Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

“Essentially it was that God’s people had lost their way, focusing not on God, but on their own selfish and self-centred ends.”

No – that’s not some passage from the Bible, biblical scholar or clever theologian. The words are mine written early on Thursday morning as part of today’s Welcome message on the front page of the service booklet. I wrote those words about twenty-four hours before a madman drove his truck down a boulevard in Nice, mowing down men, women and children still on a high from the firework display celebrating Bastille Day. I wrote those words forty-eight hours before yesterday’s attempted coup in Turkey. I wrote those words just weeks after South Sudan began tearing itself apart again, and days after another lorry bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber in Iraq. I wrote those words almost one hundred years to the day of the start of the Battle of Fromelle, the first engagement Australian troops faced on the Western Front in World War I. If there is one thing all of these events have in common it is this – each incident was accompanied by appalling loss of life.

Actually, I believe there is a second thing they all share. In some way or other, the people involved had lost the plot, lost their perspective on what it really means to be human. The 8th century prophet Amos was a pretty straight-shooter. His words cut to the heart of the matter. Like a basket of summer fruit left to rot in the sun, the people of God have abandoned the ways of God, preferring their own profit and get-rich-quick schemes to caring for people. The story of Mary and Martha recorded by St Luke shows a woman running around so frenetically that she has lost the plot, she is no longer, if she ever was, aware of what is really important in life. St Paul writing to the church community at Colossae emphasises again and again the contrast between what the Colossians used to be, and what they are now. It is as if he must drum into their heads the glorious message of the Gospel before they are overwhelmed again by what he calls estrangement, hostility and evil deeds.

How can one man take it on himself to kill and injure so many, so deliberately and cold-bloodedly driving, swerving, into them on a pavement? How can soldiers think that taking tanks against their own people will really bring about permanent and lasting change? How can there be peace in the world’s youngest country when the followers of the president and those of the vice-president trust each other so little that, even while their leaders are holding peace talks, they begin shooting each other? How can military officers throw wave after wave of foot soldiers against a well-defended Sugar Loaf Hill in broad daylight, utterly decimating the 5th Australian Division? How indeed?

The answer I think is in today’s readings, as is the solution. The Gospel story of Mary and Martha is not about whether one should work or one should pray – these activities are both necessary. Mary is not better than Martha. Martha is not a bad person. But she has allowed herself to be distracted, to focus on the wrong thing, on the peripheral. Her very busyness has pulled her away from Jesus. How easy that is to happen. I find it is a constant struggle to make time to pray, to worship and read the Bible – and I get paid to do that! I think it was Martin Luther who said he was so busy he could not possibly do without at least four hours of prayer each day. Without that, he would have lost his way.

Today’s reading from Colossians makes wonderful reading; there are some beautiful and rich sentiments – the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation – in him all things hold together – the beginning, the firstborn from the dead. These are rich and deep

ideas. In the second paragraph we are offered today St Paul contrasts the former way of life with the Colossians present way of life – in Christ. But the very fact that he had to underline each phrase suggests to me that their faith was fragile, a thing easily broken. Hence words like – continue securely, steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope, and so on. There is a warning; be careful – you too might easily lose your way.

Back to Amos and his basket of summer fruit. It might seem an odd sort of illustration to use for what comes afterwards, and the only way I can make sense of the metaphor is that summer fruit actually goes off pretty quickly. It ripens before it can be eaten and so must be thrown away. This is what God will do to his people who have abandoned God’s ways. Long before the actual desolation brought about on both Israel and Judah, Amos, not a ‘real’ prophet but a mere herdsman and pruner of trees, had seen the truth and consequences of the people’s actions. The cheating, conniving, exploiting business deals would lead to their own destruction, for they had forgotten the word of the Lord. There was, as Amos puts it, a famine – not of bread and water, but of hearing the word of the Lord. Like Martha, those against whom Amos spoke could not hear the word of the Lord for their busyness. The last line of today’s reading from Amos gives a graphic illustration of people who have lost their way as they ‘run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it’.

Is this what is happening in the world today? Is this what can bring about a Nice, a Turkey, South Sudan, Iraq? Have we, as a world, so completely lost our way? Have we forgotten already last week’s Gospel reading, so eloquently preached on by Canon Jenny, that we are unable to recognise our neighbour any longer?

Oh, but of course, we weren’t there. We didn’t drive the truck, the tanks, order sixteen year olds ‘over the top’. We don’t wait impatiently for the new moon, the Sabbath, to be over – so we can get on with ‘buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals’. We aren’t so busy doing all the things we consider to be important that we could possibly be confused with Martha. Estranged, hostile, evil deeds – us? Never!

Week by week in this Cathedral and in churches up and down the country and across the world, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached as people gather for worship. Week by week we are called to return again and again to Christ, to repent of sin, and to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as myself. And who is my neighbour? Oh yes, the Samaritan – whoever or whatever or wherever she or he might be today.

Week by week our services call us to focus again on Christ, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. Now, as much as ever, God needs us to continue securely established, steadfast in the faith and without shifting from the hope of the Gospel.

Perhaps, perhaps, if we can do that – even just a tiny little bit – we can bring light into the darkness of Nice and Juba and Ankara and Bagdad. It is to this high ideal that Amos the herdsman and pruner of trees, both Mary and Martha, the people of Colossae, little Keisha and young Maximus – shortly to be baptised into Christ, you and me, are called as Christians. To be just a tiny sliver of light in the darkness that all too often and all too easily threatens to engulf and overcome us.

Let me end by reminding you of that wonderful Prologue to St John’s Gospel which we read year after year on Christmas Eve: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.” (John 1: 5) May we be that light shining in the darkness!