Affirming and inclusive passages from scripture

Tuggeranong Uniting Church, a Congregation within the Canberra Region Presbytery (and the Congregation where my membership is held) has a series of banners inside the building which signify and celebrate the commitments of the Congregation in ministry: acknowledging the First Peoples, committing to sustainable living through care for the environment, and ministry to rainbow people.

Outside the building, for some years now, a banner proclaiming that refugees are welcome has hung in public. This week, the Congregation has erected a larger banner declaring that they are an open and affirming church. It sits at the front entrance opposite the local regional shopping centre, where all who pass by can clearly see it.

This commitment to an inclusive ministry which welcomes, values, and includes rainbow people (those who identify with one of the letters in LGBTIQA+) has been manifest in the Rainbow Christian Alliance, which was commenced six years ago by the minister and two members of the Congregation. (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/a-safe-place-for-rainbow-christians/)

That initiative in Tuggeranong, in the south of Canberra, has seeded another rainbow church in Goulburn: DARE Cage Church. It is a ministry that the Uniting Church has supported and fostered, both locally in these two faith communities, but more widely, in similar initiatives in cities and towns right across Australia. It is a ministry that is undergirded by strong and clear theological principles grounded in an informed understanding of scripture.

Scripture includes numerous passages that undergird an attitude of welcome, inclusion, and valuing of LGBTIQA+ people. None of the passage that follow address directly and unequivocally this issue; rather, they establish important and foundational claims about God and humanity, that enables us then to extrapolate and apply those claims to the situation of LGBTIQA+ people.

1) Genesis 1:26: “Let us create humankind in our image.”

In the Bible’s creation story, God makes clear that, out of all of creation, human beings are created in God’s image. That God is referred to in the plural in this passage could even suggest the idea of God containing a diversity of identities within God’s own mysterious and infinite self.

The assurance that all human beings are created in God’s image reminds us from the get-go that everyone is a sacred creation, and that God’s image is broader than our own experience and understanding. Someone may look — or love — differently than you do, and still, simply by being a human, reflect the image of God.

2) Acts 10:15: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

In Acts 10, Peter has a dream in which he is commanded by God to consume food that is deemed “unclean” according to Jewish law. When Peter protests, God reminds him that God’s declaration of what is clean is above — and may even contradict — any command of the law.

This dream serves as a crucial instructive for Peter later in the passage, when he encounters Gentiles, which Jewish law would normally reject. This passage reminds us that God’s promise and beloved community are not defined by our own rules or boundaries, or even our own understanding of God’s law.

3) Mark 2:22: “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

This passage recalls a time when Jesus is questioned as to why his disciples don’t rigidly obey the laws of their faith tradition. Jesus’ reply is very illuminating: “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.”

Jesus reminds us that religion, tradition and belief are evolving concepts, and may require us to re-evaluate and reconsider our traditions and push at the boundaries.

4) Acts 8:26-40: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

This passage recounts Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, and is probably the most-cited biblical story by those seeking to affirm queer identity within Christian faith. Eunuchs in biblical times were othered and ostracized because of their failure to adhere to sexual norms.

Common cultural understanding of the time would have held that their status as eunuchs barred them from inclusion in God’s community. And yet, this eunuch seeks to follow the path of Christ even as he continues to live out his sexual otherness. And he is welcomed and joyfully baptized into Christ’s community. The eunuch’s question to Philip — “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” — underscores that his sexual status is not a barrier to inclusion in the eyes of God.

5) Isaiah 56:3-5: “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

This text from Isaiah establishes that God’s love for those deemed “sexually other” — re-emphasized generations later in Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch — in fact predates Jesus’ radical message of inclusion and love. God promises everlasting recognition and inclusion for all who honour God, regardless of whether they have been deemed outsiders.

6) Isaiah 43:1: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

This message from the prophet Isaiah emphasizes God’s steadfast love and protection for God’s people. This verse in particular reminds believers that we are loved and claimed by a God who redeems us and will always be with us — not out of our own achievement or deserving but out of God’s devotion.

For many who are queer and/or transgender, this passage can serve as a reminder that we, too, are called by name and do not need to be afraid.

7) Galatians 3:23-29: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This well-known passage from Galatians is used in many contexts to sound the Christian call of unity in the face of division and difference. In fact, most of Galatians is an instruction to early Christians to embrace Gentile Christ-followers, even though they did not share in other early believers’ Jewish history, tradition, or laws.

Paul makes clear in these verses and elsewhere that Christ’s promise is abundant and available to all people, and that those divisions and prejudices that have historically kept groups of people apart or given some power to some over others have no place in Christ’s community. The particular phrase “there is no longer male and female” offers a challenge to traditional binary understandings of gender roles.

8) Matthew 22:37-40: “Love God … love your neighbour … On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the great number of Jewish laws and prophetic teachings — including those that many consider to condemn homosexuality — by making clear that the overarching command of a faithful life is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

This command to love underpins any and all other commands. And so, pursuit of law-abiding faithfulness that does not first root itself in love fails to understand the true purpose of the law and the true call of faith.

9) Psalm 139: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

This beautiful, famous psalm sings of God’s intimate and intentional knowledge of each person. It suggests that every crucial part of our identity was known to God, crafted by God before we were born — and that, as beings made in such love, we are created good. This psalm also suggests that there is nowhere we can go that will remove us from God’s steadfast love and presence.

10) Matthew 15:21-28: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.”

This story details Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. Her nationality makes her an outsider, and on this basis even Jesus rejects her when she comes seeking his help for her daughter. But the Canaanite woman challenges Jesus on his refusal, and Jesus praises her faith and heals her daughter after all.

This story demonstrates that God’s love is so expansive, it can surprise and stretch even Jesus Christ himself. It encourages Christians to be mindful of our own prejudices and understand that God’s love isn’t as restrictive as our own.

11) Romans 15:7: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”

This is not just a nice-sounding phrase that churches like to put on their walls. Paul is telling believers to fully accept and include other Christians in community with themselves, including those who disagree strongly about what is and is not permitted.

12) 1 John 4:7-8: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

This passage from 1 John emphasizes the centrality of love. It suggests that love is always from God, and a reflection of God. Thus any genuine love, no matter what form it takes, comes from God and glorifies God. Anyone seeking to follow God must also seek to love others. We must trust that anyone who loves is also born of God.

Based on a study by Layton E. Williams (accessed 06/03/2019)
https://sojo.net/articles/10-bible-passages-teach-christian-perspective-homosexuality

The ‘word of exhortation’ that exults Jesus as superior (Hebrews 1; Pentecost 19B)

This week, the lectionary takes us into the book of Hebrews—by tradition, considered to be a letter to Jewish believers. Yet this book does not show any clear formal signs of being a letter until right at the very end. There is no opening address; throughout the work, neither author nor recipients are ever identified. The “letter” contains no thanksgiving, no sharing of news at its start, as letters normally did at that time.

Instead, this book begins with a poetic preface, elegantly balancing a series of affirmations; first, about God (long ago God spoke … in these last days God has spoken), and then, about God’s Son (appointed heir … the reflection of God’s glory … the exact imprint of God’s very being). Each of these sections ends with a further affirmation about this Son (he is the agent of God’s creation … he sustains all things). The final section offers more about the Son (he made purification … he sat down at the right hand of the Most High … he became superior to the angels).

This poetic preface (1:1–4) provides a compact statement of the significance of Jesus. This is part of this Sunday’s lectionary passage (1:1–4, 2:5–12). It sets out the position of the author of this book quite clearly: the Son—soon to be identified with Jesus (2:9)—is superior to the angels, with a name more excellent than theirs (1:4). The motif of superiority and greater excellence permeates this work.

After this poetic opening, the work plunges into a didactic string of scripture citations (1:5–14), supporting the claim of the superiority of the Son. This is followed by the first of many direct exhortations (2:1–4), encouraging the readers to “pay greater attention to what we have heard” (2:1). The pattern of alternating teaching and exhortation continues for thirteen chapters, until the final appeal brings the work to an end with a benediction (13:20–21) and a rapid sequence of news, greetings and a final blessing (13:22–25). Finally, right at the very end, the work looks like a letter!

Like the “letter” of Jude, the “letter” to the Hebrews is actually much closer in form and function to a sermon; but it does not share the sectarian aggression of Jude. Like the “letter” of James, the “letter” to the Hebrews provides numerous exhortations and encouragements; indeed, at its end, its author identifies it simply as “a word of exhortation” (13:22).

The author is most certainly not Paul, as some ancient church writers maintained. Despite claims that the work was written by various individuals mentioned in other New Testament books (Apollos? Priscilla? Silvanus?), it is not possible to be absolutely certain about the identity of the author. The single reference to a known individual, Timothy, in the closing greetings (13:23), does not guarantee that the work came from Paul, an associate of Paul, or even a Pauline circle.

Three suggestions for the author of the word of exhortation to the Hebrews: Apollos, Priscilla, and Silvanus. But none of them can be proven
to have been the author.

The use of a refined Greek style, the intense engagement with Hebrew scripture, and the use of typological interpretation (for instance, 8:1–7, 13; 10:1, 11–13) together suggest an educated Hellenistic Jew who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and was a powerful preacher of the Gospel.

Somebody like Apollos would be quite apposite to be named as author—he was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures … he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24–25). Indeed, we learn further that “he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (Acts 18:28).

I would love for Apollos to be proven as the author of this word of exhortation. However, apart from the similarity of rhetorical style and interpretive method in Hebrews, there is nothing explicit that will allow us to pin the authorship on the powerful rhetorician, Apollos of Alexandria.

The writer of Hebrews, whoever they are, notes that the message of salvation was “declared at first through the Lord, [then] attested by those who heard him” (2:3), thus acknowledging a chain of tradition lying behind the work. This indicates that it was probably written towards the end of the first century (and thus, a few decades later than when Apollos was active). But by whom, exactly, remains speculation.

Likewise, the precise identity of the recipients cannot be known, although some things can be said about them in rather general terms. The reference to “city” (13:14) might suggest an urban context, whilst notes of the good works carried out by the recipients (10:34; 13:16) and a warning to avoid “the love of money” (13:5) might point to a group with a degree of wealth. But these are fragile links, which can’t be definitive in identifying the audience.

The author indicates that the recipients had experienced “a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution” (10:32–33)—although not to the point of sacrificing their lives (12:4). As a result of this, some may have “drifted away” (2:1) or “fallen away” (6:4–6) from their faith.

There are occasional flashes of scathing rhetoric in referring to these people: they are in danger of having an “evil, unbelieving heart” and “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:12–13), or they are “crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt” (6:6), or they have “spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace” (10:29). This is powerful rhetoric.

Elsewhere, however, the author describes such people in more subdued tones, as being “dull in understanding” (5:11) and needing someone to teach them (5:12). This is the task that is undertaken in this word of exhortation.

So this anonymous work to the Hebrews, as we have noted, opens with a soaring poetic description which sets out the hermeneutical stance of the author, as well as the centrality of Jesus in the schema which is to be expounded (1:1–4). Images in these verses are drawn consistently from Hebrew Scripture.

The verses portray a continuing relationship between God and humanity, which has come to a point of fulfilment in “a Son”. What is claimed of this Son has an all-encompassing scope. A number of images are used, pointing to other sections of New Testament texts where traditional Jewish ideas are pressed into the service of proclaiming Jesus.

The imagery of word is central in 1:1–4; this image derives from the prophetic figure of Israel and from the seminal text of Gen 1, and is also prominent at John 1:1–18. Jesus is claimed to be God’s word “in these last days” who “sustains all things” (1:3). As God’s word, Jesus is the one who “created the worlds”, in the same way that Wisdom is the co-worker with God in the process of creation in Proverbs 8, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach 24.

A second image depicts the Son as reflecting the divine glory, the physical manifestation of God’s presence. This image hearkens back to wilderness stories in Exodus and Numbers and receives its clearest New Testament expression at Col 1:15–20. More than this, it is claimed that the Son is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3), terminology similar to that used in Jewish wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon 7.

A third term uses cultic imagery to assert that the Son has “made purification for sins” (1:3); the need for purity is familiar from Leviticus and Deuteronomy and runs through the ethical exhortations of Paul. The cultic dimension of understanding the role of Jesus will assume huge proportions as the word of exhortation develops. The image of Jesus as the great high priest will provide the dominant framework for understanding the person and work of Jesus.

A fourth image refers to the Son as having been “appointed heir of all things” (1:2). The language of inheritance reflects a concern of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis—where expected and surprising lines of inheritance are narrated—as well as language picked up by Paul at Rom 8:12–17.

Finally, the superiority of this Son is explicitly asserted, insofar as he has inherited a name “more excellent” than the names of the angels (1:4). He now rests at the right hand of God, a location recognised as a position of power in Exodus 15 and the Psalms, as well as in sayings of Jesus. This motif of superiority—indeed, even supercession—runs throughout the book, and provides both a central element of its theology, and a disturbing dimension of its rhetoric.

This collection of imagery strongly suggests that the author of this book was located within a strongly Jewish sector of the ongoing movement of the followers of Jesus. The arguments advanced in this book reflect the growing tensions and disagreements within the Jewish arena, as the followers of Jesus clash with the teachers of Judaism. We’ll explore those arguments in posts in subsequent weeks.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/05/a-great-high-priest-who-has-passed-through-the-heavens-hebrews-4-pentecost-20b/

A priest forever, “after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5; Pentecost 21B)

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/27/the-perfect-high-priest-who-mediates-a-better-covenant-hebrews-9-pentecost-23b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/02/the-superior-high-priest-who-provides-the-better-sacrifices-hebrews-9-pentecost-24b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/08/the-assurance-of-hope-in-the-word-of-exhortation-hebrews-10-pentecost-25b/

Boundary lines and the kingdom of God (Mark 9–10; Pentecost 18B to 20B)

Last week (Pentecost 18) we heard a Gospel passage in which Jesus affirmed that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He refused to draw strong and clear boundaries around his “inner group” simply on the basis of explicit identification with him—rather, he affirmed that it is the actions of people that define where people are to be placed in relation to him. Deeds, not words, define the followers of Jesus.

That line of argument would be take up by his brother, James, in his “letter” affirming that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), and by another follower (by radiation, the evangelist Matthew), who quoted him as saying, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). It is a strong theme in the testimony to Jesus in Christian scripture: actions, not words, define allegiance to Jesus.

This week (Pentecost 19), we hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus becomes indignant with his closest followers, rebuking them for hindering children from gaining access to him. In contrast to the attempts of the disciples to keep the children at a distance, Jesus drew children close to himself and blessed them, saying, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). The boundary line which Jesus draws is clearly not based on age. The ability to articulate a complex theological affirmation is not the key criterion. Rather, it seems that a willingness to search out Jesus, a desire to be with him, is the key criterion.

Jesus has already affirmed the central significance of a child in his consideration of this issue. Mark notes that “he took a little child and put it among them” (9:36), speaking the very clear affirmation that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). Still earlier, Jesus had placed the health of a child at the centre of his focus, when approached by a synagogue leader, who pleads with Jesus, “my little daughter is at the point of death; come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live” (5:23).

We have noted that the child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power, in the society of the day; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me” (9:37). Welcoming the child is a clear manifestation of the paradox that lies at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus is the one who will walk resolutely towards death (8:31: 9:31: 10:34), becoming “the slave of all” (10:44) who will “give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

Those who follow Jesus on this pathways will need to take up their crosses (8:34), lose their lives (8:35), be “last of all and servant of all” (9:35), “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” (10:15), sell all that they possess (10:21), leave their families (10:29), and become “last of all” (10:31). (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/06/the-paradoxes-of-discipleship-mark-8-pentecost-16b/)

Next week (Pentecost 20), we will hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus sadly informs a man of means who prides himself on keeping all the commandments, that still “you lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The man left, shocked and grieving; he could not do what Jesus instructed. Jesus here draws the line of belonging or being alienated from him on the basis of whether a person is able to implement radical actions of obedience.

We have seen the way that the author of this account of Jesus (by tradition, Mark the evangelist) redraws the boundaries of the people of God, by his actions in relating to people in need (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/24/on-not-stereotyping-judaism-when-reading-the-gospels-mark-5-pentecost-5b/) and by the geography that he traverses, as he edges outside of the land of Israel (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/24/stretching-the-boundaries-of-the-people-of-god-mark-7-pentecost-14b-15b/).

We have also seen that it was the courageous rhetorical challenging of Jesus by a Gentile woman which provoked him to be absolutely clear about this more inclusive boundary (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/02/on-jesus-and-justa-tyre-and-decapolis-mark-7-pentecost-15b/) And again, in this incident, it is the health of a young child which draws action from Jesus (7:26, 29).

The passages in our current stream of lectionary readings reinforce the perspective already developed in these earlier sections of the Gospel (chapters 5 to 10). Jesus is not an exclusivist, drawing hard boundary lines close around his group. He is an inclusivist, looking to welcome those from beyond the traditional inner group, inviting in those on the fringe or outside this conventional group.

That’s the consistent message about Jesus in the stories that we read through the central chapters of this account. It’s the consistent theme that followers of Jesus in the 21st century need to ensure are the key markers of the Christian church today.

Convicted (2): Bridget Ormsby

My ancestor Bridget Ormsby arrived in the colony of New South Wales on the ship Hooghly 190 years ago today, on 27 September 1831. Bridget was my great-great-great-great-grandmother on my father’s maternal line. She is the second reason that I was born in Sydney. (The first is my ancestor Joseph Pritchard; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/14/convicted-1-joseph-pritchard/)

On 13 March 1830, at Limerick in Ireland, Bridget Ormsby was convicted of stealing clothes and sentenced to transportation to NSW for 7 years. She was identified as a Servant who was a native of County Limerick, Ireland, and was aged 22 years the time of her conviction.

She was one of 184 female prisoners who were transported on the ship Hooghly, which set sail from Cork on 24 June 1831. The ship sailed under Captain Peter J. Reeves, with James Ellis as the Surgeon Superintendent. Also on the ship were ten free settlers and twenty children, travelling steerage.

A contemporary account in an Irish newspaper described the terrible situation in Ireland, where famine was gripping the population. “On 15th June 1831 the Bury and Norwich Post and reported: The accounts from Ireland are truly appalling. At the lowest estimate, ascertained from personal and minute inquiries, upwards of two hundred thousand human beings are in danger of perishing from famine. A deputation from the Mayo Relief committee waited upon the Lord Lieutenant, at Dublin, on Saturday, to implore of the Government to interfere and endeavour to rescue the population of that county from the dreadful fate which awaits them.

“The Freeman’s Journal states that the members of the deputation offered themselves for examination on oath before the Privy Council, to prove that 148,000 human beings are exposed to the most horrible of deaths—starvation. In Newport 15 have actually died of hunger in four days. Fever, too, in its worst and deadliest form, is setting in, and will soon rise to the wealthy and the noble.

“No words can describe the terrible scenes that overspread the country. Persons endeavouring to support life on sea weed, on nettles, and the common weeds of the field – poor mothers wailing for their children, and hordes of men roaming about asking for work and food – families stretched in sickness, without one to attend them.”

It is quite possible that Bridget Ormsby could have resorted to stealing in order to survive in such tenuous circumstances, like so many of the other women sentenced and transported. Indeed, transportation to the colonies might well have been preferable to remaining in Ireland.

The ship Hooghly in arrived at Sydney Cove on 27 September 1831. A muster of 181 women was held on board by the Colonial Secretary on 29 September. Three women were absent from the Muster as they had been sent straight to the hospital in Sydney on arrival.

The Hooghly was one of four convict ships bringing female prisoners to New South Wales in 1831, the others being the Kains, the Palambam and the Earl of Liverpool. A total of 504 female convicts arrived in the colony in 1831. But the Hooghly soon gained quite a reputation in Sydney Town. In “Free Settler or Felon?”, at jenwilletts.com, we read:

“It wasn’t long before the Hooghly women made their presence felt. They were often charged at the Police Office before being sent to the Female Factory at Parramatta; and soon their names were entered in the Principal Superintendent of Convict’s List of absconding convicts as well.”

Mary Ann Agnew, a recent importation per Hooghly made her maiden appearance, charged by Mr. Flynn, her master with walking off, bag and baggage, from his premises, and taking up her abode with a number of notorious characters. She was recommended a six weeks’ specimen of Factory discipline, by way of opening her eyes a little. Sydney Gazette 10 November 1831

The list of charged at the Police Office on Monday was unusually long; some few of them were of a serious nature, but the majority the effects of that hydra headed monster, rum; no less than six of the damsels recently imported per Hooghly figured among the number. Sydney Gazette 24 November 1831

The women per the ship Hooghly have turned out a rare set of incorrigibles, the Police office daily overflows with them, while the factory can bear testimony to their conduct. Sydney Herald 28 November 1831

Despite the company of which she was a part on this ship, once in the colony, Bridget worked out her seven years’ sentence and duly obtained her Certificate of Freedom on 29 March 1837. This document describes her as being 5 feet 3 inches in height, of a ruddy and freckled complexion, with light brown hair and grey eyes. The certificate also notes that she was “the wife of James Jackson”.

At the age of 24, Bridget Ormsby married James Jackson, a fellow convict (more about him in a later post). James Jackson had already married once, to Elizabeth Crasby, in 1820 (and presumably had been widowed); he married his second wife, Bridget Ormsby, aged 24, on 19 March 1832.

The ceremony was one of three for convict couples conducted on the same day by Rev William Cowper in Sydney. The couples being married were all identified by the ship on which they had arrived (James Jackson, Mariner; Bridget Ormsby, Hooghley).

The couple had a son, James, born in 1832. This son, James Jnr, married Margaret Jane Crowley in 1856. Their daughter, Maria, b. 1862, married Joseph Pritchard in 1880. Two further sons were born: John in 1834, William in 1836. I am descended from this 1880 marriage, of Joseph and Maria Pritchard.

Two years after she gained her Certificate of Freedom in 1837, Bridget was cross-examined in relation to a crime. The interchange is recorded in the Sydney Monitor & Commercial Advertiser, on page 2 of the issue of Monday 26 August 1839.

(There is a record of the death of Bridget Kingsley in 1840. Could this be her?) (Also the death of a Bridget Jackson, aged 53, at Camperdown, in 1861)

As an example, take the prophets (James 5; Pentecost 18B)

“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.” So we read in this week’s selection from the treatise of James which is offered by the lectionary (James 5:13–20). As a further encouragement, a few verses earlier, we are enjoined, “as an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10).

In this rhetorical question and proverbial statement, we find that the author of this treatise does something that we have seen to be quite familiar from other sections of the book; he makes reference to Hebrew scripture. In doing this, James, the author, was doing what his more famous brother—Jesus—so regularly did. Referencing scriptural traditions was a family trait; indeed, it was what any faithful Jewish man would do, and provide scriptural resonances in what he was saying.

A number of statements in the treatise of James resonate with the teachings of Jesus that we know so well in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–10). Most strikingly, the final beatitude spoken by Jesus, in which he exhorts joy in the face of persecution, in the manner of “the prophets who were before you”, is reflected in the opening exhortation of James, “whenever you face trials…consider it nothing but joy” (1:2), as well as the later reminder of James, “as an example of suffering and patience, take the prophets” (5:10). The two brothers are simply providing variations on a theme.

Other teachings in the book of James provide similarities to the teachings of Jesus spoken in the beatitudes, in the form found in Matt 5:3–12. The question posed by James, “has not God chosen the poor in the world…to be heirs of the kingdom?” (2:5) is similar to the first beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the poor” (Matt 5:3).

The promise that James envisages, of “a harvest of righteousness…for those who sow peace” (3:18), is reminiscent of another beatitude of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt 5:9). The instruction to “purify your hearts” (4:8) echoes “blessed are the pure in heart” (Matt 5:8).

Perhaps we should not be surprised about these resonances between the teachings of Jesus and the treatise of James; if this work was indeed written by James, the brother of Jesus, a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19), would we not expect him to know what Jesus was teaching? The two brothers are singing from the same songsheet.

These similarities between the teachings of Jesus and the writings of James are significant. The fact that they are preserved in different documents, shaped and then preserved by the followers of Jesus, is suggestive of an awareness of a common tradition of these ethical guidelines amongst Jewish members of the growing messianic movement.

James quotes Hebrew Scripture directly in verse 4:6, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Prov 3:34). This is the basis for his instruction, “humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

The same scripture undergirds the words of Jesus which declare the same thing: “whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12; see also Luke 14:11, 18:14). It is also informs the prophetic words sung by his mother before his birth, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). The two sons of Mary (Jesus and James) are singing from the same songsheet as their mother!

When James writes a warning about laying up treasure (5:3), we are reminded of Jesus’ parable about the same topic. (Luke 12:13-21). In these words, both Jesus and James are drawing from Hebrew scriptures. Speaking against the oppressive actions of the rich sounds very much like a number of oracles thundered by the ancient prophets (Amos 2, 4, Micah 6, Hosea 12, Ezekiel 7).

The details use snippets of pertinent prophetic denunciations. “The last days” evoke “the Day of the Lord” (Isa 34:7-8, Jer 25:33-34, Ezek 7:1-4, Joel 2:1-3, Amos 5:18-20). The withholding of the wages of the labourers (5:4) contradicts the Law (Lev 19:13, Deut 24:14-15) and echoes denunciations spoken by prophets (Jer 22:13, Mal 3:5).

The condemnation of “fattened hearts” (5:5) evokes Jer 5:27-28, Ezek 34:2-4. And murdering the righteous person reminds us, not only of the wrongheaded approach of wicked people (Wisdom 2:10-20) and the fate of the righteous servant (Isa 53:3-5, 7-9), but especially of the fate of Jesus, the Righteous One (John 15:20; Acts 3:14).

Then, the command of James, “be patient until the coming of the Lord” (5:7), sounds a note that we hear in the final teachings which Jesus gives to his disciples, not long before his arrest. The earlier version of these teachings infers that patience will be required as “the beginnings of the birth pains” are seen (Mark 13:5–8), before Jesus exhorts his disciples: “the one who endured to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13).

Interestingly, “be patient” in the midst of these tumultuous happenings is a refrain found elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul advises, “let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6); John encourages, “little children, abide in him” (1 John 2:28); and Jesus himself is quoted as saying, “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7).

It was a widespread belief amongst the followers of Jesus in the first century, that Jesus would soon return, and that God would establish the kingdom of heaven on earth. (That is the final, climactic vision, offered in Revelation 21:1-22:6). “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8) is a recurring New Testament motif (Rom 13:12; Phil 4:5; 1 Pet 4:7).

Over twenty centuries later, we know that this did not eventuate in the timeframe that was imagined, and hoped for, in the first century. Does that invalidate all that those earliest believers thought, wrote, and prayed for? Or is there another way that we are to take their words for our times?

Certainly, the direct ethical instructions found in this passage of the treatise of James sound like they are timeless: cultivate patience (5:7-8), avoid complaining (5:9), remain steadfast (5:11), be as good as your word in all you do (5:12), prayer and sing praise (5:13), seek healing and forgiveness (5:14–15) after confessing your sins (5:16). This is what we are called to do as we await the coming of God.

We are buying more debt, pain, and death: a case against nuclear-powered submarines

Today is the International Day of Peace. That is an appropriate time to reflect on the fact that, as a country, we have just scrapped a $90 billion contract with Naval Group of France for a new fleet of submarines—in favour of a currently proposed (a d as yet uncosted) deal with our American and UK allies to purchase nuclear-powered submarines. At least, in nothing I have read is the actual cost of this awkward AUKUS deal specified–it seems that is still to be negotiated.

It seems to me that, whatever the actual dollar cost of this new deal, it is outrageously expensive, and will prove to be incredibly costly. I believe we are buying, not only more debt, but also pain and death, for future generations. I am happy to leave the debate about the precise financial cost to the politicians, journalists, and defence pundits in the months and years ahead. What is perfectly clear to me, however, is that the cost to our country will indeed be large and invasive, penetrating deeply and impacting widely.

Allocating money in the federal budget to defence matters is a highly contested matter. By making this a high priority, other matters are pushed down the priority list. We hear regular pronouncements about the need to tighten our belts and reduce the deficit in our federal budget. But we rarely if ever hear considered reflections

about the impact of this on essential elements of our federal spending which are essential to our lifestyle—social security, Medicare and health care, education and training, and veterans’ affairs.

What will it mean for future federal budgets, to have massive and increasing commitments to defence spending, such that these other areas will need to be limited or even reduced? Allocating a large amount of the limited funds available to the Federal Government to this deal will mean less money for other areas. That will impact on the everyday lives of all Australians.

But it is not the financial costs that concern me. Nuclear-powered submarines have the simple function of contributing to efforts to defend our coastline—something that has been a high priority for the current federal government. But they also have the capacity to go on the attack (and against China, of all countries—what are we thinking?). They are agents of warfare, dedicated to be at our disposal to wage war.

At the moment, there is no country in the world with a repository to dispose of high-level nuclear waste. There is only one repository in the world capable of disposing of intermediate-level nuclear waste, in New Mexico (USA), and it was shut for three years (2014–2017) because of a chemical explosion. How are we planning to dispose responsibly of our nuclear waste?

And further: do we really want nuclear-powered weapons to be involved in any future war? The environmental impact of a nuclear blast is serious. We have seen the scale of illness and death from nuclear explosions, in the 1945 bombings of Japan, the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, and the Fukushima accident in 2011.

An incident involving a nuclear-powered element in current times would be even more potent and damaging. Most worryingly, the ABC has reported that nuclear-powered submarines “have a ‘long history’ of involvement in accidents across the globe”. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-17/nuclear-submarines-prompt-environmental-and-conflict-concern/100470362

Alongside these concerns, we know that there are costs associated with warfare other than the finance required to train troops and provide weapons for the battle—costs that go deep into people’s lives and spread wide across society. War means injury and death, to our own troops, and to the troops of those we are fighting against. Every death means a family and a local community that is grieving. There is great emotional cost just in one death, let alone the thousands and thousands that wars incur.

Every person injured in waging war experiences suffering, anxiety, and pain, with their loved ones looking on, suffering with them, and with the medical and hospital system having to devote resources to their healing.

I have a friend who has served with pride in the Australian Navy, in the troubled region of the Persian Gulf. He and his mates have returned home after their service, and they are living “regular” lives in society, with families, jobs, friends. Yet I know from my friend just how costly his service was. Psychological trauma and emotional scarring place heavy burdens on an apparently healthy man in his “regular” life. Those burdens ripple out in unhealthy ways to those around him–both family and friends. It is another cost of war, that is multiplied time and time again by the numbers of people who have served in the military.

But these are the expected, observable costs of war. War also brings “collateral damage”, in that terrible, dehumanising phrase first used by the US military during the Vietnam conflict. It is a euphemistic way of referring to “civilian casualties of a military operation”. But the reality is much starker than what this smooth phrase conveys. Countrysides are invaded, villages and towns are looted, women are raped, civilian women and men are injured or killed, buildings are destroyed, and people can be forced to seek refuge in another place.

We see these consequences of war again and again on our screens, in so many places around the world. Whilst we might enter into a war in order to resolve an immediate problem, the reality is that it is usually a short-term “fix”. War never fully resolves a conflict or solves a problem; war inevitably generates further conflict and raises more problems. The history of Afghanistan in the last 43 years testifies to this—the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet Invasion, the guerilla war of the 1980s, the rise of the Mujaheedin, civil war from 1989, the rise of the Taliban, the American Invasion of 2001 and the war which has run on for two decades through into this current year. At every point, warfare has generated yet more conflict.

As people of the Uniting Church, we are committed to being a peacemaking people, firmly working for the cause of peace in our world. We are also a church which sees the problems inherent in the use of nuclear power—and especially, the use of nuclear power in waging war.

We should be totally opposed to this latest deal signalled by the Federal Government. It is not simply a matter of purchasing new nuclear-powered submarines. We are buying more debt, pain, and death, for future generations of Australians. We should be pressing our political representatives to urge the government to back away from this deal.

In 1979, the Uniting Church Assembly received a statement advocating opposition to the mining and export of uranium; see https://assembly.uca.org.au/news/item/3137-a-world-free-of-nuclear-weapons

In 1982, the Uniting Church Assembly declared that “affirm that the Uniting Church is committed to be a peacemaking body, seeking to follow the Lord of the Church by encouraging political authorities to resolve political tensions by peaceful means”, in a statement on Militarism and Disarmament, at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/500-militarism-and-disarmament

In 1988, the Uniting Church Assembly adopted a comprehensive statement relating to nuclear power and the nuclear arms race. See https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/499-nuclear-deterrence-disarmament-and-peace

The same year, the Assembly adopted the Statement to the Nation: Australian Bicentennial Year, 1988, in which it describes itself as a church which had “engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker.” See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988

In 2003, the Uniting Church Assembly declared once more that “the Church is committed to be a peacemaking body” and adopted the Statement, Uniting for Peace; see https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-for-peace/uca-statements/item/497-uniting-for-peace

The Uniting Church has supported the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries, promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Canberra Region Presbytery signed a letter of support for this campaign in 2020, on the 75th anniversary year of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. See https://www.icanw.org/australia

See also a fine blog on this topic by Chris Walker at https://revdrchriswalker.wordpress.com/2021/09/21/nuclear-submarines/

and an address for International Day of Peace by the Moderator of the UCA in NSW.ACT, Simon Hansford, at https://talbragar.net/2021/09/21/when-peace-is-not-peace/

Giving priority to “one of these little ones” (Mark 9; Pentecost 18B)

Two weeks ago, we read and heard the passage where Jesus berated Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Jesus went on to teach about the need for those who follow him to take up their cross and lay down their lives (8:34–37). The hubris that Peter demonstrated, when he rebuked Jesus for what he was teaching, is met head-on by Jesus. He rebukes Peter for his focus on “human things”.

The nature of those “human things” is made clear in the passage that we read and heard last Sunday. “What were you arguing about on the way?”, Jesus asks his followers (9:33). No answer comes; those followers of Jesus were shamed into silence “for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (9:34). Arguing about who is the greatest is a clear manifestation of a focus on “human things”. It’s what human beings do, all too often–we see it demonstrated in our politics, in domestic violence, in sexual assaults, and in the constant stream of uprisings, civil wars, and international wars that are never-ending.

Jesus has been with his followers since the start of his public campaign in Galilee (1:14). By this point in his time with these followers, Jesus no time left for such matters. He teaches them here, as he has already done in the previous passage, about what lies in store for himself as he heads towards Jerusalem—betrayal, and death (9:31; see also 8:31). These are the heart of the “divine things” that he has encouraged his followers to set their minds on. Jesus is resolutely fixed on what is important to God, not what is the focus of humans.

The story we read and heard this coming Sunday (9:38–50) contains further insights into this distinction. The disciples want to exercise their authority by forbidding an unknown person from casting out demons from those possessed by them. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us”, the disciples report (9:38), expecting to be congratulated by Jesus. (Did you notice the pronoun: following US!!)

But their expectations fall flat. Jesus, once again, rebukes his followers: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (9:39).

Such manifestation of authority will receive a further rebuke from Jesus yet again, at a later point in the story that is being told in this Gospel. Returning to the theme of authority, two of his followers petition Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Jesus gives them short shrift: “You do not know what you are asking” (10:38). By this time, surely, he must have been seething with frustration—will they never understand? “Do you not understand?” Is a question that Jesus has already posed to his followers, no less than four times previously (4:13; 7:18; 8:17; 8:21).

Three times, in chapters 8–10, Jesus rebukes his followers. Three times, they have acted in ways that indicate their fixation is on authority, prestige, power. Three times, Jesus has responded with a clear explanation. Each time, as they journey southwards towards Jerusalem, he recounts what will take place to “the Son of Man”; a prophetic circumlocution for describing oneself (Ezek 2:1, 3, 6, 8, 3:1, 3, 4, 10, etc). Each time, the fundamental purpose of his mission is explained in short, staccato phrases.

That purpose, and the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem, is that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed” (8:31); there, he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (9:31); there, he will be “condemned to death; handed over to Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (10:33–34). The end in view is surely sobering, cautionary, worrying, for those who follow with him. Yet each time, they revert to a focus on authority—“human things”.

This threefold description of the imminent fate of Jesus, increasing in detail at each restatement, provides an intense focus on the journey ahead. Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem (11:11) with a cohort of followers who have repeatedly failed to understand that, instead of a focus on their own authority, leading to a seat in glory, they are in company with the one who will take up his cross (8:34), lose his life (8:35), “be last of all and servant of all” (9:35), and ultimately be the slave of all (10:44). “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

This final, definitive affirmation of his role comes after the three instances of the misguided orientation of his followers, and the three corrective teachings offered by Jesus (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This sequence is surrounded by two stories of healing, symbolising the need for the followers of Jesus to open their eyes and see the reality of Jesus. In Bethsaida, a blind man seeks healing from Jesus (8:22–26). In Jericho, blind Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus for mercy (10: 46–52). The two healings clearly symbolise the need for the followers of Jesus themselves to open their eyes to see Jesus.

Despite their physical blindness, these two men have a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus as he passes by, and reach out in hope. Yet those travelling along with Jesus are impervious to what he offers, and blind to the fate that Jesus is walking towards. The irony, the penetrating incongruity, of these juxtapositions, is searing.

It is within this context that the story of the unidentified exorcist (9:38–41) is to be understood. Indeed, the sense of irony is clearly present in this story. The ministry of Jesus has incorporated the casting out of demons alongside his teaching, preaching, and healing. “Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus have been characterised from the start of his public activity (1:39).

In fact, the casting out of demons was integral to the charge that Jesus had given his followers earlier in their time with him: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). And these very activities had formed the basis for the mission of the twelve as it is reported at 6:7–13. They model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent … they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

So there may be some sense of self-assured certainty when they report to Jesus that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (9:38). (Yes—notice the pronoun: following US! Not Jesus—but US.) But were they not aware that Jesus was not interested in this claim to authoritative ownership of the franchise of “casting out demons”? The irony, surely, is that Jesus is more interested in the wellbeing of the person possessed, than in the delegated authority of his followers as the ones who should rightly cast out the demon.

Those following Jesus have heard his teachings explaining that his focus is on the cross, losing your life, becoming a servant, drinking the cup of suffering, and being the servant of all who “gives his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Yet they have not understood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”, he has just informed them (9:35). Yet they act as if they can continue to be first, lord over all. So again he will need to underscore his views: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (10:43), “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:44).

The irony is intensified by the placement of this incident involving the unidentified exorcist immediately after the previous parable-in-action, in which Jesus took a child into his arms, and declared, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). A child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me”.

So Jesus teaches that how “one of these little ones” is treated, is the benchmark of faithfully following in his way (9:42–48). Not the one with authority, power, glory. But the “little one”, the child. In his characteristic parabolic-hyperbolic style, Jesus instructs his followers to respect “one of these little ones” by cutting off their hands, cutting off their feet, tearing out their eyes, placing the millstone around their necks and drown in the sea of they cause “one of these little one” to stumble. These are hyperbolic exaggerations, of course, about the importance of respecting, caring for, and prioritising “ one of these little ones” (9:42–48)—not literal instructions!

(**Caution: Do not try this at home. Do not take these words literally. But learn the lesson that they teach.)

In this passage, as we hear it this Sunday, the irony is intense. It is the child, the little one, the unidentified exorcist, who has priority, in the eyes of Jesus, ahead of those who seek authority, status, power, glory. The challenge is clear. The word is proclaimed. The Gospel is enacted. The way of the cross awaits …

On vaccinations, restrictions, and fundamentalism

I have never before been tempted to be a fundamentalist. As a child, I had the good fortune to attend a Sunday School and then a worshipping Congregation where fundamentalism was given a wide berth. Thinking about our faith, learning the essentials of Christianity and pondering how they related to the world we live in, was my spiritual bread and butter.

As a teenager and young adult, I was encouraged to question and explore. As a theological student, I was expected to question and explore! As a minister, I regularly and consistently encouraged people not to be content with the status quo, but always to explore and investigate for themselves. Always for the sake of deepening their faith, gaining better insight into how we are to live as faithful disciples in this world.

But recently, I have begun to wonder. Am I turning into a fundamentalist? Have I succumbed to the lure of absolute certainty? Have I lost the nuances and shading that I have so enjoyed over the decades of exploration, research, discussion, and debate?

It’s that blessed pandemic that has done this to me. Before early 2020, I would never, ever have considered myself to be a fundamentalist. But now, eighteen months down the track, I feel myself sliding into the assured convictions, the absolute dogmatic certainty, and the hardline declarations of a fundamentalist.

Well, it’s not the pandemic as such. It’s the way that people are responding to the pandemic—or, more particularly, to the restrictions that have been put into place because of the pandemic that SARS-CoV-2 has brought to the world. Or, to be even more specific, it’s the matter of vaccinations and the role that they play in our response to the pandemic.

Yes, it is true: I am now a vaccination fundamentalist. Now, perhaps some people might have observed that over the period of my ministry, I have been something of an inclusivist fundamentalist. I have always believed that the church should be open, welcoming, inviting, incorporating diversity, valuing people no matter what they bring into the community of faith.

But that quasi-fundamentalist viewpoint has been shaken, and rather stirred up, by some of my experiences of the past few years—and particularly in very recent times. So much so, that it now allows me to claim my real fundamentalism: on vaccinations.

I believe, first and foremost, that everybody should get vaccinated. Well—everyone who can safely and legitimately get vaccinated, should. I’ve been vaccinated. I think everyone else who can, should be vaccinated.

Of course, there are exceptions. We know that some people are being advised not to get vaccinated, because they have an impaired immune system, or for other legitimate and serious medical reasons. And, in addition, we know that there is currently no vaccination that has been developed for children under the age of 12.

And more than this, we know that there are people in regional areas and in poorer communities who have not yet been able to access a vaccination centre. There are structural flaws in the way that the vaccine has been rolled out, meaning that there are inequities—not everyone has equal ease of access to being vaccinated, just yet.

So, with those caveats, I believe that everyone who can safely get vaccinated, should get vaccinated. Vaccines have a number of benefits. Being vaccinated lessens the time that a person who becomes infected, remains infected. Being vaccinated lessens the likelihood that an infected person would be hospitalised, or even die, if their situation became serious.

A person who is vaccinated carries the viral load for less days than an unvaccinated person. A person who is vaccinated does not get as unwell as an unvaccinated person. And it may well be (this is an assumption—it has not yet been rigorously tested) that a vaccinated person does not suffer as many of the problems that Long Covid brings, compared to an unvaccinated person. Let us hope that turns out to be a valid assumption.

As well as benefits for the individual who is vaccinated, there are benefits for the community as a whole. In general, being vaccinated reduces the likelihood that an infected person will infect other people with whom they come into contact. Being vaccinated lessens the rate of spread of the virus through the community. It’s a positive contribution, not just to an individual’s health, but to the health and wellbeing of the community of which that person is a part.

A really important reason for getting vaccinated is that this course of action lessens the likelihood that a variant strain will develop and spread through the community—and beyond. High rates of vaccination will reduce the pool of people amongst whom a new variant of the virus can develop, and then spread. It is a contribution to the common good.

Now, I am not so much of a fundamentalist, that I don’t recognise that there are limits on vaccination. I accept that being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I won’t get infected. I still could. And if I do get infected, I can still become symptomatic and infectious and spread the virus to others. Being vaccinated doesn’t guarantee that I am completely safe from all of that; it doesn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t be a spreader in the community. It just reduces this likelihood.

So being vaccinated doesn’t mean that a community can “get back to normal” without any restrictions. There are still all the usual precautions that need to be followed, even when vaccinated. We know them because they are regularly promoted: wear a mask, practise good hygiene, wash your hands, sanitise with alcohol-based hand rubs, maintain social distancing. (And we should continue to practise some of the less-publicised means: don’t touch your face; cover your mouth or nose with your arm, not your hand, when you cough or sneeze; close the toilet lid before flushing.) A person who is vaccinated, and infected, will still be infectious to others, whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. They will just pose a lower risk to other people.

So getting vaccinated isn’t a magical fix. It is a sensible, reasonable way to respond to the pandemic. Which is why, I believe, it is entirely reasonable for governments to require people to be vaccinated before they enter places of business, or hotels and clubs, or other places where people are gathering. Including churches. Especially, in my mind, churches. (At least, this requirement for churches is being mooted by the NSW Government for a few weeks’ time. Not yet in the ACT, where I live.)

What we do in church—in worship services, to be specific—is high risk behaviour. Perhaps the highest risk behaviour. We come into one building from all sorts of different locations. We sit close to each other. In “normal times”, people will hug one another or shake hands quite freely as they “pass the peace”, at least in many (if not all) churches. We used to be quite unaware of how readily we were passing “bugs” to each other week after week.

And most strikingly of all, we sit and listen to people talking towards us (praying, reading, preaching), projecting their breath towards us. And, of course, we sing together, indeed, we may sing heartily and joyfully—that is, we use the force of breath from our lungs to expel air, droplets carried through the air from the force of that breath. That expelled air mingles amongst us all. We all breathe it in.

We drink coffee and eat morning tea, sometimes after we have shared a plate of bread and some wine or grapejuice earlier in the gathering. (Lots more touching went on there, back in the “normal times”.) We do lots of things that are high risk for passing the virus from one person to the next.

So it makes sense for churches to adhere to the government directive that only people who are vaccinated can be permitted to enter and participate in worship. I agree with that. I agree absolutely. To be honest, this is actually my point of absolute fundamentalism.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to making church a Safe Place for everyone who participates. We already require church leaders to have undertaken a compliance check (a Working With Children Check in NSW, or Working With Vulnerable People in the ACT). We already have a requirement that a Person of Concern can only attend worship services or other church activities if they have signed a Safety Agreement. We already adhere to the government requirement that everyone attending worship will first check in using a QR Code to register their presence.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because we are committed to prioritising the vulnerable, making sure that their needs are given clear attention and the highest priority in the way we operate. That’s why we have had check-in codes, hand sanitisers, socially distanced seating, and no “free-for-all” morning teas at worship services, when we are meeting in person, over the past year. And, of course, when we resume services in person, we will need to continue with wearing masks, not singing, not having a collection plate, not handing out hymn books or orders of service, and we will need to follow appropriate food handling protocols.

We can only have vaccinated people in worship services because this is one of a number of restrictions we operate by, that are designed to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus, should there be an infected person present amongst the worshippers. And if unvaccinated people do attend and participate in worship, then they are placing themselves at great potential risk, as well as possibly exposing others to greater risk, if there is anyone present who is infected.

So I can’t understand those church leaders who, even before we are able to gather in person, are already claiming that they will exercise civil disobedience, that they will not turn away anyone who has not been vaccinated. My newly-found inner fundamentalist says, “No: you must turn them away”—as much as that goes against the grain in a church that prides itself at being open, welcoming, inclusive. Because it is the loving thing to do. Because it is the responsible thing to do. Because it is the Christian thing to do.

And what we have learnt over the last 18 months, is that we can actually include people in community, even when they are not able (or now, not permitted) to participate in person. The various online options for communal worship—Facebook, YouTube, ZOOM—as well as the multiple means of one-on-one communications—telephone, email, FaceTime, GoogleDuo, and even AusPost—and group communications—WhatsApp, Facebook groups, Snapchat, and many more—have demonstrated that there are multiple means for maintaining (and even, I have learnt, expanding) community connections as the body of Christ.

So forbidding the physical presence of a person in worship (because they are not vaccinated) does not mean that we are giving up our connection with them, or that they are no longer a part of our faith community. Those connections, that sense of belonging, can be nurtured in many other ways. We can continue to be an open, welcoming, inclusive—and safe—community for everyone.

I recently came across this quote, which sums it up for me: “Given the nature of churches — places where children and adults closely intermingle, where seniors and the immunocompromised regularly gather, where diverse groups share food, sing together, and meet in often small, old, poorly ventilated buildings — wouldn’t a mandatory vaccination policy make sense? Wouldn’t it be the Christian thing to do?” ( John van Sloten, pastor at Marda Loop Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alberta, Canada)

So at the moment, I will advocate for complete adherence to government restrictions. My faith calls me to work for the common good, to care for the vulnerable, to love my neighbours, both near and far. Minimising risk of transmission as we gather is our first duty. Ministry takes place in many ways other than sitting in an enclosed space for an hour once a week!

*****

My friend and colleague Rob McFarlane has written a most helpful and measured consideration of the ethical issues involved at https://www.insights.uca.org.au/vaccination-inclusion-and-exclusion-the-ethics-of-regathering-for-worship-in-a-part-vaccinated-world/

*****

Appendix: in further conversation, I have clarified my thinking. I maintain my overarching commitment to be an inclusive church. I believe that we can do this by (a) ensuring that any in-person worship service is as safe as it can be for as many as are able safely to attend, and (b) ensuring that those who cannot gather in person—because they are vulnerable to infection or because their medical condition prohibits vaccination or because they have chosen not to be vaccinated—are welcomed and included and valued in the regular weekly online worship that is offered alongside of the in person worship.

The woman of valour (Proverbs 31; Pentecost 17B)

A sermon peached by Elizabeth Raine at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on 19 September 2021.

I suggested last week that the purpose of the book of Proverbs is to make suggestions as to how one might learn to live faithfully in everyday life. This passage (Proverbs 31:10–31) is no exception to this. Like other passages, it is meant to inspire moral ideals and guide people in living the best life possible.

If you are a woman and you know this passage, or were paying close attention to the reading, you might be thinking something like: is this even possible? how am supposed to live up to such an ideal? how is this meant to inspire wisdom in me?

And these are very good questions. The superwoman of Proverbs 31 has often been used to try and put women back into kitchens and keep them subservient to their husbands.

Today I am going to challenge this reading of Proverbs 31, and I am going to start by looking at how the first verse of this passage is translated. If you have a bible to hand feel free to look it up.

How do bible translations describe the woman of Proverbs 31? Generally, you will find that she is described as a noble, competent, capable, excellent, virtuous or good wife. Occasionally she is described as a woman, rather than a wife.

But is this actually what the Hebrew says? There are two primary issues in translation that shape how we interpret this text. The first is the status of the woman. Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “woman” and “wife”, so which is correct? The second issue is how the woman is described.

Let’s start at the beginning of the chapter. The claimed source for the words of this chapter is quite unique in the Old Testament. According to the text itself (31:1), a woman, the unnamed mother of the unknown King Lemuel, composed this poem describing a woman of worth and taught it to her son, who writes it down here. So it is a woman describing a woman. That might give us some clues. Secondly, the poem is an acrostic one, meaning the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession.

Like most of the wisdom literature, the purpose of this poem is to draw attention to the often-overlooked importance in one’s faith journey of doing everyday things. It is an acrostic so it is easier to remember, so obviously the ancient writers thought it was important enough to be memorised.

This poem is one of the most misunderstood passages in the bible, where it is seen as a list of virtues that form a job description for the ideal and faithful wife/woman. It has been trotted out on Mothers’ Days, weddings and in complementarian Christian circles where it stands as the pinnacle which woman should strive to emulate.

I am suggesting this is not the best way of understanding this passage, and that the purpose of Proverbs 31 purpose is to celebrate wisdom-in-action, not to instruct women everywhere to get married, have children, and take up weaving.

Let us go back to our translation issue. The Hebrew is eshet chayil, a ‘woman of valour or strength’ and this is how the opening verse should be translated. It has a male equivalent gibor chayil, or ‘man of valour’. It is a reminder to men (who are the intended audience of Proverbs) that as well as ‘men of valour’, there are also ‘women of valour’, the Hebrew emphasising the equality of the terms as applied to both genders.

 

The Hebrew word, chayil, has a primary meaning ranging from ‘military might/power’ and ‘(physical) strength.’ Its plural form designates warriors or an army. Translations that erase this woman’s physical strength and power create a construction of stereotypical “femininity” that is not present in the text. In verses3, 17 and 25 when chayil occurs translators nearly all translate it as strength. So why translate it as dutiful, capable, good noble or virtuous here?

Other language in the text points to the woman being strong, and we find a number of military terms to emphasise this. In verse 11, she provides ‘spoils’ (a term from war time plundering) for her Lord (no, it is not the word for husband (ish) as translations suggest).

In verse 17, she “girds her arms with strength and makes her arms strong”, again in military style. In verse 15 the Hebrew reads that she rises while it is still dark to provide “prey” for her household (this infers she is slaughtering the beasts, usually a man’s task). Verse 25 emphasises she is clothed in ‘strength and dignity’.

Professor Brent Strawn in an online article points out that the sentiments of verse 17 and verse 25 go far beyond both home and market: they are worthy of the mightiest of warriors (see Psalm 77:15; 83:8; Ezekiel 30:22; Nahum 2:1).

Like the feminine version, these gibor chayil, “men of valour”, have suggested military strength. We find the young David being described as a “gibor chayil ve-ish milchama,” a man of valor and a man of war (I Samuel 16:18). This is proved in his fight with Goliath, and becomes a central feature of David’s success as king. Later in 2 Samuel 23:8, David’s men are described as gibor chayil.

Gideon is described as a gibor chayil in the book of Judges (6:11), as is Joshua’s army as they prepare to take Jericho (Joshua 1:14). 1 Chronicles 5:18 identifies the sons of Reuben, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh as gibor chayil.

We have one other ‘woman of valour’ in the Hebrew bible, and she is found in the book of Ruth.

In this book, Ruth is presented as a destitute Moabite who followed her mother-in-law back to Jewish Bethlehem.  Once there, her daily work involved gleaning for barley and wheat. For over three chapters, she is neither a wife nor a mother. Her life looked nothing like the life of the woman depicted in Proverbs 31.

Ruth didn’t spend her days exchanging fine linens with merchants, running a home full of servants or buying fields.  Instead, she worked all day in the sun, gleaning leftovers from other people’s fields, which was a provision made for the poorest of the poor in Israel. 

And yet Boaz says of Ruth in chapter 3:11:  “all the assembly of my people know that you are an eshet chayil” (Ruth 3:11 NRSV).

Ruth is a woman of valour, not because she checked off the Proverbs 31 domestic goddess list, but because she lived her life with resourcefulness, compassion, courage, wisdom, and strength.  In other words, she lived her life with valour.

In the book of Ruth, Boaz is identified as gibor chayil, a man of valour. So when Boaz uses eshet chayil of Ruth, he clearly sees her as his equal.

The Proverbs woman is not defined by her husband or her children, particularly sons, as many other women in the Hebrew bible are. Rather, this woman is someone who is motivated, and she is defined by a string of verbs such as “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” “provides” and “makes.”

We are also not given much in the way of the woman’s appearance. Normally, unless they are judges or prophets, women are described in the Hebrew bible by their physical attributes such as beauty or gracefulness. Not here though – we have no clue as to her weight, height, shape, or clothes. Is she beautiful? Is she built like a tank?  We will never know – and it doesn’t matter.

So how does this woman of valour have relevance for us today as both woman and as church people? What message does she bring to a world where women are bombarded with messages about aging, body shape and beauty?  On Working Preacher, Professor Amy Oden suggests that

This passage offers a radical counter-cultural message in the profound silence about what she looks like. The closing verse reminds us that “beauty is vain,” not something women (or men) hear anywhere in the daily visual assault of airbrushed female bodies on billboards, magazine stands, and pop-up ads. The silence of Proverbs 31 on appearance is striking, and refreshing. She is praised for the content of her character and the excellence of her endeavors rather than the surface of her skin.

Oden also sees the subversive nature of the Proverbs woman as a “tangible expression“ of Lady Wisdom, who we met last week. Oden says the woman’s “virtue and worth are a result of her own agency, her actions and choices…she leads her own life rather than following someone else’s. She pursues her own ends rather than obeying orders. There is no hint that her industry is not her own, that she is demure or deferential, or that her pursuits are directed by others.”

In other words, the ‘woman of valour’ is as independent as Lady Wisdom, as clear on what her pursuits and her purposes are. Like Lady Wisdom, she is also operating in the male domain of buying and selling, and things occurring outside of the household.

When we see Proverbs 31 in the larger context of the book of Proverbs and the wisdom literature, and in the more immediate context of Lady Wisdom, the woman of Proverbs 31 could be understood not as an actual flesh and blood woman but as the ideal of Lady Wisdom herself.

Indeed, several verses pick up some of earlier depictions of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs – for example, she is far more precious than jewels (v10), opens her mouth with wisdom (1:20-21, 24; 31:26), both are strong (8:14 with 31:17, 25) and both “laugh at the time to come” (31:25; cf. 1:26).

The words eshet chayil, the ‘woman of valour’, is used by modern Jewish women as a way of cheering each other along. The say it to one another when they are celebrating things such as promotions, pregnancies, divorces, and battles with cancer. It is the Jewish equivalent of saying “you go girl” or acknowledging someone is wearing the ‘Wonder Woman tights’. In fact, Wonder Woman, on Israeli TV, is known as “Eshet Chayil.”

According to this Jewish practice, being a women of valour isn’t about what you do, but how you do it. Surely this is the message to us today, men and women. This isn’t about being a dutiful wife excelling in housewifery, though that is OK if you do it with valour. It isn’t about how we look, or about meeting the expectations of others on how we look.  It is about how we do things, our motivations, our faith and our inner qualities.

If you if you are retired, do it with valour. If you are a nurse, be a nurse of valour. If you are a CEO, a pastor, a check out chick, mountain climber or a barista at Café Guru, if you are rich or poor, single or married—do it all with valour. And if you are a Christian, a person of faith, be counter-cultural, speak out about the superficiality of much of our society, show courage when facing injustice and support the equality of women.

For this is what makes us eshet chayil, ‘women of valour’.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/12/in-the-squares-she-raises-her-voice-lady-wisdom-in-proverbs-pentecost-16b/