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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meet the men of Manus Island

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

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

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

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

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Julian Assange nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

PRESS RELEASE – EMBARGOED – MONDAY 7th JANUARY, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAIREAD MAGUIRE  – NOBEL PEACE LAUREATE

www.peacepeople.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And speaking of making life more difficult for others:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sacrifice and Survival (Armistice Day 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom (Mark 10:17-31)

 

“Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”” (Mark 10:23)

Last week I wasn’t at my post at Holy Trinity. I was out in the bush, leading a small but courageous troop of wilderness warriors in a series of death-defying challenges, aimed at conquering their harsh environment. One of the unexpected side-effects of that experience was that I lost track of the proper sequence in the preaching roster and spent much of the week preparing a sermon on Jesus’ teachings on divorce.

I really felt that I’d drawn the short straw, but I came up with something, which I faithfully abandoned yesterday when I realised I had to deal with the rich young ruler instead! And I must say that I didn’t find much that I could carry over from one sermon to the other, except that both passages make me rather uncomfortable because I feel targeted in both cases, being both divorced and rich!

This wasn’t always the case, of course. I wasn’t always divorced, and I don’t think I was always rich, though it’s hard to define exactly what rich is, isn’t it?

I had a friend who pastored a church on the North Shore once, in an area that most of us would consider a rich area. He said he often preached on Jesus’ warnings to the rich, but his sermons never seemed to get much traction with the congregation. He eventually realised that they always assumed Jesus was talking about the next tier up in terms of wealth!

Perhaps that’s the way it always works? When we hear these warnings against the rich, we think of those persons who live on the North Shore. When congregations on the North Shore hear these words, they figure Jesus is specifically targeting people who live in St Ives. When the congregation of St Ives hears these words, they figure Jesus is talking about Dulwich Hill (or they soon may, the way we are going). We always assume it’s not us.

That’s certainly the way I felt when I was a young Christian and a university student – full of zeal and deeply troubled by the levels of global poverty. I looked at the wealthy churches and I looked at the wealthy people in my own church, and I looked at them with disdain! Then something happened. At the age of thirty, I finally got a job, and then dad died and left me an inheritance. All of a sudden, I had to give my attention to things like superannuation and tax returns and BAS statements, and then I got a mortgage! And then I realised that the people Jesus was targeting weren’t people like me at all, but one tier higher!

How do we define ‘rich’? It is an important question, and an important question for people who want to follow Jesus most especially, for Jesus had a lot to say about the danger of riches and worldly wealth, and none of it was good. But who is to say who is rich? Are we rich? Well … compared to a lot of people around the world and compared to most of the people Jesus lived and moved with we probably are, but compared to the upper echelons of our own society we are probably not.

I think a decent working definition of being rich would be if you don’t need anybody else’s help to get by. If you don’t need anybody else, biblically speaking, you’re rich – too rich.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

As you may know, I’ve done a fair bit of reading in recent years about human pre-history – that is, that period in human history when we lived in hunter-gatherer communities – and I get the feeling that a lot of Biblical ethics is about transposing the value of the hunter- gatherer lifestyle into the contemporary context.

Hunter-gatherers lived a subsistence lifestyle, living off the land, gathering fruits and nuts, hunting and eating game, etc. There are still some such communities in the world today, but they are few and far between. Once upon a time we were apparently all like that, as is captured in the story of the garden of Eden – the Biblical story of our origins.

The key point I want to make here is that people in hunter-gatherer communities depend on each other for everything. Every member of the community has an inter-dependent relationship with everybody else. We live together, work together and eat together, and there’s no such thing as competition, only cooperation.

I remember reading a story retold by some English missionaries who had been working with hunter-gatherer communities in the highlands in New Guinea, and they made the mistake of trying to teach some of the locals to play croquet. I’ve never played croquet, but I understand that it can be a very aggressive game, where you not only knock your balls through hoops, but where you also try to smash your opponent’s ball to the other end of the croquet field, thus depriving him or her of their chance to make any hoops.

Apparently, once the highlanders got the idea of how to play, they started working together, making sure all their balls got through all the hoops, and when they got the last ball through they jumped up and down together and shouted, “we won”!

That’s a very different sort of game, isn’t it, reflecting a very different sort of culture. In hunter-gatherer societies, you can’t afford to have one person win at the expense of others. The emphasis is on cooperation rather than competition. And, of course, there is no private property in these communities, and where there is no private property, there is no theft, no rich and poor, and no wars!

You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds as if I’m idealizing these communities, and certainly Thomas Hobbes and Charles Darwin didn’t depict this period of our history this way, but it’s generally acknowledged by scholars nowadays that Hobbes’ description of the life of ‘primitive’ men and women as being ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ was entirely a product of him reading back into the past the miseries experienced by the landless poor in his own time (in 16th century Europe).

In contrast to Hobbes and Darwin, the Bible speaks of our early days in the garden in idyllic terms, and the Bible likewise points us towards a city – the new Jerusalem – which embodies much of the beauty of the garden and is also a place of peace.

Between the garden and the city, the people of God, it seems to me, are called upon to live out the values of caring and sharing, and, when they fail, they are sent back to the wilderness for testing – a place where once again they are forced to live as hunter-gatherers and depend on God and upon one another for survival.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)

We know the story of the rich young ruler well (even if we don’t know the man’s name). Jesus, we are told, was busy getting ready for a journey when “a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”” (Mark 10:17)

It seems to me that this man is a bit like a guy wanting to win at croquet. He’s not asking Jesus about the salvation of humanity or the restoration of the created order. He wants to win! “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I don’t want to suggest that we have full knowledge of the psychology of this young man, but he seems doomed from the outset to me by virtue of the way he asks the question. This guy wants to win. Does it surprise us that he has great wealth? Of course he has great wealth! He is a winner in the game of life and now he wants to be a winner in the afterlife!

Perhaps the key issue here is not so much the amount of money he has, nor simply the attitude he has towards money (which is often how us preacher-types interpret the issue) but simply the fact that the man seems to be living in a world that’s all about him!

One of the best books I read last year was one by American journalist and anthropologist, Sebastian Junger, called ‘Tribe’. The book is an analysis of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which is a condition most commonly associated with soldiers returning from war. Junger gives particular attention to the American Indian Wars that spanned the early 17th to the early 20th centuries.

Junger notes that during those wars there were a number of white settlers were kidnapped by native tribes and later returned to their communities. Interestingly, a disturbingly large number of those ‘returned’ persons later tried to sneak back to rejoin the tribes where they had originally been held as captives. Junger’s analysis is that these people wanted to get back to a tribal community based on cooperation rather than competition, where people lived interdependently with one another.

Junger suggests that most of us ‘civilised’ types never get to experience real community, except during war. In wartime, men and women have to depend on each other, and so we band together and cooperate sacrificially in ways that we never do in peacetime. Junger’s analysis of PTSD is that returning soldiers suffer this, not because they’ve come out of a horribly traumatic war-time situation, but rather because they can’t adjust back from their war context to this dysfunctional society, based on competition and self-seeking profit!

Interestingly, I finished reading that book on my way to Manus Island last year where I had the privilege of sneaking into the Australian government detention centre for asylum- seekers, and meeting so many wonderful men.

What I discovered there was exactly what Junger had been talking about in the book. They were a tribe, living with and for one another. They worked together for their daily survival. They shared their medications as well as their food. They lived by cooperation rather than competition. There were no winners and losers, no private property. They were (and they continue to be) a band of brothers, who might indeed struggle with PTSD if they ever do have to adjust to living in an individualistic and dysfunctional society like ours.

“Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24-25)

The problem with riches is more than a problem with riches. It’s a problem with culture and values and with the way we related to one another. At the same time though, I don’t want to dilute Jesus’ words. We do have a very serious problem with riches.

I remember listening to a savvy commentator after Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. He warned us not to expect too much change. As he explained, if you’re elected CEO of Apple Corp., you might make a few changes, expand one market and shrink another, but your job is basically to sell iPhones. That’s what you do. And if you’re elected President of USA Inc., whatever else you do, you’ve still got to make war because your economy depends on it. If you want wealth, you sell weapons. It’s the ultimate economy of death, though, of course, it’s never presented that way.

We are in Syria because Bashar al Asaad is waging a religious war against the Sunni majority, just like we were in Libya because Muammar Gaddafi was busy butchering his own people, just like we were in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. All lies, and we all know that they are all lies! And we know full well why we are really in Syria, and it’s the same reason why we were in Libya and Iraq. It is fundamentally economic.

There was a protest song in the 1970’s that said that war was good for absolutely nothing,

cause it means destruction of innocent lives … [and] tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes”.

In truth though, while war might do nothing for humanity, it does a great deal for Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and their shareholders.

Even if you do the maths on the relatively minor missile strike against Damascus on April 14th of this year, the Americans fired 66 Tomahawk missiles and 19 other missiles, with the Tomahawks retailing at 1.87 million each. Do the maths and you realise quickly that death is a very profitable industry.

The love of money is indeed at the root of all kinds of evil, though the thrust of today’s passage is not so much on the death and destruction caused by the love of money, but rather simply on the way the love of money blocks the path to the kingdom of God.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.(Mark 10:24-25)

We have a problem with money but the suggestion I want to make today is that the solution to our problem with money isn’t to simply dig deeper. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with digging deeper, but I am suggesting that the reason we often find it so hard to dig deep is because we are part of a culture that values competition more than cooperation, makes private ownership a sacred right, and makes life all about me and not about us.

We need to build a less dysfunctional community – one where people can learn to live againin interdependence with one another, where cooperation is valued above competition, andwhere ultimately our question will not be “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, but rather‘what must we do to bring about the Kingdom of God for all of us?’

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 14th October, 2018.

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

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The secular side of God (A sermon on Esther)

“When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman hadthrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; and the king said, “Willhe even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the words leftthe mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:8)

It’s hard to avoid the book of Esther when it pops up in the lectionary every three years, and yet, the more often this book comes around, the less comfortable I feel preaching on it. We need a woman preaching on Esther next time. I hate ripping into one of the few iconic female figures we have in the Scriptures. The problem though is that I really don’t like her!

I remember at Moore College when we had a woman rostered on to preach. That didn’t happen very often, tragically, so when we did have a woman rostered on, I would get quite excited, and probably had inflated expectations. And then she turned out to be just as boring and predictable as most of the men!

It’s not that Esther is boring and predicable, mind you – far from it. My issue with Esther is that she is so violent, and relatively unprincipled, but perhaps that’s just my white, male, middle-class perception of Esther. You be the judge!

What I can say is that lots of other white, male, middle-class fathers in the faith share my negative assessment of Esther), Martin Luther most obviously. He hated Esther and said, I am so hostile to this book that I could wish it did not exist at all; for it Judaizes too greatly and has much pagan impropriety.

Of course, Luther was notoriously anti-Semitic, so perhaps we should be cautious about taking his accusation of Judaizingtoo seriously. Other church fathers though were equally staunch in their opposition. Melito of Sardis, Gregory of Nazianzus, Theodore of Mopsuestia and the great Athanasius all rejected the book from the canon of Scripture completely, while Cyril of Jerusalem, John of Damascus and Origen relegated it to being the last book in their Bibles!

Yes, these are all the perceptions of white, middle-class, male scholars (with the possible exception of Origen who was African, and who reportedly castrated himself at an early age and so was perhaps gender non-specific). Even so, their problem was not simply that the book is violent, nor that it Judaized(whatever that means). Our fathers were thrown by the fact that the book never mentions God – a privilege it shares with only one other Biblical book – the Song of Songs.

Moreover, it’s not just that the word God itself that is missing. Esther doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious book. There’s no mention of divine law or faith or prayer or worship, or any of the great Biblical themes we are familiar with – covenant, grace, or mercy, let alone love and forgiveness.

Even so, I’ll give you an outline of the book and you be the judge. You decide whether Esther is an archetype of Biblical womanhood or whether she and her book should be quietly deleted from the Scriptural record (or something in between those two extremes)

The story is set in Susa – the capital of the Persian Empire – in the fifth century B.C. The Jews are a conquered people. Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians a hundred years earlier and its inhabitants carried off into the land of its conquerors where, by the rivers of Babylon, they sat down and there they wept when they remembered Zion (Psalm 137). Yet after a hundred years the weeping has stopped, and the exiled people of Zion were by that stage so thoroughly integrated into the Persian Empire that when Esther rose to prominence in the royal court nobody even realised that she was Jewish!

Esther rose to prominence via a beauty pageant. Queen Vashti, we are told at the beginning of the narrative, overstepped her prerogative in the royal court by refusing to snap to attention when her drunken husband called for her, and so she was dismissed from her position and the job was offered to the prettiest girl in the kingdom. That pretty girl turned out to be Esther!

The book sounds a lot like Cinderella initially (which was also a story about the patriarchal abuse of power, though with less violence). Esther – a young Jewish girl with no social standing whatsoever – suddenly becomes queen of all Persia. That’s how the story starts, and if it had stopped there with a happily ever aftermessage in the closing credits we might have found Esther’s good fortune heart- warming, even if not particularly spiritually inspiring.

This is not the only story in the Hebrew Bible, of course, were Jews rise to positions of prominence in a pagan court. Other obvious examples come from the Book of Daniel, where Daniel and his three friends likewise take on positions of power in the Babylonian court. That story is set a century or so earlier and it’s a very different kind of story. Daniel and his friends are constantly getting themselves into trouble because they insist on worshipping the God of their forefathers and on being true to the traditions and the religion of their people. We don’t see Esther struggling with any of those things. Indeed, we don’t see Esther struggling much until her uncle starts to make trouble for both of them.

The shift in the book of Esther from fairy tale to horror movie begins in chapter two, where we read of the animosity between Mordechai, Esther’s uncle, and Haman the Amalekite, who is Prime Minister to Xerxes, the king.

While, as I said, the exiled inhabitants of Israel had become thoroughly integrated into their new homeland after a hundred years, yet, as is so often the case, old ethnic animosities die hard, and Haman (who is referred to as ‘the enemy of the Jews’) and Mordechai are enemies from early on in the Book of Esther, basically on account of the fact that Mordechai is a Jew and Haman is an Amalekite, and even after a hundred years there was nothing more hateful to a Jew than an Amalekite and nothing more hateful to an Amalekite than a Jew!

The way it reads in the book, it’s actually Mordechai who opens hostilities between the two. Haman is appointed Prime Minister, and everybody bows and shows respect to him – everybody except Mordechai. Mordechai shows no respect to the man despite his office. Why not? Because he is an Amalekite!

If this were a New Testament story, St Paul might enter at this point and proclaim that there is no Jew and no Amalekite but that all are one in Christ Jesus. Even so, it’s not a New Testament story, and things go from bad to worse.

It is depressingly contemporary, actually. I don’t know if there any Amalekites left to hate in the world, but anti-Semitism is certainly still with us, along with any number of other forms of discrimination. Mind you, one of the most pronounced waves of racial prejudice we’ve ever experienced in this country came shortly after world war II. Theres only three things wrong with them. Theyre over- sexed, over-payed and over ere!Who were we talking about? Americans!

At any rate, it’s this tribal animosity between Jews and Amalekites that drives the drama in the book of Esther, and it all escalates very quickly. Mordechai disrespects Haman, and Haman decides to respond by not just killing Mordechai but by wiping out his entire people – the Jews! He convinces the king that eradicating this particular race from his empire will be good for everybody and the king, it seems, agrees without looking too closely into the details.

The key to the drama, of course, lies in the fact that neither Haman nor the king realise that Queen Esther herself is a Jewess as the girl had continued to keep this hidden, apparently at the behest of her uncle, Mordechai, who evidently anticipated some level of anti-Semitism from his tribal enemies. This allows Esther to eventually reach the king’s ear and make an appeal to him on behalf of her tribe before they are all subjected to wholesale slaughter.

The climax comes in chapter seven where Esther pleads to the king for her life and where Haman – realising suddenly what is going on and seeing that the tables have been turned upon him – falls on the couch of the queen and pleads for his life. The king then walks in to witness what appears to be some sordid attempt at sexual assault. “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” the king says, and we’re told, As the words left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face.” (Esther 7:8)

It’s graphic language that vividly anticipates the gruesome fate that meets Haman only moments later. Haman had, up to that point, been happily building a gallows in his backyard – a gallows upon which he intended to execute his enemy, Mordechai. As it turns out, of course, it is not Mordechai who is hanged there but Haman himself – hoisted (quite literally) on his own petard.

And yet the violence does not stop there! With the cooperation of the good King, Esther manages to have all of Haman’s children and extended family hanged there as well, with their bodies hung up on display afterwards for the world to see! And the violence does not stop there either! Esther requests of the king that she and her people might be allowed to go on killing their tribal enemies and so do unto their enemies as their enemies had intended to do unto them!

The book says that Esther and her tribe were so successful that they managed to kill the best part of 100,000 people over only a couple of days – a feat that, in the eyes of the author of the Book of Esther, ranks as a both remarkable and admirable though, by today’s standards, it would surely rank as a war crime!

As a postscript, we note that the story of Esther is remembered each year in the Jewish community at the Feast of Purim, where there is apparently a tradition that participants drink so much wine that after a while they can’t tell the difference between the cries of ‘blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘cursed be Haman’.

Some think that’s why the name of God isn’t mentioned in the book – because people are regularly so drunk when the Book of Esther is read that they might accidentally take the name of the Lord their God in vain! Thus the book becomes associated with drunkenness as well as violence and godlessness, which brings us back to the question about what it’s doing in the Bible in the first place.

You be the judge. Make up your own mind about the book and about its leading character. Is Esther a strong woman who saved her people from destruction or was she cunning and self-serving with no concept of proportionality.

My feeling is that we need to look beyond the gender dynamics and recognise that the poison that destroys both men and women in this story is power. As Lord Acton put it, all power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sadly, that’s proven to be as true of Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto and Hillary Clinton as it has been of any of their male counterparts.

The other question, of course, is so whats the point?If the story of Esther isn’t given to us as an example of godly leadership, what is the book doing in the Scriptures? My feeling is that it’s there to remind us of the secular side of God.

God’s workings are not obvious in the Esther story. The Spirit of God does not shine through any of the characters and there are no miracles. Yet, when we stand back and look at the big picture, we recognise a story of God fulfilling the promises made to Abraham, even if it’s not being done in a very religious way!

In Esther we see the secular side of God, which is not what we are used to! It is easier for us to think of God as one who inhabits a world of religion. God is present in His holy temple. God is present with his people gathered. God is at work through the prayers of those who serve him, bringing miracles and healings and salvation and life, and all of this is surely true. And yet, it seems that the same God who is present in His holy temple is also present in the palace of the pagan king. God who meets us in worship at church is also with us when we get home. God who works through the prayers of his faithful people will still be at work when nobody is praying and when there are no faithful people to be found!

This is the story of Esther, where nobody prays, nobody talks about God, and nobody even seems to think about God, but God is at work anyway! Miracles don’t seem to be happening. In fact terrible things are happening. Even so, in the end God’s will is being done, and that has to be a ground of hope for all of us!

Stuff happens. People are bigoted, narrow-minded and selfish. They let us downand they damage us – sometimes accidentally and sometimes with clear and evilintent – and God, ultimately, works it out. This is not to say that things work outexactly as we wish they would or that, in retrospect, life looks like one perfectrose garden. Even so, God’s will will be done, and through the blood and thesuffering, love ultimately wins. Amen!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 30th September, 2018.

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

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Encountering the Other (A sermon on Job 24:3-6)

 

3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.

6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.
(Job 42:2-6)

These are the final words of Job, from the book of Job. I hadn’t planned to preach on the book of Job this week, but when I read those words – “who is this who obscures my plans without knowledge?” – after emerging from another week of Synod, I knew I couldn’t preach on anything else!

Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

This is the very end of the book of Job. It’s where Job finally realises that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he knew, and that seemed particularly relevant to me, not only because of the carryings-on in Synod, but to so much of what goes on in our churches and in Councils and in Parliaments and in families, where we always seem to think we know what we are talking about but where, time and time again, it turns out that we are ‘speaking of things we do not understand(or barely understand).

I don’t exclude myself from that critique. Yes, I sit there in the synod, listening to the learned pontificate on issues of human sexuality (amongst other things) and so often I’m sitting there (along with any number of others like me) thinking ‘you guys don’t have a clue’, and yet I know in myself that I really don’t have all the answers either.

I don’t mean to exaggerate the case with false humility. My dad used to warn me, as a Christian, not to fall for the idea that humility requires you to say that we’re not sure about things we can be sure about. He used to quote Deuteronomy 29:29 to me:

“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but the things revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

Yes, there are secret things that belong to God alone, but there are also things revealed – things that we do know – and we do nobody any favours by pretending that we don’t know them.

Faith, hope and love – these three abide – and the greatest of these is love. Let’s never pretend that we can’t be sure about that. Let’s never compromise the truth of the Gospel – the love of God and the gift of life. These are the things revealed and we can proclaim them with confidence.

At the same time though, when it comes to understanding so many of the big and really vital existential issues – why we are the way we are, and why the world works the way it does (and so often fails to work the way we think it should work) and why good people suffer – these are hard things to understand.

Some would say that these aren’t really secret things so much as things revealed over time. Certainly, that’s the way wisdom works, in contrast to most learning. With most things, the more you learn the more you know. Wisdom often seems to work the other way around – that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know, and the more your realise that the things you thought you knew – that you don’t really know them as well as you thought you did.

That certainly seems to be the way it works when it comes to understanding the mystery of suffering, which is the focus of the book of Job, and is played out in the book through the drama of the life of Job.

Job is a good man and yet he suffers. He suffers terribly, losing his children in a terrible tragedy and then losing his livelihood and even his good health. When Job finishes his spectacular fall from grace he ends up in an ash-heap, scraping his sores with a piece of broken pottery and wishing he were dead (Job 2:8-10). He is in a miserable situation, and nothing makes sense to him anymore. Many of us have been there. Many of us will go there yet – that place where nothing makes sense.

When I was a young man – particularly when I was a young believer – I knew everything. and, certainly, the problem of human suffering was not a problem.

People have free will. That’s why we have sin in the world. In order for there to be real love you have to have free will, and if you have free will then people are free to do evil. That all makes perfect sense until you encounter real tragedy in your life or in the lives of those you love. When your marriage breaks down or your daughter dies or you’re struck down by some debilitating illness, all the good arguments about free will suddenly seem over-rated.

I still remember my first moments in the lobby of the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus in 2013 – my first visit to Syria – with an elderly woman tugging at my cassock and showing me a crumpled photo of her dead son. “Why did they kill my Muhamad? They put a bomb in his pocket and killed him. Why did they kill my little boy?” Suffice it to say that I didn’t discuss free will with her.

What do you say to a woman like that who is looking for answers? This is not a rhetorical question, for isn’t this exactly the sort of situation where, as Christian people, we do need to make some sort of response? What would you have done? Would you have walked away? Would you have thrown your hands in the air and said “I don’t know”? Would you have talked about free will?

It’s informative, I think, that when Job’s three friends initially come along and find him in the ash-heap, the first thing they do is just sit silently with him in the ash-heap. Indeed, it says of Job’s three friends that they sat with him there for a week – seven days – saying nothing! But then, inevitably, they begin to talk and to try to make sense of everything that was happening.

It’s human nature. We need to make sense of things. Mystery is unnerving and difficult to live with, and so we rely on our intellects to help us find light in the darkness. We debate things through with our friends, just as we debate things through in synod, just as members of Parliament debate things, just as Job and his three friends debated, and the outcome is almost always the same. Nothing!

I think it’s worth reflecting seriously on this. We intelligent, middle-class, educated people always seem to believe that a good debate will help bring things to light and will persuade people of the truth. In all seriousness though, when was the last time you saw anything really change as the result of a good debate?

If you’ve been listening to what’s going on in Parliament lately, some powerful things have been said about the need to bring the suffering children of Nauru to Australia for medical treatment. For most of us, the case for these people is black and white. When we hear their being case made we find the argument completely convincing.

Strangely though, not everybody finds the argument as convincing as we do. On the contrary, unbelievably, nobody seems to change their mind. Those who opposed bringing the children of Nauru to Australia remain opposed. How can this be? Are they unintelligent? Did they simply fail to understand what was said?

Wouldn’t it be great if, when someone pointed out in Parliament the terrible suffering of these people, the whole house would suddenly rise and say, Wow! Thank you. We had no idea! Something obviously needs to change and needs to change now!”

It doesn’t work that way, does it? We know how the system works. We know that these arguments don’t really change anyone’s minds. Despite the esteem we give to the persuasive power of a good speech, we know full well that people make their minds up long before the speeches are made, and if they do change their mind it is almost never the direct result of impression the speech has made on them, but rather the effect the speech seemed to have on their constituents who vote for them.

Am I being cynical? Not really. As I’ve often said, the most important things we hold to in life don’t come to us through logic. We don’t fall in love as a result of logic. Logic doesn’t bring us to God any more than it dictates which political party we support or what football team we barrack for. Logic, so far as I can see, plays very little role in forming our core beliefs, so why would expect logic to change them?

I have a friend who works in the prison system call me recently, saying that he was working with a Christian man who’d been convicted on charges relating to terrorism. He wanted me to give him some Bible verses that might help bring the guy around. My response was that quoting Bible verses probably wouldn’t make much difference.

Of course, this is pretty much what Job’s friends did too, to help solve his problem. They didn’t so much quote chapter and verse as they did draw on fundamental Biblical principles to help Job make sense of what he was going through.

People only suffer if they deserve it, Job’s friends say. God is just, and if people are suffering, then it is because they have done something wrong. ‘But I haven’t done anything wrong’ says Job. ‘Who are you to say that you haven’t done anything wrong’ they say. ‘No one is perfect.’ ‘OK’, says Job, ‘but I haven’t done anything to deserve all this.’ ‘Who are you to say what you deserve’ his friends say. ‘You can be confident that God won’t mete out to you any more than you deserve. If you’re suffering greatly, then it’s an indication that you must have sinned greatly. If you’re in denial, then that’s an even more significant indicator of just how serious your sinful condition is…’ And so Job’s three good friends go on.

We’ve met these friends have we not? Perhaps we’ve met them in church, trying to be helpful. Perhaps they’ve come to visit us in hospital. Perhaps we’ve heard them on TV, explaining that if people are dying of AIDS, that it’s their own fault. We’ve met these friends. Dare we confess that at times we may have been these friends – feeling that, as religious people, we always needed to have a simple answer for every complex problem, even if it was the wrong answer!

“Reflection is endless. Action is lost” said Epictetus some 2,000 years ago, and nothing has changed. Most debates and arguments are like soccer games where one team kicks the ball up one end of the field and the other team kicks it back down, but nobody ever scores, which is why I’ve suggested on numerous occasions that if we really want to move forward in decision-making in the church, we really should consider setting up a boxing ring at the centre of synod.

If you’ve read my first book, I argue there that we really should elect our Archbishop this way too. We set up a cage at the centre of synod. Half a dozen candidates enter the cage. One Archbishop emerges. It would help bring people back to church too!

We could resolve a lot this way. I can see the marriage equality issue being resolved this way. Some bishop would be in the red corner, gloving up, and I’d come prancing into the blue corner and, moments later, we’d have a whole new style of church!

In truth, of course, Job doesn’t resolve his issues through a punch-up any more than he does through logical argument. He has an encounter with the Almighty, and that’s what changes everything for him.

I mentioned earlier my friend who works in the prison system with people charged with terrorism-related offences. I met up another friend last week who has had extensive experience with people involved in terrorism. It was Anne Aly – Australia’s first female Muslim MP and a former professor of counter-terrorism.

We did a great interview together, and I’ll publish it in full some time soon, but the thing she said that stuck with me the most was on exactly this subject. She said that no one she had ever met who had broken with their terrorist ideology had done so because they’d been talked out of it – either persuaded by good logical arguments or compelling Bible verses or anything of the sort. In every case, she told me, change happened because the jihadist met someone from the other side – the enemy – and discovered their humanity! Arguments don’t change people. People change people. Encounters change people.

This is what changes Job too. He could have argued about the Almighty endlessly, but meeting the Almighty was another thing altogether! He couldn’t meet God without trusting God. He didn’t understand God’s ways any better than he did before but now he knew he was dealing with someone he could trust.

This is where real change begins, I think – most obviously for church communities and for the Sydney synod, but, really, for all of us. Change begins with a deep experience of the love and the grace and compassion of the Almighty.

Lord, grant us wisdom, but even more so, grant us a true experience of yourself, andhelp us to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is your love for us, so that wemay be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19-20).

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 28th October, 2018.

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

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