Last Things – and more Last Things

At church yesterday, it could easily have degenerated into a heated argument about the end times. ‘What did I think of Trump deciding that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel?’ was the question that initiated our discussion.

We quickly agreed that:

  1. Tel Aviv was of no importance in God’s plans.
  2. If God could work through Cyrus, I said (Isaiah 45:1-13), he can surely work through Trump. ‘And Darius,’ added my interlocutor quickly (Ezra 5-6).
  3. My interlocutor argued that making Jerusalem the capital put paid to the two-state solution. I replied that it is not beyond human ingenuity to have two states and a Jerusalem capital. One possibility was that Jerusalem could be capital of both Israel and Palestine. Surprisingly, he conceded this point.
  4. I learned from my friend that Mr Trump had spent time with African-American churches in the South. We agreed that it is easier to see the worldly influences on the President than the Christian ones.

I tried to argue that our modern idea of the nation-state was not the same as the Bible’s. I don’t think I won that point, even though it’s obvious to me that the ‘goyim’ (nations) in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are more tribes than geographical locations delimited by boundaries.

As we talked, my companion revealed a belief that God’s plan included a battle, presumably on the plains near Jerusalem which some scholars identify as Armageddon. I agreed that this agenda could well have been pressed on Mr Trump by his evangelical supporters. It may even have been the reason that Trump’s ‘recognition’ of Jerusalem as the capital was precisely to hasten this outcome.

This is where I part company with my friend. Obviously, there is likely always to be violence in the background as God’s plans are played out – that’s human nature, sadly. It is unlikely, however, that God would intend violent collateral damage (such as the destruction of the Palestinians), or that God would choose violence to further God’s plans.

What made up my mind some years ago were the pleas of Palestinian Christians: wouldn’t you imagine that God had a better plan than their destruction? As I thought about that, I realised that God would not plan the destruction of any Palestinians, Christian, Muslim or Jewish. On the contrary, God wants all Palestinians to flourish.

I cannot countenance violence because in the Bible Jesus accomplishes his victories only by non-violent methods. Love your enemy, Jesus insists.

‘You have heard that it was said, love your neighbours and hate your enemies, but I say to you, love your enemies.’ (Matthew 5:43-44).

This non-violent love is for me the end of my searching the Scriptures; the point where I come to when I have exhausted all other possibilities for God’s plans.

My interlocutor of yesterday, however, at the end of his searching the scriptures, finds four points, including God’s use of violence, that indicate when the end of all things is at hand. I didn’t argue this point with him; I doubt I could change his mind.

I don’t spend energy searching for indicators of the end-time. I take seriously Jesus’ injunction that we ‘do not know the day our Lord is coming’ (Matthew 24:42). Why spend time on a search that will end up being fruitless?

The thing about God is not his timing at all. For God, all time is one. We are not to worry about when God is coming, we are to be concerned about whether we are ready today. We show our readiness by loving our enemies as well as those who love us (Matthew 5:46-47).

Refugee Camp

Breaking down walls of division

NO Islam; NO Sharia; No Halal! These were the slogans on one side of yesterday’s demonstrations.

Ignorance breeds racism. Australia welcomes all. These slogans were shouted back.

Picture courtesy

There’s real pressure on us to take sides. We have beliefs about our friends’ beliefs, about our fellow-tertiaries’ strong opinions, about our fellow-Christians’ ideas, and our default position is to follow what we think they think!

Of course we do. We are social animals. I want to go to Perth and stand with Christians who welcome refugees and embrace Muslims. I can argue the case for inclusion with vigour and clarity. But therein lies a problem. To be a vigorous advocate at the moment risks creating divisions and fomenting hatred in the community.

Rather than practising my lines bolstering my ‘side’ of the current arguments, I should be walking in the shoes of people who have different views.

One exercise in our training for non-violence involved splitting into two sides at opposite ends of the room and emphasising the differences in the two groups. Then individuals crossed the line in the middle and looked at the issue from the point of view of the other group. These actions brought the group back together.

I’ve studied Islam, and rather than shout at people with hateful catchphrases like ‘NO Sharia!’ I should acknowledge that there is real fear in the community. People look at societies like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and see the punishments certain Muslim governments mete out. We would not stand for the way women are banned from driving. We are outraged that people are put to death – often in barbaric ways – for converting from Islam. Rather than shouting back at those who shout ‘NO Sharia!’ I should agree. I fear a Muslim government that treats its citizens like that.

I don’t think Halal certification of meat costs the average shopper. I do know that certification provides a livelihood for ordinary Australian family farmers who sell livestock to the abattoirs in Katanning. I agree that the certifying most foods for sale is unnecessary and confusing and worth resisting. It’s more complex than saying either ‘No Halal’ or all certification is good. A conversation where there is more trust and less fear would benefit all.

Australia is not going to become a Muslim country overnight. At the 2006 Census, 63.9% of Australians claimed to be Christians as against 1.7% Muslims. The 2011 numbers have not been analysed yet, and, while it is true that the proportion of Muslims has grown, the size of the Muslim community is still a tiny minority. We are a strong community. We can handle that much diversity. But we must take care, as a settler society, to make changes slowly.

So I admit to being tempted to man the barricades, to take a stand on one side of this debate, and imagine that will make society more inclusive. I need to resist that temptation and find ways of healing division, of understanding legitimate fears and concerns and creating harmony. That seems to be the Franciscan way, the way of Christ for me.

A Man on the World Day of Prayer

Talk for the World Day of Prayer

6 March 2015 – Theme of the Service: Domestic Violence

The reading set is: John 13:1-15 (

I can’t help worrying about Simon Peter. He’s an angry man, and angry men can be a worry for all of us. We live in a world made dark by the shadow of angry men.

First, let me thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. The World Day of Prayer has long been a movement which brings together Christian women and men to pray and to be together, and, I believe, is a real force for good.

Our Bible reading this morning is a story about Jesus. And nearly every story about Jesus brings us closer to his cross, and in this story in particular, John helps us to prepare for the great events of the crucifixion and resurrection.

In this story, at the last supper, Jesus lays aside his outer clothes to prepare for ministry.

On the cross, Jesus lays aside his human life to prepare for his death and resurrection to eternal life.

Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in water to make them clean – and this cleanliness goes beyond the physical cleansing of dirty feet. It is described as an all-over clean; holistic cleansing.

Jesus washes away our dirt in the blood of the cross. I know this metaphor is not always pleasing to Anglicans; it’s not a pleasant image, but it’s a strong Biblical metaphor and totally unavoidable.

And the thing about being cleansed by Jesus is that once you are clean, you stay clean. “A person who has bathed does not need to wash,” Jesus says. Once you have accepted the cleansing power of the Cross, your sins are forgiven; you start again with a clear page; you are a new person.

Jesus accomplished this cleansing by giving himself. He takes the role of a servant – even more than that, as we will see – to wash his friends’ feet. He gives his whole life on the Cross to wash the lives of all humanity, of all who will hear and accept.

This is what upsets Simon Peter. Offering to wash his disciples’ feet is more than a role reversal. It’s more than Jesus just taking the part that a slave would normally take. Or a woman. In poorer homes without a slave for this task, visitors would be welcomed by a woman to wash the dust of the road off their feet. It’s bad enough for Peter that his Rabbi and Lord is acting the role of a slave — or a woman, God forbid – but foot-washing seems to take too much away from Peter.

It’s hard for those who are frail to accept someone helping them to shower. It seems to be a complete loss of dignity. I’ve been in hospital when nurses and other care-givers have helped me with my daily routine. I had to swallow my pride. I can’t imagine how hard it would be if my Archbishop came to help me shower. Embarrassed, angry, a complete loss of self-respect. At least, that would be my first reaction.

I think that’s what provoked such a strong reaction from Peter. His Lord and Teacher was offering to do something for him for which, in part, Peter had to swallow his pride. He was embarrassed and angry. “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

It’s a hard lesson for Simon Peter: first to accept the loving care that Jesus offers, and then to be told to offer and receive that level of care from others. The implication for Peter is that he has to put aside that pride in himself for ever if he is going to be any use in offering loving service, and if he is to continue to have the joy of receiving loving service from others for himself.

We know Peter takes a while to learn, but St John thinks he gets the message after the resurrection, (in John 21:15-19) when Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?” If you still have that macho pride inside, you can’t answer that question, even if the answer is yes. As long as you carry that pride inside saying “I love you” is a sign of weakness. That’s why Jesus insists Peter makes the declaration, “Lord, you know I love you!” otherwise it’s a waste of time telling Peter to “Feed my sheep.”

You see Peter has two choices after his feet have been washed and the blushing has receded from his face: either he can put the old pride back in his heart and go on being an angry man, the kind of man that lashes out with a sword and cuts off the ear of a servant (John 18:10). That’s only a few steps away from the kind of anger that fuels terrorists who coolly cut off the heads of their captives.

Or he can learn to dismantle that pride by accepting the loving service of others offered to him, with the implication that he is a vulnerable human being. Giving and receiving love leads to intimacy and to a genuine experience of love, of being cleansed from anger and pride. St John knew that Peter was a work in progress.

I don’t find this path easy. I am definitely a work in progress. We men would rather hang on to our macho pride of independence. That’s the picture of manhood our culture teaches us, and to be different requires an effort. But I see the positive effect that strong vulnerable Christian men have on others.

All of us, men and women, are challenged to lives of mutual self-giving service, and the vulnerability that goes with that.

Women, and men, too as mothers, fathers, or grandparents are challenged to give their sons and grandsons a cleaner picture of what makes a strong man: the angry, macho self-reliant hero, or the caring, strong and vulnerable servant-leader.

The more there are of us who tell the story of strength in vulnerability, the more we push the shadow back, and the more God is revealed.

Jonah and the Projection of his Dark Side

Sermon 25 January 2015

Epiphany 3

St George’s, Dunsborough

There have been Christians in Iraq since the earliest times, probably as long as, or even longer than there have been Christians in Syria. The Iraqi Christian community may be the oldest continuous Christian community in the world. In recent years, their numbers have been decimated. In 1987, there were 1.4 million or about 8% of the population. We should not have been surprised that Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s Deputy Prime Minister, was a Christian. By 2010, the number had dropped to between 200,000 and 400,000.

The terror group calling itself Islamic State in Syria and the Levant has reduced the number of Christians even further; and, it should be said, the number of Yezidi, and Shia Muslims, and even Sunni Muslims who are not intense enough in their beliefs, all have been reduced by ISIL.

ISIL proclaimed its “caliphate” in Mosul just across the river from the ruins of Nineveh, and made its destructive presence felt not only in beheadings and mass executions but also by blowing up Jonah’s tomb, not because they had anything against Jonah, who is also a prophet in Islam, but because their brand of fundamentalism worries that people might worship the shrine instead of the God to whom it is dedicated.

Even so it’s not immediately obvious why Jonah is an exemplary prophet. The rabbis debated as to whether Jonah should be included in the Bible, and many Protestant scholars regard him as a failed prophet.

His story is told as a four chapter novella – a fictional form. Whether there’s history or not behind the story is your judgement call. In the first chapter, God told Jonah to go and proclaim to Nineveh, the largest city in the world. Go to New Delhi; or go to Shanghai; go to Nineveh. But Jonah booked a passage for Tarshish. That’s like buying a ticket for South America. He headed as far as possible in the opposite direction.

Then “the Lord hurled a powerful wind on the sea. Such a violent tempest arose on the sea that the ship threatened to break up.” (Jonah 1:4) The terrified sailors each cried out to their own gods. Jonah went below and went to sleep. He didn’t help. He didn’t even pray. This storm, he knew, was his doing, and he was still running from responsibility.

Eventually the sailors drew lots to discover who was the cause of the storm. Jonah drew the short straw. The sailors questioned Jonah, who then – at last – began to preach. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (1:9). This made the sailors more frightened and the storm grew worse and worse until Jonah offered to be thrown overboard.

It’s only then that the storm stopped. Many commentators believe that the storm was an internal storm. It was happening in Jonah’s head. It was telling of his emotional state. Denying his responsibility caused turmoil within him. The moment he took responsibility the storm stopped. But he didn’t admit full responsibility. The admission was squeezed out of him. So a further step had to be taken before Jonah was behaving like an adult.

As the storm calmed, a big fish swallowed Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the big fish for three days and three nights. Three days and three nights is a significant period in the Bible. One life ends and a new life begins. Sometimes the bible talks about two days, sometimes three days; sometimes it talks about a new life beginning “on the third day”. It all means the same. You can easily get confused with the numbers, just like when you are talking with a travel agent about a travel package – a week’s holiday might be six days. Two days, three days – it depends when you start counting from – but it always signals a transition time.

So in the fish’s stomach for three days Jonah told God how sorry he was, and after the transition time, the Lord commanded the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. (2:10)

All that was being mulled over in his head, stirred up, with that feeling in the pit of his stomach, unable to see the way ahead, suddenly became calm and light: Jonah could see the way ahead.

The Lord then gave Jonah a second chance to go to huge Nineveh, the enormous city, and proclaim the message that the Lord will give. Jonah’s message was five words in Hebrew, the shortest and most effective sermon ever. “Forty days until Nineveh’s overthrown!” ‘

Much to Jonah’s surprise the people heeded Jonah’s message: they repented. The king, the people, the cattle, the sheep, everyone repented; and so whole-heartedly that God repented too and decided not to destroy the city.

“This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry.” (4:1) Chapter 4 is wonderful comedy starring the irate Jonah. God appointed a little plant to grow over Jonah and shade his head to rescue him from his misery. And “Jonah rejoiced with great joy” (4:6) over the little plant.

But then God sent a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah was furious about the destruction of the plant. God mildly made the point that God was concerned about destroying a mega-city with more than 120,000 people – plus animals – and Jonah was concerned about one plant.

If it wasn’t so tragic, Jonah’s story would be funny.

Jonah was not at ease in his own skin, he was a prophet who ran away, who was churned up inside about his vocation, and the story reveals what happened when these inner emotions were allowed out.

Rather than take responsibility Jonah was quite happy to let a ship full of sailors break up and go down. When he got to Nineveh, he was still a reluctant prophet. He went only one day’s walk into the city. He preached only five words. He pronounced the destruction of an entire city.

There’s an old riddle: how do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? A liturgist is an expert in how things go in worship, what colour you should use for what season, what vestment you should wear, what gestures you should make. What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist. The joke is funny only because negotiation is not what terrorists do. They hold to ransom. They demand. They stipulate destruction.

Jonah’s job, on the other hand, was to “proclaim”. The difference between “proclaiming” and “stipulating” may be difficult for a fundamentalist to grasp, but for the rest of us, “proclaiming” includes “engaging with”. Jonah was supposed to learn that his task involved discussion, persuasion and responsibility. Instead he contemplated the annihilation of the biggest city in the world.

God does not work through mass destruction, whether it is the massacre of journalists in Paris or the beheading of Christians in Iraq.

Jonah’s story brings us up short with its perceptive psychology. It’s not really about recruitment for ISIS. It’s about us and how we can be like Jonahs in our own homes and in our own communities.

When we’re uncomfortable with ourselves, we can become manipulative and destructive towards others. We blame. We blame God. We blame people who are different. We blame people who are close to us. We confuse our feelings with the world outside. The dark side of Jonah leads me to create a check-list so that I don’t end up like him caring more about the life of one little plant than a whole community.

  • Am I leaving others room to make their own decisions?
  • Am I really taking responsibility for my own actions?
  • Am I acknowledging my changing moods and feelings?
  • Am I really prepared to repent, and to change?
  • Am I open to God so that God’s love can flow through me to others?

“No sign will be given this adulterous and sinful generation,” declares Jesus, “except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39, 16:4, Luke 11:29). Jesus rescues Jonah’s reputation on two counts. Firstly, Jonah and Jesus both sleep through a raging storm, and then with the stilling of the storm it is revealed who is the Creator of the sea and the wind.

Secondly, Jonah’s three days in the big fish, being swallowed at the end of his old life of denial and being disgorged to a new life of obedience, pre-figure the three days Jesus spends in the earth between the crucifixion and the resurrection, entering the tomb a dead man and rising to new life for all people.

By that calculation, Jonah is far from being a failed prophet. He’ll go on causing laughter and discussion and leading us into deeper insight into being real before God.

Unmasking Humourless Powers

I salute my colleagues who were detained and strip-searched yesterday. I salute their courage, their grace and humour. Especially their humour. At the end of the day it is not they who stand naked and humiliated. It is the system that allows children to be indefinitely locked up in third world conditions.

I am outraged, but not surprised. Jarrad and Lorna, I know, have read Pace e Bene non-violence training; they have read Walter Wink; they have read Martin Luther King Jr. They know to expect the full response of the law if they go down the path of civil disobedience: fines, jail and all the police procedures that may go with them. They were prepared to pay the full price.

And they also know from their training that their opposition to the status quo will make it unstable, and their disobedience will provoke unexpected reactions. For their friends, it is distressing to see police attempt to humiliate them, but they are asking us to see beyond this.

Because what Lorna and Jarrad and their colleagues have achieved is to unmask the powers. For a moment we have glimpsed what Australia has become. We can thank the protestors for their courage in bringing to our attention not just the plight of asylum seekers and their children in detention, but the community attitudes that permit such cruelty.

The South African activist theologian Walter Wink points out that that the system cannot bear a sense of humour. Those who promote violence are enraged that they might be made fun of. A laugh is what makes us human. Those who stop us laughing must be stopped. #lovemakesaway

My open letter to the Hon. Julie Bishop MHR

Dear Ms Bishop

I am presumptuously early in congratulating you both on your election, the Coalition’s accession to Government and your appointment as our Foreign Minister. But I do wish you well in representing all of us in the wider world.

Like you, I am appalled by the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons. I am appalled that they should use such inhumane weapons and I am dumbfounded that they should use them against their own people.

I agree that the rest of the world cannot sit by and by silence condone their use.

However, I cannot see the logical step by which President Obama and the Australian Government believe that the appropriate punitive response is a response of force. A military response, apart from the illegality of attacking a sovereign nation that is not attacking us, reduces us to the level of the Assad government.

Non-violent response to the use of chemical weapons makes a more powerful and far more ethical statement. The rest of the world should not bomb, strafe or murder Syrians. Rather we should

° firstly state our opposition and disgust in response to the Assad regime’s actions through diplomatic channels.

° Secondly the West should better target humanitarian aid so that the real victims of the civil war can at least survive in safety. Standing by the least powerful Syrians, whether in refugee camps or cowering in suburbs in Damascus or Aleppo is a strong condemnation of the war.

° Thirdly the world can use mass media and social media inside and beyond Syria to condemn the actions of the Assad government. Humiliating a tyrant with words is more effective than killing his cousins, which only inflames the situation.

As our future Foreign Minister, Ms Bishop, please avoid adding to blood-shed by urging the world to act ethically and non-violently.

Yours sincerely

(The Rev’d) Ted Witham

Episcopal theologian Frank Kirkpatrick has a similar take on Huffington Post.