Saturday, 30 March 2019

“There was a man with two sons …”: a sermon (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the most familiar passages in the entire Bible.  As with any familiar passage of scripture, we can find many different things jumping out at us from this parable.  In the lectionary, we hear this passage on this Sunday in the middle of Lent once every three years.  I looked back on some of the ways I treated this passage in sermons during my ministry.

I first prepared a sermon on this passage as a first-year theological student.  In the subject “Introduction to Preaching”, one assignment was to write a sermon based on one of a number of passages.  I chose this passage and wrote a sermon that was pretty forgettable – as forgettable as most sermons prepared by first-year theological students.  I don’t think I ever preached that sermon … and just as well really.

I wrote my second sermon on this passage while I was still a theological student, at this point a second-year student.  This time, I prepared the sermon, not for a classroom assignment, but to preach in my field education church.  The sermon was a dramatic monologue, telling the story of this passage from the perspective of the elder brother.  At the time, I thought it was pretty good. 

This sermon became my “travelling sermon”, maybe even my “party piece”.  For a number of years, whenever I was invited to preach anywhere where I hadn’t preached before, I trotted this sermon out (regardless of the lectionary). 

The point I made in this sermon, as I acted (overacted?) the part of the elder brother struggling with his decision whether or not to join the party for his younger brother was this:  Through God’s grace, we are a forgiven people.  God also calls us to be a forgiving people.

(And, of course, to forgive someone does not mean that everything is emotionally OK between yourself and the person who wronged you.  Far from it.  It means that you seek to promote the well-being of the one who wronged you, even if things will never be emotionally OK.)

A few years later, when I was considering the same passage, I had recently read the book Poet and Peasant by Kenneth Bailey.  Bailey was involved in research in villages around the Middle East, telling the parables of Jesus to peasant farmers.  After telling the story, Bailey asked the question  “What would happen if someone in your community did this?”

Bailey always received the same reaction when he told this story, whatever the religion or the culture of the people to whom he told it:  “This would never happen here.”  When he asked the villagers why it would never happen, some of the frequent responses were:

·        A son never asks his father to receive his inheritance early.  This implies “I’m looking forward to your death.”  This would be unthinkable.

·        A son would never refer to his brother as “this son of yours” when speaking to his father.  That phrase would implies “He’s your son, but I’m not.”  While a parent may disown a child, a child would never disown a parent.

·        No parent would ever beg their child to do anything, as the father did when he tried to persuade the elder brother to join the celebration. 

·        Neither would a man of high status run in public, as the father did when he saw the younger son returning.

The point I made in the sermon was this :  Even when people do shockingly (and scandalously) hateful things, as both sons did in the story, God’s grace enables us to do shockingly loving (and scandalously loving) things, as the father did a number of times in the story.

Another time was shortly after the death of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wrote the classic book Baby and Child Care.  Dr. Spock taught generations of parents that it is better for children to love their parents than it is to fear them, and that (as a result) it is no sign of weakness for parents to show their love to their children.

I used the example of Dr. Spock – alongside the image of the father in Jesus’ parable - as a jumping-off point to say that our own views of God are often dependent on our responses to the ways our parents raised us. 

·        Those who grew up with the care of warm, loving parents often find it easy to appreciate the loving care of the Living God.

·        On the other hand, those who perceive their parents as having been cruel, harsh, selfish, erratic, or merely absent, may have problems coming to terms with a loving God.  Instead, they may find themselves worshipping a god of wrath, … rejecting a god whom they see as nonexistent, … or ignoring a god whom they regard as irrelevant to their lives.

(And, of course, it may not be terribly helpful to use this as an excuse to play the popular game of “My family’s weirder than your family.”)

Another time, I preached completely off the cuff, for the first – and only – time in my life.  It was on one of my visits to Bangladesh, visiting Christmas Bowl projects.

One Sunday afternoon, I attended worship in a Baptist congregation in a poor neighbourhood of Dhaka.  I was told by the Bangladeshi staff person who had brought me to the service that I’d be asked to give a brief greeting to the congregation on behalf of the churches of Australia. 

The service was in Bengali.  The Bangladeshi staffer was translating parts of it for me.  After about half an hour or so, the staff bloke translated the minister saying, “And now our Australian visitor will preach the sermon.”

I asked “Are you sure he said ‘… preach the sermon?’”


I thought for a moment.  I had no sermon with me.  The only Bibles I could see were in Bengali.  I had to say something.  It had to be on a passage of scripture I knew well enough to talk about off the cuff with no warning.  I asked the minister to read the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel.

“The whole chapter?” asked the minister.


While the minister read (in Bengali) the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost coin, and then the one about the two lost sons, I thought about what I’d do.

I’d retell the story of the man with two sons and hope that the congregation found there was sufficient vitality in the story itself.  So, after the minister read the passage, I started to re-tell the story.  Periodically, after every few sentences, the minister would translate my English into Bengali.  That gave me sufficient time to re-gather my thoughts to tell the next part of the story.  And, yes, in this ancient story that Jesus told, there was sufficient vitality for the story itself to suffice for that congregation in Bangladesh.

And, today, I still believe those things I learned on those previous occasions:

·        Yes, our own views of God are often dependent on our responses to our parents.

·        Yes, through God’s grace, we are a forgiven people.  God also calls us to be a forgiving people.

·        Yes, even when people do shockingly hateful things to us, God’s grace enables us to do shockingly loving things in return.

·        Yes, there are some sermons written by first-year theological students that are better left unpreached.

·        And, yes, in this ancient story that Jesus told, there is still great vitality in the story itself.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

“We need a little Lent, right this very minute.”: a sermon (Matthew 6: 1 – 21, Luke 4: 1 – 13)

Today’s sermon was a work in progress for the past week-and-a-half.  It began to take shape in my mind around the time when the result in a high-profile criminal trial was announced.  (Given the fact that there’s an appeal in process and the matter is still sub judice, I won’t be commenting on the actual trial or the actual charges.)  The sermon has changed a bit during the past week-and-a-half.  As a result, the sermon has had a number of working titles.

·        It began as “Observing Lent even in the age of Donald Trump and George Pell.”   

·        It morphed into “Even at a time when arrogance is treated as a civic and religious virtue, let’s do Lent anyway.”

·        I’ve eventually settled on “We need a little Lent, right this very minute”.

Let us pray. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

In your order of worship, you’ll find a copy of a drawing by the very talented cartoonist Jay Sidebottom.  The scene is during a worship service on Ash Wednesday.  As the minister is about to put some ash on the forehead of a member of the congregation, she says,   “Remember that you are dust…”, but then she adds “…but a very high quality sort of dust.” 

There’s some real and profound theological truth to this.

We are dust.

·        In contrast to the eternal God, the God who is Life itself, we are mortal; we are finite.

·        In contrast to the God of Love, the God who is Compassion itself, we struggle to reflect the love of God in any consistent way in our own lives.

We are dust.  Lent reminds us we are dust.

Nevertheless, we are “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity for rational, logical thought.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity to appreciate beauty, both in the world of nature and in the achievements of human art.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity for ethical choice.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity to express love.

·        We have been created in the image of God, with a capacity to worship the God in whose image we live, and move, and have our being.

We are “a very high quality sort of dust”.  And Lent should also remind us of that.

This is tremendously important.  There are many people for whom a warped, ultraconservative religious faith – Christian or otherwise - has taught them a destructive sense of low self-esteem, in which they believe that the true response of true faith is to always think, “I’m evil; I’m evil; I’m horrible; I’m horrible!”  An approach to faith – Christian or otherwise – which encourages this low self-esteem is a sick faith.

A healthy faith - again, Christian or otherwise – reminds us that we are “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

Lent challenges our personal arrogance.  We are dust.  Lent also reminds us that we are people living in the image of God.  We are “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

In both readings from scripture we’ve used today, we see both these concerns.

The lesson from Matthew was the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday.  Jesus is teaching his disciples about religious practices, good and bad.  Our practice of the faith shouldn’t call attention to ourselves and our own piety.  Long-winded, ex tempore prayers are unnecessary (particularly if they’re packed with pious jargon).  Don’t whinge or look dismal when fasting.  When you give to the poor, do it in a way that advances social justice and shows respect for the people you’re helping, not in a way that entrenches dependence or which insults and embarrasses the person who needs help. 

The lesson from Luke is the gospel reading for today, the First Sunday in Lent.  Jesus resisted the temptation to focus on his own immediate needs.  He resisted the temptation to go for a flashy, showbiz, special effects approach to the life of faith.  He also resisted the temptation to give in to despair and say “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

In both of these lessons, we are challenged, as those who seek to follow Jesus, to be “a very high quality sort of dust”. 

Those who remember the musical “Mame” will remember the song “We need a little Christmas”, sung by Dame Angela Lansbury (and, as we all know, there’s nothing like a Dame).  If you don’t remember the musical, you’ll know the song from watching “Carols by Candlelight” on TV.  Anyway, I’d like to paraphrase Dame Angela’s song by saying, “We need a little Lent, right this very minute.”  (Oh, blow it, I’ll sing it.)  “We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

And the reason we “need a little Lent” is that Lent challenges our arrogance.  Lent reminds us all that we are dust, even if it is “a very high quality sort of dust”.   Looking at the rampant arrogance in the world around us, I believe “We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

And here, I suppose is where the “colourful American political identity” and the “colourful Australian religious identity” I mentioned earlier both come into the picture.  We live in a time in history in which arrogance is treated as a virtue.  If the 1980s was the decade in which people believed “greed is good”, we’re living now at a time in which many people believe that arrogance is a civic and religious virtue. 

In the realm of business, in the realm of the media, in the realm of politics, and, sadly, in the realm of faith, some people are trying to tell us that we’re living in a “post-truth” era.  In other words, you can talk the worst rubbish imaginable, but if you seem sufficiently sure of yourself (arrogantly sure), people will follow you.  Sadly, it is possible for an arrogant con-man to become a senior leader either in the body politic or in the household of faith.  When this happens, it undermines the credibility of all the institutions in the community.

“We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

Lent challenges our arrogance.  Lent reminds us that we are dust.  … Donald Trump is dust. … George Pell is dust. … I’m dust.  … You’re dust.

“We need a little Lent, right this very minute.” 

And, at the end of Lent, Easter will once again remind us that we are “a very high quality sort of dust.”  

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Some (rambling) reflections on the Pell case

To begin with, I was not present in the courtroom during any session of this trial.  I didn't hear any of the evidence first-hand.  My reactions are based on second-hand information, just like those of any other consumer of the media.

Secondly, I have no vested interest in the outcome of this case. 
  • I'm not a survivor of child sexual abuse. 
  • I'm not a lawyer.
  • I'm not a member, lay or ordained, of the Roman Catholic Church. 
I am a retired minister of another Christian denomination (Uniting Church in Australia) that enjoys good ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church across Australia.  I also spent a decade working as a staff member of an ecumenical body with active Catholic membership.  In any event, I think I qualify as an "objective but informed" commentator and an "educated amateur", whatever that means.

My initial reaction, given that I wasn't in court to hear the evidence being presented, is to trust the intelligence of the jury.  Occasionally, as in the case of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, juries get it wrong.  More often than not, juries get it right.  I'm working from the overt assumption, unless decided otherwise by the appeals court, that the jury got it right this time.

I have some real concerns about the public reaction to this case.  Much of the public comments (whether in social media, or in the traditional media, or in conversations among people in private settings) tend to fall into two disturbing patterns.  Many (but not all) of those who endorse the jury's verdict have tended to express either an establishment anti-Catholicism or a bogan religiophobia in support of their views.  On the other hand, many (but not all) of those who question the verdict have tended to minimise the seriousness of the impact of child sexual abuse on the survivors, victims, and their families.  Both of these extreme tendencies have the effect of cheapening and coarsening our public discourse.

One fact that I find interesting about the reaction to this case is that (discounting the politicians and media people who can always be counted upon to get on the bandwagon supporting whatever happens to be the right-wing cause du jour), a significant number of those who have publicly questioned the Pell verdict are people who were strong and consistent critics of Cardinal Pell during his period of ascendancy in Australia's Catholic hierarchy.  There are people other than Cardinal Pell's "yes-men" and "fan club" who are questioning his verdict.

Those questioning this verdict need to be aware that, in any legal case involving accusations of sexual assault (in which the only people present during the alleged assault are often the complainant and the accused, and no one else), the legal rules of evidence are (necessarily) different from other cases.

Similarly, those of us who happen to support the jury's verdict need to be aware that court cases are based on law and evidence, not on public opinion.  The fact that the majority of the population happens to believe that a defendant is guilty has no relevance to the outcome of a court case.  Public opinion carries no weight in the legal system.

Some comments have compared the case of Cardinal Pell to that of Lindy Chamberlain.  In a real sense, the early (and false) public perception of Mrs. Chamberlain's guilt was based on her own naïvete in assuming that the tragic disappearance of her child was an occasion for her to bear public witness to her own faith, leading to the false belief that Mrs. Chamberlain had a harsh and uncaring attitude to her child.  Whatever adjectives you want to use for George Pell, naïve is probably not high on your list.
I believe a better high profile Australian case to which to compare the Pell case is one from a few decades earlier than the Chamberlain case, the case of Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr in the 1950s.  Professor Orr was dismissed from his position at the University of Tasmania for seducing a student.  He sued the University for unjust dismissal, with the case (and its subsequent appeals) becoming somewhat of a legal marathon.  In the course of the trials and appeals, according to my reading of accounts of the case, Orr's abrasive personality and his personal arrogance were factors resulting in stiffening the resolve of his opponents and frustrating his supporters.  Can this be an apt parallel between the Orr and Pell cases?
I am personally worried that the Pell case may signal the beginning of a renewed period of anti-Catholic bigotry (never really far from the surface) here in Australia.  I've seen public comment asserting the idea that the Roman Catholic Church is a sinister institution at its heart, and that individual Catholics (or, at least, those who are practicing) have no moral right to express opinions on this case.  As a person whose social media profiles often list my profession as "ecumenist", I must object to this in the strongest possible terms.

In a real way, a renewal of anti-Catholic bigotry in the wider community will not hurt Cardinal Pell nor the various Pell wannabees in the hierarchy.  Nor will it hurt the various ultraconservative Catholics whom some commentators describe as "Brideshead Catholics" (from Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited) and whom I've been known to describe as the "Scientology wing" of the Roman Catholic Church.  (1)  They would just love it if the relations between Catholics and the rest of the community reverted to being as bad as they were during the bad old days of the 1950s.  It would increase their own influence within the Catholic Church far more than they deserve.

The people whom I fear would be most hurt by a renewed growth in anti-Catholic bigotry would be the good, solid everyday Catholics we all know in our daily lives, the people I call the "Mrs. Duffy Next Door Catholics".  These are people who are regular attenders at Mass.  They appreciate the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but would like to see the reforms go just a little further, even if it's nothing all that radical.  For example, the formidable "Mrs. Duffy" would like to see her divorced-and-remarried brother, her Baptist sister-in-law, and her gay son be able to receive Communion when they show up at Midnight Mass next Christmas Eve.  A rise in anti-Catholic bigotry in the community would hurt "Mrs. Duffy" far more than it would hurt the "Brideshead-Scientology" crowd in the RC Church .

Ultimately, we need to realise that life is more complicated than a television drama.  In a murder mystery on TV, it goes without saying that the character who is portrayed as an arrogant, ultra-conservative, hyper-moralistic cleric will turn out to have a few skeletons of a sexual nature in his closet.  Life is far more complicated than an episode of Midsomer Murders, however. 

The jury has done its job.  (In my own opinion, I believe they did it well, but I could be wrong.)  Now it is time for the appellate court to do its job.  Let's allow the legal system to continue to function.

The two things with which I want to conclude, whatever your opinions on the facts of this case, are these:
  • For the sake of the survivors and victims of child sexual abuse in any context, secular or religious, do not minimise the impact of child sexual abuse on the survivors and victims.
  • For the sake of the wholeness of our culture, do not add to the level of bigotry already expressed to, and experienced by, Australian Catholics.
(1)   I'm not singling out Catholics here.  I've also been known to speak of the "Jehovah's Witnesses" wing of the Anglican Communion (i.e., Sydney-style evangelicals) and the "Playschool wing" of the Uniting Church.