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Black Saturday

Ordinary Sunday 6, 15 February, 2009, 6:00 p.m.
Bishop Graeme Rutherford, Acting Vicar, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Sermon preached at a special service to pray for all affected by the bushfires of 'Black Saturday' — 7 February, 2009

Politicians and other leaders have found their voices crackling this past week as they have struggled to find words to describe the fires that savaged people, property and whole communities on what is becoming known as 'Black Saturday'. The deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in a voice choked with emotion, moved a motion of condolence in Federal Parliament last Monday for the victims of the Bushfires. In her speech she described the fires as "a tragedy beyond belief, beyond precedent and really beyond words".

I am sure we all know exactly what she meant.

But the First thing I want to say tonight is that part of the rationale of a Christian liturgy like this, is precisely to provide us with words — words of lament, protest, anger and baffled questions.

When it comes to natural disasters, like fires and floods and volcanoes and tsunamis that wreak suffering on a mammoth scale, we find our senses numbed and our minds baffled. It is then that we are to turn to the Holy Scriptures, to give us not only permission to protest, but also an abundance of words with which to do it.

Indeed, there is even a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations. It has been referred to as 'a powerfully pain-filled book constantly crying out to God against the terrible calamity that had befallen God's people'.

And it is important to note the fact that all this protest and lamentation is hurled at God, not by God's enemies, but by those who loved and trusted God most. Indeed, it seems that it is precisely those who have the closest relationship with God who feel most at liberty to pour out their pain and protest to God — without fear of reprimand.

It surely cannot be accidental that there are more psalms of lament and anguish than of joy and thanksgiving. It is as though God has allowed the psalms of lament a prominent place in his authorised song-book.

We need both forms of worship, lament and thanksgiving, living as we do, in a country aptly described by the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, during the passing of the Parliamentary condolences, as having what he called, 'terrible beauty'. He went on to say how 'nature, at its most menacing and terrible, turned on a beautiful and much loved part of Australia'.

Unfortunately, the language of lament is seriously neglected in some parts of the church. Many Christians seem to feel that somehow it can't be right to complain to God in the context of corporate worship when we should all feel happy and clappy. In some Christian traditions there is a subtle pressure (not always so subtle either) to stifle our feelings because it is thought by these merchants of emotional denial, that we ought to have 'faith' — (as if the lamenting psalmists didn't). Worship then becomes an exercise in pretence and concealment, neither of which can possibly be conducive for a genuine encounter with God.

Our hearts tonight are with the survivors of what is being called 'Black Saturday' and our heads are full of their stories. Certain images cut through — tales so heartbreaking that we can't put them out of our minds: a mum searching for her missing husband and baby son; CFA volunteers finding charred remains of their own family members; the mother and two kids dying while huddled in the family's spa; and much more.

We need the language that God has given us in the laments of the psalms and the other Wisdom literature of Scripture to help us express the agonizing emotion we feel at times like this. The Bible encourages us not to gag out our desperate questions.

Second, in the face of human tragedy, the best of human compassion and care are released.

In this past week we have seen a huge outpouring of courage and human generosity. In excess of $91 million has been given by the public in the short space of a week.

This stands in marked contrast to some past appeals for help. Tim Costello, the chief executive of World Vision Australia, has told of the cavalier way in which suffering was dismissed by a fellow student when he was at University. At the time, Costello was appealing for financial help to support victims of a drought in Ethiopia. The sneering student remarked, "This is pointless. Don't you understand that it is nature's way of getting rid of a bit of the Earth's excess population?" Costello was deeply shocked and fumbled a reply. "But what if it was you and your family next?" To which he retorted: "Yeah, but it's not, so I don't give a stuff, and if you had any sense neither would you".

The present catastrophe has shown a very different public response. As government agencies struggle to respond, emergency payments are made to those in both the Queensland floods and the Victorian bushfires, for basic food and shelter. It was moving to hear of the flood victims in the north donating their payments to emergency relief funds for the fire victims of the south.

There is a favourite verse of some Christians in Paul's second letter to Timothy (2Tim 3:16,17). It reads: 'All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work'.

Bible-study piety tends to emphasize the beginning of that verse — 'inspired by God'. But of equal importance is the end of that verse, which points to the whole purpose of Bible study — 'equipped for every good work'.

Christians are 'do-gooders' however much that term brings scorn and ridicule from others. Bible study that does not lead to concrete changes in ourselves, our community and our world, aborts what God designs the Bible to give birth to.

Christians have no monopoly in doing good. Those who have generously given and offered tangible help have included people of diverse faiths and well as people of no particular faith. Yet Christians are those who practice the way of Jesus, and this will always include doing good and working to eliminate racism, economic injustice and environmental degradation.

The raging bushfires, many environmentalists are warning, were the face of climate change in our part of the world. One commentator said, 'the events of February 7th showed the consequences of climate change will make the financial crisis look like a garden party'.

Christians care. They care for their brothers and sisters who suffer and they care for their environment. As a modern hymn writer puts it:
'O Spirit, send your comfort and give us faith that cares.
For when our neighbours suffer, our lives are bound with theirs'.

  1. Our faith provides the language of lament;
  2. Our faith releases practical compassion and care;

Third, our faith addresses the nagging theological question: 'why?'

Appalling suffering, on such a scale, in such a short time, inflicted on people without warning and for no reason, offends all our emotions and assumptions that God is supposed to care. Our gut reaction is to accuse God of callousness or carelessness and to demand that he do something to stop such things.

And so we cry out: 'Why?'. It would be surprising if we didn't cry out, at least to ourselves, with this question. Indeed, as Rowan Williams has said, in relation to another major disaster, 'it would be wrong if we didn't'.

OT theologian, Chris Wright, has pointed out that it is 'a word from the Psalms that formed the most profound question at the most crucial moment in history — the cry of abandonment on the lips of Jesus as he entered into the depths of his suffering on the cross — "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"' (Psalm 22:1) and Wright goes on to comment, 'To me it is a profoundly moving thought that the word that introduces our most tormenting questions — "Why ?" — was uttered by Jesus on the very cross that was God's answer to the question that the whole creation poses.'

The Bushfires of last weekend pose desperate questions for believers about the very nature of God.

In the last sermon he ever preached, Bishop John Robinson of 'Honest to God' fame, who died shortly after of cancer said this: 'anyone can see God in a beautiful sunset, or fabulous scenery, but the challenge to the Christian is to find God in a cancer' or one might add, in a Bushfire holocaust!

At times like this, there seems to be a gaping chasm between the God we know and the world we live in. If God is supposed to be like that, how can the world be like this?

And the best thing that Christians can do is to come in mind and imagination to the foot of the cross as they do whenever they participate in the eucharist. At the cross, Jesus endured the loss of all sense of God. Taking to himself the words of psalm 22 he asserts his faith against all feelings of abandonment and cries out, 'My God, my God'.

We must note the force of the personal pronoun. Jesus could still call God, 'my' God. A painful deficit of understanding — Why? — coexists with faith and trust. As the Italian theologian, Gerard Rosse puts it: 'Jesus in his abandonment is the God of all those without God'.

I would like to close with words that I have found true and important, written by Father Trevor Huddlestone, at the ending of his book, 'Naught for Your Comfort', a book that shook the world over the evils of Apartheid. This book ends, 'But above all, I have found God where every Christian should expect to find him: in the darkness, in the fear, in the blinding weariness of Calvary. And Calvary is but one step from the Empty Tomb'.

I believe those words are true even if, at times such as we have just experienced in this State, I can only glimpse that truth through a glass dimly. But I also do not underestimate how dark and obscured that vision often is for many of us, including me.



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