Being found on The Third Way


St George’s Dunsborough

Sermon for Epiphany 6 (February 16) 2020

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

Psalm 119:1-8

I Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

In Busselton’s Queen Street, there is a statue of the Wadandi warrior Gaywal. You know the history of Gaywal and George Layman. The two men got into an argument at Wonnerup over the allocation of damper and Layman pulled Gaywal’s beard. In Noongar culture, this was a grave insult to such a senior law man. Gaywal retaliated by spearing Layman who died. In revenge, Captain Molloy, the Bussell brothers and a posse of soldiers hunted down any Noongars they could find and killed at least seven.

It’s sad that this is all history tells us about Gaywal – at least, as far as I can find out. Was he an effective bridge between black and white? Did he proudly resist the colonisers?  We don’t know.

Gaywal: courtesy Busselton-Dusnborough Times

But the story of his end, killing Layman and being killed himself is well attested. The story fits a pattern that is described in this morning’s Gospel: if you feel angry and lash out madly, the situation will escalate into in the hell of violence, often in a flash of  time: from Layman pulling Gaywal’s beard to the end of the killing spree was less than a week.

Jesus knows our humanity well. He recognises that all of us feel anger. He himself was angry with the buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers in the Temple.  He expressed that anger vigorously, but none of the merchants was harmed. There was no violence.

But if we human beings fail to recognise our feelings of anger, two things may happen: One possibility is the explosion of violence like that around Gaywal. A Palestinian today, angry that his village has been simply taken over by Israeli settlers, may fuel his anger and end up in a suicide vest. He leaves behind him the hell of grieving families on both sides.

The second possibility is that we will push the anger down, suppress it deep inside ourselves. If we do that, the anger certainly won’t go away. It will fester and end up with hotly felt grudges. Sometimes, people will push their anger down and dowan, and suddenly lash out madly at everything around.  Bystanders and the person themselves ask, Where did that come from?

Jesus, as our physician, diagnoses similar reactions to sexual desire. If feelings of desire are acted on in an uncontrolled manner, people are damaged, injured, sent to hell, the victims of violence. How sad the reasons that Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris are household names. Or sexual feelings may be suppressed, just like anger can be, and the poison that grows in that person may result in the abuse of children or women. Jesus names this too as violence, as hell, because of the life-long injury it causes.

Jesus expects us to be mature human beings. We prevent violence by acknowledging our feelings, rejoicing that being human is to be a feeling person. We name the feeling and then act on it appropriately: channelling sexual desire into loving our spouse and family, and channelling anger into fighting for justice. Being mature for Jesus means being thoughtful, mindful, about our emotions.

Just imagine for a moment if Gaywal had overcome his surprise and anger and mindfully offered his beard to be pulled by Layman a second time? Is it possible that George Layman would have reflected on his action, realised that he had profoundly insulted Gaywal and both men backed down? Imagine the power of that positive action, refusing to use power to injure.

There are times when it is appropriate to act like that. We are usually so taken by the injustice of situations that we, like Gaywal and most people, demand justice for ourselves or others. I call the alternative pre-emptive forgiveness. We say to ourselves, I’m angry. I may even be justified in being angry. But, in love, I refuse to escalate the situation into violence, so I am offering forgiveness even if the other person has not recognised their wrong-doing.

If we read further on than this morning’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus paints some pictures of pre-emptive forgiveness for us. ‘If someone compels you to carry their gear for one mile, carry it for two.’ (Matthew 5:41) There was no law permitting Roman soldiers to make you carry their pack. It seems they just did it because they were bigger and tougher. They were the occupation forces. It would be natural if you carried out the task as minimally as possible, pretending their pack was too heavy and dropping it on the ground, finding all sorts of ways to do what you were ordered in a passive-aggressive manner.

The result of your minimal obedience?  The old bitter tensions between occupiers and occupied would just carry on, maybe made worse by this understandable reluctance. Jesus sees it as an opportunity for pre-emptive forgiveness. Why not carry it gladly, with good grace, and offer to carry it a second mile?  How that would surprise the soldier. To be seen as a fellow-human instead of just a hated Roman.

Or another scenario Jesus paints, ‘If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other to be slapped too.’ (Matthew 5:39). Someone slapping your face is a special kind of violence. It implies not only aggression, but also a rebuke, a put-down. The slapper has put himself or herself above the person they are slapping, turning them into a child or a non-person.

It’s natural either to retaliate or to freeze. In response, you want either to be violent or to run far away. Jesus suggests another way, a creative way of pre-emptive forgiveness. Imagine the power of saying, ‘Hit my other cheek as well.’ You’re not accepting the slap; you’re creating a space for the other person to think again and maybe to apologise. There’s no guarantee that it will work, but there is a guarantee that if you retaliate, the violence will continue. If you freeze, the slapper has licence to go on being violent to you.

The whole story of Jesus on the Cross is about turning back the powers of violence on themselves: not fighting back like Resistance fighters against the Romans, and not ignoring the wrongs done to him. This way of pre-emptive forgiveness wins the day on the Cross.

This is what writers like the South African theologian Walter Wink call The Third Way: not fighting back and escalating the violence, and not freezing or running away, leaving an injustice unanswered. This ‘Third Way’ is operable to us Christians even though at first glance it may sound difficult. It is open to us, because as Lucy has said over the past two sermons: we are blessed, we are salt and light. God’s power and Spirit is already flowing through us. When we find a way to pre-emptively forgive, it is God’s Holy Spirit acting through us.

Our task is to use our imagination to enact this pre-emptive forgiveness. Each situation demands a different – and creative – response.

I invite you to see Jesus reaching out to you – his presence with us in bread and wine – and pre-emptively forgiving us. By his generosity to us, we are strengthened to pass that forgiveness on when people cross us. By his generosity to us, we are empowered to love.

Kaya to Australia Day 2020


Kaya to Australia Day 2020

De-civilising ships keep arriving, our shores
no longer secure, nor our culture thriving,
the wedulah (the white man) brings sickness,
death too by pointing his lethal finger.

So it’s outrage I sing this Day of Invading,
Anger I shout at the smooth persuading
of their own to the
terra nullius doctrine
and the smug nerve to take and to linger.

Surprise and pride at the enduring
of songlines, of rock art, of language
maturing, of wilga for dance, culture
corrosion resisting, the didj, the singer.

So it’s pride I take this Day of Survival,
ceremony I make to sing and stamp
a revival of a near-lost world of soul
whose force continues, sets my heart to tingle.

Make it too a favourable Day of cautious 
Carnival for the culture that’s come
and the culture that’s here, a caucus
of crafts and story-telling all mingling.

So I make joy from blended blessings,
football deftness, hybrid harmony,
cheeky humour, drama stars, open-
ness to future cultures coupling.

  • Ted Witham
    kaya – G’day
    wilga – ochre for ceremony

Called in love


St George’s, Dunsborough

Epiphany 2, January 19, 2020

Sermon

Isaiah 49:1-4
Psalm 40:1-14
I Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

He put a new song in my mouth,
    even a song of thanksgiving to our God. (Psalm 40:3)

At every church I have attended singing is controversial. For some, like me, music is one of the most important aspects of our worship. Singing as a congregation binds us together. It releases dopamine and serotonin which we experience as pleasure and well-being, oxytocin, which makes us feel closer to each other, and endorphins, which make the body feel good and – important for me – they provide pain relief.

Some people call all these singing hormones the ‘messengers of joy’. This morning’s readings together are clear about what brings us joy: it is being called by God. God is always calling people, God never gives up, God invites people to love God and to love neighbour. God calls us and so we sing.

God calls every person. Not necessarily to the ordained ministry or to a specific role in the church. He doesn’t necessarily call everyone even to be a member of the church, but there is no doubt that everyone and everything is being called by God.

You will remember Lucy in her sermon here last Sunday spoke of the baptised Jesus being God’s beloved, and so all human beings are God’s beloved. God calls every creature into his love.

I know for a fact that you have been called, because I see you here in church. You have responded to the invitation of God to be part of God’s people.

For some of us, it is a long time since we have acknowledged this call. We’ve grown accustomed to our part in the church and forgotten how exciting it is to have been invited into God’s circle. It’s a bit like a long marriage.

I remember Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell, a bachelor actually, who gave the same sermon at every wedding including ours. His advice to us was to keep the courtship alive beyond the warm glow of the wedding ceremony. A marriage of 40 years, 50 years, still needs the flowers, the kisses, the outings together, the tender words, the household chores done, just as it did during the engagement!

Similarly, do we keep the courtship alive in our relationship with God? Do we take time to remember how exhilarating it was when we first found God? Or more accurately, when God found us. Even if for some of us, those early times in our Christian walk seemed to be a battle, there was still an excitement about it, the sense of being caught up in something as big as the Universe.  

You know your story, and I invite you to take some time this week to re-visit it. It’s important, because God called you to be the real ‘you’, the best ‘you’ possible.

Like those early disciples, Andrew and Simon Peter and the others, you were called to spend time, to ‘abide’, with Jesus. You were called to ‘come and see’ where Jesus abided, where Jesus stood, what his orientation on the world was. You were called into the presence of Jesus, and being in that presence, that ‘abiding’ transformed you.

For those of us who became Christians when we were teens or young adults, we sometimes don’t realise how much Jesus’ presence in our lives changed us, because it is mixed up with our natural maturing into adults. I don’t know how different I would have been had I not let the influence of Christ become part of my life.

You see, the extraordinary thing about this process of being called, being transformed, is that is God who takes the initiative. It is all grace. We don’t have to believe this or believe that; we don’t have to behave this way or that way; we simply abide in Jesus’ presence and let that wash through us.

What changes God will make are hard for us to see. They are God’s actions working through us, and we may not even recognise what we have done in loving God and loving neighbour.

The Christians at Corinth must have been encouraged when Paul’s words were read out to them:

 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind. (I Cor.1:4-5)

The same is true for you. ‘In every way you have been enriched in him’. And for me. I was pleased and surprised once to be accosted at a farewell party. ‘You don’t know me,’ this person said, ‘but just by being here, the way you were, was an important ministry to me.’ I had no idea, still have no idea, really, what he was talking about. But it doesn’t matter. We are called to be God’s servant, and it is God who calls the tune. We just sing to it.

We can rely on God to keep God’s side of the romance going.

What we can do is refresh the feelings. Not only were we called, we are called. You know when the display on your mobile phone starts to fade, you touch the screen and it ‘refreshes’.

We need to do our part, touching our story, refreshing the courtship. Just as in a human romance, we have to continue to bring flowers, tender words, household chores, time to eat together, affirmation of love at least once a day, and our willingness to be changed by the other person, for our lives to be entangled with each other’s. 

§  Not real flowers, probably, but flowers of worship. If we are genuine about responding to the call of God, we will make it a habit to share with God and with other Christians regularly. There was a time, not so long ago, when keen Christians would try to come to a service every day. Being realistic, I would encourage us to try to meet for worship weekly. For some I know, fortnightly or monthly makes more sense, the point being that we continue to cultivate the habit of regular worship. And our experience of worship should be like our experience of flowers. In worship, we experience something of striking beauty – the music again, the words of the liturgy, the painted glass windows – so that we are lifted out of ourselves into an exceptional place, a place where God may make himself present to us.

§  The tender words we bring are those we speak in prayer. It may seem trivial to say the same kind of words to God that we say to our lovers and friends, but often our prayers should be tender statements of how we are feeling in God’s presence.

§  the household chores are the duties we undertake for the church. Some of you are deeply involved – in Parish Council, on different rosters, keeping the Op. Shop open, taking on the big tasks. All of us can choose to do something big or small, and whether it is managing the Family Centre or tidying the pews after a service, it’s done out of love – for the Church, true, and for God.

§  the special meal we eat together, us and God, is the Eucharist. There is so much going on in this meal. We are fed. We recognise God who comes out of his limitless dwelling place to nurture our bodies.  In eating together, we connect with God, with all human beings, especially the hungry, and with all the created universe. The bread and wine are our survival rations, and we respond to them with thanksgiving.

§  We say ‘I love you’ to God by opening ourselves every day to the presence of God. As a priest I am committed to saying the Daily Office, Morning and Evening Prayer, which includes reading the Bible daily. I struggle to do it well, especially after being unwell last year. But whether we have a daily Quiet Time or whether we remember God’s presence simply by saying Grace at meals, we respond to God’s call by deliberately making those moments every day, intending every morning to live in God’s presence.

§  and our response to God’s invitation to abide in him, to soak in him, to let him wash through our lives and to change us. It can be frightening to realise that God wants to go on changing us. Even if those changes are for the better, we have inbuilt inertia when it comes to change. But God does get entangled in our lives. God does change us, and we praise God for it!

So in all those ways, flowers, words, chores, eating together, affirming love, being changed, we touch our unique stories of being called, in the past and in the present, so that Jesus can ‘refresh’ us, and we can sing – literally or metaphorically – ‘the new song in our mouth, even a song of thanksgiving to our God’.

World War 2: Just War or Just Lies?


Peter Hitchens, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, I.B. Tauris 2018.

Hardcover 288 pages

ISBN 9781788313292.
In Public Library system.
$27 online. Kindle edition $19.98

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Peter Hitchens knows this book will create controversy. His basic argument is that World War 2 was not a simple victory for the ‘Good Side’: it was both more complex than that and more ambiguous.

Hitchens is a journalist, the brother of the late and more famous Christopher Hitchens, who, unlike Christopher (author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) has made the journey from atheism to faith. The focus of this book is to make moral judgements about a war that has been lauded and romanticised as a victory over evil.

He cites the fire-bombing of German cities, Rostock, Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin, as an example of the moral wrong committed by Britain. He shows that killing many human beings was the explicit, if secret, policy of the War Cabinet.

He demonstrates that, as a tactic to improve the chances of victory, it was a failure. Even British high command after the war rated the bombing as ineffective. British bombs were both inaccurate and the German people, like the British, were not so easily cowed. In any case, the bombers targeted poorer areas, where resistance to the Hitler regime was most likely to reside.  

Hitchens worries that people will respond, ‘Well, it wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust,’ as if comparing it to a worse evil justifies the action. Hitchens clearly believes that the deliberate slaughter of 6 million Jews is immorality at its very worst, but that doesn’t make the deliberate murder of hundreds of thousands of others good.

Hitchens salutes the bravery of the men who operated the bombers: it is their superiors who conspired in their headquarters to fire-bomb cities whom he censures.

Similarly, the British were complicit in the forcible removal of Germans from Central Europe after the war. Many hundreds of thousands of German women and children died in this act of essentially ethnic cleansing. Some were even forced into Auschwitz two weeks after its liberation. Some were simply lined up at the edge of villages and shot.

Hitchens also debunks the myth of the ‘special friendship’ between the USA and Britain. In fact, the United States demanded that Britain’s gold should be shipped to the States. All of Britain’s reserves ended up in Fort Knox! The USA consistently acted in its own interests and stripped Britain of its imperial power.

Even the Resistance fighters and their supporters in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) played little part in the winning of a war. At the most, the SOE was a declaration that Britain was still in the fight. Hitchens laments the romanticisation of the SOE in much contemporary fiction, not to doubt the bravery and skill of individual operatives, but because of their irrelevance to victory.

While Churchill’s determination to fight the evil of Nazism is recognised, Hitchens is clear-sighted about other decisions of Churchill: the disastrous withdrawal from Malta, his insistence on keeping troops and boats in the Mediterranean and refusing all help to Singapore. It was certainly not Churchill and the British who kept the Japanese enemy out of Australia!

Hitchens concludes,

‘Learning of these events after decades of ignorance, I felt deep shame, combined with immense gratitude for the fact that I live on an island which has for many centuries been safe from invasion, subjugation and arbitrary rule. It is this fact that has kept me safe from suffering and from committing the crimes of war, not any virtue of my nation. It should not keep me from acknowledging that the 1939-45 war was morally far more complicated and compromised that I – a more than usually well-informed citizen – had been led or allowed to believe.’ (219)

Hitchens’ honesty will not be greatly rewarded, but we learn from history only when we know it to be truth. Britain needs to have a complete, not romantic, understanding of its relationship with Europe as it withdraws from the European Community.

The lesson of the book is that all of us need to question war: there may be times when war is necessary, but it is never good. And it is only all of us acting together as an informed citizenry that can call our leaders to account for their false narratives of good versus evil.

A courageous book, accessible in style and well worth reading.

Disappearing Arts


From today until Christmas Eve, my poem ‘The Disappearing Arts’ will be printed on patrons’ printouts when they borrow from Bargoonga Nganjin, North Fitzroy Library in Melbourne.

The Federal Government has moved responsibility for the Arts from the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet to a new super Department (Infrastructure, Transport, The Regions), where the Arts do not even feature in its name.


The Disappearing ARTS


The ARTS are so subversive now
(for we are young and free)
They lock them up in ‘Infrasport’,
and hide away the key.


The ARTS can set the people free
(our home is girt by sea)
So smother them in red red tape
and tangle into braid.


The ARTS nerve our loath bravery
(Advance Australia Fair)
but we are not afraid
to speak the truth so to disempower.


The ARTS cause us to laugh at rules
(of beauty rich and rare)
to denigrate the canny clown
and turn them all to fools.


-Ted Witham

Discoveries before The Second Sleep


Robert Harris, The Second Sleep, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

From $23 online. Kindle $AU 4.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The Second Sleep is set several centuries into the future after the great collapse of civilisation. A powerful – and fundamentalist – church has taken power while England has returned to pre-industrial conditions: there are no cars, and therefore roads are poor. The fastest travel is horse-back.  Village life centres around small-scale horticulture, providing just enough for the villagers.

A young priest is sent to a tiny village in Exmoor to bury the parish priest who has died after decades in the same parish. He discovers a world of secrets, from the housekeeper’s relationship to the old priest, to the illegal search for evidence of pre-collapse civilisation.

Many of his discoveries take place between the first and second sleeps, as people have reverted to the pre-electric light habit of having a period of waking between two stretches of sleep. ‘The Second Sleep’ begins to take on more meanings as the novel progresses.

Robert Harris is known for his novels of Ancient Rome (Imperium, Lustrum, Pompeii) and of institutions under stress including the army and the church (An Officer and a Spy, Conclave).  He writes page-turners, and his writing is simple and clear. You feel the mud and slush of unpaved streets and the smell of animals sharing living space with humans.

The Second Sleep is a compelling novel of the new genre of cli-fi (climate science fiction). Itis a meditation on our world on the brink of great destruction, perhaps brought about by climate change, perhaps not, and our values of freedom and progress.

Harris makes no final judgement as to which is worse, our world or his dystopia, but The Second Sleep is an appeal to maintain an open society in which power is shared between citizens and not centralised in a power-hungry institution.

It is also a novel of finding love and the difficulty of holding onto love in a repressive society. After a slow start with the characters, I enjoyed the priest Fairfax, his Lady, Sarah Durston, and Captain Hancock.