Arise, my fair one! (A sermon on the Song of Songs)

“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:10-12)

Words from that rarely-read book from the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs, and appropriate words they are for this, the first Sunday of Spring.

Flowers appear. The time of singing has come. Winter is now officially behind us, and this regardless of whether the wind and rain have fully acknowledged the new reality on the ground! It is a time of regeneration, of fertility, of celebration and of romance, and it is romance, of course, that is the central theme of this book.

I say ‘of course’ because I assume that you’re familiar with this book though you have every reason not to be familiar with it. Not only is the Song of Songs nestled deeply in the wisdom section of our Old Testament (almost certainly the least well- read section of our Bibles) but it is not a book that our fathers and mothers in the faith have never really encouraged us to read.

There is a problem with this book! The problem is not simply that it is a romance novel. The problem is that it is also quite explicitly a celebration of sex. And the problem is that this book not only celebrates sex in the abstract, but that the celebration is played out between two people who are clearly not married.

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away ” (Song of Song 2:9-11)

Evidently the action section of this story lies somewhat ahead of this slice of the story where the man is depicted as stealthily scuttling around his lover’s garden in the middle of the night, throwing rocks at her window and trying to entice her to sneak out and join him. Even so, it’s clear where the whole affair is heading, and ‘affair’ is almost certainly the right word, for they wouldn’t be sneaking around if they were in a publicly legitimized relationship. The two lovers are not married, or if they are married, it’s not to each other!

Now … I appreciate that our church community in Dulwich Hill is often seen as being a bit controversial, most obviously because we try to be an inclusive community and have a history of support for issues like same-sex marriage. Those who would criticize us in that respect generally do so suggesting that we have succumbed to popular pressures impinging on us from outside of the community of faith.

My feeling is that what really threatens to radicalize us is not pressure coming in from the outside. It’s the radical forces agitating from within that are the problem – Scriptural truths that confront us through texts like this in the Song of Songs.

“The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Songs 2:13)

The church has always had problems with this. In truth, our Jewish mothers and fathers in the faith had problems with this long before the church even inherited these texts!

As late as the Council of Jamnia in the year 90, our Jewish Fathers were debating the place of The Song in the Scriptures, after which the battle that was taken up by Church Fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia until the Second Council of Constantinople eventually ruled in favour of the Song in the year 553.

During the Reformation the Scriptural status of The Song came up again, with Sebastian Castellio facing off against John Calvin.

We might find it encouraging that both the synagogue and the church did ultimately accept the Song of Songs as holy writ, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that this was because they were broad-minded.

With the Church Fathers, at least, those who defended the place of The Song in the canon of Scripture did so on the basis that the romance in the book was to be understood as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church! Given the overtly sexual nature of that relationship though, the allegory defense does initially strike me as a little weird!

This controversy is all very ancient, and yet it all seems so very contemporary too, and I can’t help but see parallels between those ancient ecclesiastical debates and the contemporary church’s attempts to mandate what constitutes an appropriate sexual relationship between men and women and between men and men and between women and women (and combinations of the above).

It all gets a little messy, doesn’t it? Even so, we (the church) can’t simply stay silent on these matters either, can we? We can’t condone young people racing around and engaging sexually with each other when they aren’t married because it says very clearly in the Scriptures that you can’t have sex unless you’re married.

For instance, it says it in … hang on … I’ve got a verse here somewhere …

The believers are those who protect their sexual organs except from their spouses.”

Whoops. Sorry. That’s the Qur’an (23:5-6)

OK. It does say very clearly “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) but that’s not exactly the same thing and, even there, commandments like this need to be understood in their context.

Now … please don’t hear me saying that we should disregard the prohibition against adultery, but I think we should recognise that, in the context of the commandments of the ancient Israelites, the seventh commandment is basically a law prohibiting property theft.

Thou shalt not commit adultery” is right alongside “Thou shalt not steal”, and in many ways anticipates the more comprehensive tenth commandment against coveting.

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.” (Exodus 20:17)

The use of the male pronoun here is deliberate and instructive, as the prohibition is directed against men who would take another man’s property – be it his house or his ass or his wife or any of his slaves (manservants or maidservants).

We don’t live in that kind of world any more (thanks be to God) – a world where men own women and where men and women own other men and women – and while I’m not suggesting that this makes the ancient commandments redundant, I am suggesting that we need to do our due diligence before directly applying these mandates to our relationships.

We live at a time when, as a society and as a church, we are being challenged to rethink our understanding of both sexuality and marriage. The church at large has been in the forefront of defending traditional models – maintaining the primacy of heterosexual monogamy to the exclusion of all other forms of relationship – but we who are more evangelically minded (who take the Bible as our starting and ending point in these considerations) recognise that the Bible itself embraces a number of different forms of marriage, and that on the subject of sex, our Scriptures have almost nothing to say.

You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds counter-intuitive. Those who haven’t read the Bible in detail might well assume that it has a lot to say about sex because the church has always had a lot to say about sex, and yet the truth is that both the Christian and Jewish Scriptures have very little to say on the subject of sex at all!

This is particularly obvious when we put the Biblical writings in their historic context and compare what is said in the Bible with the role sex played in competing religions.

When we think of the Hebrew Bible, the battle was always between the God of Israel and the Baals – the gods of the Canaanites. The word ‘Baal’ is somewhat generic in that it can be applied to a variety of gods, but when these Baals were turned into graven images, they were generally depicted as bulls with oversized genitals, as they were always fundamentally fertility gods.

Sex was a divine power in the religion of Baalism in all its manifestations. Hence the common practice of temple prostitution. Baalism was a religion of sex because sex was about life, fertility and abundance, and hence about survival.

The contrast between the religious environment of the Old Testament world and that of the New could not be greater in this respect. While Baalism divinized sex – making it a divine force – the religion of the Ancient Greeks, which dominated the spiritual landscape of the Roman Empire, demonized human sexuality!

It wasn’t just sex, of course, that was considered degenerate in the thinking of the Ancient Greeks. It was all that was fleshly. The goal was to elevate mind and spirit above the flesh and the baser instincts, which led to both misogyny towards women (who were seen as being more fleshly) and, simultaneously, to the promotion of pederasty, where older men would enter sexual relationships with younger men, as this was somehow seen as being more spiritual.

I think it goes without saying that the New Testament doesn’t buy into any of this. Indeed, it may be that St Paul’s statements about homosexual sex were directly targeting this kind of pederasty.

My key point, at any rate, is that whereas the religions of Baalism and Gnosticism either divinized or demonized sex, the Hebrew and Christians Scriptures do neither. In the Bible, sex seems to be regarded as human phenomenon.

Before leaving the world of the Bible, and issues of religion and sexuality in the ancient world, I feel compelled to mention briefly the most disturbing thing that I came across in my research on this subject, and that was the data on Roman religion and sexuality – male cult sexuality in particular – as uncovered by Craig Williams in his book on the ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity1.

You’ll have to forgive me for using a rather explicit term here, but there is no other way of putting it. According to Williams, Roman male sexuality, as enshrined in their ‘cult of virility’ was all about penetration. The Roman male penetrated others – women, other men, children, etc. – but was never penetrated himself because this was how Rome dominated the world. Rome penetrated and dominated others – individuals and countries – but was never penetrated itself.

What makes this so repulsive, in my view, is that it explicitly combines religion with both sex and domination. A religion that combines sex and power is surely the very definition of perversity and spiritual corruption.

If we consider this Roman model alongside the beautiful text of the Song of Songs, the contrast could not be greater.

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely ...” My beloved is mine and I am his(Song of Songs 2:14-16)

Here we read of no relationship of domination but one of beautiful reciprocity and mutual enrichment. The man speaks, the woman speaks, and neither is subordinated to the other, but both share equally in the joy of their romantic engagement.

This love is not a participation in any divine mystery any more than it is the work of the devil. Their love is theirs, and theirs to enjoy – a beautiful embodiment of what it means to be human, and indeed … an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church.

Yes, I’ve come around on this one. Of course, I don’t think the relationship between Christ and His church is about sex but, having said that, I don’t think sex is really about sex either. When done right, I believe sex is about intimacy, and the relationship between Christ and His church is indeed also an intimate one – intimate and passionate.

“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Songs 2:10-13)


Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 2nd September, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four –

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Grant us Wisdom (A sermon on 1 Kings 2-3)

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That’s not my normal opening prayer for a sermon but I suspect that many of you are familiar with it nonetheless. You may know it as the AA prayer for the NA prayer, as it’s a prayer used regularly by those in 12-step programs. What you may not know (and I didn’t know until I did a bit of research on it) is that the prayer is believed to have been written by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. The only thing that has always puzzled me about the prayer is why it’s called ‘The Serenity Prayer’ when it’s not really a prayer for serenity!

Well … it is a prayer for serenity, but it’s also a prayer for courage and a prayer for wisdom, with the emphasis really falling on this final petition – ‘grant us the wisdom to know the difference between the things we can change and the things we cannot change’, and indeed, that’s something worth praying for!

I thought of that prayer this week as I read again King Solomon’s prayer, which is, even more straightforwardly, a prayer for wisdom:

“O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (I Kings 3:7-9)

Wisdom – that’s the focus of the prayer and, frankly, that’s the focus of all of today’s readings, though most obviously with this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures where the newly anointed king Solomon prays for the wisdom needed to govern his people.

Wisdom – I feel that this great theme has been thrust upon me today as a preacher, and it’s probably very appropriate that I do preach on wisdom every now  and then because it is a very prominent theme in the Scriptures, especially in the Hebrew Bible where entire books such as Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes have come to be classified as ‘wisdom literature’. Even so, wisdom is not something I generally ever preach on, and this for one extremely solid reason – it’s a very boring topic.

‘Boring’ may not be the first word that comes to mind for you when you hear the word wisdom’, and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone for whom the Book of Proverbs is their favourite book in the Bible. Mind you, I don’t know anyone for whom Proverbs is their favourite book (or I don’t think I do) and if that is you it probably reflects the fact that we are on quite distinct spiritual tangents.

Mind you, ‘boring’ is not the first word that comes to mind either when you read Solomon’s prayer in the context of the greater story told in these chapters from the first Book of Kings where ‘wisdom’ seems to be all about knowing who you should kill in order to secure your throne!

The beginning of Solomon’s reign was indeed bathed in blood. First, he kills his brother, Adonjiah, which involves him in breaking a vow he has made to his mother. Then he kills both his high priest and the general of his army, demonstrating that, like his father David, he could be a real man of blood!

Is this wisdom? These killings happen before his prayer so perhaps they displayed his lack of wisdom at the time? Perhaps if he’d had more wisdom he would have seen a way of securing his throne that didn’t require him to murder so many people?  Either way, this is the business of wisdom, which essentially involves having an understanding of the way the world works. In Solomon’s case that meant understanding the workings of the court and the way power structures operate. In our context the application of wisdom is inevitably more mundane.

I still remember some of the lectures I had back at Moore College on the wisdom literature. I remember enough of them, at least, to remember that amongst the many boring lectures I received there, those were amongst the most boring!

I remember too one year we had a visiting speaker from the US who gave an entire series of evening addresses on the topic of Biblical wisdom literature, and those evening talks were even more boring than the lectures I endured by day!

Mind you, I still remember from those evening lectures how the speaker defined Biblical wisdom for us, as an understanding of the way the world worked, and for some reason I still remember the illustration he gave us.

He told us how he’d been building a cupboard (or something like that) and that he’d discovered that if you hammer a sharp nail directly into wood it tends to split the wood but that if you blunt the nail a little bit first it tends to make an appropriate hole without doing the wood any damage. The great academic had, in fact, composed a proverb on the basis of this insight that ran something like ‘the sharp nail splitteth the wood but the blunt nail goes straight through’. This could indeed be a very useful piece of wisdom to have if you’re trying to build a cupboard, but not withstanding that, if you’re sitting up late trying to endure yet another lecture, it’s still very boring!

Wisdom is an understanding of the way things work – whether it be nails or nature or business or politics – and while that can be boring, the truth is that it is all rather necessary too and, in all honesty, it’s something I personally need a lot more of.

I’m not wanting to pretend that I’m an idiot, but in terms of the serenity prayer that asks for wisdom, peace and courage, I do a lot better at the courage end of that spectrum than the wisdom end. Over the years I’ve shown myself to be pretty good at summoning up courage to jump into a boxing ring or wrestling cage and put my body on the line to fight for some great cause. What I’m realizing now is that I never had the wisdom to know how to make the most of those events. If I had, our work today would probably still be being sustained on the strength of those performances.

I’m pretty good at breaking into detention centres on Manus Island, even if it means almost drowning as I spin around in a disabled boat, trying to escape the local navy. What I’m not so good at is knowing how to use that experience and the knowledge I gained through that experience (and the enormous store of unpublished film footage that we still have) such that we can really make a difference for those poor men.

I’m really good at leaping into warzones in Syria – boxing in the ancient ruins of Palmyra where ISIS held their ghastly executions, and engaging with kids in a part of Homs where suicide bombers had just blown apart half the street. What I’m still learning, and seem to be learning very slowly, is how to use those experiences to make a real and tangible difference in the work of peace.

I really struggle with this. I’m struggling particularly at the moment with the whole ‘Freedom for Julian Assange’ campaign.

I really want to make a meaningful contribution to the man’s freedom, and, of course, It’s not just about the man himself but about the things for which he stands – for freedom of speech, for freedom of the press, for the need to keep private information private but to make public officials publicly accountable for crimes they commit.

All those things are deeply important, I believe, and I’m more than ready to put on my boxing gloves or sneak into a detention centre or parachute into a warzone if that will help. The problem is that none of those things will help. What I need here is not more courage but wisdom.

I had breakfast with Julian’s dad last week and he’s a wise man. He gave me a much clearer understanding of the constraints our politicians are under – those that would like to help Julian.

Apparently, there are a number of politicians who would like to help but they are never totally free to speak out or to act as they please. Even the most senior political figures in our country have very limited options. They have colleagues in the wings, waiting to destroy them if they make the wrong move, and, unlike Solomon of old, they can’t just order an assassin to go and take out those who are limiting their hold on power. For better or worse, our system just doesn’t work like that.

I’ve been focusing on issues particularly close to my own heart, but we face the same need for wisdom in everything we do as a community.

We have a strong and passionate movement in our church, wanting to see refugees and asylum-seekers get a fair go. Even so, it is not always obvious how best to channel that energy. We need wisdom (and guidance).

I believe, likewise, that all of us who are the church of the Holy Trinity in Dulwich Hill are passionately committed to maintaining an inclusive community where everybody is welcomed, and where everyone, regardless of race, gender, education or orientation is accepted and affirmed, where their humanity is valued. At the same time, we don’t want to unnecessarily alienate ourselves from other sisters and brothers in the broader church community who don’t see eye-to-eye with us on these areas, any more than we want to unnecessarily alienate other faith communities. In other words, we need wisdom as well as passion.

I’m tempted to say that we need a balance, except that the word ‘balance’ normally implies that you have to reduce one side of the equation in order to increase the other. In this case I’m not suggesting that we decrease passion in order to temper it with common sense. On the contrary, we need passion running at full throttle! We just need wisdom running at full throttle too.

That’s how Parish Council meetings are supposed to operate, I think.

I note that this is, in fact, the first time I’ve mentioned the Parish Council in this sermon though I suspect that for many listening the Parish Council has already come to mind more than once over the last ten minutes. I’ve used the word ‘boring’ quite a number of times now, and I think that for some of us the two concepts – ‘Parish Council’ and ‘boredom’ – are so intrinsically linked that you can’t say one without bringing to mind the other. If you fall into that category, don’t feel bad! One of the core themes of this sermon is that mundanity is a vital part of the process.

I’m not really suggesting that all our Parish Council meetings are boring either. They aren’t – not all of them, at any rate, and none of them are boring all of the time. Even so, in my twenty-eight years in this parish I am yet to hear one of the faithful say to me, “Oh, I can’t wait for the Parish Council meeting next week!”

In truth, that is not a criticism. Parish Council meetings aren’t supposed to be like a trip to Luna Park. Wisdom doesn’t work that way. Wisdom is the more softly-spoken sister in the family of faith. She keeps her head down for the most part. She does the maths. She balances the budget. She negotiates quietly. She connects with the right people and earns their trust. She gets the job done.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I can never say that prayer without remembering the time I said it at the death-bed of a man named Les who used to live here in Dulwich Hill.

Les had been an alcoholic for many years and yet he got sober and in his later years he devoted his time to working as a boxing trainer with young men, helping to keep his young charges on the straight and narrow. He was a beautiful soul who had an enormous impact on the lives of many people. I buried him more than 20 years ago and yet I still her his name mentioned regularly (and always with great respect).

In his final days his doctor suggested that he lighten up and have a few beers to help relieve the pain. He refused. The doctor said he’d write out the order for the beers on a prescription form, but Les wouldn’t do it. He was a wise man to the end. And so, in his final hours, we stood in a circle around his bed – me with his wife and children – and we all prayed the prayer together.

“God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We need more wise men in this world. We need more wise women. We need more wisdom. Yes, we need passion, daring, charisma, commitment and compassion, but we need wisdom too. We need it in abundance.

Lord God, grant us wisdom, grant us courage, and grant us your peace. Amen.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 19th August, 2018.

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four –

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I have sinned against the Lord (A sermon on 2 Samuel 12:7-13)

I have sinned against the Lord

2 Samuel 12:7-13

“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.””

Thus reads one of the most dramatic attacks on imperial power that we read of in the entirety of the Bible. Nathan the Prophet is railing against the anointed king of Israel – David – in a way that would normally be considered both inappropriate and dangerous for a person in his position. Even so, the faithful king, who had up to this point been extremely unfaithful, is suitably chastened by the words of Uriah and he repents.

The larger dialogue is quite gripping too, I think – beginning, as it does, with Nathan’s parable about the two farmers – one rich and one poor – where the rich guy pillages the flock of the poor guy in order to feed a guest. This is Nathan’s very clever way of getting around King David’s defenses. Rather than confronting him with his crime head-on, Nathan tells David a story that gets him emotionally on-side before revealing that his story is, in fact, a story about him (David), where the king is the villain!

The story is also a good example of the importance of understanding parables in context. If you don’t know the story of David and Bathsheba, and how David had slept with Bathsheba and got her pregnant, and then tried to cover up his role in the pregnancy by trying to get her husband to sleep with her, all of which ultimately led to the murder of the uncooperative husband who, strangely perhaps, chose death over sleeping with his wife. If you don’t know the broader story, the parable won’t make much sense, and perhaps that’s true of other parables too – that we need to understand all of them in context if we are going to understand them at all.

Even so, what makes this passage so memorable is not the academic insights it yields concerning the interpretation of parables. It’s the gut-wrenching nature of the confrontation between the prophet and the king, where David is forced to face squarely what he has done, and where he is given the choice of continuing to behave like an oriental despot by violently silencing his accuser or of accepting responsibility for his actions and turning back to the real power behind the throne in obedience and faith.

Happily, David chooses the latter alternative. Even so, the story doesn’t then resolve into a happy ending. David will be punished nonetheless, but not directly. David will be punished indirectly, through the rape and degradation of his wives and through the death of his soon- to-be-born child, all of which seems extraordinarily unfair on the women and on the child. Even so, there is one line in this story that has always rankled me here even more than the apparent injustices meted out against those who were surely not responsible for David’s transgressions, and that’s the statement made by David himself at the conclusion of this passage: “David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”” (2 Samuel 12:13)

That line always bothered from the first time I read it many, many years ago.

“I have sinned against the Lord” says David. Fair enough, but isn’t that something of an understatement, and doesn’t that rather miserably fail to grasp the full extent of your criminal responsibility? David might indeed have sinned against God, but didn’t he also sin against Bathsheba – the woman whom he raped – and against Uriah – the man whom he murdered?

At the risk of offending anyone who feels impelled to champion the powerless at this point, I want to recognise that questions can be raised concerning the innocence of Bathsheba in her dalliance with David, and even over the possible complicity of Uriah in his own death.

That may sound ridiculous at first, but I read a rather good book recently – ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes removing cultural blinders to better understand the Bible’ – that focused on the importance of understanding the culture and context in which these Biblical stories take place. The author (Randolph Richards) spent most of his life working as a missionary in remote parts of Indonesia, and he spent some time focusing on this story of David and Bathsheba as he sees it as an archetypal example of where our failure to understand the cultural context leads us to misunderstand the narrative as a whole.

Richards suggests that the story of David and Bathsheba is not a simple tale of royal rape and murder, any more than it is a story of modern-day romance. There would have been no way that Bathsheba, bathing in the nude on her rooftop, would not have been acutely aware that she could be seen clearly from the rooftop of the palace. Nor could she have been unaware of the king’s presence on the rooftop, as he would have been accompanied by a sizeable entourage.

Moreover, Bathsheba’s presence in the royal bed-chamber would never have been a secret between the two adults (whether consenting or non-consenting). Every member of the palace staff would have been fully aware of what was going on, and it is likely too that Uriah would have heard about what had happened long before he returned from the battlefield.

Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, would have been fully aware of what the king was playing at when he encouraged his soldier-on-leave to go home and relax with his wife. He would have recognised straight away that the king was giving him an opportunity to resolve a delicate situation. Uriah’s refusal to play along though makes us wonder what he was playing at. Was it really Uriah’s integrity that stopped him from going along with the king’s plan or was the man hoping to play the king for some greater gain? Was Uriah perhaps looking for money or for some privileged position in the royal household, or was he just stupid?

By saying all this I don’t mean to sanitize the behavior of David, nor suggest that he was not a rapist and a murderer. I’m simply suggesting that all the players in this drama are players.

Having said this, even if no one is completely innocent in this story, that doesn’t really make anybody less guilty either. Whether we think David is guilty of rape, murder, or simply property-theft as the parable suggests, there is no question that David has sinned grievously. And I don’t think that the fact that he is depicted as having sinned against God really makes his victimization of both Bathsheba and Uriah any less serious.

“I have sinned against the LORD.”, says David. “Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, he says again in Psalm 51 (verse 4).

Does this mean that Bathsheba and Uriah have been forgotten in the reckoning on David’s transgressions? On the contrary, what I think it means is that the violation of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are things that God takes very personally. To violate them is to sin directly against God!

It has taken me a while to come to this understanding. Initially, when I read this passage, it did seem to me that both David and the prophet Nathan were trivializing David’s crimes against Uriah and Bathsheba by seeing the whole thing as a religious issue. I now see it the other way around – that every crime that we commit against our sisters and brothers in the human family is something that God takes very personally. Conversely, I see too that, from a Biblical perspective, there really is only one sin – idolatry.

If that seems like a crazy or overly-pious thing to say, perhaps that’s because you, like me, have been used to dividing the world into two – distinguishing what is religious from what is secular, the spiritual from the scientific. In reality there is just one world, and every false thing we do in this world is a form of idolatry.

Moses gave us ten commandments, you will remember. Jesus reduced the ten to two – the love of God and neighbour, – but it was Saint Augustine who reduced the two to one – “love, and do what you want”. There was wisdom, I think, in Augustine’s reductionism, for it is true that you cannot love God, whom you cannot see, and not love your brother or sister who you can see (1 John 4:20). In practice, the one does resolve into the other.

Likewise, with idolatry – love’s opposite. To worship the idols is to pursue an abusive and obsessive lifestyle, and to pursue and abusive and obsessive lifestyle is a form of idolatry.

I personally grow more and more convinced that this world is being overtaken by the worship of Molech – the ancient God of the Ammonites. This is the God cited in the Hebrew Bible, most often associated with child sacrifice.

I don’t like to point fingers at other countries and other peoples, but I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the USA, simply because of its size and power, has led the way in the worship of Molech since I’ve been alive. I am not an expert in these sorts of things and I’m happy to be corrected, but I haven’t seen any other country in the last generation that has so consistently sacrificed its children on the altar of war.

I remember hearing an excellent speaker reflecting on the election of Donald Trump at the last US Presidential elections. The speaker held up an iPhone and said “if you become CEO of Apple Corp you might change the colour of these things and you might fiddle with the markets a little but you’ve still got to sell these things because it’s what you do and your existence depends on those sales. Likewise, if you take over as CEO of USA Corp., you’ve got to make war because your economy depends on it!

If you’re President of the USA, you have to sell weapons and you have to use weapons, and you might decide to downscale military intervention in one part of the world, but you’ll soon have to upscale it somewhere else because you can’t survive except by killing people! You have an economy based on death. If that’s not the worship of Molech, I don’t know what is!

I hope my American friends aren’t taking too great an offence at this because I love the American people and I love the country, and I’m hoping that they’re going to let me back in there the next time I try to visit, though I appreciate that getting into the USA is far from automatic for me now due to the number of recent trips I’ve made to both Iran and Syria.

At any rate, my point is not to target one country and its people, but to recognise the subtle way in which idolatry can overtake an entire culture and country, even when churches and other religious organisations are booming!

You’ll never see a more overtly Christian country than the USA, but this doesn’t mean much, for this was always the way it worked for the prophets as well. When a prophet like Amos or Hosea or Jeremiah went about railing against the people of Israel and telling them that they had abandoned the God of their fathers and were worshipping idols, this didn’t mean that the

people had closed down their synagogues and replaced them with pagan temples with great stone statues in the middle. On the contrary, the orthodox religious system was often booming, and the Bible was being read and hymns were being sung and prayers were being said. It took God’s prophets to come along and say ‘this isn’t Yahweh, the God of your fathers, you’re worshipping. This is Baal’!

If you know your Hebrew Bible, you’re familiar with the term ‘Baal’. It was a generic term, literally just meaning lord. Accordingly, it was a word that could be applied quite legitimately to worship of the God of Israel, and in the prophecies of Hosea there’s a fair degree of wordplay concerning God’s role as baalor lord. The point is, of course, that it’s never just been about words and names. It has always been about the big picture.

What form of idolatry do we practice in this country? Are we as devoted to Molech as our American cousins? Perhaps not. I suspect that our devotion in this country is focused more on the regular Baals of the Canaanite pantheon.

If you’ve seen images of the Baals of the Ancient Near East, as dug up by archeologists, you know that they are generally depictions of bulls or other animals associated with fertility, often boasting radically oversized genitals. Baal worship hence becomes associated with the divinizing of sex, though the greater goal was always productivity and abundance. Worship of the Baals, in other words, was the spiritualizing of the thirst for sex and money.

“Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned”, says King David (Psalm 51:4)

To see David’s failure as a spiritual issue is in no way to minimise the serious nature of the crimes committed against both Uriah and Bathsheba. It is though to recognise that this story is more than a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting your sex drives get the better of you. It’s an illustration of what happens when an individual and a country loses its focus.

“’Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strengthThis is the great and first commandment(Deuteronomy 6, Matthew 22)

This isn’t just a rule that we are supposed to work at, along with the nine that follow. This is about how we orientate our lives as individuals, and it’s about how we orientate ourselves as a community and how we orientate ourselves as a country.

As we’ve noted numerous times in recent months, Australia was the first country in the world to sign on to the Charter of Compassion(in 2010) which extolls the central importance of compassion in our common life. When though we look at our country’s recent treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, what we see is not simply the result of poor policy-making, any more than it is the work of a small group of particularly misguided and morally- compromised politicians. It is rather symptomatic of a country that has lots its focus and forgotten the centrality of compassion, and gone chasing after the Baals instead!

Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.” (Joshua 24:15). These were the words of Joshua to the people of Israel, challenging them to regain their focus as a community.

This is the big question. This is always the big question confronting us all, every day, as individuals and as a community and as a country – which God will we serve? Behind every sin and failure, great and small, behind every war and death in custody, this is the question.

Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served or the gods of the Amorites … But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 5th August, 2018. 

Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four –

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Evacuate Manus and Nauru Rally (Sydney Town Hall, Sat July 21st, 2018)

A couple of weeks ago our church was privileged to have a visit from Lebanese Sufi master, Sheikh Nour Kabbani, and, together with him, members of our community signed the “Charter of Compassion” – a document developed by Karen Armstrong some ten years ago that urges communities and governments to reaffirm the central importance of compassion in our common life.

Tragically, on almost the same day, Australia’s Home Affairs minister, Peter Dutton, (in The Weekend Australian) urged our nation to beware of the ‘danger of compassion’ when it comes to our treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees – suggesting that showing compassion to these people whom we have placed in indefinite offshore detention might undo all our good work.

The good work being referred to, of course, is the fine job we have been doing in ‘turning back the boats’ – turning back boatloads of people who come to our shores seeking shelter from danger and persecution.

We have indeed had great success in turning these boats back so that those who were seeking safety are sent back to the places of danger and persecution from which they fled. Either that or we subject them to a new form of persecution by placing them in never-ending detention in one of our country’s offshore detention centres!

Whether or not this is really a good work is made entirely clear, I believe, by the fact that we have to be urged not to show compassion in order to make this system work. Any system that requires us to deny what is most fundamentally human in us – love and compassion for our fellow creatures – in order to work, is a sick system indeed!

I had the privilege of visiting the men of Manus Island last year in their detention centre. That was last November, just before the men were forcibly moved from the compound where they had originally been confined to new compounds which, as we saw for ourselves, were very much unfinished.

At the time I was flying to Papua New Guinea and making the connection to Manus, there was a lot of discussion taking place here at home as to why these men had not moved to the new facilities that had been built for them.

Why would the men want to stay in a compound that reportedly been unfit for human habitation even before it was decommissioned, after which the electricity and water had been cut off, making it more uninhabitable. Many of us wondered whether the experience of long-term detention might have damaged the men such that they were not thinking straight.

When I reached the detention centre and had the privilege of being shown around in the early hours of the morning, it became obvious very quickly why they had chosen to stick it out where they were. They had a very well-functioning community!

They had a very well-organised leadership system, with democratic meetings held each day. They had a centralized health-care system where medications were pooled and distributed as needed, and where the mentally-ill were cared for on a rostered basis, with different people walking them around the compound. The engineers were working together as a team to keep the electricity and the water flowing! It was a very well-functioning community!

I understood right away why these men hadn’t separated and moved off to the new facilities that had supposedly been built for them. Why would these men abandon their band of brothers, who they knew they could trust, on the word of the Australian government, who they knew they could not trust?

They were a remarkably functional community, and perhaps I had forgotten that this was not a group of poorly-educated criminals. These were professional people – journalists and engineers and people with a variety of professions and skills that might truly benefit this country.

The more I talked to these men the more impressed I was with them as individuals and as a group, and the more sick I felt as an Australian, somehow connected to the torture of these men, who are being used by our country’s political leaders as an example to asylum-seekers world-wide – ‘don’t try to sneak into this country unannounced or we will do to you what we are doing to these people!’

Parallels with other inhuman regimes come to mind, but I will not mention them by name. Suffice it to say that any country that openly rejects compassion and instead tortures people who we know are innocent in order to make of them a deterrent – any country that would do that has somehow lost its soul!

The irony is that the Australian government was actually the first government in the world to recognise and affirm the Charter of Compassion back in 2010, and I don’t think that was just a political stunt. I believe the government of the time signed on to the Charter of Compassion because they recognised, rightly, that Australian people, on the whole, do value compassion. Indeed, that we are a compassionate people.

We are better than this – that’s my message today. We are not the heartless, greedy bastards our political leaders think we are. We do actually believe what our National Anthem tells us – that we have “boundless plains to share” – and we are ready to share them. We still have compassion for the vulnerable.

Let’s let our politicians know, and let the world know, that the Australian people are still capable of compassion. Let’s give the good men of Manus, and the men, women and children of Narau, a chance. For the sake of all that is still decent in this country, five years of disgrace is five years too long and the blood of the dead is on our hands! Stop the torture! Show compassion. Bring them here! Amen.

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The Death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29)

“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.”
(2 Samuel 6:12-16)

You could be forgiven to asking why I’ve chosen to preach on this ancient story of David’s adventures with the Ark when the rostered Gospel reading for today was on the beheading of John the Baptist – a far more sultry tale.

The truth is that I am preaching in the death of John the Baptist, but I couldn’t resist starting with our reading from the Hebrew Bible as I see an important connection between the two stories, and the connection is not the dancing!

Yes, in both these stories people dance, and in both stories the dancers seem to be scantily clad, but that’s about where the similarities end. David’s performance (at least according to David’s own interpretation) was a deeply spiritual affair – an early attempt at liturgical dance, perhaps – whereas Salome’s dance seems to have been far more carnal in intent.

It’s not the dancing. The common thread I see between the two passages – the story of David and the ark, and the story of the death of John the Baptist – is that in neither case is it obvious what spiritual truth we are supposed to get from the story.

If you are a person of faith like me, you probably believe, as I do, that these stories were not simply given to us as good yarns to keep us entertained on cold Sunday mornings. The stories are part of God’s word to us, and God speaks to us through these stories. And, so I ask you, what is God saying to us through the David story?

The standard evangelical position in this regard is that what God is saying to us is whatever the original author of the text intended to say to us. That doesn’t solve the issue but it does reframe the question: ‘What is the author of this story trying to say?

Is the moral of this story that all of us should strip down and dance before the Lord? That’s one possible interpretation of the author’s intent, and that would certainly be a challenging conclusion to draw from the passage.

If we do take this message away from the passage and if we do try to be faithful to it, the results will probably be mixed. There would be some members of our church community who could quite likely grow the church through such performances. There would be others though, like myself, who would doubtless drive people away!

In truth, I don’t think this passage is a veiled exhortation to dance, or even a more general exhortation to honour the Lord in the best way that you can. If you ask the scholars what they think the author was trying to convey in this passage, interestingly, the consensus is that the author is trying to let us know that no descendent of Saul is ever going to be king of Israel again!

That message might not be immediately obvious, but the clue, apparently, is in the final verse (2 Samuel 6:16) regarding Michel, daughter of Saul and one of David’s wives, who we are told “despised him in her heart” when she saw David dancing.

The immediate sequel to this is that Michel and David have a shouting match over the incident, the result of which is that David cuts her off and, we are told, she remains childless to the day of her death! (2 Samuel 6:23)

Thus begins what scholars call the ‘Succession Narrative’, the main theme of which is the question of ‘who will be the successor to the throne of David?’ That’s certainly how Leonard Rost understood it, at any rate, in his seminal book of 1926 “The Succession to the Throne of David”.

From Rost’s perspective, the incident with Michel begins the process whereby potential claimants to the Davidic throne are gradually eliminated, one by one. No descendant of Saul (via Michel) will ever be on the throne. That is settled here. Subsequently, as we are told about the internecine rivalry between David’s children, others are gradually eliminated – Amnon, who rapes his half-sister is then killed by his half-sister’s full-brother, Absalom, who is also eventually killed. Then we have David’s affair with Bathsheba which produces a son, Solomon, and so, gradually, the succession narrative is resolved. That’s how the scholars generally see it, anyway.

My point is that if, in order to understand what God is trying to say to us in these stories, we need to understand what was on the mind of the original author, it’s not always immediately obvious. Who would have thought, initially, that this story about David and the ark was really, primarily, a story about succession to the throne?

Perhaps Leonard Rost is wrong, of course. That’s possible. Perhaps the author of this story in the second book of Samuel wanted to convey multiple things to us. That’s all possible. Either way, my point is that if God’s message to us in these passages is tied to authorial intent then God’s word to us is not always obvious.

I have exactly this problem with the story of the death of John the Baptist as recorded in Mark 6. It’s a gruesome tale, full of colour and vibrance, and great material for a movie, but what is the author trying to say to us through this story?

“When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Mark 6:22-25)

What is God trying to say to us through this story? What is on the mind of the author who gives us this story? It’s not immediately obvious. I don’t think anybody has interpreted this passage as an exhortation to dance, though it could be seen as a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of dancing.

‘Don’t let what happened to Herod happen to you! Don’t get drunk and invite your partner’s daughter from a previous relationship to dance lest, in your drunken and lustful stupor, you make promises to commit acts of violence that you’ll later regret!’

That’s a warning that I’m sure we could all take to heart, though I frankly doubt that many of the first readers of this story (or many of us) are really in much danger of following in the path of Herod.

The more obvious explanation as to why this account is given is as a record of the Baptist’s death for his many followers. We know that John had many followers. Even as the Apostles go out preaching the resurrection, they come across followers of the Baptist. No doubt all of them wanted know what happened to their beloved master.

It would make sense to give a detailed record of the Baptist’s death. What makes less sense though, if the author of our story was really writing his account for the disciples of the Baptist, is why he gives so little detail about John and so much detail about Herod and the horrible machinations of his court.

This story from Mark chapter six is not actually a story about John. It’s a story about Herod, Herodias, and Herodias’ daughter, Salome. If you’ve seen the movie version, the only appearance John makes in this story is as a prop. Herod, Herodias and Salome all have speaking parts in this scene. John says nothing.

I guess it’s obvious why John says nothing as he doesn’t have a head, and maybe the author of the Gospel knew nothing about John’s final days or any last words that he might have said. In that case though, was it really necessary to give all the gruesome detail about Herod, the dance, and the platter?

When I consult the scholars again I find, as I suspect, that this narrative is not generally understood as being primarily a story about John at all. Neither though is the author really trying to focus us on Herod or Herodias, let alone Salome. According to the scholars, the author is really trying to say something about Jesus!

The link is made at the beginning of today’s story:

“King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (Mark 6:14-16)

Technically speaking, there are two passion narratives in the Gospel of Mark. The key one that we are most familiar with concerns the suffering and death of Jesus. This is the other one. The suffering and death of John prefigures the suffering and death of Jesus. Though they are obviously distinct, both are stories of humiliation, of the abuse of power, and of the lethal nature of the system.

John, as a prophet of God, was persecuted and suffered. Jesus, a prophet of God, would also be persecuted and suffer. Elijah, who also gets a mention, had his own history of persecution, of course, as did all the ‘prophets of old’, mentioned at the beginning of our passage. This, I think brings us to the heart of the message the author is trying to convey – namely, that the path of a prophet is a path of suffering.

Whether it be John or Jesus or Elijah or one of the prophets of old, you can’t speak the word of God without confronting the system, and you can’t confront the system without paying a price.

Some you may have heard the one-hour interview I gave last Monday as a part of the #Unity4J online vigil for Julian Assange. The vigil was made up of thirty-six one- hour interviews with a whole series of people, of which I was the final one!

I was glad to have the last spot, partly because it meant I got to close the vigil in prayer, but mainly because it meant I didn’t have to get up too early on Monday. I didn’t realise though until I saw list of the other participants afterwards what an esteemed group I had been a part of. Amongst the others interviewed were people like Cynthia McKinney, Chris Hedges, George Galloway, Ciaron O’Reilly, Caitlin Johnstone, Ray McGovern, Peter Van Buren, and Daniel Ellsberg.

If you don’t know all those names, you likely recognise some of them. They are politicians and journalists and former intelligence officers, all of whom, for one reason or another, at some stage, spoke out against the system, and all of whom, I think, if they haven’t been imprisoned have been threatened with imprisonment!

It was a great privilege for me to see my name listed in that group, but sobering at the same time, of course. I’m not suggesting that any of these activists, nor Julian, are Christ-figures, but they do have this in common with the group listed in our Gospel reading today – Jesus, John, Elijah and the ‘prophets of old’ – that they all spoke out against the system, and they all paid a price for doing so.

This, I believe, is at the heart of what the author of our Gospel reading intends to convey to us in today’s story – that the path of the prophet is a path of suffering – indeed, simply that faithfulness to God and to Jesus inevitably leads to persecution.

This, of course, has been such a common theme in our Scripture readings lately that you’d be forgiven for finding it all a little repetitive. We’ve had Saint Paul hammering away, week after week, telling us how it’s all the pain that he’s endured that shows the integrity of His discipleship, as Jesus Himself has talked repeatedly about how the Son of Man must suffer.

I think the Scriptures keep repeating all this to us because it is so counter-intuitive that we are likely to forget it unless we are constantly reminded. There is something elemental in us that says, ‘if you are doing the right thing, things will go well for you’. That just seems so logical and almost the essence of how good religion should work.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that God never rewards those who are faithful. Even so, what the Scriptures keep reminding us is that the opposite is also true – that the faithful struggle – and that if you are genuinely true to God and to Christ, you are going to get yourself into trouble. Things will go wrong for you.

I do believe that this is at the heart of what the author of Mark’s Gospel intends to convey to us in this story. Even so, I won’t take it to heart if you prefer to interpret this narrative, and the story of David and the ark, as being s simple guides on good and bad ways to dance.

In truth though, uncovering God’s word in Scripture requires more than diligent thought and academic prowess. It also requires courage. For ultimately our Scriptures point us not only to timeless truths about the universe but to things about ourselves that we might not want to face, and they bring us to Jesus, who is both a wonderful and a frightening person to meet.

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on July 15th, 2018

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#Unity4J Online Vigil in support of Julian Assange

It was my privilege to be the final guest on this 36-hour online vigil for Julian Assange on July 9th, 2018. Be warned though, every one of the 36 guests shared for one hour each, so you might want to pour yourself a cuppa before settling in for this one.

To hear another 11 hours of interviews with people like Chris Hedges, Cynthia McKinney and George Galloway, click here.

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Stubbornness and Stupidity (2 Corinthians 12:1-11)

“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-5)

And if you think that sounds bizarre, did you catch the story that made the MSN news page this week – “Priest Kicks Family Out of Church Before Mom’s Funeral”

The story was about the parish priest of Saint Mary’s Church in Charlotte Hall, Maryland (USA) – a Father Michael Briese – who apparently got so upset with the congregation who had gathered for the funeral of the late Agnes Hicks that he threw the entire gathering (reportedly, some hundreds of people) out of the church building and on to the street, such that the family had to carry the casket with them as they looked for somewhere else to hold the funeral!

Apparently, the problem was that a family member knocked over Father Briese’s chalice! “That’s when all hell broke loose”, said the deceased’s daughter. The priest “literally got on the mic and said, ‘there will be no funeral, there will be no mass, no repass, everyone get the hell out of my church.’”

I know people think I can be embarrassingly extreme in way I box and prance about sometimes but, take encouragement, I have yet to do anything quite as extreme as that! Of course, nobody has knocked over my chalice yet either, so who knows?

There was a great quote from the funeral director too, who claimed that “Briese was calling the funeral attendees “crackheads, prostitutes and thieves. I’ve been a funeral director for 30 years”, he said, “and I have never experienced anything like that.”

He needs to get out more, doesn’t he? He’s been living far too long in the refined environs of Charlotte Hall, Maryland. Church leaders haven’t always been well-groomed, genteel, and softly spoken, which, of course, brings me back to Saint Paul.

I’m not suggesting that St Paul made a habit of throwing people out of his church, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he did do that occasionally. Most certainly he had a penchant for coming out with statements that you never saw coming, and today’s reading is surely one of them – “I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.” (2 Corinthians 12:2). Where did that come from?

Now, I know that most of us are probably familiar with this passage and so we’ve always associated this statement with Saint Paul. Even so, if we didn’t know it was Paul, and if you just heard someone read that to you, not knowing who had said it, what would you think? You’d probably assume these were the words of a Hindu mystic, wouldn’t you? Where is the ‘third heaven’ anyway? I thought there was only one? And since when did the Apostle start having out-of-body experiences?

I tried to read this passage as if seeing it for the first time. My first thought was ‘could this really be Saint Paul?’ to which came the obvious reply, ‘of course it is! Anyone wanting to imitate Saint Paul would not say something so out-of-character!’

Or perhaps it isn’t out of character for Paul to speak of bizarre experiences of the numinous and the holy? After all, he refers numerous times to his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus – an ecstatic experience that completely changed his life. This was another life-changing religious experience. Perhaps he had a lot of them? Even so, why talk about them here? Indeed, why talk about them at all if they were purely private affairs that nobody else would ever be able to understand?

This bizarre act of sharing is followed by what is possibly an even more bizarre and more personal revelation from Paul, where he talks about his ‘thorn in the flesh’.

“to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

What is he talking about? Even more so than before, Paul is deliberately vague.

Christian people have speculated for thousands of years over what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was. It was, he says, literally, “an angel of Satan sent to beat me up”, but what does that mean?

Some suggest, rather mundanely, that it was his poor eyesight that was the issue, but that hardly explains why he spoke about his problem in such veiled terms. Others have suggested that perhaps he suffered from epilepsy, which would indeed have been a deeply embarrassing condition for a man in his position and might well have been the expected outcome of all the hits he took to the head.

Others suggest that his struggle was with his sexuality. I think even Calvin saw it that way. Calvin paraphrases Paul “to me has been given a goad to jab at my flesh, for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptation according to the flesh.”

If Paul did struggle with his sexuality or with his sexual identity, that could explain a lot of things, including why he was so reluctant to talk about his struggle openly. The bottom line though is that we don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, and so we have this bizarre testimony where Paul is sharing with us something that is deeply personal, but which is so personal that he can’t actually tell us what it is!

Now … I appreciate that if the role of the preacher is to help people understand the Scriptures, you might be feeling rather dissatisfied at this point. You could be forgiven for expecting that a sermon on 2 Corinthians 12 might help you understand what Paul was talking about with his mysterious visit to the third heaven, and that I might help to shed some light on what Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ really was.

I confess that when it comes to understanding exactly what Saint Paul was talking about here, I haven’t got a lot of wisdom to offer. I do think that I’m on firmer ground though when it comes to understanding why Paul said what he said, and I think the ‘why’ question, in this case, may be even more significant that the ‘what’.

This dialogue is part of Paul’s attempt to defend himself against his many enemies by displaying his spiritual credentials. Paul had a lot of enemies. Indeed, he had so many that he must have wondered sometimes whether he had any real friends.

Paul probably managed to make enemies of all of the Jewish peers that he’d grown up with and studied the Torah with. If most of his fellow Jews hated him, it was the Romans who eventually killed him, so he didn’t have many friends there either. The opponents we read about most of the time though in his letters are his Christian enemies, and that’s where I suspect it hurt him the most.

As we find him here, Paul is battling for the hearts and minds of the church in Corinth against fellow Christians, and while he doesn’t name names in this letter he does use a sarcastic term to refer to his opponents in this same chapter of his second letter to the church in Corinth. Paul refers to them as the ‘super-apostles’.

“I have been a fool! You forced me to it. Indeed, you should have been the ones commending me, for I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing.” (2 Corinthians 12:11)

The term ‘super-apostles’ is a disturbing one, as when the word ‘apostle’ is used in the Gospels, we know exactly who it is referring to. It’s referring to one of the twelve disciples, and the term is generally used only of the twelve disciples.

In the Gospels there were only twelve Apostles. After the death of Judas there were only eleven which was why they drew lots to elect a replacement (Matthias) and bring the number back to twelve. Even so, they were a deliberately fixed group made up of persons who had lived and moved with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

Paul would later claim that he too was an Apostle since he too had met with Jesus (on the road to Damascus), but since this happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus you can understand why some people responded to Paul’s claim to be an Apostle by saying, “well … yeah … sorta”.

We need to appreciate the situation this created for the first Christians in Corinth. They had discovered Jesus and they wanted to follow Jesus but none of them had met Jesus in the flesh or heard his words first-hand. Hence, when the community was unsure as to how best to follow Jesus, what did they do? They couldn’t refer to the Gospels because they hadn’t been written. The best recourse they had was to talk to someone who had been with Jesus during His earthly ministry and had heard what He’d had to say first-hand. In other words, they looked for an Apostle.

Paul – whether those he was arguing with at Corinth were people claiming to represent the twelve in Jerusalem, or whether they really were Peter and James and John in the flesh – Paul did experience an ongoing tension with the twelve Apostles, and that must have made it almost impossible for him to have an effective ministry.

The issue, of course, was always the same. The issue was how inclusive the church of Jesus Christ was supposed to be. I’m sure that, in theory, everybody (even the super-apostles) agreed that the church’s doors were open to everybody. In practice though, Paul believed that his opponents wanted a church for Jews only, where non-Jews were treated as second-class citizens, and that wasn’t good enough.

One of things I most admire about the great German saint, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was how early he drew the line when the Nazis started to exert their influence in Germany a century ago. When the church ruled, in 1933, that Jews were no longer allowed to be ordained as Christian priests. Bonhoeffer said, “the church that does not ordain Jews is not the church of Jesus Christ”, and there he took his stand.

It’s exactly the stand Saint Paul took. Of course, Bonhoeffer’s opponents would have said that the church was not rejecting Jews but only barring them from ordination. Bonhoeffer would have nothing of that. There were no second-class citizens in the church of Jesus Christ, which was exactly what Saint Paul was saying of non-Jews!

The issue doesn’t have to be race. The church has a long history of making second-class citizens of people, and we continue to do so today, regularly, on the basis of gender and/or sexuality! In whatever form it comes, the church that excludes people is not the church of Jesus Christ! As both Paul and Bonhoeffer and others have discovered though, this is never an easy truth to proclaim.

The thing I love about Saint Paul was that he stuck to his guns! Despite everything, Paul never backed down on his belief in the inclusiveness of the church of Jesus. When you think about the things that Paul had to battle with, this was incredible!

Paul had to fight against everything he’d been brought up with – with his belief in the Jews as God’s chosen people, where there was no place for the ‘uncircumcised’. Paul had to rethink and reinterpret all of that.

Secondly, he had to deal with the emotional pain of being a traitor to his own tribe. Little doubt Paul’s Pharisaic family would have disowned him, and who knows what happened to his first marriage?

Finally, having left his Jewish tribe and joined the Christian tribe, Paul must have never felt fully accepted there either. I don’t think he ever entirely resolved his issues with ‘the twelve’, and yet he continued to push for an inclusive understanding of the life and ministry and teachings of Jesus, even though, prior to the cross and resurrection, Paul had never met Jesus, and Paul must sometimes have felt, deep down, that compared to the original twelve Apostles, he was radically underqualified to give the final word on Jesus, even with all his intense spiritual experiences.

Some years ago, I read an excellent book by Steven Pressfield, entitled “Do the Work”, where the author suggests that we have two great assets in life – stubbornness and stupidity.

We like to call them ‘daring’ and ‘persistence’ or use other similarly noble terms but Pressfield suggests that we call them what they are – the stupidity to attempt things that we should never attempt, and the stubbornness to persist with them, despite the fact that common sense is screaming at us to give up.

What was it that empowered Saint Paul to display such an extraordinary degree of stubbornness and stupidity? According to his own account, it seems that he had some deep experiences of Jesus (whether in the body or out of the body, who knows) – experiences that empowered him for the long haul.

May God give us grace to enjoy similarly deep experiences of Jesus, so that we might be empowered to be as stupid and as stubborn as was the blessed Apostle.

first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on July 8th, 2018

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Signing & Delivering Open Letter regards Julian Assange to the Australian Government

On Tuesday July 3rd. 2018, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, born in Townsville Queensland Australia, turned 47!

Julian has been detained without charge in England, on behest of the U.S. government since he was 39!  In that time Julian was jailed (in solitary confinement in HMP Wandsworth) and  electronically tagged under house arrest, before finding asylum in the small five-room embassy of Ecuador (then under radical reformer, President Correa).

For the past 6 years Julian has be surrounded by British police in the sensory deprivation of the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge London. For the last 3 months, a day after a meeting with the U.S. Southern Command in Quito,  the Ecuadorian government (now under backslider President Lenin) has jammed the internet & phone in their own embassy and denied visits to Julian.

 Throughout these long years the Australian government has, at best, been negligent in its responsibilities & duty of care in relation to this Australian citizen. In truth, Australian governments – both Liberal & Labor – have proactively co-operated with the ongoing persecution of this heroic publisher – who has never published anything untrue. 

Julian consistently exposes high crimes against the poor executed by the world’s rich and powerful. Amongst other things, the Australian government presently refuses to re-issue Julian a passport

On Tuesday, July 3rd, acclaimed LGBT/ human rights activist Peter Tatchell (born Melbourne), London/ Camden Catholic Worker, Ciaron O’Reilly (Brisbane) sound engineer Rick (Sydney) and gardener Lorraine (Broome) ) approached the Australian High Commission on The Strand to deliver an Open Letter signed by Australians – home & abroad

Ciaron O’Reilly

Open Letter to the Australian government:

Mr George Brandis
High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Australia House
Strand, London WC2B 4LA . June 2018

Dear Mr Brandis,

We Australians, here in London and from further afield, welcome the first ever visit to Julian Assange by Australian consular staff on 8 June 2018 as a sign of a new regard for Mr Assange’s human rights as you take the helm at the High Commission.

As of this month, Mr Assange has been confined six years in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which the UN has deemed an arbitrary deprivation of his liberty: a grave human rights abuse which ought to end expeditiously and for which, according to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, he ought to be compensated by Britain and Sweden.

We hope you share our deep concern at attacks on whistle-blowers and the danger posed to our democracy, security and good governance when whistle-blowers are thus deterred. As President Obama said in 2008, in relation to US government whistle-blowing, ‘We only know these crimes took place because insiders blew the whistle at great personal risk … [W]histle-blowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal.’

The High Commission has a duty to ensure Mr Assange, an Australian citizen, is treated no less favourably than local citizens detained for similar offences. British citizens enjoy the protection of the UK Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantee their right to freedom of expression. ‘This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ and to do so ‘without interference by public authority’.

He also has a right to be presumed innocent and given a fair trial and a right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. As Australian High Commissioner, you must ensure Mr Assange’s treatment by UK authorities accords with those standards.

In light of the above, we, the undersigned ask you to convey our urgent and emphatic request to our Government to do its utmost to defend Julian Assange’s human rights and the free and lawful operation of Wikileaks. Specifically, we ask the Australian Government to:

  1. Promptly renew Mr Assange’s Australian passport following its recent expiry;
  2. Ensure Mr Assange is guaranteed full and timely access to all necessary medical and dental care;
  3. Respect and defend his right to receive information and impart information freely, without interference by any public authority;
  4. Robustly defend Mr Assange at home and abroad and object to threats levelled against Mr Assange by high-profile US citizens and others;
  5. Strenuously oppose any application to have Mr Assange extradited to the United States, where it is unlikely he would receive a fair trial; and
  6. Press the UK government to ‘facilitate the exercise of his right to freedom of movement in an expedient manner’ and both the UK and Swedish governments to compensate him for his arbitrary detention.
  7. We thank you for your attention to these matters of fundamental importance to a free and democratic society.


Current Signatories:

John Pilger, Sydney NSW, journalist & film-maker.
Shirley Shackleton, Journalist, mother, widow of slain Australian journalist Greg
Peter Tatchell, Melbourne Victoria, Human rights campaigner.
Ciaron O’Reilly, Brisbane Queensland, Catholic Worker, former anti-war prisoner of U.S.
Jo Valentine, Perth W.A., former Senator for Western Australia.
Tony Ansell, Asquith NSW, Salesperson.
Jeff Armitage Sydney NSW, Retired.
Dr Olivia Ball, Melbourne Victoria, Researcher.
Susannah Ball, Melbourne, Librarian.
Somerset Bean, Adelaide South Australia, graphic designer
Greta Bird Carlton Victoria, Teacher.
Simon Bliss, Brisbane Queensland, Teacher.
Dr Lisa Bridle, Brisbane Queensland, Social Worker/Disability Advocate
Eden Boucher,, Adelaide S.A. musician “Lovers Electric”, mother of 4.
Craig Buckley, Brisbane Queensland, Barrister.
Robert J. Burrowes, Daylesford Victoria, Cofounder ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
Tim Carter, Brisbane Queensland, Retired Principal.
Gabriel Cerasani, Noosa, Queensland, concerned citizen.
Norman Close Brisbane Queensland, Pastor.
Pam Close, Brisbane Queensland, concerned citizen.
Janet Connollly, Brisbane Queensland, Nurse.
Ian Curr, Brisbane Queensland, democratic rights activist.
Dr C Dassos, Broadbeach Queensland, General Practitioner
Glenys Davies, Inglewood W.A., Physiotherapist
Jim Dodrill, Ipswich Queensland, President of Ipswich Ratepayers and Residents Association.
Ben Dowling, Brisbane Queensland, Coffee industry worker.
Franz Dowling, Brisbane Queensland, University student.
Jim Dowling, Dayboro Australia, Support worker.
Rebekah Dowling, Brisbane Queensland, Student teacher .
Paul Dyson, Sydney, Software engineer.
Simone Eclair, Deagon Qld, Comedian.
John Erickson (aka John Treason), Brisbane Queensland, Musician.
Terry Fisher, Brisbane Queensland, Solicitor
Stephen Fugate, Brisbane Queensland, retiree.
Rik Garfit-Mottram, Canberra ACT, Sound engineer.
Brian Gwynne, Brisbane Queensland, Manager.
Sandy Hay, Newcastle NSW, concerned citizen.
Alex Hills, Canberra ACT, musician.
Tom Hinchliffe, Brisbane Queensland, Primary school teacher.
Allen L. Jasson, Adelaide S.A.., Software engineer, former Australian Army.
Kylie Johnson, Ashgrove Queensland, Ceramist.
Angela Jones, Brisbane Queensland, Researcher.
Rev Fr Pan Jordan OP, Brisbane Queensland, Catholic Priest.
June Kelly, Tasmania, Stenographer and Independent Researcher Global Affairs
John Matthew Kelly, Sydney NSW, Former Broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Michael Kennedy, Brisbane Queensland, Computer programmer.
Stephen Langford, Sydney NSW, Retired nurse. Order of Timor.
David Lazgo, Brisbane Queensland, Psychologist.
Rebecca Leech, Adelaide South Australia, concerned citizen
Suzie McDarra, Bardon Queensland, Massage Therapist.
CIaran MacLennan, Brisbane, Waterside worker.
Dr. Gary MacLennan, Brisbane Queensland, consultant.
Kay McPadden rsj, Sydney NSW, Religious Sister.
Kez Majkut, Melbourne Victoria, Public Servant
Teresa Marshall, Brisbane, Administrator.
Rev. Fr. Peter Murnane OP, Cobden Victoria, Catholic Priest..
Rev. Simon Moyle, Melbourne Victoria, Baptist minister.
Bob Muntz, Ascot Vale Victoria, Retired.
Darryl Nelson, Rothwell, Teacher.
Pat Nelson, Melbourne, retired teacher.
Dana Nicklin, Greenslopes Queensland, Brisbane, Mediator.
Brian O’Brien, Toowoomba Qld, Registered Nurse.
Catherine O’Brien, Toowoomba Queenlsand, Registered Nurse.
Ben O’Brien, Sinnamon Park Queensland, Registered Nurse.
Sarah O’Brien, Teacher, Sinnamon Park.
Sally O’Brien, Westbrook Queensland, Child Counsellor.
Michael O’Keeffe, Northern Rivers NSW, Ecologist.
Mary OReilly, Brisbane Queensland, Mother of 3.
Sean O’Reilly, Brisbane Queensland, Psychiatric Nurse, father of 2.
Anne Rampa, Dayboro Australia, Bus Driver.
Rev. Dave Smith, Sydney NSW, Anglican vicar, Pugilist, father of 4.
Beryl Scneider, Caboolture Queensland, Business woman.
Peter Shaw, Brisbane Queensland, Self-employed
Mary Sweeney, South Yarra, Victoria, concerned citizen.
Fleur Taylor, Melbourne Victoria, editor.
Kathy Thompson, Buderim Queensland, Registered Nurse
Kevin Traynor, Waterford Queensland, concerned citizen.
Sally Traynor, Waterford Qld, Driving Instructor.
Eliza Tree, Castlemaine Victoria, artist.
David Turley, Adelaide S.A., musician “Lovers Electric”, father of 4.
Michael Tysoe, Fairfield Queensland, Musician.
Jennifer Upton, Brisbane Queensland, Accountant.
Pat Ryan, Warick Queensland, Counsellor.
Dave Whelan, Melbourne Victoria, Lawyer.
Caron Lewis, Melbourne Australia, Small Business Owner
Christine Whitewood 104 Badger Creek Rd Healesville 3777 Retired

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Living the Dream! (A sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:4-10)

“But as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10)

Yes, I’ve decided to persist with Saint Paul this week. That’s in part due to the inspiration I received last week from Steff’s treatment of Paul, but it’s equally because I find Paul an inspiring man. I love him.

I appreciate that Paul to this day has no shortage of detractors. Muslims tend to dislike Paul and blame him for distorting the original teachings of Jesus – making the Christian religion about Jesus rather than about the teachings of Jesus – and yet we don’t have to look outside of the Christian community to find opponents of Paul.

For a start, a good number of Christian theologians have agreed with their Muslim colleagues – that Paul did indeed invent a version of Christianity that was a long way from the original teachings of Jesus. Many feminist theologians, similarly, take a dim view of Saint Paul because he always seemed to insist on a male-dominated system of patriarchal control, whether he was talking about families or about churches. Inclusive Christians, similarly, often see Paul as exclusive. Catholics often see him as a bit Protestant.

Even the Apostle Peter had trouble with Paul. We know that they had a stand-up stoush in Antioch, early in Paul’s career (see Galatians 2:11-14), but even in Peter’s later letters we get a reference to Paul that has no parallel elsewhere in the New Testament. Peter says of Paul, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort.” (2 Peter 3:16)

I think that’s a beautifully delicate use of words by Peter. Yes, some things Paul says are “hard to understand” and, evidently, lots of people did misunderstood Paul – “ignorant and unstable people” says Peter, graciously.

It seems quite bizarre, when you think about it, that Peter, who probably had very little formal education, could be so delicate in his choice of words, whereas Paul – a trained academic – so often spoke in a sort of stream-of-consciousness monologue, and I envisage him speaking quite quickly.

“in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, 7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute…”

When I first read that again last week, I thought ‘I don’t know anyone else who speaks like that’, and then it occurred to me that I’ve known plenty of people who speak like that, but they are all people we normally label as being mentally ill.

Not many of you would know where Ange and I met. Once upon a time, we were assigned to the same Bible-study group when I was in Miranda (two of the toughest years of my life). Meeting Ange wasn’t the tough part, of course, but the study group could be tough, largely because almost everybody in that group, apart from Ange and myself, turned out to be struggling with what’s now called ‘bi-polar disorder’.

I still remember very vividly one of our young men, standing on the balcony of what was then my house and speaking very rapidly. I don’t remember exactly what he said. Indeed, it would have been impossible to remember exactly what he said because he said so much and spoke so fast. Even so, the overall gist was that life was great and that things were getting better and better. He then ran off, and I found out that about half an hour later he threw himself in front of a truck, breaking almost every bone in his body, but somehow, he survived (thanks be to God).

Now, I’m not suggesting that Paul spoke exactly like that, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Paul suffered from pi-polar disorder. Indeed, if anyone were to suggest such a thing the immediate comeback would probably be “yes, but what Paul said made sense”, but did it?

‘We commend ourselves through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger …’

Let me ask you, ‘How do you commend yourself to anybody through a riot?’

I’ve been involved in two riots in my life – one serious one and one not-so-serious.

The not-so-serious one took place out the front of our church building back in the 1990’s. I can’t remember what started it now, but it was our youth-centre community – a group of around 50 kids on the day, if I remember, and they all spilled out on to the street and it started with lots of loud and harsh words being exchanged.

Between myself and the youth-centre staff we managed to get things under control, but then one of the neighbours decided to get involved, and he pushed one of the young girls, in response to which one of the boys punched the neighbour in the face, and we lost control again. Shortly after that the police arrived, swinging batons, and then all hell broke loose!

That was the not-too-serious riot I was involved in. The more serious one took place in Dimona, in Israel, shortly after our dear brother, Mordechai Vanunu, was released from prison. There were thousands of people lining the streets that day, and most of them were screaming for his blood. The police and the army were there to keep control, but once the prisoner was driven out of the gates, the police-cordon broke and most of the military followed the vehicles, and the street descended into chaos!

I ended up being mobbed by a group of settlers who surrounded me and started cursing me, and then spitting on me and then punching and kicking me, and I really didn’t think I was going to survive that experience, and yet, as St Paul would say “See, I am alive!”

My point is that the riot at Trinity’s Youth Centre did not commend our young people to the greater community of Dulwich Hill in any way, and neither did the riot that I was a part of in Dimona commend anybody to anybody, so far as I could see. What does Paul mean – that he commended himself to the Corinthians through riots, and through imprisonments, sleepless nights, calamities, beatings and hunger?

I think we need to be honest here and acknowledge that if this is the wisdom of Paul, it’s a wisdom that makes very little sense when seen alongside conventional wisdom.

As you know, amongst the many things I do, I manage a remote property at the base of the Blue Mountains National Park. I’m now in my 16th year as manager of that property and I would hate to think how many sleepless nights that work has caused me. It has though forced me to learn how to run a business, and the one really good thing about running a business, in my view, is that at least it’s very straightforward – whether or not you are being successful.

If you are making money, you are successful. If you are losing money, you are not. You don’t have to be making a lot of money to be successful, but you do need to make enough to cover your costs. This is the straightforward conventional wisdom that I’ve had to learn as a business owner, and I think that after 16 years of hard work and hard learning I have finally worked this much out.

I wonder how Paul would have gone, managing a business?

“We lost a million dollars last week, Paul!”
“Oh!”, says Paul, “well done!”
“Well … at this rate the banks will foreclose on us pretty soon and we might even end up in gaol if we can’t pay off all our debts!”
“OK! It sounds as if we are on the right track”
, says Paul!

It probably wouldn’t have quite been like that, and yet Paul was capable of seeing all the normal signs of failure – poverty, imprisonment, bankruptcy, hunger, and even death – as KPI’s (key performance indicators) of faithfulness to Christ’s mission.

Paul was well aware, of course, of how counter-intuitive his thinking was, and he recognised that his preaching was considered mere ‘foolishness’ by the wise and educated of his day (1 Corinthians 1:23), most obviously because of his focus on the suffering and death of Jesus which, likewise, could hardly have appeared as a selling-point to his contemporaries.

Of course, the two are tied together in Paul’s mind – because Christ suffers, we must suffer, and so suffering becomes the mark of the genuine believer who shares in the life of Christ. Even so, I’m sure Paul didn’t think that suffering was necessarily a mark of piety – it could be a sign of criminality – and he certainly didn’t believe that there weren’t positive things that could also be bundled into the authentic life of discipleship. Indeed, in the list he offers us here, alongside afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, and imprisonments, he also lists purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit and genuine love.

What I think Paul is getting at here is that a faithful life doesn’t always have to be extremely painful any more than it always need be extremely rewarding. It just always tends to be extreme!

I think this probably summarises St Paul’s view of the Christian life – it’s a life lived to extremes – and the further I go on in life with Christ, the more I can identify with this.

I think of the places the Lord has taken me, even in the last 12 months or so:

  • Walking through the Christian village of Maaloula in Syria, where the signs of Jabhat Al Nusra’s murderous occupation are still evident everywhere.
  • Spinning around a coral reef off Manus Island in the middle of the night in a tiny boat with no motor, trying to avoid the search lights of the navy.
  • Boxing with the Iranian amateur champ in Mashad, despite the doctor telling me that I’d never box again after the brain haemorrhage I suffered last year.

OK, I haven’t been imprisoned or lashed as yet (thanks be to God) but I feel like I’m on the same path as Saint Paul here, and what’s more, I don’t think I’m the only one!

I look around at the various members of our church community and I see a lot of people who are likewise really pushing the envelope – living life to the extreme!

There are people here who haven’t eaten properly for a week, raising money and awareness for refugees. There are people here who have given up regular full-time work so that they can pour themselves into things they believe in. There are LOTS of people here who devote enormous amounts of energy and time to the work of ministry that they feel called to – being it fighting discrimination or feeding the food-insecure or supporting asylum-seekers and refugees or any number of other works.

Indeed, one of the things I’m most proud of as a member of Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, is that I don’t remember ever having had a discussion over morning tea on the subject of home renovations. Forgive me if you were all prepped to tell me about your latest renovation project. I do recognise that such things need to be done BUT we live in a society where home renovation is high-rating TV entertainment, as it seems to be the most exciting thing some people have in their lives! How tragic!

When I listen in on things people talk about here over morning tea and over lunch, people are sharing ideas and dreams and letting off steam, and I’m not suggesting that we are always focused on some noble form of mission, but we’re almost always focused on building something bigger than a new kitchen. We’re living the dream!

I appreciate, of course, that not all of you have experienced as many shipwrecks or riots or beatings as I have, though I think some of you just do a better job of hiding your scars than I do too. At any rate, for those who haven’t been shipwrecked or imprisoned yet, give yourself a bit more time! We are on the same path!

This is indeed the point, I think. It’s not that we are looking for trouble, but that we are all on the same path, and it’s the same path Saint Paul was on because it’s the same path that Jesus walked. We live the life of Christ – His extreme life – and so, inevitably, we share in His sufferings as well as in His joys.

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10)

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