Think different

Grafton Cathedral
Epiphany 6A
16 February 2020

think-different

 

[ video ]

Between 1997 and 2002, Apple Computers (as they were then called) had a highly successful advertising campaign that transformed perceptions of them and their products, while encouraging people to “think different”.

Hold that thought as we delve into today’s Gospel reading.

 

For the past few weeks we have been hearing excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount, a special collection of teaching material from Jesus.

We shall look more closely at the Sermon on the Mount during the Dean’s Forum in two weeks’ time, but for now let’s just not that this is the classic collection of the teaching of Jesus, an epitome of his spiritual wisdom.

Although only found in Matthew it has been extremely influential over the centuries.

Indeed, Mahatma Gandhi largely drew his inspiration for non-violent resistance to the British imperial power in India from the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He famously said that if the test for being a Christian was simply the Sermon on the Mount taken at face value, then he would gladly say that he was a Christian!

 

In the Gospel today we heard part of the final section of Matthew 5, a section in which Jesus gives a series of antithetical statement more or less along the lines of:

“you have it said this way in the past … but now I am telling you different!”

In these statements, Matthew is contrasting Jesus with Moses.

For the Jewish Christians who comprised Matthew’s audience this was a controversial idea, even if we have long since become comfortable with the contrast.

It would be rather like a Pope saying, “Well, I know the church has always said this, but now I am telling you we need to think differently about that matter.”

In this series of six antithesis, Jesus ‘ups the ante’ in the following areas of personal relationships:

  • no murder (no hatred)
  • no adultery (no lustful stare)
  • no divorce without papers (no divorce)
  • no false oaths (no oaths)
  • proportionate violence (no violence)
  • love your neighbour (love your enemy)

 

In what many seem a classic example of hyperbole, Jesus begins his series with the example of homicide.

We might think that is a bit extreme, but pause for a moment and think how common domestic violence is around our country and even right here in Grafton where the rates tend to be twice the state average.

How many women die in Australia due to violence by a domestic partner or family member?

The answer is—on average—one woman dies every week in Australia as a result of violence by her current or former partner.

So this is not some extreme example randomly chosen by Jesus, but sadly a part of everyday life in our most intimate and personal relationships. In the places where we should be most secure from harm, immense harm is happening every day every week all year to women and children.

So Jesus picks up the traditional law: no killing

You heard that in the past he says.

Now this is how I am telling you it needs to be:

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matthew 5:22 NRSV)

No killing—but also no violence (see verses 38 to 42)

More than that—just getting angry with someone else is forbidden.

And more than that—even to insult someone is to fall under divine judgment.

 

Jesus has really raised the bar, and he continues to do that through the whole series of antitheses in the final half of Matthew 5.

Let’s hear that summary list again:

  • no murder (no hatred)
  • no adultery (no lustful stare)
  • no divorce without papers (no divorce)
  • no false oaths (no oaths)
  • proportionate violence (no violence)
  • love your neighbour (love your enemy)

 

As I wrote in the Daily Morsel for this morning, these are the values of the kingdom, not a checklist for compliance.

But the world would be a better place if more people aspired to these values. Our own lives would be as well.

 

In times of stress, we are more likely to lash out and to seek to score points at the expense of another person.

Sadly we see this in the life of the church as people struggle with declining numbers and with changing attitudes towards religion.

We are seeing it as well in the diocesan restructure process as people face the prospect of their special place of worship being closed and sold.

Harsh words are spoken.

Relationships are smashed.

Cruel things are said about the bishop, the Cathedral, the diocese, the priest, the town next door, and so on.

The idea of working together is dismissed and people seek to retain what they still have left of the church which has vanished but which they cannot let go.

 

Such times are hard times for us, just as drought and fire and flood are tough for people on the land.

But we cannot turn on each other when the times become hard for us.

Jesus sets the bar really high: no anger and no name-calling.

We choose love and we choose to care for one another as we navigate these tough times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Religion that pleases God

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
9 February 2020

Michelangelo_-_Creation_of_Adam_(cropped)

 

[ video ]

Our readings today revolve around one really big idea.

It is simply this: what kind of religion pleases God?

You would think that after 2,000 years of Christianity and at least another 1,000 years of Jewish history we might have a reasonable good answer to such a basic question.

Indeed, the prophets of ancient Israel—including Isaiah whose words we heard today—certainly spoke very plainly, as you may have noticed during the first reading.

Before we go there, let’s think a bit more deeply about the idea of ‘pleasing God’.

We hear a lot of this kind of talk, but it needs to taken as metaphor and not as some literal need on God’s part for us to make her happy, to relieve God’s stress levels or otherwise to stroke his ego.

God does not need us or anything that we can provide to complete the divine perfection.

You may have people in your family for whom it is so difficult to find a suitable gift. Well, God is like that on steroids! There is nothing God needs and there is nothing we can organise as a gift to make his existence any more complete and satisfying than it already is.

It may be more helpful to speak of God having a dream for the universe, for our world and even for our own individual lives. Rather like a parent who has hopes and dreams for the future happiness, success and well-being of our children, so God—we might imagine—has hopes and dreams for how the world might develop: for the direction things might go and the process by which we might all get there.

We sometimes speak of the moral arc of the universe being long but tending towards justice.

In a similar way we could speak of God’s dream for creation as a long-term process (at least 15 billion years so far) leading to a universe that expresses and reflects God’s own character as love.

There have been a few setbacks, which we might imagine disappoint God or even cause her some form of grief (whatever emotional dynamics we ascribe to God).

Hopefully there have also been some developments which have ‘pleased’ God.

As Christians we see the life of Jesus as an act of extended faithfulness that pleased God, while we also see his murder by the powers that be as something that disappointed God. We see the divine response to that ‘disappointment’ in the resurrection of Jesus, and so we believe that Easter is the paradigm for God’s action in bringing about the final outcome that she seeks.

Those are pretty big theological and philosophical ideas, but when we look at how religious people act it seems that people of faith think they know what God wants, what will ‘please’ God.

We see that certain trends are easily observed:

  • People think God wants the nicest building we can afford to build
  • We should keep enlarging that building and making it more beautiful (to our eyes)
  • The design and the materials should reflect the best architectural principles
  • Our music should be the very finest that we can perform (nothing less is good enough)
  • Our liturgies should be perfect performances, with the most gorgeous vestments and vessels of gold and silver—with added jewels, if possible
  • Readings and prayers will be said by people who speak properly
  • And the sermons should be well written, delivered with some flair and able to inspire people to do more of the above, or at least to keep contributing more money so we can keep doing all of the above.
  • One more thing … the people who enter that building to participate in these glorious liturgies should be nice people (people like us) who get on well without any arguments.

Sounds just like our cathedral, right?

Well, perhaps it sounds how we would like the Cathedral to be or even how we fondly remember it being in the days (insert name of your favourite Dean here) …

 

Now let’s ‘wind back the tape’ and listen again to the words from the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

(Isaiah 58:6–9 NRSV)

 

Such an idea was not unique to Isaiah, but let me cite just one short example from the New Testament to demonstrate that this understanding is at the very heart of both Judaism and Christianity:

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. (James 1:27 NRSV)

God is not opposed to good architecture, fine music, good liturgies and powerful preaching; but religion that pleases God is religion that incarnates God’s love for the broken, the needy and the poor in ways that actually make a difference to their lives.

We saw an example of that recently when Pope Francis ordered that one of the Vatican palaces be made a hostel for homeless men. Imagine the reaction among his advisors and the heritage committee!

But note the words spoken by the Pope: “Beauty heals!”

And we recall the Pope’s words when he was first elected in 2013 and called for “a poor church for the poor”.

Now that sounds like Isaiah 58 to me.

When we become a poor cathedral for the poor of Grafton, then we shall indeed be salt for this town and a light set upon a hill.

May that day come soon and may it last for ever.

 

 

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Love with its sleeves rolled up

Australia Day 2020
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
26 January 2020

The-Guardian-Australian-bushfires

 

[video]

 

For almost five months, fires have raged across large tracts of our ancient and dry continent.

Who could have imagined it?

And February is not yet here.

Yet, after an apocalyptic summer we are on the verge of normality.

Well, some of us are: those returning to secure jobs in the last week or so, and those resuming (or commencing) school this coming week.

But there is no return to normality for the vast tracts of bushland that have been destroyed, nor for the one billion animals believed to have been killed by these fires.

There is no return to normality for the owners and workers of almost 6,000 buildings lost to the fires so far.

There is no return to normality for the people who once lived in almost 2,700 homes which have been destroyed by the fires.

There is no return to normality for the 33 people killed in the fires so far, nor their families and communities.

 

It is not just the scale of the fires that has been so daunting, but the intensity of the flames, the speed with which they ran ahead of the fire front, the early start to the fire season, and the proximity of the fires to farms, homes and even urban areas.

Airports have been closed, seaside villages evacuated, and in so many different places people were choking on the thick air under a frightening red sky.

The world has noticed.

Any of us with overseas friends will have had many enquiries asking about our safety.

Australia has been teetering on the edge of the abyss as a serious climate emergency has seemingly caught us unaware. Not really unawares, of course. Just unprepared as our leaders have chosen to ignore the warning of scientists and fire chiefs, preferring to head overseas on their family holidays while Australia burned.

In this climate emergency we have seen the worst and the best of humanity.

The arsonists and the looters, few though they be, remind us our capacity for evil.

Thankfully their lack of human decency has been more than matched by the outflow of the very best of humanity which we have witnessed in these past months: compassion, volunteers, assistance, and donations (huge amounts).

Of course, the culture wars have continued as well, and some of the divisions have hardened as people stick to their preconceived ideas no matter how bad the fires become.

But overall this has been a time when we have rediscovered who we are as Australians.

Perhaps it has also been a time when we have sensed just how fragile life can be.

We are all so vulnerable.

Despite our best efforts to provide shelter and food, and to provide for future contingencies, we are vulnerable, and our comfortable lives can quickly vanish in a fire, or a flood, or a hurricane, or a negative medical diagnosis or a new global virus alert.

Too often we are like the proverbial rich farmer whose plans for an easy retirement collapsed in a single night. [Luke 12:16– 21]

The fires may have been a wakeup call for a society which expects everything to work out well. We imagine that the universe owes us a living, and a good one at that.

 

On this Australia Day as we scan the shared contours of our national life there are some features which speak to our hearts.

Compassion

It seems to me that this climate emergency and the fires which it has turbo charged has also revealed a genuine compassion for those who are doing it tough. When so much often seems to divide us, it is a good thing to discover all over again how much care about one another.

Compassion goes deeper than mateship, as it extends even to strangers and people with whom we may disagree.

Compassion is about deep solidarity when we discover how much of the good stuff and the bad stuff we all share. Your feelings and your concerns are mine, and mine are yours.

Compassion surpasses tolerance and even harmony. It is more than finding room for someone else and their opinions, but actively wanting what is best for them even at the cost of what we may wish for ourselves.

Compassion is love with its sleeves rolled up.

Gratitude

Alongside compassion for all those impacted by the fires, we have this amazing sense of gratitude for the firefighters and all the emergency services personnel.

Words fail when we seek to express our debt to them, even if our own homes were not in the path of the flames.

We salute their unstinting response: day after day, week after week.

We acknowledge the costs they have also borne as they sought to save other people’s homes and farms.

We are thankful for all they have done, and continue to do.

We are in awe of them.

Ancient Wisdom

The fires have done something else, as well. And this is something that is it essential for us to name on Australia Day.

The fires that swept across our ancient and dry land reminded us that our story did not start in 1788 when the eleven ships that comprised to so-called ‘First Fleet’ sailed into Port Jackson after an aborted attempt to establish a settlement at Botany Bay.

In more general terms there have been calls to learn from the First Nations of this land how to live more in harmony with a country that is prone to extreme weather events punctuated by extended droughts.

Perhaps most poignantly, the fires in southwest Victoria exposed previously unknown sections of the ancient aquaculture systems at Budj Bim. These systems date back to a time before the pyramids were built in Egypt, and their chance exposure due to the fires has been another reminder that the story of nation long predates the arrival of Europeans.

On a day which commemorates the arrival of one group of immigrants, it is important to recognise both the people who have been here since time immemorial as well as welcoming those who have arrived more recently.

As we learn more about the truth of our deep past we shall be better prepared to live into the future that we must—and shall—share together.

This Australia day, from the devastation of the fires, let’s claim these three precious items as we live into that future: compassion, gratitude and cultural humility.

 

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Gifts exotic and rare

Feast of the Epiphany
Grafton Cathedral
5 January 2020

adoration-of-the-magi

[ video ]

Here we are—almost—at the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

Tomorrow (January 6) we complete the great celebration of Jesus’ birth within the Western tradition, and then tomorrow evening the Orthodox faithful will begin their Christmas celebrations.

This double celebration in western and eastern parts of the church is an accident that derives from our different ways of counting time.

In the West, we have tended to count the days according to the movement of the sun; which works pretty well provided we have an extra day inserted every fourth year to keep things in sync. The calendar we know was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and was itself a reform that involved skipping ahead 10 days to make up for a gradual drift out of alignment that had happened over the 1,628 years since the previous reform of the calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE.

Although the Gregorian Calendar has been widely adopted and is now used by almost everyone in the world for civil and commercial records, the older Julian calendar continues to ‘set the clock’ (as it were) for religious purposes in the East.

While it looks to us as if the Greeks are celebrating Christmas almost two weeks late, that is simply because our ways of counting time are out of sync.

Both in the West and in the East we celebrate a 12-day festival between Christmas and Epiphany.

That quirk of public timekeeping reminds us that how we see reality often depends on the lens through which are looking.

I wonder if there may be a subtle lesson for us as our ‘culture wars’ over climate change paralyse our public administration so that we are unable to respond appropriately to the massive fire emergency across vast areas of our ancient continent.

Rather than defend ‘how we see things’, perhaps the fire emergency is calling us to deal with what is now happening in our forests and even on the water’s edge.

 

At the heart of today’s Gospel is the strange tale about a visit to Bethlehem by a delegation of leading scientists ‘from the East’.

It is a marvellous symbolic story that invites us to imagine an impressive entourage of exotic people turning up in the little town of Bethlehem. And there is nothing in the story to restrict their number to three people!

Matthew is not describing three mates off for a fishing weekend.

Matthew is not suggesting one person with a package of gold, another person with a bundle of frankincense and a third person with a jar of myrrh.

Rather, Matthew is pointing to a delegation from the faraway eastern lands who brought ‘truckloads’ of precious materials not easily available on the local market.

These sages will not have been travelling without a bodyguard, plus slaves to look after their camels and other slaves to prepare their meals, offer personal services, etc.

We actually have several descriptions of one such Eastern delegation to Rome around the middle of the first century, and that visit may have been the inspiration for the scene that Matthew has created in his birth legend for Jesus:

The story of a state visit to Emperor Nero by the Armenian ruler, Tiridates, is told by several ancient writers, but this example from Dio Cassius gives a sense of the scene being constructed by Matthew for his readers:

In the consulship of Gaius Telesinus and Suetonius Paulinus … Tiridates presented himself in Rome, bringing with him not only his own sons but also those of Vologaesus, of Pacorus, and of Monobazus. Their progress all the way from the Euphrates was like a triumphal procession. Tiridates himself was at the height of his reputation by reason of his age, beauty, family, and intelligence; and his whole retinue of servants together with all his royal paraphernalia accompanied him. Three thousand Parthian horsemen and numerous Romans besides followed in his train. They were received by gaily decorated cities and by peoples who shouted many compliments. Provisions were furnished them free of cost, a daily expenditure of 800,000 sesterces for their support being thus charged to the public treasury. This went on without change for the nine months occupied in their journey. [Dio Cassius, Roman History.]

 

Now that is one impressive state visit by Eastern rulers (magi), and it helps us to imagine the scene that Matthew is suggesting for his audience.

Unlike Nero, also a nasty character by most accounts, Herod does not make the eastern visitors welcome but rather seeks to exploit their visit for his own evil plans.

This is not history, of course, but an imaginative celebration of the significance of the birth of Jesus. Luke, as we know, tells a very different story; but each in their own way are teasing out the political significance of Jesus, the Anointed One, the Lord, the Saviour.

 

So here we are celebrating this ancient legend as we wrap up our Christmas and as our Orthodox friends prepare to start their own celebrations.

And our country is on fire!

Are we just playing holy games inside the Cathedral to make us all feel better about a world which is a real mess and our lives which are far from perfect, or are we dealing with spiritual wisdom that is not only relevant to everyday life but has the power transform how we deal with reality?

Most people in town—and maybe most of our family and friends—think we are playing harmless religious games, but I hope we have a sense that the faith we share has the power to change the world.

It did so in the past. Repeatedly. And it still has that capacity.

As our country burns we could use some wise ones to come from afar—east or west, north or south—and brings gifts to help solve this fire emergency which threatens to consume such a large part of our countryside.

Actually, wise and generous people have already arrived and most of them came from close by:

First of all the amazing volunteer fire crews (how can we ever thank them?)

Alongside them a vast network of emergency response people: setting up evacuation centres, preparing food for both the fire crews and those escaping the fires, donations of money and goods to assist those impacted by the fires, as well as chaplains offering emotional and spiritual care to everyone involved.

Then we have the array of scientific and technical people who bring their expertise to help us understand the fires, the weather; to fly the aircraft and to maintain the fire trucks.

The defence force has become increasingly engaged in the battle, for such it is, to save our communities from the flames that are licking at the suburbs of Sydney and consuming isolated rural communities.

Ordinary members of the public doing their part and then even more to assist as and where they can.

Not to mention the volunteer fire crews who have arrived from overseas.

We are all in this together.

 

Most of these wise and generous strangers have emerged from among us, just as they did some weeks ago when the fires were causing devastation in the area around us here on the north coast.

We have been overwhelmed by the scale and the ferocity of the fires, but we have also been renewed and lifted up by so many acts of kindness and generosity.

 

The fire emergency points to the larger climate emergency which our politicians seem unable or unwilling to see:

a world where extreme weather events become the norm

a world where ice caps melt

a world where sea levels rise

a world where islands and delta regions vanish under the sea

a world where fires start earlier, burn hotter and last longer

 

In such a world and at such a time we need wise and generous people who will bring gifts that calm our fears and address our challenges.

As people of faith, we are the ones with ancient spiritual wisdom on which to draw as we face the fire emergency and beyond that the climate emergency.

What gifts do we bring?

Gold might be useful, but let’s set aside the frankincense and myrrh.

In the spirit of Epiphany let me suggest three spiritual gifts we offer to our community and our nation at a time such as this: hope, courage, solidarity.

 

Hope

The fires are destroying more than landscapes and structures.

Dreams are going up in smoke. Homes are destroyed. Lives are lost and livelihoods vaporised. Wildlife is devastated and massive quantities of emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.

After the fires subside the grief will persist and the challenges of starting afresh will remain. The climate emergency will continue and will doubtless get worse before it improves. And the fires will be back long before the next summer begins.

Despair robs us of energy to meet these challenges and paralyzes our political leaders.

This is not a time for recrimination, but it is a time when people need hope.

We are people of hope and the Easter message is a story of fresh beginnings.

Our Christmas faith proclaims a God who is present among us and identifies with us: Emmanuel. Not a faraway power nor a pure philosophical principle, but a God who is born into a third-world village on the edge of a vast empire.

We dare not pretend to have all the answers, but we do have spiritual wisdom which gives us hope even in the darkest times.

Not ‘hoping for the best’; but remaining hopeful even in the worst of times.

 

Courage

To face the fires takes immense courage, raw courage.

To rebuild lives and communities will also require courage.

The ultimate source of the courage we bring to bear in these difficult times is our spiritual confidence in the power of love. For us, love is at the very centre of the universe and we know that love as Emmanuel, the God who is with us, within us, between and one of us.

Addressing the challenge of our climate emergency will require courage, and courage requires deep spiritual roots if it is not to wilt in the heat of these fires, in the dryness of this drought.

Thousands of years ago an anonymous songwriter from Jerusalem talked about finding a well from which to drink as we pass through the valley of weeping (Psalm 84:5–7).

That well is our faith, the spiritual wisdom we have inherited from our forebears and have tested in our own lived experience.

This one of the gifts we bring to our community as a Cathedral and a people of faith.

We do not fold under pressure, but we go deep and find those hidden wells from which to draw courage to face the tough questions and courage to make the changes as we create a new and sustainable future.

 

Solidarity

In times of crisis we need to stand together, and we have seen that happening in every place where the fires have torn communities apart.

Perhaps that is why we find it so offensive for political leaders to go on vacation as the fire emergency engulfs our country.

Solidarity is at the heart of our faith.

Emmanuel is a God who identifies with us, who is in profound solidarity with us.

From the beginning of Christianity we have spoken about being “in Christ”, united with one another and forming the “body of Christ”.

As we gather at the table of Jesus to break bread and bless wine, we are engaged in a ritual of solidarity: Holy Communion.

We belong to each other and our future is a communal one. We are not just saving individuals, but transforming whole communities, indeed the entire world.

 

As we join together in solidarity, inspired by courageous hope and hopeful courage we can overcome the devastation of the fires and even find a way to address the larger climate emergency.

Divided and paralyzed we will surely fail, but we bring to our community, our nation and the whole planet profound spiritual wisdom which gives us hope, fuels our courage and draws us together as one people.

Find the wells and tap into the ancient spiritual wisdom of our faith.

Then bring our gifts of hope, courage and solidarity to a nation in need of all three.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Celebrating the birth of Jesus

The Christ Mass
24 & 25 December 2019
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton

[ Let Mum rest | Video ]

 

Around the world today millions of people will engage in various rituals to mark the birth of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.

Millions of Orthodox Christians will keep the same feast on January 6 & 7, while the Armenians will have their celebrations on January 19.

Some of those people will be in Bethlehem itself, where crowds will attend services at the ancient Church of the Nativity as well as the nearby Lutheran Christmas Church.

Some will join in the celebrations by digital communications, singing carols together despite thousands of kilometres distance between the participants, or watching the liturgy on television.

Some will be in remote military bases where soldiers serving as peacekeepers or as members of international forces take time out to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’.

Some will be in grand cathedrals in Rome, London, Paris, Washington, Melbourne or Brisbane; to name just a tiny handful of places.

Some will be on holidays by the sea or camping out in the bush, where the stars shine more brightly.

Some will be pausing their fire-fighting efforts to remember the child whose birth we celebrate today.

Some will be in churches across Grafton, as Christians of different traditions mark this special day in ways that reflect their particular understanding of faith.

And some of those people are right here in the Cathedral for this service!

Not everyone will be a person of faith, but Jesus has a significance for our world that goes beyond religion.

It would be hard to identify any other individual who has had the impact on the world which Jesus has had over the past 20 centuries.

 

Yet, to the extent that we know anything at all about the circumstances of his birth, it was not a promising start.

His immediate family—Mary and Joseph, along with several brothers and at least few sisters—were from the small village of Nazareth in Galilee.

Luke has the family based there even before Jesus is born, while Matthew has them move to Nazareth for safety after they become refugees and asylum-seekers. It was a good thing they were not seeking refuge in our country. They would have ended up in off-shore detention with a lifetime ban on entry to Australia.

We now know quite a bit about Nazareth 2,000 years ago.

It was a small pioneer farming village. Maybe just 15 families who had recently relocated from the south (near Jerusalem) to establish a Jewish presence in the Galilee area, perhaps encouraged by government land grants and tax concessions.

Nazareth was—by our standards—a third-world village. Most families started out using one of the local caves for shelter, as well as storage for their crops. The caves also provided a place to hide from bandits and tax collectors. Over time the caves were modified with modest structures being added at their openings, but the village had not yet developed to point of having a schoolhouse or a resident rabbi.

Like many pioneer communities, the families of Nazareth maintained strong ties with the places from which they had emigrated.  For the family of Joseph that seems to have been Bethlehem, but we know from our archaeological finds that these people were very attached to the Temple in Jerusalem.

From this previously unheard-of village came someone whose name has become famous: Jesus of Nazareth.

 

The Holy Child of Nazareth held no political or priestly office, and commanded no armies. He was not born into a wealthy family nor into a family with high status in the wider community.

So far as we can tell he was illiterate, not being educated sufficiently to master either reading or writing.

The longest journey he ever took as an adult was the 100km from Nazareth to Jerusalem.

That journey took him to his death: executed on a cross as a rebel against the Roman Empire.

His ragtag band of followers scattered and went back to their old lives as fishermen, scribes, and tax collectors.

From humble origins, his life had ended in shame and failure.

 

Yet Jesus turned the world upside down.

Almost exactly 300 years after his execution the Roman Emperor Constantine publicly identified himself as a follower of Jesus and convened a council of bishops from around the Roman Empire—all at government expense—to draft the creed we shall say together in just a few minutes time.

The story since then has not been all glory and success. We have failed so many times and in so many ways. We have done what Jesus would never do and aligned ourselves with people of power and wealth.

Even worse, we have abused and exploited children and other vulnerable people.

Despite the church, millions tonight will gather in homes and churches to mark the anniversary of Jesus’ birth.

Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s reign, but sought no power for himself.

Jesus healed the sick, gave hope to the oppressed, fed the hungry and was even said to raise the dead back to life.

Jesus blessed bread and wine, then invited anyone to come and eat. No limits to acceptance. No boundaries to compassion.

“Imagine this”, Jesus said. “Imagine a world where God’s law of love prevails rather than the edicts of Caesar or the privileges of the powerful.”

And he taught us a prayer which—if we ever really lived it fully—would turn our own lives upside down as well:

Our father in heaven …
Your kingdom come …
Your will be done on earth as in heaven …
Give us the bread we need for today, one day at a time …
Forgive us by the measure of how we forgive others …
Do not put us to the test …

We shall say that prayer together later in this service, and I invite you to hear afresh how that prayer reverses what we often think we know about God, or power, or church, or ourselves.

This is the legacy of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight.

No wonder Jesus matters even to people for whom religion is meaningless.

 

 

 

 

 

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Son of David

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)
22 December 2019

[ video ]

What a difference one week can make …

Queue at Church of the Nativity Bethlehem

Saturday last weekend we were lined up in the beautifully restored Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, waiting—along with hundreds of other people—to visit the ancient cave below the altar of the church. That cave has been venerated for almost 2,000 years as the place where Jesus was born.

Earlier we had spent time at some fields where shepherds once tended their flocks, but we did not see any angels on high. We did, however, sit inside a dark cave and read the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds.

Later we visited the cave where Saint Jerome worked on the translation of the Bible from Greek to Latin, a project that would shape the spiritual imagination of the West for another next 1,500 years and in many ways still does.

The Christmas decorations were everywhere that we went, since both Muslims and Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Sadly, Jews in Israel are not so inclined to join in the celebrations.

Returning to Australia in the early hours of Thursday morning it was beginning to look a lot of Christmas here as well.

And there is nothing like a child to remind us of the magic of Christmas. Newborns remind us of the holy infant, while older children infect us all with their delight as Christmas beckons us to loosen up and be nice to people.

It has been great delight these past few days to have the opportunity to meet baby James, the newest member of our family, here from Canada for a few precious weeks.

And it is a special privilege this morning to welcome Mitchell Gosson and his extended family as we celebrate his Baptism.

Any noise they and their buddies make is simply part of the sounds of Christmas!

 

A child to turn the world upside down

Each newborn is a focus for our hopes and dreams: What will they be like? What will they become when they are older? Will they be like us? Will they be different? Will the world treat them kindly? How might they make the world a better place than it has been before?

For sure they turn our lives upside down as we rearrange everything to provide the love and care they need. And who needs sleep in any case? They evoke love and tenderness from everyone, including complete strangers at the shops!

But what will the future hold?

Running through the readings set for today is the theme “son of David” as a title for Jesus.

We mostly speak about Jesus as “son of God” or even—at this time of year—as “son of Mary”. The church—and especially the church in the West—does not talk so much as about Jesus as ‘Son of David’.

That title suggest a Jesus who goes beyond our comfort zones. He changes stuff. He gets involved. He gets political. And that worries us.

Two weeks ago I was with a group as we visited a small Greek Orthodox Church on the side of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

IMG_2247We were there to meet Archbishop Atallah Hanna, an outspoken and courageous Christan leader at a time when his people’s future is being stolen by military occupation and incessant illegal settlements. When there was an opportunity for questions, someone asked if the messages that he gives from his pulpit are as courageous as his actions outside the church.

It was an odd question in some ways, but Archbishop Atallah answered it well.

The courage of a sermon, he said, reflects the character of the preacher. Some priests cannot speak words that give their people hope. They should keep silent. But he will not.

Then two days ago news came through that Archbishop Atallah had been rushed to hospital are being poisoned by tear gas thrown into his church by Israeli soldiers.

I have no idea whether King David was an ancestor of this bold Palestinian Christian, but he is certainly a ‘son of David’. He speaks truth to power. He is bold. He gives his people hope.

Thankfully he is also expected to make a full recovery from the attack.

 

As son of David, Jesus is not just offering to make us feel better, give us hope or provide assurance of life after death.

As son of David, Jesus turns the world upside down. Our world. The whole world. The world of power and privilege. The world that ignores the scientists warning of climate change until the fires are so bad not even politicians can turn a blind eye.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the next few days, the son of David invites us to have big dreams for a better world, to live boldy, and to nurture that spiritual boldness in our children.

That is what we sign Mitchell up for as we baptise him here this morning, so let’s go and get the water ready!

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 1 Comment

Good news for some

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecosts (C)
27 October 2019

[ video ]

rich-young-ruler

That gospel reading has two episodes, and in each of them people are coming to Jesus with hopes of finding some spiritual blessing; either for their children or some piece of wisdom for themselves as adults.

In neither case do things go as expected.

For the people bringing infants to Jesus for him to touch, the minders—better known to us as ‘the disciples’—were refusing them access to the Master. That is a story to unpack someday when we have the time needed to make sense of it in a world that was very different from our own; a world where children were not valued or appreciated as they are in our culture now.

Suffice to note that Jesus challenged and overturned the attitudes of the disciples.

To be ready for the reign of God, says Jesus, we must be child-like.

There is a lot in that to explore some other time.

 

Then we get story #2, and it is a well-known story.

We probably know it as the “rich young ruler”, but that title already mashes together three different versions of the same incident in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Mark provides the earliest version. Here the key character is a man who has lots of possessions and is seeking advice from Jesus about what he must do to be sure of eternal life. This fellow is neither young nor a ruler. Very few people ever get to combine those two attributes, of course.

Matthew edits Mark’s version to remove some theological issues and, in the process, the rich person becomes a ‘young man’. He is still not a ruler, but he is a very pious Jew seeking spiritual advice from Jesus.

Some decades later, Luke makes his own set of edits to Mark’s version of the story. Luke does not follow the same line as Matthew, but he upgrades the asset portfolio of the gentleman and he also turns the rich man into a ruler. In this version, as in Mark, the rich man is an older person.

So we are dealing with a story that was well-known but which each of the three gospels chose to tweak in its own way. Later on, the church mashed all three versions into the meme of a ‘rich young ruler’, but the core issue about this person is that he is very rich.

Each of the gospels uses this episode as a lesson in discipleship, and all of them link the story with an odd saying about a camel not being able to pass through the eye of a needle.

For Luke—our key Gospel for this year—this episode occurs in chapter 18; very close to the end of the extended ‘long march’ which Luke created by devoting almost half of his storyline to Jesus making his one and only adult journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus has almost reached his destination (see next chapter) when he is approached by this wealthy ruler seeking spiritual advice.

Like the parents who brought their children to Jesus, the visit does not go as Mr Money Bags might have expected.

In fact, it ends in tears.

Maybe not actual tears, but disappointment and confusion all around.

The rich ruler walks away from Jesus. He has not found a wisdom that he is willing to embrace, and Jesus has missed out on a wealthy new member of the movement. They probably could have used his offering envelopes!

The disciples had been saying: No room for children in the Jesus movement.

But Jesus seems to say: No room for rich people in my movement.

No prosperity gospel here, and no special favours for rich and powerful supporters. This, guy—as Luke tells the story—was both exceedingly rich and a ruler. He could have been rather handy on the team.

Jesus does not promise that people who follow his wisdom will become rich (or happy or powerful or healthy), but rather the opposite. Those who want to be his followers must become poor, relocate to the edges of society, and lose all their social connections.

Tough words indeed.

Very few people in history have been able to embrace that message. But some have: Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, and Mother Theresa … to name just a handful.

The disciples are shocked.

In their minds, rich people with influence have a much better chance of pleasing God than ordinary folks like them But Jesus has just turned their world upside down. It seems they had not been watching very closely during the previous few months.

Mind you, the church has not been very good at listening either during the past 2,000 years. We love influence. And we enjoy privilege. We accumulate wealth, property, assets. Indeed, we have sometimes loved those things more than the little children, as the recent Royal Commission has demonstrated so grimly.

Jesus doubles down on his message.

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into God’s empire.

He seems to be quoting an ancient Middle Eastern axiom, and perhaps it originally said ‘camel (rope)’, but over time the axiom has been exaggerated to make it even more compelling. It is not just that one cannot thread a needle with rope made from camel hair, but it would be easier to thread the whole camel through the needle than get a rich person into the kingdom of God.

No wonder the disciples are confused …

 

This is classic Jesus, the verbal poet with an ear for a great turn of phrase.

This is the same person who told people to rip out their eye or cut off their own hand if those body parts cause them to sin.

Hyperbole was one of Jesus’ favourite tools, and we certainly seem to have it in action here.

Infants are welcome, rich rulers can go to the end of the line.

Now that is good news for some, but not do for others.

It is good news for the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the refugees, the people whose lands will soon disappear under rising sea levels, and everyone who the powerful and privileged people overlook.

It is not good news for those of us who are comfortable and privileged.

Yet Luke was writing his account of Jesus for the successful people in the second-century Roman world. He wants the rich rulers to hear the good news that Jesus both proclaims and lives.

And we need to hear that good news as well.

If we have wealth or privilege or status, then that is to be spent for the sake of others. It is not to be hoarded and protected as if it somehow gives us a cosmic superannuation fund for the future.

For the rich ruler ‘giving away all that he had’ sounded like a punishment, rather than an opportunity to share the blessings around.

Yet a core spiritual principle of our faith is that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ (or we might say to share rather than to hoard).

Maybe the rich ruler realised that, at some stage, and came back to Jesus ready to share all that he had with those who had so little. I like to think so.

It would be his only hope of redemption and it may be ours as well.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | 2 Comments

Two people walked into Grafton Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Pentecost 19(C)
20 October 2019

pharisee-and-publican

 

[ video ]

Today’s Gospel presents two views of religion.

It is a great little story by Jesus because it captures the big story in just a few words.

Let’s tell it again in local terms …

 

Two people head into Grafton Cathedral.

They were both going to pray. Maybe to light a candle, or perhaps just to sit quietly and absorb the holiness of the place.

Then again, perhaps they had come for a baptism service … ?

 

One of them is very comfortable in the Cathedral. Knows just when to stand, sit, kneel and cross themselves.

They even know that the green book has the words of the service, while the red book has the songs.

Their name is on the roster: they welcome people to the Cathedral, they read from the Bible during the services, they say the prayers, they wear red robes and carry candles, or crosses or even incense. Maybe they clean the Cathedral or arrange morning tea after the services.

They probably volunteer in the OpShop and they work in the Bookshop.

They know this place so well.

They are respectable.

Everyone here knows them and they are very comfortable here.

 

The other person does not come into the Cathedral very often.

They are not sure what to do, or where to stand. Should they kneel? Are they supposed to sit? Take off their hat?

Maybe if they just stand in the back corner it will be OK?

Yet they always feel good when they come in here. Probably should do it more often. Maybe even come to church sometimes on a Sunday, but they are busy with family stuff on the weekend …

They hope the other person over there in the nice clothes does not think they are here to steal anything …

It is just that the Cathedral is such a special place for them, and they like to pop in briefly when they get the chance. Have been doing it ever since they were kids here in Grafton.

Those big doors just always seem to be open: come inside. You’re welcome here. God loves you. So do we.

Kind of makes them feel closer to God, which they know is silly because God is everywhere, but this is a special place and kind of feels like a gateway to heaven.

Once upon a time they had been baptised here. Over there in the corner. In the funny shell held by the angel. Not that they remember it, but they have seen the photos. And the baptism card. and the odd little candle.

Been to a few funerals here as well. Love the whiff of incense when they come into the Cathedral after there has been a funeral. God’s room freshener, they reckon.

“Hi, God. It’s been a while. Sorry not to come more often. I’m OK, thanks. Appreciate you caring about me. Sorry about the way I messed up last week. Sure wish I had not done that. I will come back soon. Promise.”

 

Now, why did Jesus tell that story?

Because some people thought they were doing just fine, and looked down their noses at some of the other people who did not come as often, or did not look so respectable.

And which kind of person does God like to spend time with?

The second person. They’re God’s kind of people.

They are not especially religious, but they have no tickets on themselves and they really do want to live their life in a way that pleases God and does the right thing by other people.

 

The prophet Jeremiah, about 600 years before the time of Jesus, said that people like them have the law of God written inside their hearts.

They do not need other people telling them how to love, they just need to follow the nudge that comes from God inside them.

 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with coming to church so often that you get to learn the ropes.

What matters is that you are honest with God, pop in here from time to time or chat with God outside. There is no place you can ever be where God is absent.

And that, my friends, is what we need to teach Chase who we are about to baptise.

Teach him to be real with God. And bring him here to this place so it becomes his special holy place as he grows up.

 

Let’s go baptise the boy …

 

 

 

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Sermons | Leave a comment

Scripture trumps Constitution​

Given continuing debates around the Anglican Church of Australia and elsewhere about the status of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and the Articles of Religion (commonly called “The Thirty-Nine Articles”) of 1571, it may be timely to publish the brief speech I gave to the 2019 Synod of the Diocese of Grafton in response to the following motion:

 

MOTION 27: STANDARD OF WORSHIP AND DOCTRINE
That this Synod affirms the authorised standard of worship and doctrine of the Anglican Church of Australia as set out in the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Constitution.

The constitution referenced in the motion is the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, and the particular clauses of the constitution seeking to be affirmed by those supporting the proposed motion appear to have been the following:

(2) This Church receives all the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as being the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation.

(4) This Church, being derived from the Church of England, retains and approves the doctrine and principles of the Church of England embodied in the Book of Common Prayer together with the Form and Manner of Making Ordaining and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons and in the Articles of Religion sometimes called the Thirty-nine Articles but has plenary authority at its own discretion to make statements as to the faith ritual ceremonial or discipline of this Church and to order its forms of worship and rules of discipline and to alter or revise such statements, forms and rules, provided that all such statements, forms, rules or alteration or revision thereof are consistent with the Fundamental Declarations contained herein and are made as prescribed by this Constitution. Provided, and it is hereby further declared, that the above-named Book of Common Prayer, together with the Thirty-nine Articles, be regarded as the authorised standard of worship and doctrine in this Church, and no alteration in or permitted variations from the services or Articles therein contained shall contravene any principle of doctrine or worship laid down in such standard.

Not only were clauses 1 and 3 of no particular interest to those supporting this motion, but they explicitly claimed that clause 2 took precedence over both clause 1 and clause 3.

While the motion referred to the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles of the Constitution, it was actually adherence to the Ruling Principles which they wished to promote.

Affirming the first three clauses—which the Constitution itself identified as the Fundamental Declarations of the Anglican Church of Australia—would not have served their intention, which is simply to limit the worship practices and the doctrines of the Anglican Church of Australia to those which were developed in the Church of England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This is an especially odd position for the Australian Anglican Church to adopt, since neither the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 nor the Articles of Religion have that same status within the Church of England today. Nor do they have any status at all in some other provinces of the Anglican Communion, such as the Episcopal Church of Scotland and the Episcopal Church (USA).

Adherence to the doctrine and liturgies of the late-1600s and mid-1700s—at which times we were literally killing each other over differences in faith and practice—is not an essential attribute of Anglicanism, but it is a requirement for ministers and other office-bearers of the Anglican Church of Australia.

In other words, the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia is a flawed document that reflects the theological factions who dominated the process when the Constitution was drafted and adopted.

All of that was too much information for a brief two-minute speech under the Standing Orders of the Synod of the Diocese of Grafton, so my speech was crafted to tease out the essential issues and urge Synod to reject this motion.

As a footnote, the motion was overwhelmingly rejected by the Synod, and even many of those who supported the motion say they did so only because they could not bring themselves to vote aganst a motion which purported to uphold the Constitution.

Of course, the motion was not about upholding the Constitution but rather was a tactical move seeking to align the Diocese of Grafton with the extremely conservative views promoted by the Diocese of Sydney and its allies. A similar motion had been brought to the previous session of Grafton Synod and also rejected.

This is part of an on-going culture war in contemporary western society, and within the religious campaign of that ‘war’ the focus is on sexuality; particularly marriage equality and non-binary understandings of gender. The battle continues in the wider domain with demands from the same groups for special legislation to ‘protect’ them from religious persecution and to allow them to discriminate against other people on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation or marital status.

My brief speech to the Synod was as follows:

Mr President, I rise to oppose this motion.

After more than 40 years of ordained ministry in the Anglican Church of Australia, I have repeatedly affirmed the Constitution of our Church including the Fundamental Declarations and Ruling Principles.

These are not paragraphs which we have any option to amend at this point in time.

This motion, therefore, makes as much sense as our Synod being asked to declare that sun will rise tomorrow morning.

Whether we say so or not, the sun will rise tomorrow.

Whether we pass this motion or not the Ruling Principles will remain in place.

Until our General Synod agrees to re-establish itself with a new constitution, there is nothing we can do about the Fundamental Declarations. They remain in place. They define the boundaries within which we seek to live faithfully and generously as one church.

However, there is a deep problem with the existing Ruling Principles, as set out in paragraph four of the Constitution.

As this motion reminds us, those Ruling Principles elevate the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and The Articles of Religion as the standard for worship and doctrine.

Not the Bible!

In other words, those who promote this motion ask us to affirm that Scripture has less influence in our church than the BCP and the so-called Thirty-Nine Articles.

As a Reformation Christian, I find that to be a faulty view of authority.

It is a mistake.

One day—hopefully soon—our Church will replace the Fundamental Declarations and the Ruling Principles with provisions that better reflect the authority of Scripture in our Church and the diversity of worship and doctrine across the Anglican Communion.

As someone who takes the Bible seriously, I look forward to the day when the Ruling Principles are replaced. Until then, as duty bound, I submit to these inadequate words and reserve the right to advocate for their replacement.

And I look forward to the sun rising in the morning.

Posted in Reflections, Theology | 2 Comments

Faithful responses to climate change

 

In the last couple of days, there has been some controversy around the comments made by the Principal of the Coffs Harbour Christian Community School in a newsletter distributed last Friday, the last day of term three.

You can read the comments of the CHCCS Principal by downloading their newsletter from the school website.

Coffs Harbour Christian Community School was founded by—and continues to be operated as an activity of—the Coffs Harbour Baptist Church.

I became aware of this controversy when I was contacted by the Coffs Harbour ABC radio station with a request that I comment on the CHCCS Principal’s message in last week’s school newsletter.

My concerns fall under three categories.

 

Intellectual Rigour

My first concern is that the Principal seems to think that his views on climate change carry more weight than the collective research undertaken by thousands of independent scientists whose work is reviewed and assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Such an attitude would be a deep concern in any context but is especially troubling when it is promoted by someone who leads an educational institution. Schools are essentially places of learning. Wilful ignorance—whether in the form of so-called ‘creation science’, anti-vaxer campaigns or climate change denial—has no place in schools.

We need to be teaching children to think for themselves and navigate competing truth claims, rather than distract them from the best science currently available to serve some other agenda.

 

Religious fundamentalism

In this case, the CHCCS Principal appeals to the ancient myth of a giant flood, which he describes as “the first, and only, complete catastrophic climate change”. Apart from the stunning ignorance in such a claim, this is a naive approach to the Bible which reflects the biblical fundamentalism promoted by the school’s own Statement of Belief. This statement can be found on the back page of the School’s Prospectus, but—oddly—is not easily accessed from the school website.

Such an approach to the Bible ignores and demonises more than 200 years of critical biblical scholarship. CHCCS and their local Baptist owners are not unique in holding such views. Indeed their form of Christian fundamentalism has a lot in common with other forms of religious extremism which reject the insights flowing from the natural and social sciences, while appealing to ancient traditions with no intellectual credibility. Needless to say, such religious communities and their institutions, neither prepare people for the modern world nor offer safe places for gender-diverse persons. Like all forms of fundamentalism, Christians who espouse such views promote toxic forms of religion and do not represent the best spiritual wisdom of the Christian faith.

 

Vilification and abuse

The intellectual and religious objections to the views expressed in the recent newsletter from CHCCS are significant, but the final objection is perhaps even more important.

While appealing to an indefensible reading of Scripture to support his rejection of the best currently available climate science, the Principal of CHCCS went to an even darker place. Not content to ignore science and twist the biblical texts, he launched an attack on the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, as a “little girl with self declared (sic) various emotional and mental problems”.

This is unconscionable and especially so for an educational leader with a professional obligation to protect vulnerable children. Neither her small stature, her age nor her mental health are appropriate targets for such an attack by a powerful male figure. What message does it send to young children in CHCCS or in the wider community, let alone anyone living with physical disabilities or mental health issues? And all this while ingenuously claiming to be concerned about unnecessary anxiety among his students and other persons connected with the school.

 

Happily, another religious school operating in Coffs Harbour offers an example of a ‘more excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Bishop Druitt College is a large Anglican school based in Coffs Harbour and serving the same region as Coffs Harbour Christian Community School. BDC encouraged students to participate in the recent school strikes for climate action. More than that, they also provided buses to transport students to and from the rally.

More recently, the Principal of BDC has issued a statement on the school’s Facebook page about the approach which his school takes on the climate change issues. I will quote just the final couple of sentences from that statement:

At Bishop Druitt College, we applaud Greta’s integrity, courage and her sense of social justice. It should also be noted that these three values are part of our set of college values.

This coming Sunday at Grafton Cathedral we will be hosting a seminar on faith-based responses to climate change, presented by the Revd Peter Moore. The seminar is open to the public and free of charge. No need to be anxious about climate change, come a learn how people of faith can respond to the crisis with courage, hope and science.

Fr Moore is an accredited climate change workshop facilitator and a member of ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change). In this session, we will be updated on the latest data as well as practical ways for people of faith to respond to the crisis our planet is now facing.

Posted in Grafton Cathedral, Reflections | 6 Comments