Speaking for all things to be made new

Sermon for morning services 13 November 2016

Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

A week of profundity. On Friday as the hour of 11am moved around the time zones of the globe, untold millions paused in solemnity to remember those whose lives were cut short in warfare, to consider for what they had sacrificed their lives and to give thanks for what they had sought to bequeath, in terms of a better, a fairer world for those whom they would never know, those who would come after them.

In their humble simplicity, the poppies that we have all put on the Cross this morning remember both the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of those men and women. Though we individually know scarcely any of their names, may we never forget them. Requiem in Pace.

It was in this same week that an event of an historic nature transpired in the United States; and from that event has come a torrent of comment and attempts to give answer to the question: “What just happened?” Having always been interested in politics, even if very dispassionately these days, I have been keenly interested to read as much of the commentary as possible – yes, I know, I’m an election tragic.

For our purposes today perhaps amongst the most interesting have been the references to Donald Trump being a pagan. Some months ago there was even a Facebook page set up – “American Pagans for Trump”; and tracking it over time has revealed an overt campaign amongst self-declared pagans to adopt Donald and promote his cause. But more surprisingly, Neil Young, author of “We gather together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics” said, in the weeks before the election:

The biggest mystery of 2016 for me has been Donald Trump’s success with evangelical voters … There is (of course) strong and spirited opposition to Trump from (many) influential evangelicals …

However, he has also said that a number of American evangelicals believe that:

(Donald Trump) is a an Old Testament useful pagan who may not be a Christian (and who) probably doesn’t agree with us on most things but who we believe God will ultimately be using for our purposes.

Speaking to Andrew West on the Religion and Ethics Report on Radio National, Young went on to say that those evangelicals supporting Donald Trump ‘don’t have shared values (with him) but do have shared concerns’ and, because of that they could be ‘co-belligerent’.

But that’s enough of that, I am sure that, in coming into the sanctuary of the Cathedral, most of you would have thought that you would at least be safe from what seems like a flood of ceaseless commentary about the US presidential election – and I’ve let you down! And I really don’t here want to enter into a partisan debate as to the merits or demerits of the winner and the loser of that contest.

However, our Gospel reading this morning did take us into the space of worldly contention:

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom … there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

What are we to make of such words? Certainly, we can frame and define current events through the lens of such words; but is that what Jesus intended? That we were to look at political and civil upheavals as being prophesied, as not just inevitable but essential implications of an apocalyptic vision of the clash of the temporal with the eternal. Certainly the last century, since World War One, has delivered more than enough cataclysmic events to sustain such a world view – these are the End Times some say.

But such a perspective of apocalyptic inevitability cheapens those precious lives lost or oppressed through precisely those same cataclysmic events. Such dismissal of victims as no more than prophetic fodder is not consistent with so much of what Jesus also said. How could such victims be no more than fodder when they were also, according to Jesus ‘blessed’ – the poor in spirit, those who mourn and the meek? Or the lost sheep whom he came to bring back, not like the hired hand ‘who cares nothing for the sheep’ [John 10:13] but flees in time of danger.

Rather I believe that Jesus knew that the brokenness of humanity, which cleaved Creation, could never resolve its self-same brokenness; and so he proclaimed that it was only through us having faith in the intentional and out-reaching love of God demonstrated through his incarnation that the brokenness could be healed, made new.

Our reading today from Isaiah speaks of just such a healed brokenness, of a making new, that God, through Jesus, intends:

For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight … no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

So what was Jesus highlighting in the verses read this morning? Two portions stand out:

This will give you an opportunity to testify.


Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Thus we are called to give voice to Holy Spirit-led engagement with this broken world. But how should we testify? Should we give simplistic responses to complex questions? Or should we try to be constructive parts of national discourses on those questions? The former – the simplistic – may see us marginalised by listeners as predictable; the latter may see us listened to in ways that may enlighten.

Earlier this week, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia wrote a piece in The Australian expressing concern about proposed cuts to religious broadcasting on the national broadcaster. He wrote in part:

We would like the broadcaster to remember that religion is part of mainstream life in Australia. Coverage of it should not be sequestered to specialised programs on Radio National for those who are already invested in the subject.

And yet being sequestered away is precisely what many in the temporal world want anyone of faith to be. Andrew Denton recently addressed the National Press Club on the subject of euthanasia. In his speech he said this:

… on the questions that are most fundamental to how we live, love and die, religious belief trumps everything.  This is the theocracy hidden inside our democracy …   It’s an issue where denialism is still rampant today. Denial of the public will. Denial of the evidence.

And so he called for the religious contribution to this important issue to cease. I’m against euthanasia and I appreciate that some people of faith, including some in this congregation, disagree with me; however, I am not this morning entering into that discussion. What I do want to highlight is Andrew Denton’s sweeping proposition that religious belief should stay out of public debates of such significance as euthanasia. And the reasons he states this is that, in his opinion, religious beliefs are a ‘denial of the public will, (and a) denial of the public evidence’.

The issue of ‘public evidence’ is highly contestable but that of ‘denial of public will’ has its own cachet, for how is public will formed other than through discussion and debate?

The Primate, having written his article about the role of religion in mainstream life in the context of proposed ABC cuts, was unable to participate in a proposed deputation to meet the Managing Director of the ABC, and so asked me to represent him at that meeting. Accordingly the interdenominational, multifaith deputation met with the MD, Michelle Guthrie, this past Wednesday morning. One of the points I made at the meeting was:

(it is important that) there is a proper opportunity for all Australians to have the consideration of major issues of social concern being informed by all areas of community input, including (the) religious.

My statement intended to affirm that the variety of religious opinions are as valid a part of the formation of diverse public will as any other inputs. Similarly that same variety of religious opinion has a responsibility to be part of the contestation of what is called ‘public evidence’. The fact that that variety of religious opinion was founded upon prayerful reflection as much as contemporary social analysis, does not invalidate its right to be spoken.

Returning now to parts of our Gospel reading I quoted before:

This will give you an opportunity to testify.


Make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

I contend that we are called to be constructive parts of the national discourse on matters of social importance. Furthermore that we should not do so either simplistically or without prayerful listening to God’s will as expressed through His Holy Spirit. And as we individually listen to such guidance, listening through the lenses of our own experiences, we will reach an array of understandings that are not homogenous. And that is not a problem. Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, acknowledged that in this world none of us see situations with total clarity; we each see through a glass darkly as he put it. What is a problem is if we are silent; we are not called to be is silent, or to be silenced by those who argue that we can’t speak in the public space on issues from religious viewpoints.

We live in a world where the contest of ideas sometimes results in some opinions being silenced. The red poppies in the Cross are not simply symbols of lives lost, they are also pledges to honour what it was, they whom the poppies represent died for. They died that we might be free.

This world is not self-contained; it is part of a greater eternal context. We are called to live this life with faith and hope – and not just hope for ourselves but hope for all, because of that eternal context – for that was why Jesus came. That it was not just for ourselves is reminded to us by those in the Gospel reading which I repeat again:

This will give you an opportunity …

An opportunity for what? An opportunity to speak … to speak into the increasingly secular public space. That space where some would seek to have the diversity of our voices of faith silenced.

A couple of weeks ago we had our annual Synod – that is the place where we, as people of faith, come together to debate, not with our ‘minds prepared in advance’ but to listen and contribute so that, in a Grace Space of prayerfulness, we might, from our diversity of views, hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.

By his words – ‘This will give you the opportunity …’ – I believe Jesus also calls us to participate in the Synod of the Secular – the public space; so that the wondrous vision we heard in Isaiah this morning may be seen by the many not just the few – a world made new:

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating.