The Hope of the New Creation


SERMON FOR THE 23RD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

November 17, AD 2019

St George’s Anglican Church, Dunsborough

Gospel:

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke,
[Chapter 21 beginning at verse 5].
Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers[c] and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

For the Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

 

 

Most mornings I walk to the beach with our dog Lottie. There’s something healing about the gently surging waves of Geographe Bay. Its appearance changes from day to day; some days it is calm, on other days the light refracts into bright colours, red, greens and golds.

Some days, walking near the beach is disturbing. Stinking seaweed covers the sand and I’m not sure if that’s a natural process or not. Sinkholes appear in the sand where there was solid sand before. The sea seems to be eating the coast despite the best efforts of the City of Busselton with groynes and trucks bringing loads of sand.

You’ve probably seen the maps predicting greater storm-surges eroding our coastline. It’s sad enough that by 2040 Stilts near us may be under water, but much sadder will be the disappearance of whole cities like Venice and Bangkok, even whole countries like Bangladesh. The Indonesians are building a new capital on the island of Borneo, starting even while Joko Widodo is President, because parts of Jakarta are already under water.

There’s too much water in some places. In other places, there is stubborn drought. The WA Government has built desalination machines with the capacity to deliver half of our water supply… otherwise we would be thirsty.

In Queensland,  northern New South Wales and California, wildfires burn pretty much year-round. Polar ice is melting at never-before rates.

In St Paul’s language, creation is groaning. It’s not my job to tell you where to place your opinion on the climate change emergency, although I’ve probably hinted what mine is!

There’s a story about a speaker who advocated sustainable living, liveable cities, green transport, planting trees and gardens and renewable energy – the list went on. An angry voice from the back called out, ‘And what happens if we create this better world and there wasn’t a climate emergency?’

It is definitely my role to remind you of the preciousness of creation, God’s gift to us and our responsibility to God for it.

I believe that we Christians should have a binocular view of creation: through one lens, we should delight in the beauty of the world, marvel at its wonders, be thankful – more than that, be deeply grateful – for creation as our life-support.

Out of gratitude, we are called to be like our Creator. We are called not just to be grateful, but to be creative, too.

With the Psalmist, we praise God for creation:

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures
. (Psalm 104 24)

Through a second lens, we should be aware of all that disturbs us about the degradation of the natural world. Whether or not the climate is about to go over some tipping point or not, our response to the damages we see should be one of repentance. Part of our joyful penance is learning how to look after the earth better.

God commands the man and the woman in Genesis:
Fill the earth and subdue it. Take control of the all living things on the earth. (Genesis 1:28a)

Some scholars say that a better translation is:
Fill the earth and look after it. Take up your responsibility for all living things on the earth.

God is not telling humanity to exploit his creation by force; God is saying that our unique position as the dominant species means we have a responsibility to help creation flourish.

We do this partly by being creative people. Some of us take dyed cotton, cut and sew the material to make prayer-quilts, which are not just beautiful objects, but part of our worship: they embody our intercessions. The prayer-quilts respect the environment: some of the fabric is recycled. All of them are designed to last.

Someone among us searches for digital images to help us worship and these are projected. They create an atmosphere and they suggest links with the readings and themes of the day’s worship. Finding and choosing the best images is a time-consuming and creative task.

Not only do our musicians create beautiful sounds to lead our singing, we lift up our voices and blend them together to express our praise together. In music, in particular, we worship as one. Every time we sing or listen to the musicians, we create something new that has never existed before. Each performance creates something from nothing. Each act of creation is exercising our image of God; we are creative as God is creative.

Today’s readings give us every reason for hope.

It’s true, as we heard in the reading from Matthew, that our politics can mess up everything, from implementing Brexit to killing the Great Barrier Reef. Jesus could be confident in predicting the time when the politics in Judea were so bad that the Romans would come and wipe out Jews. In A.D. 70, the Roman army hammered Jerusalem and razed the Temple to the ground. They wrecked the built environment and severely damaged the natural world. They nearly succeeded in erasing every Jew and every trace of Jewish culture from the face of the earth.

We look around the world today – to Great Britain, to the U.S., to Turkey and Syria – and we see the devastation bad politics brings. Just when we think things couldn’t get any worse in Syria, they do. On current trends, if politicians and others don’t act, the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific, will disappear under the waves.

And it’s easy to be depressed about this. ‘According to a new U.N. report,’ comedian Jay Leno says, ‘the global warming outlook is much worse than originally predicted. Which is pretty bad when they originally predicted it would destroy the planet.’

But Isaiah forcefully reminds us that this is God’s creation, not a human creation. God cares for it. God will act. God invites us to do all that is needed to help the planet flourish, and the human contribution does really matter, but ultimately the earth and the heavens are in God’s hands!

‘Behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth. …
‘Be glad and rejoice forever
in that which I create…’
(Isaiah 17a and 18a)

We Christians are in a different position than others who care about the environment. We believe that the heavens and the earth, the Bible’s shorthand for the Universe, will end up better than it is, better than it started. Some Christians believe that God will destroy this Universe and make another. I don’t think the Bible supports this view. I believe that the new heavens and the new earth will be this Universe, perfectly restored. That way makes a place for human beings ‘raised,’ as we will be ‘to eternal life’, perfectly restored, like the new Universe.

We could choose to disregard the firm intention of God and live in despair. Or we can reach out our hands and receive from God hope as a gift. When you reach out your hands for communion this morning and receive little pieces of God’s creation, some bread and wine, I invite you to see them as God’s gift to you of hope.

We, as Christian people, can re-frame the way we think about the environment. For us, it is not doom and gloom, even when it appears so. If there are challenges, we can see them as God’s invitation to do something, to put into practice all those things we know as individuals and as communities that will help creation flourish.

And then as St Paul says to the Christians at Thessalonica, ‘Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.’ (I Thess. 5:18). In everything give thanks. This is the key. We give thanks for the opportunity to counter the effects of pollution. We give thanks for those who work with us to see that the environment can flourish. We give thanks for the works of beauty made by artists and craftspeople.

We rejoice, because this side of the new creation, we will continue to learn about our worlds. Astronomers have discovered planets in far-off star systems that may support life. Material scientists, physicists and chemists are making new theories about the science of consciousness; how our physical brain does not explain our mind, that wondrous world of thought and creativity.

Dogs, horses, cats, bobtails , magpies – when we meet them we often feel they are just as aware of us as we of them. They seem to have a mind, a level of consciousness, too. Some scientists even theorise that there is consciousness in every atom, it’s built into the building blocks of the Universe.

Then there’s the research at The University of WA showing how trees communicate, both through the fungus between them, and by sending scents into the air to warn other trees of insect attacks. Trees also give out a fragrance which is healing for us humans.

Exciting ideas.

And above all, we give thanks for the breath-taking works of the Creator as they are: the cool air of Ngilgi Cave, the red colour of the bottlebrush, the beguiling scent of crushed sandalwood, the jaunty gait of a running emu, the endless play of light and dark in our galaxy.

If you have A Prayer Book for Australia at home, look up the wonderful ‘Thanksgiving for Australia’ written by Bundjalung Aunty Lenore Parker She is an indigenous Anglican priest and her prayer goes like this:

God of holy dreaming, Great Creator Spirit,
from the dawn of creation you have given your children
the good things of Mother Earth.
You spoke and the gum tree grew.
In the vast desert and dense forest,
and in the cities at the water’s edge,
creation sings your praise.
Your presence endures
as the rock at the heart of our Land.
When Jesus hung on the tree
you heard the cries of all your people
and became one with the wounded ones:
the convicts, the hunted and the dispossessed.
The sunrise of your Son coloured the earth anew,
and bathed it in glorious hope.
In Jesus we have been reconciled to you,
to each other and to your whole creation.
Lead us on, Great Spirit,
as we gather from the four corners of the earth;
enable us to walk together in trust
from the hurt and shame of the past
into the full day which has dawned in Jesus Christ. Amen
.

 

 

 

 

Advent’s Four Last Things: HELL


HELL

To be trafficked, and forced to live and work where you have not chosen; this is hell. Your captor counts your value in dollars, not in your humanity, and so treats you with the indifference a bad tradie treats his tools.

To be in pain, constantly without end; this is hell. Pain holds your body prisoner and you are unable to live as you wish because of the pain.

To be abused, and to live with memories of abuse; this is hell. Someone you trusted violated you and treated you just like a willful child stomping on a toy.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the descent through the circles of Hell (L’Inferno). In a region called Ptolomea are those who have been thrown deep into Hell for treachery to their guests. These are people who insinuate themselves in a position of trust and use that power to take advantage of their victims. Significantly, Dante believes that these people die at the moment of their crime; their body may live on, but their soul is thrown immediately to this bottom part of hell.

In the world of Dante’s poem, there’s justice in this punishment. The Australian churches now must allow justice to be dealt both to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also to those who, by action or inaction, covered up those crimes.

I want to give little oxygen here to perpetrators, however.

Rather, consider the hell of being a victim of abuse: the inability to trust; the devaluing of the self; the trauma of being violated, and the secondary, and sometimes worse, trauma of remembering it. There is a shocking trauma for those who recover a memory long repressed. There’s the ongoing trauma of flashbacks and dreams. Relationships take on extra challenges. Some victims become hypervigilant, expecting at every moment something bad to overtake them. Taken together, this is hell lived out in daily experience, like a young woman trafficked, or the person experiencing high levels of pain every day.

Is ‘victim’ the right word? Many prefer ‘survivor’. While a person remains without hope, then they are in hell: they are a victim of the violence done to them.

Being destroyed by abuse, or corroded by pain, or forcibly held become hell when the victim can see no way out. This person understands that their situation will go on unchanged for ever. It is hell, and one of the four last things: an ultimate reality.

Christian faith reveals God who can undo the final reality of death. Death, the end, is no longer the end. The God who has power to raise Jesus from the dead has power to release victims from hell. The person who believes there is a future becomes a survivor, literally, one who lives beyond.

Christian faith bears witness, in the hells which people experience, to the reality of hope. This is the key which unlocks the door of hell. Hope is the secret ingredient which explodes the murderous captors of this world.

We must believe in hell because it is part of people’s lived experience. We are invited, however, to grasp hope, because hope turns victims into survivors, and eventually into joyful survivors; hope destroys hell.

child
Joy!

As At The Dawn


As At the Dawn

 

Because you love them free as they are
They say you have nothing to say

 

Because you put on a human face
They say you’ve hidden yourself

 

Because you’re all heart God
They say you’ve gone to sleep

 

Because your Spirit cannot be grasped
They say everything has gone wrong

 

Because you refuse to collude with evil
They say you’re good for nothing

 

Because you don’t crush people
They say they haven’t called on you

 

Because you’re not just any God
They say you’re just anything

 

Because you made me in your image
You are also everything they say

 

Dear God won’t you take pity on me?

 

Original French P. Fertin “Comme à l’aurore”, Paris: Desclée, 1974, p. 17
Translated by Ted Witham 2013

 

Francis the pastor


Of course the name chosen by the new Pope, Francis, has encouraged me to think that his ministry will be different from his predecessors. In his first 100 days Francis has behaved like a pastor, like a parish priest, encouraging his flock in following the Gospel.

In his informal style Francis has also used some charming and helpful images: while encouraging bishops to be exemplars to their people  of Christian living, the Pope also shows that he trusts the faithful to be the faithful: “they have the scent of the Gospel anyway,” he has said more than once. That’s refreshing.

I know that a faraway personality can become simply a blank screen on which to project our own hopes and values, I can see that his apparently off the cuff homilies are actually quite studied,  and I hear the warnings that despite the gestures of austerity, he is governing like an old-fashioned Jesuit (listening to all but making decisions by himself), and that his theology on issues I care about is still conservative (I am certain he disagrees with my views on the ordination of women, and the acceptance of LGBT people in the Church!), however, what counts is clear: Francis is a pastor encouraging all Christians in their faith.

In this address to the Cardinals Francis shows that he trusts God with the future of the church, and for that we can be encouraged:

Let us never give way to pessimism, to a sort of bitterness that the devil offers us each day; let us never give way to pessimism and discouragement: let us have the firm certainty that Holy Spirit gives to the Church, but her powerful breath, the courage to persevere and also to look for new methods of evangelism to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth (cf Acts 1:8)

–          Pope Francis  at Rome, 15 March 2013

As an Anglican, I am in the nice position of being able to pick and choose what I like from the Pope’s leadership, and this Pope is showing forth Gospel values in his reported lifestyle and gestures, and is speaking about the Gospel from the heart. I thank God for him.

Hope for Palestinians


 

Michelle Cohen Corasanti, The Almond Tree, Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing

Paperback from $AUD 11.22 (online) or Kindle E-book: $US 3.49

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I wept frequently while reading this outstanding first novel.

The Almond Tree tells the story of Ichmad Hamid, a gifted Palestinian boy whose family home is destroyed to make way for Jewish settlers. They lose their orchard and, after some years in a tent, are able to build a one-room cement-block house on the tiny patch of land the Israelis leave for them. Ichmad’s beloved Baba is sent to prison for 14 years after 12-year-old Ichmad helps radicals bury weapons in their backyard.  Their small home and all its possessions are again destroyed by Israeli soldiers.

In his father’s absence, Ichmad takes on the role of provider for his family, working on Israeli settler construction sites for far less wages than the suspicious Iraqis and Russians who work with him. Following his father’s advice Ichmad tries to choose always the way of peace, and despite endless provocations, not to return hatred for hatred.

Teacher Mohammad offers to tutor the gifted boy every evening after work. Ichmad wins a scholarship in Maths and Physics to Hebrew University, and sets out on a stellar academic career. He collaborates with his Professor, a bitter Jew whose family was murdered in Auschwitz. Eventually the two become close friends and win the Nobel Prize jointly for their work on nanotechnology.

Ichmad continues to support his family on his Professor’s wage at Harvard, and maintains close contact with his village. He identifies with their life-giving almond tree with its roots deep in Palestinian soil. At every turn in his story  he encounters tragedy, much of it caused by the brutality of Israeli occupation, and Ichmad’s desire to choose peace almost always – eventually – turns the tragedies into something deeper and positive for his people and his family.

This is a powerful first novel by a courageous Jewish-American woman. I did not need to be persuaded that the occupation of Palestine is anything but a disaster for the Palestinians. It would be wonderful if this novel helped others to see the human cost of providing a secure and secular state for the Jewish people. It may just be sufficiently powerful to do so.

 

Easter Lights


Lueurs pascales – Easter Lights

 A poem by Brother Roger of Taizé (with translation)

Toi, le Christ,
tu te charges de ce qui nous charge,
au point que,
débarrassés de ce qui alourdit notre existence,
nous reprenions à tout moment
la marche légère
de l’inquiétude vers la confiance,
de l’ombre vers la clarté de l’eau vive,
de notre volonté propre
vers la vision du Royaume qui vient.
Alors, bien que nous osions
à peine l’espérer,
tu offres à chaque être humain
d’être un reflet de ton visage.
(Le défunt Frère Roger Schutz de la Communauté de Taizé, dans Reff, Sylvie et Stern, André. Soleil de prières. Editions Albin Michel, 1989).

Prières à Taizé

You, dear Christ,
take all our burdens on yourself,
to the point that,
released from all in our lives that weighs us down,
at every moment we may step lightly again
from anxiety to confidence,
from the shadows to bright living water,
from self love
towards the vision of the coming Kingdom.
So, even though we scarcely dare to hope that it may be,
you offer each human being
to be a reflection of your face.[The late Brother Roger  – translation by Ted Witham]

The Hearth of God


My new translation of an old prayer:

Fill this house with your presence, Loving Lord, and keep far from us all the poison of the enemy. With your holy angels around us, protect us within the circle of your peace, and bless us always with your love. Through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[The Original:

Visita, quaesumus, Domine, habitionem istam, et omnes insidias inimici ab ea longe repelle: angeli tui sancti habitent in ea, qui nos in pace custodiant, et benediction tua sit super nos semper. Per Christum Iesus Nostrum Dominum. Amen.]