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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

God, when cattle are shot in the sun?

In my new capacity as an ex-dean and ex priest (I'm not heavily into that "for ever after Melchizedek" stuff) I will start a retrospective of sermons from my past lives. Occasionally when a historic or geographical reference needs explanation I'll annotate them but otherwise I'll let them be. I hope they are as encouraging for you to read on your journey of faith, un-faith or ex-faith as they were for me in their gestation and birth.

As they say in the pizza trade: enjoy ...


(my first sermon as priest in charge of Charleville,
together with Quilpie and the far south west of Queensland)


Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5f, 8-10
Psalm 18.9-10, 15
1 Corinthians 12.12-30
Luke 1.1-4, 4.14-20

There is a sense in our time of doom and gloom surrounding matters of faith, or more particularly Christian faith. Statistics tell us of the decline of the mainline churches, both in terms of influence and of attendance. We are often reminded that the fastest growing religions, at least statistically in Australia, are “no-religion”, atheism, (the two are different), and that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. We the Church have taken something of a drubbing in recent years.

Add to that sense the realization that our world, and particularly our rural world, is one of rapid change in make-up and in values and these become times of uncertainty indeed. A glance around many of our churches, rural or urban, a glance at the ages of our congregations, and we don’t need to be Einstein to figure that the future is not all sun and roses. It has been encouraging to note in our short time of exploration here in Charleville that this last observation is not altogether the case here; there are young faces, young families, young musicians to be seen, not least of all on Friday night, but we all know that there are many young people around us who know nothing of the Jesus story, let alone of the mind blowing complexities of our worship and of the rhythms of our faith.

There is, as the great Hebrew Preacher said, nothing new under the sun. The Hebrew people had come, through combinations of complacency and hardship, to forget the narratives and practices and challenges of their faith. They had forgotten those other words of the Preacher: remember your creator in the days of your youth. Or in the days of your prime, or the days of your aging – though the habits of remembrance are best established in the days of youth. They had forgotten the narratives of faith.

It was fascinating, even in relatively God-ignoring Australia, that in the weeks following September 11th there was a marked if temporary upturn in church attendance. It was as if those horrific events, played in dramatic detail again and again on our television screens, reminded us for a moment or two of our vulnerability and of our mortality. Could we have been one of those who leapt from the towers in a desperate attempt to escape the flames? What horror did the plane passengers experience? For a moment there was nowhere to hide. The tragic Bali bombing momentarily halted us once more to renew a sense of vulnerability, but after the live pictures of New York the after-the-event pictures of Bali seemed tame, unless we knew someone there, and our anaesthetised state was barely interrupted.

Since then of course we have had the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the litanies of lies and selective truths, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and we are immortal once more. It is easy, some would say even necessary, to blot out the fragile nature of our existence.

Farmers are never far from that harsh reality. Drought, flood, and market forces leave those of you who live most exposed to what St. Paul called the “elemental spirits of the universe” very aware of your vulnerability, and, as Lyn reminded us on Friday night, of the vulnerability of your livestock, shot as an act of mercy to save them from the ravages of Queensland drought. Farmers, sailors, and one or two others live very exposed to the elements. For them, for you, the narratives of faith can often ring more true than for those of us anaesthetized from the elements. But still the changes in our community have often been bewildering, and the narratives seem not to speak to us, or at least to our descendents, any more.

There is nothing new under the sun. The two great Hebrew leaders, Ezra and Nehemiah, recognized that their people had become complacent in their attitudes to their Creator God. Risking the wrath of the population they reminded them again and again of the challenges and demands, as well as the benefits of the Torah, the Law. The community eventually recognized the claims of God upon them, redressed their wrongs, and turned once more to the demands of God. The Jewish people continue to this day to celebrate this time of mass repentance with the Feast of Tabernacles, celebrated then by Ezra, and today impregnated with the memory of the repentance sparked by the challenges of Ezra and Nehemiah.

We as a people of God could spend the time that is ours and God’s bible-bashing our neighbours into belief in God and in the things of Jesus. It is however unlikely we would achieve a great deal. We can instead rally ourselves to a remembrance of the values and of the urgencies of God. Nehemiah, and, like him centuries later, Jesus himself, reconnected their own lives and the lives of those around them with the values and the expectations of God. Perhaps the “reconnections” of Jesus were not so much a reconnection as a re-enactment or reemphasis or re-arrangement of the Godhead inter-connections, rearrangements essential to his now being human. Nevertheless he stood amongst the people and began his public ministry with a restatement of the values of God. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to proclaim…. That same Spirit challenged Ezra and Nehemiah to challenge their people to reclaim the values and the urgency of God. We are challenged like them to reprioritize to reconnect, to share together in the joy and the exhilaration of knowing God.

To do that we must work together. We must find again and again together the encouragement of our faith, our scriptures, and our fellowship. We must pray together, laugh and weep together, worship and act together. The bishop spoke at my induction on Friday of the green growth that has startled us once more since last fortnight’s rains, followed up in some areas by further rains in the past 48 hours. These, amidst all the hardship that you have endured in recent years, are reminders of the possibilities of God. We must learn again and again to be a people who give thanks to that God our Creator, to work together in demonstrating to those around us God’s compassion and love, and to be, even when we are not reminded by horror stories such as those of September 11th, a people of penitence and compassionate action in our community. To that task we are commissioned together. My task and Anne’s now is to learn how best to aid you in that journey to which you have long been faithful, to encourage you and journey with you as God’s future enfolds.

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