A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 21:5-19

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

Last Monday, the mayor of Glen Innes Severn in NSW, Carol Sparkes, wrote the following

Heeding the advice of fire controllers and decades of scientific reports, Glen Innes Severn council last month declared a climate emergency. As the New South Wales government itself has now declared, those emergency conditions extend far beyond our shire borders and touch every community across the state.

Within our borders we have seen a magnificent, humane and unstinting response from the Rural Fire Service, State Emergency Service, Red Cross, Salvation Army, NSW Police, [councillors …]and hundreds of community volunteers who for months now have done everything from sweep gutters to pitch tents to butter bread for sandwiches.

The anger is real. The anger is justified. Because this disaster was all foreseen and predicted.

Throughout this time, every effort has been made to prepare and defend both private and public properties in my community of Wytaliba, NSW, which last week succumbed to merciless physics that pay no heed to opinion, nor folklore, nor politics.

Members of my family are in hospital. Two community members, my neighbours for decades, are lost to us. We have lost dozens of homes beloved by hundreds of people. An entire community has been all but wiped off the map.[1]

As we read the accounts of the extraordinary bravery of residents and firefighters of these so many towns encircled in fire, as we imagine water hurled at fire from fire trucks, planes, garden hoses and perhaps even buckets, … today, this day, we in our Cathedral will witness the sprinkling of just a few drops of water on a baby, Hamish’s, head. This water is the water of baptism, the water that symbolises God’s embrace, God’s healing, God’s great love, for Hamish, his family, God’s great love for each one of those towns, homes, people, livestock, property threatened by fire. This world is a world of love and beauty but also a world of fire, flood and threat. And what is so very terrible is that human behaviour unconsciously and consciously contributes to the love, the beauty, and also to the possibility of fire, flood and threat. As Carol Sparkes put it, she and the community she loves succumbed to merciless physics that pay no heed to opinion, nor folklore, nor politics.

Jesus knew all these things. Our gospel reading this morning comes from the 21st chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke.  We are nearing the end of this liturgical year when Luke’s Gospel has been our guide and so we read Jesus’ strange words about the destruction of the temple. In the verses immediately preceding, we see an act of vulnerability not unlike our pouring of a few drops of water in baptism. A widow goes to the temple.

Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’ (Luke 21:1-4)

Jesus sees. He always sees. Sees deeply into human love and goodness, as well as human sin and evil. This woman gives out of all she has, he says. Just like those who fought the fires with water, courage, the sweeping of gutters and the buttering of bread for sandwiches. They gave out of all they had.

The gospel scene then sweeps wide to the temple and what lies ahead.

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Luke 21:5-6)

The scenes of bushfire devastation cannot but come into our minds. Not one stone left upon another for some who have lost homes, property, livestock, their own lives. Jesus’ disciples want to know when and how these things will happen. They want certainty. We understand that. We want certainty, too. Jesus sees human nature, knows it well and can see the way things will unfold. There will be false prophets, those who purport to know the ways of God, who will come in his name to lead those who try to love God and be true to his commandments, astray; kingdoms will rise against kingdoms with intensifying violence; and the Church will face persecution and hatred. Jesus wants his disciples to understand what lies ahead for them, for us.[2]

But he assures the disciples that he will be with them.

I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. … they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. (Luke 21:15-19)

They will put you to death but not a hair of your head will perish … Jesus is putting together what seem to be contradictory thoughts but he is talking about two different realms. Two different realities. The physical world and the world of God. The world where we might gain our souls.

The scholar John Shea writes the following about Jesus’ words:

“Jesus, the one who has been through it before, will be with them and give them words to say. These words, just as Jesus’ silence and words during his own trial, will have a wisdom so profound they will not be able to be contradicted. The passion of Jesus is not over; it continues with those who follow him. However, suffering is not the whole of it. Resurrection is the deeper and more abiding truth.”[3]

Death, destruction, ash covered landscape and burnt out buildings do not have the final say in the God narrative. Resurrection is the deeper and more abiding truth.

Our Old Testament reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah seems to point this truth as well.

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;

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
   they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
   they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
   and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
(Isaiah 65:17-18, 21-22)

They shall build houses and inhabit them and fire shall not burn them away, perhaps, Isaiah would say on this day, this present day.

Living in this truth is not about turning our backs on the suffering caused by fire and flood. Living this truth is about dwelling deeply in it and listening for the whisper of God there. The presence of God there.

In a Cathedral we ponder these things in word and music, in silence and stone. We also ponder them gazing at flowers. We are indeed fortunate to be blessed by the arrangements of flowers such as the one before us by Lorna who leads the flower guild. Another arrangement of flowers is in the Lady Chapel. Elspeth, who created the arrangement of flowers, there, wrote the following words:

My flower arrangement in the Lady Chapel this week is my attempt to symbolically and visually represent the impact of events on our fragile environment in the past week.

Fires and drought have seen devastation to bushland, animals and our precious bee population.

The use of grey foliage represents ash, the aftermath of fire; the purple flowers represent the liturgical colour purple for penance, melancholy and humility; and the new green foliage as hope, for re growth and new life.

I hope it provides thought for reflection.

We must act, of course, offering help wherever we can, we must do what we can to have the causes of such ferocious fires, climate change, faced by our community, our nation, the world, and then, we might reflect, in front of a bowl of ash coloured flowers perhaps, reflect on the preciousness of life, the frailty of life, the possibility of the God who through Christ shows us that suffering is not the whole of it.

And then, we’ll hold that baby, named Hamish, in our arms and sprinkle drops of water on his head and baptise him in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and we will all see this sign of God’s love for him, his family, our community, the whole world.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/11/weve-been-in-bushfire-hell-in-glen-innes-and-the-scientists-knew-it-was-coming?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[2] See Church Times commentary on Luke 21:5-19

[3] John Shea The Relentless Widow p316.