Saturday, November 23, 2013

26th Sunday after Pentecost

Approaching the end of the church liturgical year, the readings from
the Bible take on an apocalyptic tone, reminding us of final things,
and of God's promise of new things. We are invited to take a
big-picture view of things – and as you listened to the reading from
St Luke's Gospel this morning perhaps your mind went to the
devastation in the Philippines, as millions felt the fury of a
super-typhoon and houses in which people sheltered were literally
stripped away around them. We are reminded of the impermanence and
the vulnerability of human structures. My mind also went to last
week's findings handed down by the Victorian Royal Commission into
child sexual abuse, with its devastating indictment of the churches –
the seemingly solid stones of respectability and institutional
self-serving power lie all too obviously broken and dismantled. Or to
the revelations of the impact our national lurch to the right on
asylum seekers is already having on the lives, the dignity and the
mental health of vulnerable people living in appalling conditions in
Manus Island where the only shade and shelter in tropical conditions
is to be found in stifling tents and detainees are deliberately
subjected to inhuman and humiliating treatment in order to pressure
them to return to the countries from which they originally fled. The
stones that I hear breaking are the stones of our self-serving
national mythology of the fair go. And we argue about whether climate
change is real, whether fires and storms and droughts that seem to be
increasing in severity and frequency are already revealing the damage
that human wastefulness has wrought on the planet, or perhaps we can
continue to pay it lip service while refusing to make any real changes
in the way we live, and perhaps the problem will go away. Perhaps.
The crumbling stones are the credibility gap between the stories we
tell ourselves and the reality of a stressed environment, God's
creation suffering.

If we listen to the nightly news with intelligence and sensitivity
then we are disturbed, and we can't fail to be aware of the
contradiction between our she'll be right rhetoric and the realities
of our world. Even when our TV news screens out many of the
realities, like the daily toll of suffering in Syria or Iraq. Perhaps
we can imagine the situation for the people being addressed by the
prophet we call Third Isaiah – the third historical segment of the
Book of Isaiah written around 475BC, about two generations after they
returned from exile with plans to rebuild their shattered city. Much
of the city was still in ruins, people continued to suffer the effects
of oppression and dislocation. Hunger, thirst, illness and early
death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were
the realities of the day. Even the partially rebuilt Temple seemed a
mockery of the distant memory of the glorious Temple of Solomon's
reign. In Isaiah, chapter 40 – the second historical segment – the
people had returned from Babylon excited and abuzz as the prophet
spoke of roads made smooth and the desert bursting into flower. Two
generations the hope seems to have been misplaced – but now Isaiah
speaks of a new vision from God, who, in the midst of human suffering
and despite the long wait, is about to do a new and great thing: 'to
create new heavens and a new earth'.

What does it mean? And what has it got to do with us?

The first thing is to notice what is being promised. Not just the end
of human suffering – the premature death of children, the injustice of
workers not being able to afford to live in the homes they built or
eat the food they grow. This is a world in which – so it is promised
– God's 'yes' will counteract and transform the 'noes' that fence in
our lives. Creation itself will be filled with peace – Bible
commentators point out the intentional echo that this passage makes
with the Genesis creation story, but it is not a return to Eden. This
is a new garden, with the curses of competition and fragmentation and
violence undone. This vision of peace, or shalom, on the other side
of exile and suffering echoes the pre-exilic vision of Isaiah chapter
11 – even the natural order is transformed with "natural" predators
living gently together, side by side. This imagined world may all
sound like a beautiful dream, but the prophet assures us it is the
promise and project of God who will bring transformation not in some
apocalyptic sense but in a concrete, this-world experience of all
things made right.

It's a good dream, not just for disappointed post-exilic Jerusalemites
in the fifth century BC but for dreamers of all ages who see and are
disheartened by the contradiction between the realities of power and
oppression and disaster and the promises of a God who sees creation
and calls it good. That's why this passage has been a favourite ever
since it was written 2500 years ago. It speaks to us of our deep down
awareness that the way things are is not the way God intends them to
be.

If we can agree for the sake of argument – because it's in the Bible –
that the prophet's dream of a new creation really is the dream and the
intention of God, then we need to ask ourselves, 'how does it happen?'
The word project is perhaps better than the word dream – if this
God's project, if God is the One who wills all this, and is bringing
it to reality, is it a project that God is going to bring about
without us or does it involve our participation? Have we got anything
better to do, or to give our lives to? The dream is comprehensive –
it involves the Earth itself, the healing of the land and the living
systems of earth and sky and water, and for human beings living
responsively within the natural limitations of the earth and its
season, sharing the goodness of the earth's produce with justice and
ensuring not that the rich get richer but that the most vulnerable are
cared for. It's not our work – it is God's work and God's creation is
already capable of sustaining us and flourishing in partnership with
us, but we have forgotten that God's love and attentiveness needs to
be echoed by our own.

Interestingly, even today we hear televangelists talking of disaster
and natural events and even war as God's punishment, usually for
personal sin – but the prophet in fact is reminding us that even in
times when the vision of the future is obscured by events and forces
that we can't do anything about and that threaten to overwhelm our
faith – even then we are surrounded by God's loving vision for human
life, and even then we can trust that God is at work, bringing God's
dream to reality. Isaiah certainly calls us to a wider vision that
that of personal salvation – as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan
Williams put it, as Christians we are necessarily prisoners of hope –
but the hope to which we are committed is not just hope for ourselves
but confidence in God's priority for the renewal and the healing of
the world itself. That's thinking pretty large, so where do we begin?
Is such a cosmic vision of a transformed creation counter-realistic
prophetic pie-in-the-sky or does it actually empower us, as
Christians, to make a difference?

We hear it, of course, as individuals in different circumstances.
Today we are taking up a collection for the ABM Philippines appeal to
assist with the reconstruction of devastated communities. We have the
opportunity to act in ways that restore human dignity and mitigate
suffering, to help re-orient shattered communities towards the future.
Whether or not our government recognises or cares to respond to the
threat of climate change we can adjust the ways in which we live and
our lifestyle as consumers. We can become better informed and learn
to live in a way that orientates our vision toward Isaiah's vision of
creation fulfilled and at peace. The self-defeating logic of those
who say that our contribution to climate change or environmental
degradation is so small that it's not our problem, or we can't do
anything about it is easily counteracted by millions of people like
you and like me who dare to imagine and believe in a healthy
environment and who care enough to change their behaviour. It becomes
just a little bit harder for vulnerable people who have fled
persecution in their countries of origin to be rebrutalised and forced
back if Australians like you and me are prepared to stand up for the
Biblical principle of hospitality and mercy. At the core of the
vision of Isaiah is the belief that God is at work for the good of all
of God's children, no matter how things may appear at the moment. And
that we as God's people are called to dream God's dream and to join in
the project of God for wholeness and justice.

We hear it, also, as a parish – as God's people in this specific
community – and it encourages us to ask how we as a parish are part of
God's project. One specific answer is that we baptise. Today we
welcome Flynn into the family of the Church through baptism, and that
is our response, and Flynn's mum and dad's response, to the promise of
the future that is always heard in the birth of a baby. A baby says
that the future matters, and we together see God's promises made flesh
and blood in Flynn, and in baptism we respond to those promises. As a
Eucharistic community we gather to hear and to enact Jesus' promise to
be with us, and this too is a promise that the future matters, that we
are not alone. We claim God's forgiveness, which is the miracle that
transforms past failure and paralysis into future possibility, and we
free one another by practising forgiveness.

We orient ourselves to the future, we come together in prayer and
study and the gossip of God's goodness, and we practise hospitality
and welcome, and this is how as a parish we participate in the project
of creation. We could do it better, of course. But this is how we do
it.