abused, but they refused to respond in kind. When we asked them how they developed their commitment to non-violence, they said that after four and a half years, they had learnt what worked and what didn’t.

I listened to the men as they shared their stories. Many of them had escaped from warzones in places like Afghanistan or Somalia or Sri Lanka. Others were facing more subtle forms of persecution, such as the young Iranian boy who had apparently converted to Christianity and had been labelled an apostate by his peers.

Their stories were, in every case, reminders that we were not dealing with criminals. On the contrary, we were with men who had escaped intolerable environments, only to be intercepted by Australian authorities and imprisoned in another intolerable environment, for a period of detention that might never end!

A number of these men said they did not want to go to Australia – certainly not now. Many felt understandably bitter about the way they had been treated. One man in his twenties said “I have lost my youth in this place. I just want my life back.”

I spent time with one man there who had fled Afghanistan four and a half years ago. He is a part of a persecuted minority group in Afghanistan and he left his pregnant wife with her family to seek a safe environment for them in another land. Now, four and a half years later, he shows me pictures of his young son on his mobile phone – a boy he has never met, and he wonders when he will get to meet him.

Again, these men are not criminals. Most of them have been interviewed by the authorities and judged to be genuine refugees. They just wait and wait and wait, week after week, and month after month, and year after year, in this ‘processing centre’ that never seems to process anybody.

As we spoke with the men, and as we spoke with their leaders – Aziz and Behrouz – what became very clear to me was that these men had developed a really functional community between them!

They had a solid leadership structure with strong democratic accountability, demonstrated through regular camp-wide meetings. They had a centralized health-care system, with medications pooled and distributed to those who needed the most, and with people rostered on to take care of the mentally ill – walking them around the facilities and talking to them, so as to ensure they didn’t harm themselves. Those with expertise in engineering were in charge of the construction of the wells and the maintenance of the facilities.

In short, the men of the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre had learnt to work together, to depend on each other and to sustain one another. It was a highly functional community, and when I realised that I understood why they didn’t want to be moved and broken up into various new detention centres. Why would these men abandon each other – their brothers who they knew they could trust – for promises offered them by the Australian government, whom they knew they could not trust?

Interestingly, before arriving on Manus Island, I had just finished reading a book called “Tribe” (by Sebastian Junger), which looks at the way so-called ‘primitive’ tribes function, where people live in close-knit communities, in mutual dependence on one another, in contrast to the way larger cities and nation-states function.

The key thesis of the book was with regards to those returning from war, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The author of “Tribe” suggests that the problem for these men is not the war environment they’ve come from, but the difficulty of adjusting from a living environment where people live closely together and depend on each other for their survival, back into an impersonal community where everyone seems to be only interested in themselves!

What I found in that detention centre on Manus Island was a really well functioning tribe, with men living in real community, depending on one another for their survival, and caring for each other in a very powerful way!

For me, the highly functional nature of that community was best illustrated by what happened after I left them.

For those who didn’t hear, the extraction operation did not go smoothly. As we were making our way back to the boat on the beach, lights started flashing, apparently courtesy of personnel from the naval base. The result was that I got away in the boat, while my companions – Jarrod and Olivia – ended up back into the detention centre, where they spent another day before we successfully extracted them.

What impressed me over that 24-hour period was that Olivia, who is an attractive young girl, trapped inside a detention centre with four hundred sex-starved men, never felt herself to be at risk. The men said to her, “you are our sister. We will take good care of you”, and they did.

If I had more time, I would share with you something of the adventure of my own extraction. ‘Adventure’ is probably the wrong word as it suggests that it was fun. The short version of the adventure was that it involved spinning around in a boat amidst coral reefs in the pitch black (except when the searchlight from the naval base caught us) with the crew of three inexplicably spending most of their time in the water at the back of the boat, speaking excitedly in Pigeon (which I don’t understand a word of).

I later discovered that, in the mayhem, the boat’s propeller had been damaged by one of the coral reefs and the drive pin (whatever that is) needed to be replaced. My crew had been trying to fix the engine under water without using any light that would give away our location. I was later told that the repair was a miracle of God’s grace.

Those who know me well know that I don’t fear a lot of things, but that I do actually have a bit of a phobia when it comes to small boats, ever since my darling daughter, Veronica, came very close to being drowned in a boat (of very similar size to the one I was in that night) when she was little. Suffice it to say that it was a long night for me.

Thanks be to God, at any rate, I made it back safely to shore that night (or morning, as dawn was breaking by the time we returned). I didn’t sleep well, but I did have the privilege, later that same day, of meeting with the members of the Manus Island boxing team, who were about to head off for competition on the mainland. Indeed, I was even able to do a couple of rounds with the Manus Island champion, and they presented me afterwards with an official Manus Island headband, along with a hand-woven man-bag, designed to be worn around the neck.

As you can see (from the photo below), I look like an absolute twit. The men of Manus were far more complimentary though, telling me “you look good”. I asked the sister of the man we were staying with “do you think the girls of Manus might go for me in this outfit?” and she said “maybe”. I have a feeling those Manusians were just being nice to me, but the truth is that the native people of Manus Island truly are nice people – warm and hospitable and generous and caring!

Yes, it is true that some of the inmates at the detention centre had experienced violence at the hands of local ruffians (such as can be found in every community) and yet it was also true that there was a concerted effort going on between concerned people across the island, and most especially between the churches, to get food and medical aid to these people, and to get the word out about their predicament.

“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you gave me clothing, I was sick, and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:35-36)

May God have mercy on these good men – the men of the Manus Island Refugee Processing Centre – and on all the good people of Manus Island. May God have mercy on us all!

first preached at Holy Trinity on November 26th, 2017

Manu Man (I do look like a twit)

I do look like a twit in my Manus-man outfit

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Father Dave and Pastor Jarrod on Manus Island

The following press release is courtesy of GetUp!

Religious leaders secretly travel to Manus Island Detention Camp, condemn Australian government inaction

MEDIA RELEASE: Thursday, November 23 2017

Australian Christian leaders Pastor Jarrod McKenna and Anglican Parish Priest Father Dave Smith returned on Tuesday from Manus Island, where they met Manus church leaders and spent nearly 24 hours in the detention camp with the 340 men detained there.

The religious leaders spent five days on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and were smuggled into the camp by supportive locals. Father Dave, priest of Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill, spent seven hours in the camp, while Mr McKenna, pastor of Perth’s Cornerstone Church, remained there for 25 hours after the navy disrupted his first attempt to leave.

The pair heard why the men in the camp fear to leave it and filmed interviews with many refugees and asylum seekers (available below).

Speaking of his time in the camp, Mr McKenna stated: “The kindness the men in the camp showed us, when our nation has been so cruel, was so overwhelming. They fed us, despite having so little food, they washed our feet when we fell in the mud, despite having so little water. As a Christian, it overwhelmed me. I wept with love.”

“The news yesterday that police have forcibly removed people from the camp, and arrested journalist Behrouz Boochani, who we spent hours with in the camp, horrifies me.”

“The police have now destroyed all of the men’s possessions, food and water. It is even more obvious and urgent that the Australian government must evacuate these men immediately to safety in Australia,” Mr McKenna said.

Anglican priest, Father Dave Smith, said: “I have enormous respect for the brave men we met in the camp. They find their strength in community, in supporting each other, and I would be proud to have them as neighbours.

“But the Australian government is attempting to break up their community, destroy their support structures, in order to force them to endure years more of indefinite detention. It is absolutely inexcusable.”

“Churches across Australia have been deeply concerned for a long time about what’s happening on Manus. But because of government secrecy and misinformation, they did not know the truth.”

“I went to Manus so I could show Christians in Australia what is really happening there Now, I believe we will see a very strong and unified response. Churches will demand safety and justice for these people.”

Both men say the situation in the Manus camp is critical, and only the Australian Government has the capacity and responsibility to ensure the refugees and people seeking asylum are safe. All international and Australian observers agree that the only safe thing to do is evacuate these men to Australia.

Pastor Jarrod McKenna and Anglican Parish Priest Father Dave Smith are available for interview in Sydney.

A small selection of vision of their trip is available here, further footage can be provided on request:

Media inquiries: Zoe Edwards: 0400 144 794

The trip was supported by GetUp members, who donated funds to cover travel, insurance, and associated costs for the delegation.

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The law of Love – a sermon on Matthew 22:34-40

 

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

I don’t know if you’ve been following the series of interviews I’ve been doing on the Internet-based TV show, “Lock In”, but in the most recent episode (that went to air last week) I was asked about my codes of ethics, and whether I thought it was important that everybody had a code of ethics.

I thought it was an odd sort of question, particularly given the nature of the show.

If you haven’t seen the show, picture me sitting on a bar stool alongside two young men who are very casually dressed, in front of a backdrop of brightly-flashing pinball machines, each of us with a bottle of beer in one hand.

You might have expected me to be asked about my favourite rock band (which is the sort of question they asked other guests on the show), and I wondered at the time whether they asked me about ethics because they felt that this was a question that you should ask a priest (along with asking about how sales of the Bible are going).

Jesus was asked this sort of question all the time too. Was it for the same reason? “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:360).

In the incident recorded in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, chapter twenty-two, we’re told that it was a lawyer who asked Jesus this question, and that should make us immediately suspicious! I’ve had lawyers ask me questions, and when a lawyer asks you a question, you take your time and answer very slowly and carefully, lest you find yourself entangled in some terrible legal quagmire.

What was behind this lawyer’s question? Was he trying to entrap Jesus? According to the Gospel account, his was in fact the third attempt at entrapment in succession!

Earlier in this chapter of the Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that the Pharisees asked Jesus, “should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17) It wasn’t a genuine question. It was a trick question, designed to get Jesus into trouble, either with the crowd or with the law, and Jesus says, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”, which is a clever answer, but still leaves us wondering, ‘so should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?’

Immediately after that, we’re told that some Sadducees tried their luck with Jesus, telling Him a bizarre story about a woman who had seven husbands die on her. It wasn’t a serious story, and it ended with a trick question that was designed to make Jesus look like a fool, but Jesus avoided getting entangled in their trick question.

And then we come to round three, which turns out to be the final round. Indeed, Matthew tells us that after this question, nobody dared ask Jesus any more questions (Matthew 22:46). “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”

As I say, it may not be immediately obvious to us what lay behind this question. What is obvious to us though is the answer:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We know this answer – we Anglicans especially – as we hear these words every week! We read them every single time we meet for worship on a Sunday. If you’re like me, you lost count long ago as to how many times you’ve heard these words:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the great and first commandment, and a second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”

“Lord, have mercy upon us and write your law in our hearts by your Holy Spirit”

Forgive me if that final response is from an older form of the liturgy, but some of us know these words so well we could say them backwards if we were pushed!

The original source of these words (or at least the first half of them) is Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – the Shema Israel. The part about the neighbour is found in Leviticus 19:18. These are very ancient Jewish texts, thousands of years old. We know them off by heart, even though we’re not thousands of years old and not we’re Jewish (or at least I’m not, as far as I know).

The point is that we know these words so well that it makes you wonder why anybody would even ask such a question. Isn’t it obvious that there are two great commandments? What did you expect Jesus to say?

And maybe that’s the important question that we need to ask – the one that will unlock this passage for us. What did Jesus’ interrogators really expect Him to say?

My guess is that our familiarity with this passage probably blinds us to the fact that Jesus’ questioners weren’t expecting Him to answer their question in the way He did. There are other possible responses!

One response that they may have been anticipating is what I’d call “The Reverend Lovejoy response” – namely, “It’s all good!”

You’ll have to forgive me if you’re not a Simpsons fan, but I’m thinking of that scene where Lisa asks her pastor, the Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, whether there is any particular section of the Bible she should be reading to help her with her struggles, to which he replies “Oh, it’s all good”.

I suspect that many people would have expected Jesus to reply along similar lines. ‘Which command is the most important?’ ‘Oh, they’re all good!’

When you think about it, this is the obvious approach for someone who takes the Scriptures seriously as a revelation from God. God has spoken to us through these texts. God has given us His laws. Each law is a law from God, and so every law is equally good and equally demanding of our obedience.

I’m sure we all know people who do approach the Scriptures exactly this way. It doesn’t matter how ancient or remote the text seems to be. If God commanded it,  it’s a law, and if God makes a law, God surely doesn’t change His mind!

Of course, I’m not thinking here about those laws that govern human sexuality or that assign women to their proper gender roles, but rather some of those classic laws such as “never eat an owl”.

That one’s in Leviticus, chapter 11, in case you missed it. The owl – both the little owl and the great owl – are listed there (vs. 18) as being ‘detestable amongst the birds’ (vs. 13), along with birds that you may already find detestable, such as the vulture, the buzzard and the bat!

Don’t eat them! God commanded it. Ours is not to reason why but simply to obey! Well, … that might have been what they were expecting Jesus to say.

Forgive me if I seem to be giving owls a hard time, but …it is written, and there’s not a lot I can do about that, though I suppose I could have focused on other little-known laws, such as “never boil a goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) or “never plant two kinds of seed in the same field” (Deuteronomy 22:9). The point, at any rate, is that they are all laws and they are all written in the law of God, and so surely, they are all equally important? Well … Jesus didn’t agree.

A second response Jesus might have given to the question, “which is the great commandment in the Law?”, is “well … there are ten!”

That would have been a solid Biblical Mosaic response, surely – give them the ten commandments!

I remember once seeing a cartoon of Moses with his great white beard, descending the mountain and addressing the people – “I got him down to ten, but the adultery clause is in. Live with it!”

Yes, there are lots of little laws filling the books of the Torah, but at the heart of all those laws are the ‘ten words’ given by God on Mount Sinai and engraved by the finger of God on to those great stone tablets – the ten commandments. Surely, these ten are the distillation of all the great laws of God. Jesus apparently didn’t think so.

To the lawyer’s question as to what is the greatest law of God, Jesus responds with two, and they’re not simply a subset of the ten either. In fact, the problem is that the two laws Jesus gives us, strictly speaking, aren’t really laws at all!

Jesus commands us to love – to love God and to love our neighbours – and the funny thing about love is that it’s not really something you can command. It’s certainly not something you can legislate, at any rate.

‘Stop hitting your sister!’ – that’s a command that echoes through many a household. Even ‘be kind to your sister’ works as a command, but ‘love your sister’ … it’s not something we can command someone to do, even if it’s what we yearn for.

Now I know that ‘love’, in the Biblical sense, isn’t just a good feeling that you have towards somebody, and it is about practical actions of commitment to someone’s needs. Even so, it’s not just about what you do either. It’s a relationship, and you can’t enforce a loving relationship by law.

This, I think, is the conundrum in Jesus’ great commandments – that what He gives us as His two great laws are aren’t really laws at all, in that they can’t be enforced and that they are in constant need of reinterpretation!

This was not the response that the lawyer who questioned Jesus was looking for. Whatever precise response the lawyer expected, he expected a legal response.    He was a lawyer asking about God’s law. He wanted an answer in terms of law, but Jesus spoke to him instead about the law of love, which isn’t really a law.

I’ve come to the realisation after 55 years of life that laws are basically about control. We have laws in society so that we can control people, and there’s obviously a place for that. Some people need to be controlled, or at least reeled in.

Religious laws function like that too. While I don’t deny that every organisation needs certain rules and regulations, the history of the church is that we have, over the centuries, devised rules and laws that have oppressed and controlled people, and where the church has had the opportunity to extend its reach into the broader society, we’ve tried to control what goes on there too.

Laws control people, but Jesus’ law of love is designed to do something else.

The lawyers and their legalistic buddies tried to entrap Jesus by getting him into a legal/religious argument, but Jesus spoke to them instead about love, and I think they realised at that point that they were never going to control Jesus, and so they had to kill Him.

In truth, it’s a lot easier to live life by a clearly defined set of rules.

As I say, perhaps my friends from “Lock In” asked me about ethics because they thought it was an appropriate sort of thing to ask a priest, but perhaps too they were genuinely interested in hearing of some useful rules to live by – some simple code.  Surely, we all need guidelines, laws and rules to live by?

My response to the “Lock In” guys was that this was how ISIS worked – a rule for every occasion and, for every occasion, a rule! It was a spirituality of death!

That might sound like a rapid escalation – from ethics to ISIS – but I couldn’t help but think of a man I met in Damascus a few years ago who had fought for these people. He told me that they offered him $100/month and all the cigarettes he could smoke. How could he refuse? Once he joined though he found out what religious legalism and puritanism were all about – namely, violence and death! He said, “I went from poverty and unemployment to beheadings and slavery!”

Laws and Commandments – religious or otherwise – are ultimately about control. My understanding of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is that this God is not ultimately interested in controlling us but in loving us, so that we too can move beyond laws and rules, and to live lives wholly consumed by love – loving God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves.

sermon preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 29th, 2017

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Creation groans – a sermon on Romans 8:19-23

 

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:19-23)

I received an invitation this week to be part of a delegation to Yemen later this year. I’m not sure if this will come off, and I don’t want to be in Yemen at the expense of being back to Syria, where I hope to deliver some significant financial aid to the church there before Christmas. Even so, I have expressed my interest.

For those who don’t know, Yemen is currently at the centre of a terrible humanitarian disaster, including a devastating outbreak of cholera – all being the result of their military conflict with Saudi Arabia.

I don’t blame anyone here for not knowing much about this, as it is all being radically under-reported in the media at the moment. One article I read this week referred to Yemen as “the war that isn’t happening even as it’s happening”.

This sort of thing makes me groan – not only the horrors of war, but also the way in which our media decides which things in our world are worthy of our attention and which things we should turn a blind eye to. It should make us all groan. Indeed, it should leave all creation groaning. That’s what came to mind for me, at any rate, as I reflected this week on that part of St Paul’s letter to the church in Rome where he speaks of creation groaning:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

Is the violence in Yemen the sort of thing that would make St Paul groan? I’d like to think it is, though I’m very aware of my tendency to create Paul in my own image.

I suspect that we all tend to do this. We don’t do it so much with Jesus, as we recognise that we can’t enter into the consciousness of Jesus, the Son of God. St Paul though was a brother, and I find it easy to assume that Paul was a guy much like myself, who struggled with the same sorts of things that I struggle with, and who thought about life in roughly the same way I do.

My tendency to think of Paul as a mate is probably also a product of the devotional material about Paul’s writings that I’ve been consuming since my youth – the sort of thing that encourages us to think of the New Testament as if it were written specifically for us as individuals – a message addressed directly to me.

I’ve always found this especially easy when it comes to the letters of St Paul. Indeed, I can imagine Paul sitting in his office typing:

“Dear Dave. I, Paul, an Apostle of Christ …” Hang on, let’s try servant, not Apostle. [hold down shift key with left hand, press back-arrow key with right hand, highlight the word ‘Apostle’, press delete and retype]

“Dear Dave. I, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ …”

We know it didn’t work like that, as Paul didn’t have a computer. It wasn’t as easy then as it is now to compose a letter, and most probably, Paul never actually wrote any of his own letters on his own anyway.

By this I don’t only mean that Paul might have had someone else doing the actual writing while the letter was being dictated, which was certainly the case with this letter to the Romans, where we read at the end of the letter “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Romans 16:2).

I mean though not only that Paul’s was not the hand that actually wrote (or chiselled) the message. I mean more so that the letter was probably the creation of Paul and his team, because that’s the way letters were written in the first century!

Paul didn’t have an office from which we wrote his letters alone, just like he didn’t have a pulpit from which he preached – not one in a house of worship, at any rate.

It’s difficult for us to envisage the real, first century Paul, I think. Let’s try to imagine him ministering in a place like Corinth – a seaside city. Where does Paul spend most of his daylight hours? The answer has to be down by the docks, as that’s where he would have done his work as a tent-maker.

We know that Paul did his best to earn his own living wherever he went, lest he should be accused of exploiting the churches financially, as some of his competitors were doing. He worked as a tent-maker, which was a great trade to have if you were travelling a lot, as the only tool you really needed to do your work was the awl that you carried with you. Your awl could be used both to poke holes in the leather and to stitch up your tents. You carried your awl wherever you went and you purchased your materials (leather and twine) as you needed them.

And who do you think used the most tents in the first century? The answer is sailors. In those days, they didn’t have radar to help them navigate the seas at night, so the normal practice with sailing was to travel by day in sight of the coast as much as possible, and then pull in to a beach at night and get out your tents – for yourself, your crew and your guests.

Ships were therefore in constant need of tents, and the obvious place, both to stitch them and to sell them, would have been at the docks, and that’s where I imagine Paul did much of his preaching. I envisage Paul stitching leather with a crowd of people around him. While he stitches, he talks to the crowd about Jesus, fields questions, and sells tents.

This is how the real, first century Paul would have done most of his preaching, and he probably did much of his letter-writing in a similar way, though we know that he also wrote some of his letters from prison. Either way, he would not have been alone. He would have been surrounded by friends and onlookers, some of whom, no doubt, would have contributed to the formation of his letters.

St Paul starts, “Dear Romans. I Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ …” when someone interjects, “what about ‘Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an Apostle’? That sounds less arrogant.”

“Yep! Good!”, says Paul. “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1)

If you’re up-to-date with New Testament scholarship, you know that there’s been a fair degree of dispute amongst scholars over whether Paul himself actually wrote all the letters that are attributed to him in the New Testament. The main reason scholars express doubt over the authenticity of some of these letters is that the language used in letters such as the first and second letters to Timothy is very different from that used in this letter to the church in Rome, for example.

I don’t want to enter into the debate over the authenticity of any of those disputed letters, but I would suggest that another possible explanation for the use of different language (and even different concepts) in Paul’s letters could be that Paul was with a different crowd of people when he composed those different letters – a different group that made their own distinct contribution.

The bottom line is that people were much more connected in those days in the ways they lived and worked. The rights and achievements of the individual just didn’t figure in Paul’s day in the way it does now, and most especially in the church. People lived and worked in community, and there was an almost organic sense of connectedness between them.

We pick that up very strongly in Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ, as expressed, for example, in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“Now you are the body of Christ”, says Paul, “and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the order there is all important! We are a body, first and foremost, and (secondarily) individual members of that body.

This organic connection between the members of the Christian community means that individual members of the body share the joys and pains of the body as a whole.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

I remember back in the early 80’s, listening to Reverend In Myung-Jin of the Urban Industrial Commission of Korea. He opened my eyes to what was happening in South Korea at the time, where people were apparently being maimed or killed in industrial accidents at an average of one every minute, due to the lack of safeguards protecting workers in the big industrial complexes.

Reverend In said that if we weren’t feeling the pain being felt in the Korean part of the body then we weren’t functioning as healthy members of the body! If an injury in the left hand isn’t felt by the right hand, the two are not connected. Healthy bodies don’t work that way. There’s a connectedness in a functioning body such that every part of the body is affected by every other part, and it’s that sense of connectedness, I think, not only with each other but with the whole created order, that Paul (and his team) are tapping into in this passage from his letter to the church in Rome.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

Creation groans, and we groan, and of course it’s not just any groan that St Paul is referring to here but those especially excruciating groans associated with childbirth.

Many of us have experienced those groans first-hand. Others amongst us have only experienced that pain vicariously. We might have assumed that St Paul would have had no experience of the process of childbirth, but perhaps, once again, such things were not as thoroughly privatised in the first century as they are today. Either way, the point of the analogy is not only that this groaning, in which we are all involved, is deep, but that it is also deeply connected to our hope for something better.

We know that this planet is not what it should be. We know that the world was never created to be at war with itself. We know that workers in Korea should not die from industrial accidents and that the children in Yemen should not be suffering cholera.

Our planet is sick. The eco system is in decay due to global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as companies and countries safeguard their profits. People suffer, animals suffer, creation as a whole suffers, and, in the understanding of the Apostle, it’s all connected, and it’s an agony that we are all connected to!

I’ve mentioned before the story that my dad told me many years ago – one that has stuck with me – about the time when the Beatles travelled to India in 1968 to study transcendental meditation under the tutelage of the Maharishi Yogi. According to my dad, alongside the palace of the Maharishi, where the great guru would teach students to rise above the worries of this world, ran a small Christian mission, dedicated to helping young girls escape child prostitution.

Whether I’m doing justice to the late Maharishi, I don’t know, but the point my dad was making was that there two different ways of being spiritual in this world. One tries to rise above pain and suffering, looking for something higher. The other groans with the world, enters into the suffering, and waits in hope for a better tomorrow.

I do hope to get to Yemen by year’s end. The big event for me though, that I’m even more concerned with at the moment, is my next boxing match, scheduled just over a month away. And I appreciate that while a number of people might think I’m an idiot for wanting to go to Yemen, that number would pale in comparison to those who think I’m crazy for continuing to box. Why? Because, while in Yemen there is a real chance of me getting myself hurt, in boxing, getting hurt is pretty much guaranteed!

Pain is indeed a part of the currency of boxing. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re not getting hurt, you’re not taking your boxing very seriously. That might make fisticuffs seem like a very odd choice for a sport, yet I think St Paul would say exactly the same of the Christian life – that If you’re not in pain, you’re not in the game!

And as for the boxer, so for the Christian – the pain we feel is not pointless, and it’s not forever. It’s like the labour pains of a woman in childbirth. It hurts like hell, and there is just no way of ever getting completely comfortable. Even so, through the pain we see a new day dawning and a new world coming to birth – the Kingdom of God at hand, the end of all war and suffering, the redemption of our bodies.

sermon first preached on July 22nd, 2017, to Holy Trinity church in Dulwich Hill

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I Will Give You Rest – A sermon on Matthew 11:28

 

“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

Those who have known me for any length of time likely know that I’ve had a history struggling with depression – with the old black dog, as Winston Churchill called it.

It’s not a recent history (thanks be to God), and indeed it’s been more than ten years since I stopped taking medication. Even so, I still remember vividly how it felt, and I remember too the effect these words of Jesus had on me when I was at my lowest.

“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

These are often referred to as the words of assurance, and I have found that at times when I’ve most needed assurance, these words have been to me a cool draught on a hot day – soothing, gentle, and refreshing.

They are, of course, a part of the Anglican liturgy’s invitation to the Eucharist, repeated each week before we gather around Christ’s table, and I find that, week by week, as I kneel and close my eyes, I drink in these words, even when I’m not feeling particularly fragile.

It struck me this year though, as the lectionary brought these words back again to centre-stage, that they were indeed a part of a larger passage, and that perhaps I need to look at them in context. After all, as we say, a text without a context is a pretext for proof text. In other words, we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say if we disregard the context. Perhaps these words of assurance were never directed towards me in my depression in the first place!

Certainly, I have heard it suggested that by ‘those who labour and are heavy-laden’, Jesus was referring specifically to those who were labouring under the demands of the Jewish Torah, and that the invitation is specifically one to abandon all attempts at self-righteousness under the law and to come to Jesus in faith instead.

That interpretation has a solid Protestant ring to it, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is a valid application of Christ’s invitation? Either way, looking at Jesus’ invitation to the weary and heavy-laden in context should give us the answer, and yet the disturbing thing we find when we look for that answer is that these words of assurance are not, as we might have expected, a part of a series of exhortations about the love of God for all His creatures, but are rather part of a tirade by Jesus, venting His frustrations!

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

By ‘John’, Jesus is, of course, referring to John the Baptist – a man who I thought was enormously popular amongst his contemporaries. What we learn from this passage though is that he was not loved by everyone.

My guess is that John was loved by everybody in retrospect, after he died. He was someone who was easier to love at a distance. John was a bizarre ascetic who dressed like the sort of person you didn’t want your kids to hang around with and he smelt terrible (the result of living solely on a diet of locusts and wild honey). Moreover, the message of John was confronting.

John challenged people to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’, and he didn’t pull any punches. It is understandable that people found ways of writing John off. People looked at his bizarre appearance and behaviour and said, “he has a demon!”

The problem with that, Jesus said, is that you can’t have it both ways. John comes, with all his eccentricities and you write him off on account of those, saying ‘he has a demon’. The son of man comes (nb. Jesus, referring to himself) eating and drinking and you write him off as a glutton and a drunkard. There’s no pleasing you people!

What Jesus is pointing to, of course, in both cases, is the way we use rationalisation to avoid truths that we don’t want to deal with.

“It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” (Matthew 11:16-17) or, as Kierkegaard put it “All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will” (in “The Sickness Unto Death”)

I appreciate that the aphorism Jesus quotes is much easier to understand, but Kierkegaard’s formula is beautifully succinct. All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will. In other words, if you don’t know something, it’s partly because you don’t know it and partly because you don’t want to know it!

If you don’t know what a dialectic is, the most memorable example I know comes from the way vacuum-cleaner sellers used to demonstrate the power of their product.

If you point the tube of the vacuum cleaner into the air and turn it on so that it blows air out, and place a ping-pong ball into the stream of the air, it will bob up and down – forced up by the air coming from the machine and then pushed down again by gravity, and will continue to bob up and down until the machine is turned off.

A dialectic works like that, with two opposing forces constantly pushing something back and forth – in this case, the two opposing forces being knowledge and will. Our knowledge of the truth pushes us to believe something, but then our desire to avoid the consequences of that truth pushes us to find ways of rationalising the truth away.

We may know in our hearts that what Jesus says (or what John the Baptist says) is true, and yet we really don’t want to go where that truth is leading us so we come up with a rationalisation that obscures the truth. We say of Jesus “He is a glutton and a drunkard. You can’t take him seriously as a man of God”. In John’s case, we say, “he has a demon”. Thus, we create obscurity for ourselves through the dialectical interplay of knowledge and will. In other words, we lie to ourselves.

I think we do well never to underestimate the power of self-deception. Conversely, we make a big mistake, I think, if we think we can rationally educate people out of beliefs that they don’t want to give up.

I had a friend who works in the counter-terrorism section of the prison system call me recently. He wanted to know what Bible verses I might offer to a Christian who said he believed that God wanted him to kill all Muslims! I said that while I was no expert in this sort of thing, I didn’t think quoting the Bible to the man was likely to make any difference at all! After all, I can’t imagine that it was a verse from the Bible that drove him to want to murder in the first place. Why would Bible verses be the way out?

I think religious beliefs, and ideologies of all kinds, work this way. We don’t develop our convictions on the basis of rationality – certainly not solely on the basis of rationality – and so rational arguments don’t lead us to change our beliefs either.

I think the human psyche works a lot like a game of Jenga. If you’re not familiar with Jenga, it’s a game where you start with a tower built from fifty-four rectangular wooden blocks, and gameplay consists in trying to successfully remove blocks from the tower, one at a time, without causing the whole thing to fall.

If you are familiar with Jenga, then you know that the key to winning the game lies is choosing the right block to move. Some blocks can be moved without having much of an effect on the greater structure, whereas other blocks prove to be foundational, such that if you threaten to move them, the whole edifice starts to shake!

The things we believe are like this. Some beliefs are strongly supported and, in turn, provide support for other beliefs. Other beliefs bear little relationship to the rest of the structure. We can dispense with them without that making any great difference.

I have beliefs about what the weather will be like tomorrow. I may change those beliefs, or be proven wrong in my beliefs. Either way, I’m not likely to be too shaken.

Take, on the other hand, my belief that the people who said they were my parents really were my parents. That’s something I was probably never explicitly taught, and I can’t think of any particular piece of evidence through which I could prove it to be true. Even so, I hold to that conviction with near absolute certainty! Why? It’s not because (to stick with the Jenga analogy) there are any particular blocks supporting this belief. Rather, it’s the number of other blocks piled on top! So much of my life has been built on this belief, and so many other things I believe assume this, that to question this belief would threaten to topple the whole structure of my life!

I remember some years ago, watching a video on ‘9/11 truth’ with a young American student who was volunteering with us at our youth centre once. We were watching the video footage of the collapse of Building 7. If you’re not familiar with this, the building seems to fall like a controlled demolition. Indeed, as you watch the video, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion other than it was a controlled demolition.

I remember this American student becoming very disturbed by the video and saying, “that can’t be true, because if it is true then my government has been lying to me, and if they’ve been lying about that, how can I believe anything they are saying?”

The video threatened to extract a foundational block from her tower. She had great faith in the truthfulness of her government, and from what I could see that was not because of any great block of evidence supporting that faith, but rather because of all the blocks that had been piled on top of that belief that threatened to come crashing down if her faith in her government proved to be misplaced!

And so we believe what our governments tell us we should believe. We believe that we are the good guys, fighting for the truth, and that if we are bombing and killing other people, that they must be bad people who deserve what they get. We don’t question our governments any more than we question the media, any more than we question the prevailing values of our culture, and the older we get, the less questions we ask because the larger our tower, the greater the crash when it falls!

You may think that I’ve strayed from Matthew chapter 11, but I believe that this issue of self-deception is at the heart of Jesus’ outburst that frames our passage today.

“We played for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn”, says Jesus (Matthew 11:17), followed by, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21)

They should have known better – these people – and indeed, no doubt, deep down, they did know better. If the words of Jesus hadn’t convinced them, then the miracles should have done! If they chose not to believe, it wasn’t for lack of evidence!

Likewise, the prayer of Jesus that follows: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25). This is the flip side of the power of self-deception. To stick with the Jenga analogy, the poor and weak are more open to truth because the threat of collapse is less serious when you have no great tower.

What I mean is that if you are well established and powerful, you don’t want your tower to fall. Take the rich young ruler Jesus encounters in Matthew 19:16-22. Jesus challenges the man, you will remember, to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and follow him (Matthew 19:21) but this young guy has spent his whole life building his tower, block by block, and Jesus wants to bring it to the ground!

That’s all of us, I think, as we grow older and more established – as our towers grow. We don’t want to change what we believe and we don’t want to change the way we live because we don’t want our towers to fall. Conversely, it’s the poor and the weak, those who are fragile and falling apart – those who have no towers – the infants, who hear Jesus’ Gospel and believe it!

And that, I think, answers the initial question about context that I raised at the beginning. Who does Jesus have on view when he invites those who labour and are heavy-laden to find rest in him? It’s the same group who respond to him as infants. It’s the broken and the weak – those who are open to Jesus message of hope because they have everything to gain and not much to lose.

“Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Is this invitation still addressed to me and to you?  I’d like to think so, for it’s an invitation to all of us who are still open to being shaken by Jesus. The cry is to all of us who are willing to see our towers fall and our lives rebuilt on a new foundation.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

sermon first preached on July 9th, 2017, at Holy Trinity Church, Dulwich Hill

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