Peace Be Upon You


‘Peace be Upon You’: Doubting Religion

A sonnet (2016) on what Thomas saw.


Behold, the blemished Lamb of God, and scarred
with unhealed woundings of the nails and spear,
Thomas seeks to know what it was that marred
pure God to now mutilated appear.


Thomas had seen his rising power before,
No question that God could raise the son of Nain,
But why upend complete Prophets and Law
and accept a sacrifice of bloody stain?


And then he saw altar priests cutting throats
and the violent contest of sacred police,
then the deep purpose of the Bible’s quotes:
to bring violence to an end with world’s peace.


The end of religion flashed before Thomas:
in faith and love alone the godly promise.

  • John 20:24-31
  • Luke 7:11-17

The heart of God


Read Wisdom 6:1-11

“He will search out your works and inquire into your plans.” (Wisdom 6:3b NRSV)

Deep under Duke University in a series of fluorescent-lit rooms, lies a whole different world. If you enter from the Divinity School library and take the elevator down to these “stacks”, you wander from room to room. Eventually, you leave the Divinity School library and meet the subterranean rooms of the main University library. In total, the Duke libraries contain 6 million volumes.

On a few occasions, I spent an afternoon searching for books and journals in this lower world. Because it is so vast, I found myself losing my orientation. I was drawn more and more deeply into the search: from this book, to this author, to this journal, to this Dewey number. It was a totally immersive experience: I felt pleasantly swallowed by the library.

As Christians, we seek the same immersive relationship with God, not necessarily through books, but through our lives, reflection on Scripture and conversations with fellow believers. We are drawn more deeply into who God is, experiencing more fully God’s love, God’s joy and God’s compassion for ourselves and others. We even experience a sense of dislocation, like wandering in the underground parts of Duke Library, never quite sure of the God who is ultimately beyond our understanding.

The writer of Wisdom reminds us of the surprising truth that this deep searching is reciprocated. Not only do we have the opportunity to search into the depths of God, but God searches us out and “inquires into our plans”. God loves us so dearly that he wants to know us through and through, intimately and passionately. God immerses Godself in us, roaming in our lives and tenderly exploring each part as he finds it. And as God discovers more and more who we are, so God’s searching love transforms this, then that, aspect of our lives. 

As we search the depths of God, and God searches our depths, so we become more like God, forgiven and free to be loving, joyful and compassionate.

God is open to our searching. God invites our immersion in God’s life. God rejoices in our deepening understanding of his nature. We too must decide to open ourselves to God’s searching, knowing that there is no part of us that God cannot redeem, and knowing too that God is determined to know as and to transform us.

Thought: God seeks to know us so he can love us more deeply. We seek to know God so we can love God and all God’s creatures more deeply.

Prayer: Open our hearts, God of Wisdom, and come into our lives and change us into your glory. Amen.

The edited post as published in the Upper Room is at https://www.upperroom.org/devotionals/en-2022-03-26t

The house was filled with the aroma


Sermon

St Brendan’s-by-the-Sea, Warnbro

Audio. Click here: https://1drv.ms/u/s!AgoC2q3M9ML7803XvIWbhWu5p3Rq?e=u9KBHk

Lent 5, April 3, 2022

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.

Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

John 12:1-8

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for a year’s wages and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

Hear the Gospel of the Lord.

Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.


In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

One of the amazing things about dogs is their sense of smell. Some scientists say that their smell is between ten and one hundred thousand times more sensitive than our ability to detect odours. A vast portion of a dog’s brain is given over to interpreting smell. By contrast, our dominant sense is sight. We make a picture of the world based on what we see; a dog’s world is constructed from smells.

You can tell I’ve been watching the program on ABC-TV about dogs!

Even so, for human beings, smell can be overwhelming If there is a strong smell, it seems like it is everywhere around us. As a child, I remember the eggs our chooks laid on the farm. We couldn’t use all of them at once, so we smeared them with Ke-Peg and put them aside for later… sometimes too much later. When you crack open a rotten egg, that nasty smell of hydrogen sulphide, rotten egg gas, fills the whole space. You can’t get away from it. And molecules of hydrogen sulphide stick around in the nose, and even when the rotten egg itself has long gone, hours later you can still smell the gas.

An all-pervasive smell like rotten egg gas gives us a little idea of what a dog’s smell is like.

This morning’s gospel begins and ends with the stink of death. One thing we remember from when Jesus arrived to raise Lazarus from the dead, he had been dead four days and ‘there was a stench.’ (John 11:39 NRSV)

The smell of death, of decomposing bodies, is one of the smells that you can’t escape. It’s everywhere in the place where you are. It sticks to your clothes. It lingers in your nostrils for hours. It is a distressing smell. To add to the nastiness of the smell, the circumstances when we experience that smell are likely to be disturbing in themselves. This smell is an occupational hazard for palliative care nurses and first responders – and clergy too!

We all obviously want to stay clear of that smell. We bury or cremate the dead before they begin to smell. It’s hard to stay in the presence of the stench of death. It’s hard even to talk about this smell – or to listen to me talk about it! And it may have been hard for Lazarus’ friends to stay near the resuscitated Lazarus – they would recall that smell.

At the end of the gospel reading, we return to the smell of death – Jesus’ death. The place where the Romans crucified people must have smelled like an abattoir. There was blood and gore, fear and vomit. There were the bodies of those crucified in the preceding days. Gruesome, awful. A place to stay away from, to avoid at all costs.

It’s difficult enough to think about it, let alone be there, as were Mary the Mother of Jesus, and John, and the other Mary and just a few other disciples. Only a few could stick it out. Death produces a horrible stink.

But could there be a perfume, a pleasant smell, strong enough to counteract the smell of death? Mary thinks so. She spreads half a litre of spikenard, Sweet Cecily, some call it, on Jesus’ feet. It’s a huge amount of perfume, costing about $60,000 in our money, a year’s wages. And scholars think Mary and her family were not rich. Martha herself is serving the meal, not a slave. They couldn’t throw money around. 300 denarii was a lot of money.

She rubs the ointment into Jesus’ feet with her hair, releasing even more aroma. John tells us, ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’

It’s an extraordinarily generous gift.

 And think too about foot-washing at a dinner. Mary could get to his feet because Jesus was reclining Roman style; his bare feet were sticking over the end of the divan. But people in the Middle East washed their own feet. Only slaves would wash someone else’s feet.

So, Mary washed Jesus’ feet, taking the part of a slave. She washes them with a hugely expensive ointment and wipes his feet with her hair. So, Mary’s love for Jesus starts so close, so intimately, and expands to fill the very air itself.

Because that’s what this story is about. The extraordinary story of a man raised from the dead, and the extraordinary love of the man who raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus really does bring life. And Mary, for one, gets it. She realises how extraordinarily generous Jesus is as he shares his life – with Lazarus, with Mary, with everyone. Life is a precious gift, and the one who gives life in abundance is a precious giver.

In that light, Mary’s anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume makes sense. Mary responds to Jesus giving life to her family by pouring out to Jesus her love and gratitude.

This morning’s Gospel recalls Moses saying there is a choice. We can choose life, or we can choose death. (Deuteronomy 13:19).

Think of Judas. John paints him as greedy, a liar, a traitor and a hypocrite. Judas’  thinking about giving is back to front: Judas thinks that giving money to the poor proves you love them. It doesn’t.

But loving the poor and expressing that love by giving money or clothing or food or opportunity, that’s the way to life. That’s the choice that Jesus affirms.

Mary, unlike Judas, chooses life. She thanks God for his goodness by spreading love around; love for Jesus first; love that comes from the depth of her heart, love that tries to match the overwhelming generosity of Jesus towards her. We can choose life. We are one of those at table with Jesus, sharing communion, so our choice is clear.

We love.

Our culture teaches us to hold back, not to give too much of ourselves away. It teaches us to hold back by judging others, instead of just letting them be themselves in Christ.

Our culture believes there is a finite supply of love and if we give away too much love, we will run out. But Mary shows us that the opposite is true: that if we give love, it will spread and multiply. Like Mary we can love generously, love from a full heart, love without borders, without judgement, just let our love for Jesus spread and ‘fill the whole house.’

Saint Paul writes, ‘And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Ephesians 5:2 ESV). Just imagine the combined aroma of our grateful generosity to Christ. This church would become an even more beautiful place, a beloved community…

 ‘For we are the aroma of Christ to God…’  Saint Paul again. (2 Corinthians 2:15 ESV)  We are already that aroma, so let us continue to spread love so powerfully that not only dogs can detect it, but human beings cannot help but experience our love, God’s love, permeating the world.  

****

The print of Mary anointing Jesus comes from the
Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Prayer in Time of War


Prayer in Time of War

Can you breathe through spreading pain?
Can you bear the suffering again?
Can you bleach the blood-red stain?
Can you stop the rape of Ukraine?

Can you dull the loins of those on heat for war?
Can you block their guns as you’ve done before?
Can the hope of peace-talks cry, ‘No More!’?
Can fiery minds change their very core?

God, so implement the love of Calvary,
Your eirenic Spirit blast the fighters free,
Caress the world with mastery,
Your love that heals painstakingly.

Transfigured

Our face completely mirroring his features.


Paul Claudel, Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Mark (Mk 9:2-10)

Transfiguration:15th Century ikon, Theophanes the Greek, Gallery Tretiakov

Mark 9:2-10

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

………………..

“Let us go up to Tabor with him: Jesus is ready. The host is going to be elevated for an instant, we come to the heart

of the Sacred Mysteries.

The perfect man in the Christ fulfils his perfect

appearing,

And by themselves, his feet are separated

from the earth.

The grain is hard, the grape is swollen, it is summer. The time has come when God at last crowns

His entire creature.

Human beings are perfect animals, Jesus is the

consummate human being,

Every living form in Him attains His paragon

supreme.

His clothing becomes like snow,

his flesh shines like light.

The Law and the Prophets suddenly appear in his

presence.

Like the iris where the sun is reflected, and like the Son

when the Father is present:

“You are my well-loved Son to whom I have given my

consent.”

Do we understand that at this moment our Brother

has changed us?

His face, his eyes, – his heart; – his feet that

we have touched?

Our face completely mirroring

His features.”

  • Paul Claudel, Poetic Breviary, Paris, LGF, the “Livre de Poche” collection, 1971, pages 153-155.
  • Translation : Ted Witham tssf, 2022
  • Paul Claudel (1868-1955) was a French Roman Catholic playwright, poet, exegete and diplomat.

Never war


Make love, not war.

Make love, not war.

Make love, not war.

This is the first and great commandment – at least, as it applies to nation-states and other tribal entities.

We have been so quick to fall victim to the narrative of Ukraine the victim and Russia the aggressor. We prayed this morning at church only for Ukraine. Even if it is the simplest case of Ukraine: victim and Russia: aggressor, Russia still needs praying for. We pray for its leaders that they stay their hand, that they make love, not war.

But we know the situation is more complex than Ukraine: victim and Russia: aggressor. That may be a summary of the politics, but there appear to be some in Ukraine wanting war, wanting to show how great the Ukrainian resistance will be. There are Ukrainians hiding trembling in the Metro and there are Ukrainians actively hunting Russians as ‘the enemy’.

And in Russia, think of those braving the Kremlin and protesting in the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg against their leaders. Think of the Russian legislators compromised by their allegiance to Russia and their reluctance to be the aggressors. Think of those in Putin’s inner circle who he has bullied into support for the war. And Putin himself: He is a brutal dictator, but does he not need prayer too?  He is a human being.

It’s complex, as all human relationships are complex.

So, I protest. I protest about praying for Ukraine as if the ‘blame’ is all on Russia’s side and not on both. I protest that our support for Ukraine is so easily subverted into supporting Ukraine’s war effort.

War can never be the answer. Even the great prosecutor of war Winston Churchill said, ‘Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.’  

We need to pray. We do. So, let us pray for all caught up in this conflict. And above all, let us pray for peace.

Caravanning around

…extremely funny and bitingly serious about the state of the arts in Australian society.


Wayne Macauley, Caravan Story, Melbourne: Text, 2012 (2007)

ISBN 9781922079121

208 pages

Paperback from $15. Kindle $11.96

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The humour is Australian; the settings are banally Australian. There is a lot to like in this savage satire by Melbourne writer Wayne Macauley. Caravan Story was his second novel.

Wayne Macauley

Since the original publication of Caravan Story in 2007, Macauley has published The Cook (2011)and Simpson Returns (2020). A book of stories Other Stories was released in 2011. He has received a number of prestigious prizes for his writing.

In Caravan Story, the writer, ‘Wayne Macauley’, wakes up one morning in a caravan being towed away. The destination is a country town on the footy oval turned into a caravan park.

He finds himself in an oval full of artists, carted here by the Government. They are instructed to make themselves useful members of society. They are fed and housed while they create.

The painters and the actors soon find ways of turning a dollar, but the writers are unable to be so enterprising. Their writing efforts are collected, but it turns out that the rejection slips have already been written. The plot shows ‘Wayne Macauley’ and his partner escaping home from this crazy world of disillusion, and on the way is extremely funny and bitingly serious about the state of the arts in Australian society.

As a writer, I revelled in this book, both for its questioning of the ‘usefulness’ of poems and stories, and for the loving attention to the details of footy clubs, high schools and caravan living. But it is a book for people other than writers, simply to have a laugh at Governments’ total incomprehension of the arts, and the importance of writers, and all of us, to ground ourselves, to have a place that is ours — a home.

A Universe of Delights?


I have been luxuriating in the images of Brian Cox’s Universe (BBC 2021), and being amazed by the new discoveries in astronomy. Professor Brian Cox is a friendly guide to a story that spans nearly 14 billion years.

It is intriguing that the BBC uses a mixture of images generated by real telescopes and CGI ‘imaginings’ of far-off worlds. They are all designed to make the viewer gasp with astonishment.

The series has taught me more about the history of how stars are formed and their conglomeration into galaxies. I think I understand a little more clearly the ways in which space and time bend at the extremes, making it impossible for our minds to grasp whether the universe is infinite or bounded in some way.

If viewers’ wonder at the beauty and extravagance of nature is aroused, you would grade the series as a success. The wonder of it all leads me as a Christian to praise the Creator God who is at the heart of it.

Yet there lies a paradox. ‘Science’ is the Professor’s god, yet his story of the origins of the cosmos, ‘where everything begins and ends‘, as the series’ tagline puts, strays from straight science into philosophy and theology. It has to: the themes are so large.

You could expect ‘Science’ to stay within its domains, yet many times, Brian Cox points out the beauty of the stars and the galaxies. ‘Science’ is not aesthetics, but it would be a dull program that told the story just as the interactions of physical and chemical forces – science.

Professor Cox even uses the phrase ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ to describe how the cosmos came to be. I wonder if he was even conscious that that phrase was the title of a 1965 epic film of the life of Jesus! Cox would contest the idea that the Greatest Story Ever Told was the Creator consenting to become part of his Creation.

By emphasising the drama of the Big Bang and the formation of galaxies and stars, Universe tries to give meaning to the formation of the cosmos. The series implies that there is a connection between human understanding (‘Science’) and the reality of the Universe, even though human beings are such a minuscule part of the whole. We humans, asserts this program, are the Universe made self-aware.

This is intriguing speculation: but it is not, strictly speaking, ‘Science’. It lies far outside ‘Science’ and is more the domain of philosophy and theology. This is the language you might expect in a theological book on the Cosmic Christ.

I sympathise with the makers of Universe: to make a film with the tagline ‘the story of the cosmos is meaningless’ would attract few viewers, but the truth is there can be no scientific evidence that the Universe has meaning.

It is at this point that Universe slips into intellectual dishonesty. To ask the audience to respond aesthetically (the Universe is beautiful) or philosophically and theologically (the Universe has meaning) is a request to step outside what science can show. Viewers should be on the lookout for these category errors.

Satire kicks our consumerist world

The Transition is the funniest – and best crafted – novel – I have read this year.


Luke Kennard, The Transition, Fourth Estate (2017)

Paperback (Used) from $10, Kindle e-book from $8

ISBN 9780008200459

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The Transition is the funniest – and best crafted – novel – I have read this year. Well-known in Britain as a poet, this is Luke Kennard’s first novel.

Millennials Karl and Genevieve are struggling to make ends meet. Locked out of the housing market with Karl unemployed, Genevieve is a Primary school teacher. She loves her job, and despite her day-to-day frustrations in the classroom, believes in its importance to society.

Karl writes online ‘cheat’ essays for university students of English literature. He is drawn more into the online world of writing for cash until he finds himself convicted for fraud for his almost intentional participation in an illegal scam.

Instead of jail time, the couple is offered a placement in ‘The Transition’, a program that invites a commitment of six months to turn their finances, and lives, around. They are billeted in the spare room of Stu and Jenna, who follow a mysterious Manual to reform their guests.

‘The Transition’ turns out to be not quite as advertised. As Karl explores the scheme’s underbelly, Kennard reveals a wider community based on inequality, where the poorer middle-class are shut out of the common wealth of their society, and where big data distorts and dictates their lives.

These forces override people’s compassion for mental illness, and Genevieve’s descent into illness is sensitively described.

The themes are serious. Kennard treats them seriously, but with a joyous lightness that helps us sympathise with a couple just trying to make it through the week.

I plan to re-gift my copy of The Transition this Christmas – and I have no feelings of guilt whatever in doing so. It’s the sort of novel you want to share!

Attractive snapshots of the Christian family: review of Greg Sheridan’s new book, Christians.

…an attractive portrayal of Christianity for those who do not share the faith


Greg Sheridan, Christians: The urgent case for Jesus in our world, Allen & Unwin, 2021.

From $26. Paperback.
Available from St John’s Books, Fremantle

Reviewed by Ted Witham

First published in Anglican Messenger, Perth, October 2021.

Greg Sheridan introduces his new book on the people of Christianity with his cheerful description of our faith:

‘On the inside, Christianity is full of feast days and family, full of fellowship, full of friendship. And everyone is welcome, surely never more so than at Christmas. It’s full of care for the sick and elderly, and for infants. It’s full of sport and play, hard work and rest. It’s full of good music and laughter, happy rituals and lots and lots of food (it’s very big on food). It is the principle of human solidarity. It’s the search for decency. It’s a conversation with each other and with God. As John Denver might have put it, in Christianity you routinely speak to God and rejoice at the casual reply.’ (Page 11)

Christians is Greg Sheridan’s second book in defence of Christianity. Sheridan writes of a large Christianity, catholic in the widest way. One of his principal arguments, first advanced in his 2018 God is Good for You, is that it is more reasonable to believe in God than not. The first book was mainly a rejoinder to the new atheists. In it, he took on writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and showed how much bigger Christianity is than the caricature Dawkins and Hitchens attack.

In this second book, Sheridan tells stories: the stories of Jesus, Mary and the remarkable Paul. Stories of the faith of Scott Morrison, Alpha’s Nicky Gumbel and the Melbourne Anglican founder of Converge, Jenny George. He tells the story of China’s Christians, and the difference they may make to the future of China. In London, he compares the neighbouring churches of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and the Brompton Oratory, where traditional and informal liturgies, high classical church music and Matt Redman’s Gospel songs are all quite different and all nourish believers.

Christians compresses Christianity to its simple heart. For a reader like me, Sheridan sometimes makes Christianity seem too simple. But his purpose is to provide an attractive portrayal of Christianity for those who do not share the faith. In that, Christians reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity,and Christians is a more entertaining read than Lewis.

Greg Sheridan’ s writing is compelling and accessible. He works as foreign editor for the Australian newspaper. In Christians, he is open about his political stance (he describes himself as centre-right). In a throwaway line, he suggests that Christians are likely to be centre-right or centre-left in their politics. Extremes are likely to lack love.

Christians is endorsed by well-known journalists and by church leaders as diverse as Russell Evans from Planetshakers International, Peter Comensoli, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and Pastor Samuel Rodriguez, President of the US National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

It is a book that can be shared both with non-Christians and Christians alike. Those unfamiliar with our faith will find an attractive picture of how Christian faith is lived, and Christians will be encouraged that such a positive book will speak to such a challenging time.