Monthly Archives: September 2012

No ‘male and female in Christ Jesus’—Sunday 26, Year B (30 September 2012)

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Mark 9.38-50


When we baptise someone here at Centenary Uniting Church, we say the words of this Scripture from Galatians 3:

As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

And we respond:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Today, D was baptised. She is growing up in a time and place when we have a female prime minister, a female governor-general and even—for the first time ever, this weekend!—a female umpire at an Aussie Rules grand final.

She is growing up in a very different world from any girl who grew up in biblical times, whether in the Old or New Testaments. A girl who was born in those times and places had no rights and was very much a second-class citizen.

Of course, there is a ‘glass ceiling’ even today. We have our first female Prime Minister, Governor-General and Aussie Rules umpire. And it’s not that long ago that a woman had to leave work when she married, and couldn’t take a bank loan without the permission of her husband.

And there are still churches that refuse to even consider ordaining women.

But D is still growing up in a very different world from any woman of the Bible. Like Esther, for example.

The Book of Esther is a kind of historical novel (R rated!) set in the time of the Exile. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and deported its best people. The Persians had overrun the Babylonians, and Esther was born in exile almost 500 years BC. She never saw Jerusalem.

The Persian king was Ahasuerus, or Xerxes. This was a time when the king could say Chop off his head and it was done without question. He wasn’t a good man or a nice king.

He was married to Vashti, who was beautiful. At the end of a week-long drunken party with the court officials, the king ordered that Vashti come in to show them her beauty. I think we’re led to understand that she was to leave nothing to the imagination. She refused. Good for her!

Vashti’s refusal had her banned from the king’s company ever again. Was she banished or killed? We don’t know, but the traditional assumption is that she lost her life.

The king needed a new wife. So they went looking for beautiful young virgins to bring to the king’s palace. Esther was one.

It took a year to get these virgins ready to meet the king. They had cosmetic treatments, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes of various kinds.

Finally, Esther ‘went in’ to the king. This wasn’t a beauty pageant! The king was delighted with her and made her queen.

(In case any of you men are wishing you we’re born then, let me say two things: there was only one king. And this king took 500 boys a year from various parts of the empire so they could serve him. As eunuchs.)

Back to Esther. The king didn’t know that Esther was a Jew; her uncle had advised her to keep it a secret.

When a king had real power, there was a lot of intrigue in royal courts. No one’s back was safe. Esther helped to foil a plot against the king, which got her uncle Mordecai noticed; he got in the bad books of Haman, the king’s chief official. When Haman learned that Mordecai was a Jew, he plotted to exterminate all the Jews.

Esther used her wiles at another drunken party to accuse Haman of plotting genocide, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai.

Esther had saved the day for the Jews.

It reads like the plot of an opera, doesn’t it? Love, revenge, people who aren’t what they seem, and then happily ever after for the people that matter. And of course, it has indeed been made into an opera. Several, in fact.

I’ll bet we’re all glad D wasn’t born back in Esther’s day!

But D hasn’t been born in a perfect time. She enjoys full human rights, which wasn’t even thought of in Esther’s day. But her family had to leave Sri Lanka because of the lack of human rights there. They aren’t in exile, but they are away from the land of their ancestors. So D is a sign for us to be concerned for the rights of others in Sri Lanka, in West Papua and wherever people’s rights to life, health and freedom are restricted.

We want to do that because we know her family, and because we’re decent human beings. But more than that, we want to do it because Christ has made us one. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Asian or European, Sri Lankan or Australian, we are all one in Christ Jesus. We are family.

We may find ourselves in difficult times, as Esther did. We may even have to use some dubious methods for good to prevail, as Esther did. But our guiding light is not what we think is politically achievable, but Jesus himself and his call to us to be true to our baptism by being one in his name, serving one another and the world for which he lived and died and rose again.

In today’s rather strange Gospel passage, Jesus effectively says

Don’t put anything in the way of the little ones who believe in Jesus.

Let’s take our baptismal promises seriously, and be that

loving community in Christ:
nurturing one another in faith,
upholding one another in prayer,
and encouraging one another in service,
until Christ comes.

Welcome to the family, D!


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What the hell is Gehenna?

This is a sermon I wrote for Sunday, but won’t give. We’re baptising a wonderful little girl, so how could I miss the chance to speak about Queen Esther? So here are some thoughts about Gehenna. I’m speculating, but that’s so for anyone who ventures an opinion in this area.

James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50


A mother mouse and a baby mouse were scurrying along by the skirting board, when suddenly!—the cat leaps into their path. The mother mouse says, ‘Woof! Woof!’ and the cat runs away.

‘See?’ says the mother mouse to her baby. ‘Now do you see why it’s important to learn a foreign language?’

I don’t want you to learn a whole foreign language today. Just one Hebrew name: Gehenna. What is Gehenna? Gehenna is a place. It’s a Hebrew name that means ‘Hinnom Valley’. Hinnom Valley—Gehenna—was south west of ancient Jerusalem.

Gehenna was the valley where in former days Israelites used do something we can’t really even imagine—it is the place where they engaged in human sacrifice. But even more than that, Gehenna was where they sacrificed their own children to the god Molech by burning them to death with fire. It was a horrific place.

So when Jesus talks about Gehenna, it brings dreadful pictures to the minds of his hearers, pictures they’d rather not be reminded of.

It was about 600 years before Christ that the practice of human sacrifice in Gehenna was ended by the reforming King Josiah. There’s some controversy about this next bit, but it seems that after King Josiah removed pagan altars and stopped the worship of Molech, Gehenna became the Jerusalem town dump. Josiah lived 600 years before Jesus was born, but apparently Gehenna was still a garbage dump where the fires burned night and day and never went out, and where worms ate through rotting flesh without stopping.

Gehenna was a notorious place. It was so horrific that it became a symbol of what we call ‘hell’.

We all have an idea of what hell may be like. Is it a place of eternal separation from God? Is there fire and brimstone? Is it possible to be rescued from hell? Does hell even exist?

The truth is that the pictures we have of hell owe more to Greek mythology and to medieval Christian imaginations than they owe to the Bible. The fire and brimstone, the pitchforked demons, and hell’s everlasting nature are all hard to get from the Bible alone. Continue reading

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Who is most important?—Sunday 25, Year B (23 September 2012)

James 3.13 to 4.3, 7-8a
Mark 9.30-37


Who is the most important person in this congregation? I’ll give you a few seconds to think about it, it’s not that hard… Who is most important? It’s me, of course! I’m the most important person here. I have a theological degree and I’m a doctor in two different ways. Where would you be if I weren’t here? I teach, I preach, I marry and bury and baptise people. What would you do without me?

I do hope you can hear that I’ve got my tongue firmly in my cheek. I hope you realise that if I actually believed what I’ve just said, then I’d probably have a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock.

But you know, if I were serious, I wouldn’t be the first. The disciples were dead set serious about it on the road with Jesus, when

on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.

Sounds petty, doesn’t it?
I’m the greatest.
Are not,
I am.
Are not!
Am too!

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame them, perhaps we should just say it’s human nature. We also jockey for position; we compare our treatment with how we think others are treated; we want ‘the leader’ to notice us. Isn’t that the point that James makes in his little book of Wisdom?

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?…you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.

We see others as rivals and threats to us. So we try to make things go our way. But honestly, I can’t help but imagine the disciples acting really childishly, as if they’re saying Pick me, Jesus! Pick me!

You can imagine the arguments. Peter says he should be most important because he’s a gun fisherman; James and John remind him that their dad’s richer than his dad and they know how to run a business. Matthew says if they want someone who can run a business, he used to be a tax collector. They all have a story to tell, and a reason to be head of the pack, top of the pile, cock of the walk. They each have something to prove—and something to hide. Continue reading

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Walking the Alternative Route to Machu Picchu

My daughter Erin in Machu Picchu. Read it here:

Walking the Alternative Route to Machu Picchu.

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I have neglected this blog for quite some time. There have been a number of reasons… Battling depression and the ease of doing things on Facebook chief among them.

I don’t like to be too personal here…it’s just who I am. But I am very proud of my daughter Erin, who has her own blog, The Souls of my Shoes—Following my feet through South America. Erin lived in Spain for four years prior to this journey, where she became proficient in Spanish. So, what next but a year in South America?

Take a look at her blog; look at the people she has met, and her itinerary. You’ll even get some clues if you ever decide to visit there yourself!


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Sunday, 16 September, 2012 · 17:41

The Way of Wisdom—Sunday 24, Year B (16 September 2012)

Proverbs 1.20-33
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-38

Wisdom is absolutely crucial in the Bible; in fact, Wisdom is part of the Bible’s very structure. There are three groupings of books that make up the Old Testament:

  1. the Law (the first five books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy);
  2. the Prophets (including what we think of as the historical books); and
  3. the Writings. The Writings contain the ‘Wisdom’ books, which include

Song of Songs.

There are two further Wisdom books found in what people sometimes call ‘The Apocrypha’ or the ‘Deuterocanonical’ books: The Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. We don’t have these books within the pages of the Bibles we use, but they are important books, and they are significantly quoted in the New Testament.

You know, there is a Wisdom Book in the New Testament too. James is a book of wisdom. The wisdom of James teaches us the character of God. But we need to listen closely to hear Wisdom’s words.

It’s not so easy to hear the voice of Wisdom. Many different and conflicting voices clamour for our attention every day of the week.

Advertisers tell us what to buy so that we can be successful. So we wonder why we’re not the centre of attention now we use the right deodorant.

Celebrities remind us that our lives are achingly dull compared to theirs, so we buy magazine after glossy magazine to feel that we’re sharing their happiness too.

Airbrushed photos of skinny models imply that any woman can be like them, and eating disorders are on the rise—including among young men.

Politicians tell us that the other side is rubbish, and they alone have the answers we need. So we vote for them, and are once more disillusioned by the political process.

But there’s another voice too, the voice of Wisdom. Continue reading

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‘Just believing’ is not enough—Sunday 22, Year B (9 September 2012)

James 2.1-17
Mark 7.24-37

Scotland is a lovely country. I was visiting there about fifteen years ago, and I went on the West Highland railway line to a town called Oban, where some of my ancestors came from. From there I boarded a ferry and eventually spent a brief 24 hours on the tiny island of Iona. That’s the spiritual home of the Iona Community, whose songs we often sing. Iona is a stunningly beautiful place. I loved walking around, seeing where the ancient kings of Scotland were buried, walking through the Abbey with its altar of green marble, a rock which is found only there. It was June (remember, that’s summer over there!) and even the weather was absolutely glorious—well, it did rain a little bit; but after all, it is Scotland.

When twilight was falling, I went to the Abbey chapel for evening prayer. I was looking forward a quiet prayerful service in this medieval chapel, the perfect end to a perfect day.

I took my seat in the dimly-lit church. Not long now.

I waited (the service seemed to be a bit late starting). 

So I took the opportunity to pray. As you do.

I started to feel quite peaceful. Just waiting. Continue reading

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Spiritual and/or Religious—Sunday 22, Year B (2 September 2012)

James 1.17-27
Mark 7.1-23

Religion has a bad press these days. I want to talk about religion today; I could do that referencing either the Gospel reading or our reading from James. Let’s look at what James has to say about religion:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

A few years ago, I was in a bookshop and overheard a man ask for a particular book, a ‘self-help’ or ‘new age’ kind of title. He was told the book was in stock, and it was in the ‘Religion’ section of the shop. He looked somewhat ashamed to be seen looking for a book that would be kept in the Religion section.

‘Religion’ gets a bad press these days. Some people associate it with all sorts of negative things, and blame it for violence and war. For example, there’s a slogan that refers to the tragic events of 9/11:

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.

And that is applied to mild-mannered Christian types like us just as much as it is to radical Islamists.

Short, snappy soundbites like this are a poor substitute for reasoned conversation, but they get inside people’s heads and they have their impact.

Religion has a bad press within the churches too. When I was young, in my Brethren church we were taught that we were not religious. Religion was the human attempt to reach up to God. We were taught not to trust robes, liturgy, candles, even crosses on the wall or on the Altar. All we needed was a relationship with Jesus though faith. Religion got in the way.

More recently, people have made a distinction between religion and ‘spirituality’. Here’s another slogan for you:

Religion is for those who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve been there.

Continue reading

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