Dying and Rising – Sermon for St Francistide


Galatians 6:16-18

In the name of the One who died and has risen – Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Saint Paul boasts that on his body he bore the marks of Christ. In the Greek, he speaks of the stigmata of Christ. The idea is that somehow the marks made by the nails and the spear when Jesus died were on Paul’s body.  He doesn’t describe these marks, these death marks, in any detail, but it was the only thing he allowed himself to boast about. ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast / save in the death of Christ my God,’ to use Isaac Watts’ wonderful words.

I assume that the reason St Paul does not describe these marks in any more detail is that he does not want us to spend our time speculating about what they were like. What he wants us to pay attention to is the death of Christ – where the marks came from.

1300 years later in central Italy, Francis of Assisi was praying and fasting on lonely and wild Mt Alverna. Brother Leo was bringing him water and food and checking on Francis daily, but apart from that he was as alone with God as he could be. He was praying that he could be as like Jesus as possible. He had probably fasted too long and been on his own too long, but on one day he had a vision of Jesus on the cross. There seemed to be light coming from the wounds of Christ’s wrists and feet and side, and they seemed to come right into the body of Francis.

When the vision was gone, St Francis had on his body open wounds which never healed; on his hands and feet and side. He was embarrassed by these wounds and kept them covered. During his lifetime only Leo and the other two or three others that nursed him when he was ill had any idea about these stigmata. On the night Francis died, he asked to be laid naked on the bare earth in his beloved Portiuncula, down the hill from Assisi. Then, and only then, quite a number of Brothers saw wounds.

I’m not sure whether I am completely convinced of the literal truth of the stigmata of St Francis; I am perhaps about 80% sure. There is certainly no requirement of anyone to believe in them. To get hung up on whether they were true or not, or exactly what form they took, is to miss the point. Like Saint Paul, St Francis bore on his body the marks of Christ. Being personally marked by the death of Christ – that’s the point.

St Paul and St Francis believed they were personally marked by the death of Christ because they were baptised: ‘Do you not know,’ Paul asks the Christians in Rome, ‘that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?’ (Romans 6:3)

‘All of us’ includes you and me. We were baptised into his death. Archbishop Rowan Williams uses the word ‘swamped’. As Christians, we are swamped by the death of Jesus. That’s why we come into a church-building dominated by a font – where we were drowned – and a cross, where Jesus died. To be a Christian is to be overwhelmed by the death of Jesus.

Our death; and the death of Christ. The two come together in Christian faith to bring life.

Most of us are in the third third of our lives; closer to our death than to our birth. Being a Christian is about being personally marked with death. The death of Jesus, and the experience of St Paul and of St Francis urge us to reflect on our own death. While that may sound morbid, I believe that reflecting on our death actually leads us to life, to deeper life in Christ.

What does it mean to be personally and individually marked with death? For one thing, it means that our psyches, our souls, if you like, have the scars from the particular bereavements we have suffered, the marks from the struggles we have had when death has come to visit us closely. How we deal with the death of loved ones makes a difference. How we allow the grace of God to open us to new growth, to new life, when we suffer the loss of those who are dear shapes us to be the people we are. It matters how we respond to death.

And we get more practice the older we get. It’s not our grandparents who are dying now. It is our parents, and sisters and brothers, and spouses, and lifelong friends. It is easy to build a tough shell and hide from Sister Death, but that way, though it might be easy, leads to us shrivelling up. Let us resolve not to become hard and cynical, but to value deeply the love of each as they pass.

Our bereavements as we grow older can lead us into a deeper experience of the love of God as we open ourselves to all the love given and received in our friends and lovers, living and gone before us.

Secondly, in this third third of life, we are marked with the experience of our own dying. Thankfully, we don’t know exactly what that will be. It may well be that we will die in our sleep, and not be aware of the actually moment of dying.

There used to be many books called something like ‘The Art of Holy Living and Holy Dying’.  How we die matters to God and to us. I have a home communion set given to me by Fr John Wardman as a gift when he was dying. It was wonderful to spend time with that priest in the weeks before he died, as he recollected himself before God, and as he reaffirmed how he believed that his being in God was permanent. He radiated a peace and stillness that was appropriate for him. He died well.

The challenge for me is, What will it mean for me to die well? What outstanding matters of loving relationship must I attend to?  How should I deepen my relationship with God? Do I identify any fears within myself about dying?

Sometimes, when I worked as a parish priest, people would ask me not to visit their relative in hospital. ‘They’ll associate you with dying,’ they would explain. And it’s true. A couple of times I wasn’t warned and people were quite angry with me for visiting someone. I suspect that they were angry because they, the relatives, didn’t want to think about death and dying, and they knew that it is part of a priest’s job to raise the subject.

It’s never too early, really, to start thinking about how our lives are marked with death; how we are to identify with Christ in his death. We live such sheltered lives here in Busselton. We don’t have to face Ebola outbreaks or the massacres of religious fanatics. But maybe we can take a lesson from Ebola and ISIS: many people on the planet face death on a daily basis.

The more urgently we face our coming dying the more we can thank God for each day we live. Each day now is a wonderful gift, even if it is marked with sickness and pain, or if it is spoiled with disappointments in love. One of the things I have learned with a body that doesn’t always work well is how wonderfully it does work.  Our prayer is thank you. We come to this church to make Eucharist. Evcharisto, simply the Greek word for ‘Thank you, God.’

The more we look at death in the face, the more we see it as not a full stop, but more like a bus stop. It’s a staging point. We may not understand what comes after, but we believe with full hearts that we are marked not just with the death of Christ, but also with his resurrection. ‘If we have died with Him, we believe we shall also live with Him.’ St Paul again. (Romans 6:8)

All that love – the love of brothers and sisters; the love of parents, the love of spouse, the love of childhood friends – is not lost. Somehow we know that we will find those loves again after death. St Paul tells us, and it’s one of my favourite verses, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined, God has prepared for those who love him.’ (I Corinthians 2:9)  In other words, for what happens after death, we imagine the best possible outcomes, and God makes sure that it will be better, far better, than we can imagine.

So for the future, when we look death in the face, the death which marks us in a personal and individual way, as Christians we are filled joyful anticipation. To bear in our bodies the marks of the death of Christ is no bad thing. It leads to the fullness of life.

Vale Dom Michael King OSB (Fr Ernie)


Dom Michael. Photo Courtesy ABC Radio

Vale: Dom Michael King OSB

Dom Michael King OSB – Father Ernie as I knew him – will be welcomed to the heavenly choir. Ernie was blessed with a beautiful voice and perfect pitch. He could gather a note that had been played 10 or 15 minutes earlier. ‘How can you remember the pitch of a note from the end of the opening hymn to singing the Alleluias for the Gospel?’ I asked him one day. ‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘I hear it reverberating round the building. The last note’s still there.’ And he’s right. You have to learn to listen before you can sing as beautifully as Dom Michael. The angels will love him.

From this Benedictine, I learned my first real lessons in Franciscan poverty and community. It was rumoured that Fr Ernie (as I knew him) had given away to those in need all his stipend, and often much of his clothes, by each month’s end. There was a proto-community of about 15 living in the Fitzroy Vicarage, and only a few of them were working and able to pay their way. Mainly due to Fr Ernie’s generosity and wise cooking there was a nightly feast not just for the resident community but for hangers-on like me.

The most interesting facet of community I learned from Fr Ernie was an endless capacity for failure. Often he would invite newly-released prisoners to join the community as part of their release program. These young men sometimes worked out. On other occasions, their thieving and other anti-social behaviour tested the community to its limits. Fr Ernie believed always that there was hope for them.

On Sundays, Fr Ernie celebrated two large Parish Masses and then served a roast lunch for up to 30 people. He put the meat on before the early Mass, checked it between services. After the second Mass, we would gather in the vicarage’s backyard to drink Cinzano on ice before a long table was set for the meat and roast vegetables.

It wasn’t just the Cinzano: there was always much laughter in the Vicarage, and much mutual caring. When I heard some years later that Fr Michael had set up the community at Camperdown, I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to live in a more structured community. I was surprised only that he left inner-city Melbourne for the rolling downs of prosperous dairy and fat lambs country out of town.

Fr Michael is remembered by the secular press for his work at the monastery.

For me, as a student placed for Sundays and three or four weekdays in 1974, Fr Ernie’s parish was an ideal environment to learn what Fr Ernie called ‘Anglo-Catholic’ ministry. I came to love visiting the high-rise social housing with their broken lifts and broken windows and non-functioning playground equipment. Single mothers struggled in those miserable flats. We were, Fr Ernie told me, like Father James Adderley and other early Franciscan priests in 19th Century East London.

I learned the respect Fr Ernie had when I walked around Fitzroy at night in a cassock. The winos and druggies called me ‘Padre’. Without the priestly ‘uniform’, I would most likely have been mugged.

Fr Ernie’s mentoring style was encouraging. He sent me out to the high-rises and the back lanes on my own, but was always ready at the vicarage to debrief and teach. When people came to the vicarage door begging, he kept me with him so I could learn to respond like him with love as well as money to the needy of Fitzroy. Like the pitch of the last note of the previous hymn, ministry for Fr Ernie was about listening to the faint reverberations. He had a sensitivity to pain and need that others easily missed. If you listen, the last note is still sounding.

Kenneth Bailey’s Beatitudes


1. The humble and pious already have the Kingdom of God.
2. God comforts the humble and pious when they mourn.
3. The non- violent and powerless are the rightful owners of the Promised Land (not the Romans and Zealots, and probably not Hamas and the Israeli military … )

Paraphrased from Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes

Martyred Christians at Mosul


For the sake of our fellow-Christians in Mosul, we should keep our outrage burning brightly. The thugs of ISIS are murdering Christians by their tens, burning the churches. They mark their houses with “N” (for “Nazarene”) and occupy them for themselves. Some commentators claim this is the worst pogrom since the Nazis put yellow stars on Jews and rounded them up in Germany.

To bring Christianity in Mosul to an end is a tragedy of the worst kind: Christians have been there since just after the time of Christ. They still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. ISIS is destroying the community’s ancient irreplaceable texts.

The purpose of ISIS is clear: to wipe our Christianity in Iraq and all historical traces of it. It is shaping up to be a massacre of a people and the death of a culture. As a Christian, I burn with a sad anger to see brothers and sisters in the process of becoming martyrs.

As a teacher of World Religions, I am aware also that for most Muslims, the actions of ISIS is shameful. Their casual cruelty is foreign to Islam, which values human life and respects the People of the Book.

ISIS, like some extreme Christian groups, believes shrines and images lead people away from God. On July 24 this year, for example, the Islamic State levelled the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. This is as incomprehensible to most Muslims as Cromwell’s wanton destruction of English churches during the Revolution is to Christians.

The respected Washington Post, for example, wonders whether the destruction of shrines is to gain media attention. The answer is, I think, only as means to teach Muslims of the perceived dangers of these artefacts. These fundamentalists believe that they deceive people by promising to help them get closer to God, and they are prepared to destroy even the most valuable so that people can have simple direct access to God.

There seems so little that we can do from here in Australia. But I would suggest three actions.

  • Appreciate our freedom to worship. Thank God for it; and, if the occasion arises, express our appreciation to our civic leaders.
  • Stand in solidarity with our fellow-Christians in Mosul. Pray for them and with them. Get on board with the Act for Peace (Christmas Bowl) campaign.
  • Spread the word. Talk about the massacre that is occurring in Mosul with your friends. Re-post this blog, or other blogs about it, or link to it.

 

Ted Witham
26 July 2014

Bishop Brian Macdonald: subito Santo?


Bishop Macdonald at the Citizenship Convention, Canberra, 1965. Photo: Courtesy National Library of Australia

If John Paul 2 can be made a saint, then I reckon Brian Macdonald can be made a saint too. Bishop Brian Macdonald was one of my heroes in the early years of my priesthood. I was fortunate to be in the same Deanery as the bishop in my eight years at Christ Church Grammar School and so we met up most months at Deanery meetings.

Bishop Macdonald had a quietly radiant and prayerful presence. He was not a man to use his rank to dominate. I remember his purple bishop’s shirt was blue rather than the usual scarlet, and I retain a strong positive regard for bishops with blue-purple shirts.

Like most spiritual leaders, he had something subversive about him. One day at a Deanery meeting, we were discussing something vitally important – legislation for Synod perhaps – when I heard him whispering to me, “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis’, you know.” When I eventually realised he was talking to me, I paid attention to what he was saying. Knowing my interest in all things Franciscan, he was having a gentle dig. “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis, you know.” I replied, “What do you mean, Bishop?” With a wicked smile, he repeated, “He didn’t write it, you know.”

I went home and researched the Peace Prayer and found that indeed, St Francis cannot have written the prayer that begins, “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” It was written in only about 1912. I wondered why a Christian gentleman would take such pleasure in disillusioning me. Perhaps it was his delight in taking an interest in my spiritual journey.

Bishop Macdonald was in many ways a radical. At the Summer School of Perth Diocese one year, he claimed that Jesus had completely developed his feminine as well as his masculine nature. I know now that Bonaventure and other medieval theologians had taught similar ideas six centuries earlier, but to expound this notion for lay-people in the 1970s was a gentle shock. I learned that Jesus was a strong leader, willing to take the initiative, and to take his stand against evil. But equally, Jesus was nurturing, caring and intuitive, not afraid to express emotion and be vulnerable. Something like Bishop Macdonald himself. Masculine and feminine: a rounded human being.

Today, decades after the death of Bishop Macdonald, I was again reminded of the blue-shirted bishop when our diocesan bishop visited our parish. Bishop Allan Ewing wears a scarlet-purple shirt, so that’s not the point of connection.

Today is Easter V, and the Gospel is from John 14 with Jesus telling us, “In my Father’s house are many places.” Bishop Allan interpreted this to mean that there are for each of us places of safety and feeding for us now in the Kingdom as we live it out. It is not a promise for the future, but a statement for today.

Back in those Deanery meetings, Bishop Macdonald told us about trading caravans travelling back and forth across the Middle East, making 15 – 20 miles a day. Each night they needed a stopping place where there would be shelter, feed and water for the camels; a place to stop and sleep. The Greek word Jesus uses is “manoi” which does translate as “stopping places”. Jesus is stating, “In my Father’s caravan are many stopping places.” This is good news. And one man from those caravans rode ahead each day. He was called the dragoman. His role was to go ahead of the caravan and to make sure everything was ready at the stopping place. “I go ahead of you to prepare a place.” Jesus is the dragoman for us each day on our journey.

So I am grateful to Bishop Allan for recalling Bishop Macdonald for me, reminding me of his gentle humanity, his humour and his care for young priests. In a way, he continues to sit just out of view whispering encouragement and preparing the way for his fellow servants of the Kingdom. Thank God for him!

The end of history and the start of hope


Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament between Theology and History: A Critical Survey, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

From $AUD 45 online

Is held by some Australian libraries.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Niels Peter Lemche claims that about 200 years ago Western Christians started asking the question “Did it really happen?” about events in the Old Testament. About the same time the Romantic idea of the nation state grew out of revolutions and rebellions. Kings no longer defined people. We began to speak of nations as “She”, and attributed actions to nations.

 

The combination of using the Bible as a source book for a history of Ancient Israel and the rise of nationalism was a disaster. Lemche claims that imperialistic nations felt justified in treating the inhabitants of places they conquered in the same manner as Joshua had treated the Canaanites. Because Israel, that ancient nation in the story had ignored, mistreated, dehumanised and only just tolerated the ongoing presence of the original inhabitants of the land God was giving them, so the English in Australia or the French in Africa could do the same.

 

It may be that the Holocaust happened partly because European Christians had asked of the Old Testament, “Did it really happen?” The German nation put to the ban the enemies of Christ, who were defined as not even really human beings. And paradoxically, the Israeli nation may be absorbing the same thinking when she continues to expand her settlements as if there were no Palestinians living where she seeks to build.

 

Lemche, who is Professor at the Department for Biblical Exegesis at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, reveals the process by which the critical-historical method of understanding the Old Testament has unravelled. Again and again he shows that proofs of historical events in the Bible are based on circular reasoning. No evidence for a wide-spread empire based around southern Palestine in the 9th or 10th Centuries BCE has ever been found. There is no evidence for Kings David and Solomon outside of the Bible. Lemche shows how hopeful scholars make their claims for David and Solomon from the Books of Samuel and Kings and then use the same books as evidence for those claims.

 

There is attestation outside the Bible in the 8th Century for a small “House of Omri”, which the Bible calls the northern kingdom of Israel. There is precious little other corroborating evidence for the events or the personalities described in the Bible.

The Amarna letters – evidence from the time

 

What then should we do? Discard the Old Testament as simply unreliable? Overall Professor Lemche calls us to look afresh both at the original purpose of the Old Testament and at the history of the area we call Palestine.

 

Lemche believes the Old Testament was written much later than scholars have previously argued, perhaps in the 2nd or 1st Centuries BC. It was certainly written in a time of diaspora and written for the Jews to respond to the fact that they were scattered from their land. They were in possession of two foundation myths, those of exodus and exile, so the purpose in writing was to weave these themes into an exhortation to stand apart from the people around them by turning to the God who led them out of slavery and alienation.

 

Their purpose was not to write a coherent documentary of the past; it was to create an expectation that God was continuing to act among God’s people, and that a Messiah would come to rescue them. The book of Psalms, for example, is ordered to reveal this messianic agenda.

 

The first Christians often quoted the Old Testament. In the time of Jesus, there was certainly no bound volume in Hebrew or Greek called “The Old Testament”. The New Testament authors quoted usually from the Greek translation of Old Testament books. The way Christians picked up from these books the themes of Law and Gospel, Promise and Fulfilment is covered briefly. These sections were tantalising. I wanted more on this.

 

In a lengthy Appendix, Lemche uses the tools of a modern historian to sketch a history of Palestine from pre-historic times to modern Israel: using the long perspective of the geography and fauna of the land, to the middle perspective of human occupation and land use, to the shorter perspective of the social and political groupings in Palestine. History is still important; but it is found from evidence, not from books that were always intended to be read as theology and for spiritual encouragement.

 

Professor Lemche describes himself and his colleagues in the “Copenhagen School” as “radical theologians”. He asserts that the “collapse of history” in Old Testament studies has liberated the Hebrew Bible. As he says, “We now have the stories unmolested.”

 

Niels Peter Lemche

In this volume Professor Lemche has written a comprehensive survey of Old Testament scholarship of the last 50 years. As I read it, I felt he was putting into this book his whole journey of scholarship and discovery. It is not always easy to read. He wrote it originally in Danish, and then translated it himself with help from Professor Jim West and the book’s American publisher. The result is uneven. It changes register abruptly from academic style to colloquial. The sentences are sometimes long and convoluted. For such a summative work, a thorough edit or a skilled translator would have been helpful.

 

But I found the book well worth persevering with. For some Christians, the idea of “the collapse of history” will be challenging; but for most of us, refocusing the Bible on its theological foundations and letting go of the need to find dates for the Exodus or prove Abraham existed clears the way to read afresh the Old Testament and its promise of a Messiah.

Psalm 114 for Noongar country


When Israel came into the Great South Land:
and the People of God among a people of an alien tongue.

Torndirrup became his sanctuary:
and Walyunga his domain.

The sea saw that, and fled:
Derbal Yiragan was driven back.

Pualaar Miial skipped like a ram:
and the foothills like young sheep.

What ailed you, O sea, that you fled:
O Yiragan, that you were driven back?

O Bluff Knoll, that you skipped like a ram?:
O little hills like young sheep?

Tremble, O Noongar country, at the Lord’s presence:
at the presence of the God of gods.

Who turned the rock into a billabong:
and threw sand into the waterhole to make it safe.

***

(Acknowledging Professor David Frost’s version of Psalm 114 in A Prayer Book for Australia)

 Torndirrup – the National Park on the south coast at Albany with the Gap and Natural Bridge.

Walyunga – National Park on the Darling Range near Perth with many sacred places associated with the Waagyl.

Derbal Yiragan – Swan River

Pualar Miial – Bluff Knoll (tallest peak in the Stirling Ranges)

Throwing sand – When Noongars arrive at a water-hole or river, they throw sand into the water so as not to disturb the Waagyl and make the water safe for drinking and swimming.

The Gap, Torndirrup National Park, courtesy pleasetakemeto.com

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