A sermon by The Rt Rev’d Denise Ferguson

Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Ps 145:1-5, 17-21, 2 Thess 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-40

Holy God, open our minds to know your wisdom, open our hearts to embrace your love and open our mouths to speak your word. Amen.

Good morning, it is a delight and privilege to be back in the Cathedral, where I was prayed for and welcomed so warmly only 3.5 months ago at my consecration. I am so grateful for your ongoing care and prayer as I settle into this new ministry.

Because this is my first official visit to the Cathedral, I thought I wold begin by sharing a little about myself.

I am Denise Ferguson and until four months ago was serving as a parish priest and archdeacon in the Diocese of Brisbane since early in 2014. As you may have already guessed, I am a New Zealander by birth and was ordained in the Diocese of Wellington 20 years ago.

People often ask me how I came to be appointed as an assistant bishop in this diocese: You will have to seek God’s guidance and the Archbishop’s wisdom for that answer; however, I am aware that I have had a diverse, blessed ministry which has opened opportunities for me to gain some unique experience and skills.

I began my formal ministry in the mid 1980’s, when my husband, Mark, was serving in the New Zealand Army. We were worshipping in the Anglican Church attached to the Army camp and one day the Chaplain asked if I would train a choir for Christmas. Not long after that I was licensed as a Lay Reader and frequently found myself stepping in at the last minute to lead Sunday worship when the Army Chaplain had been called away. This experience laid the foundations for me to explore a call to ordained ministry.

Following seminary, I was ordained Deacon in 1999 and Priest in 2000. In the ensuing years I have served a curacy, been Vicar or Rector of three diverse parishes. Archdeacon, Bishops Ministry Chaplain for Ministry Discernment, Canon of three cathedrals and a Diocesan Registrar and Manager.

I also completed a Master of Ministry degree, with a focus on Ministry Discernment. In fact, Dean Frank and I studied for our master’s degrees together in New Zealand – it really is a small world.

Even though it came as a great surprise, I have no doubt that God was in the midst of this call to Adelaide. Almost four months into the journey, or as the Archbishop would say – 5 minutes in, it has been an amazing God filled journey.

As we sit on the eve of Remembrance Day, there is one other very special ministry experience I would like to share with you.

Three years ago, I was invited to be one of two honorary chaplains for the Australian War Animals Memorial organisation. A position I continue to hold.

In 2017 I joined a contingent of representatives from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and many other nations to dedicate  the first memorial in Europe to honour the more than 9 million animals that died in the First World War: dogs, cats, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, glow worms, canaries and pigeons. Yes, even glow worms. The light from six glow worms was enough to assist the soldiers to read Standing Orders when there was no other light source.

The ground on which we stood in Pozieres, was and is sacred ground: Sacred for France and sacred for Australia. On this ground 23,000 Australians became casualties of war in just six weeks: 6800 died, five were awarded Victoria Crosses for bravery.  Charles Bean, the Australian War Correspondent wrote of this site ‘Pozieres is more deeply sewn with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.’

I could not stand on that land without being moved. There were many tears, not only mine, as we gathered to remember and give thanks.

The soldiers who fought, suffered and died on this piece of ground were volunteers. The animals that served and supported them were not. Dedicating this Memorial finally gave voice to those who, for one hundred years had no voice.

The primary focus of this journey was to dedicate a Memorial to those animals who lost their lives in the First World War, however behind the War Animals Memorial thousands of white crosses had been placed to represent the human beings, primarily men who had served with and beside those animals and who had also lost their lives. It was a sobering and deeply moving experience.

I am grateful that I can continue to support the work of the Australian War Animals Memorial Organisation here in South Australia.

As I read and reflected upon the readings for today, especially the Gospel, I initially wondered what the Spirit was wanting to say to the people gathered in St Peter’s Cathedral today. Not always an easy discernment!

I did note that Jesus was embroiled in another argument.

As we have journeyed through the Gospel of Luke these past months, we have often encountered Jesus arguing. In fact, Jesus, from a young age, has earned a reputation for arguing, especially in respect to the Torah, which is the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures.

So, what was different about today’s passage?

Was it about the principles of Levirate marriage?
I suspect not.

Was it about the Sadducees belief that there was no resurrection?
It was certainly the most significant point of theological division between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

But I still had a sense that there was something deeper going on here.

What kept coming back to me was the principle and futility of argument.

Jesus’ argument with the Sadducees was different to earlier arguments though.

Rather than a tennis game of questions exchanged between participants, as we see in the conversation between Jesus and a Lawyer that leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan. It would appear that today’s argument, rather than being about content, was about intent.

What was it that the Sadducees were trying to achieve?

Sadducees were interesting people. They were one of the three main Jewish political and religious movements in Jesus time. The others were the Essenes and the Pharisees.

Sadducees had what we might call an ultra-conservative outlook and accepted only the written Law of Moses. Truly pious behaviour was measured by living according to the commandments of the written law. There was to be no variant.

Whereas the Pharisees had what might be considered a more liberal approach to scripture. Pharisees taught that the ‘written Torah’ was to be supplemented with ‘The oral Torah’, the interpretation of the written Law by the Pharisee teachers, the rabbis.

Many wealthy Jews were Sadducees or sympathized with them which gave them significant power in both the religious and political arena. Whereas Pharisees were more of a social movement and school of thought.

Both the Sadducees and the Pharisees often clashed with Jesus over his interpretation of the Law.

The Sadducees, whilst initiating the argument, had no intention of engaging in a debate with Jesus. They were right, and nothing was going to change their perspective – in the situation cited in today’s Gospel it was their absolute belief that upon death both the body and soul died. There was no possibility of resurrection. In fact, this point of difference is understood to be the cause of schism between the Sadducees and the Pharisees in 140BCE.

So why were they so determined to engage Jesus in this argument? Nothing he would say would change their minds or influence their belief.

Arguments: Intent rather than content.

Once again scripture paints a picture that reminds us that the world of Jesus day was as troubled as the world in which we live.

I am sure that there are times when our behaviour reflects that of both the Sadducees and Pharisees. That isn’t wrong. To know what we stand for is important.

What is equally important is to make that decision from an informed base.

What do we believe?

Why do we believe what we do?

What are the questions we ask along the way to help us strengthen our belief?

What is our ‘content’ and what is our ‘intent?”

Remembering that the world in which we live is as troubled and divided by religious difference as was the world of Jesus, I encourage you to explore those thoughts.

I conclude by offering you once again the words of St Paul:

 So then, brothers and sisters,[i] stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word. Amen.