A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany 2017, marking Australia Day Weekend:
‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf: for in its welfare you will find your welfare’, the prophet Jeremiah promised in this morning’s first lesson (Jeremiah 29.4-14). This week has been dominated not only by the celebration of our National Holiday, Australia Day, but the commemoration of the lives lost Friday before last in Bourke Street. Where on Thursday many of us joined family functions or other celebrations to give thanks for the ties of care that underpin so much of our nation, on Monday the great bell of the Cathedral solemnly tolled to remember those who died in a mindless attack on the heart of our city.
This morning’s readings (Jeremiah 29.4-14, Revelation 21.1-7, John 8.31-36) help us place into perspective the experiences of this past week: both our mourning, our uncertainty for the future welfare and security of our city and nation, and our thanksgiving for that future. They encourage us to face our future with hope. They place before us an image of this world, and our cities, seen the way God wishes them to be. They encourage us to live our lives here in ways that reflect the future that God seeks to gift us. And they inspire us to become people, who through our actions and our prayers, will share that vision with others, will become agents of hope for a world that all too often seems hopeless, and fearful.
Jeremiah knew too well that our earthly communities always will never be perfect, will always have flaws. Like the people of Israel he addresses – who found themselves not in their own holy city, Jerusalem, but in exile – we also live with the realisation that our world will never be perfect, until it has been perfected by God’s grace. But instead of highlighting the flaws of our world, Jeremiah reminds the exiles of God’s desire for our homelands and cities to be at peace. That peace, Jeremiah knows, will be brought about by God’s people. That peace comes when all who share God’s vision become peace-makers: people who actively participate in the life of their community in order to help bring about God’s vision of hope.
Until the day when God brings in his Kingdom we will share the experience of the exiled people of God in the time of Jeremiah. We will live as exiles in the cities and nations to which God calls us; settled but never fully at rest there. As Christians, our longing will always be for a homeland that is forever; for a city where all may dwell together in peace which God will bring in in his own time. Until the time we reach that Kingdom, that city, we are strengthened in our living by the longing implanted in each of us. A fervent longing that empowers us to undertake the work of transformation, so that the places in which we live may reflect more and more of the values of the Kingdom of heaven, the city of God.
Jeremiah gives the people of God practical pointers as to what this kingdom-living entails. He reminds us of what it means to live fully committed to the welfare of the places where we dwell, while also keeping alive the burning desire for the city that will last. The qualities that are at the heart of Jeremiah’s Kingdom-centred living are not only for the faithful few: these qualities not only benefit the exiles who long to return to the place to which God will call them one day. Living for God’s Kingdom, Jeremiah knows, will transform all people. Living for God’s Kingdom effects both the believer and the people who live around us.
And so Jeremiah instructs us to be a stable presence in our communities, tells us to ‘build houses and live in them’ (Jeremiah 29.5). He encourages us to shape the world around us to reflect God’s bounty and beauty, and to live from the fruits of our labour: ‘plant gardens and eat what they produce’ (29.5). He instructs us to share fully in the life of our communities, by our relationships, our loves, our friendships: ‘take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage’ (29.6). For Jeremiah it is clear that it is by the way in which we live that we can transform the places we call home: in everything you do, seek not only your own benefit and welfare, but the welfare of the city and nation of which you are a part, he exhorts us.
When we have the values of God’s Kingdom at the heart of our living, our communities will be transformed. By through the personal interaction of each one of us the places in which we live and work will be changed. The words of promise Jeremiah addressed to the exiles, hold true in our own generation: ‘Plan for welfare and not for harm’, God tells through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘and I will give you a future with hope’ (Jeremiah 29.11). When we live lives centred on the values of his Kingdom, God will transform our futures to be hope-filled. And our hope-filled living, in turn, will enable us to build up community, will inspire us to tend God’s creation, and will empower us to promote the welfare of the city and nation we call home.
On the Friday before last, at the tragic events of the Bourke Street rampage, many of us experienced first-hand what it means to live with the welfare of our city in mind. Melburnians intuitively knew what to do: providing first aid to those who had been injured, cradling those for whom help was too late, speaking words of comfort in those precious final moments of our lives. Ordinary Melburnians sat with those affected and listened, held hands, gave a pat on the back or a hug to strangers, as we waited for ambulances, police and emergency workers to extend professional care.
People from every walk of life, from every background, knew intuitively what to do to help one another. Seeking first the welfare of our city in the midst of one of the greatest tragedies to befall on Melbourne in the past generation. They did so because they knew that it was the right thing to do. They reached out to others because that is what we do. We first seek the welfare of our city, because we know that it is in the welfare of all that we will find our own welfare.
In the same way, on Monday the half-muffled great bell of the Cathedral solemnly called out for each of those who perished, as thousands of our fellow citizens, including Cathedral members and clergy, came together on Federation Square. We came together to give voice to own pain and to send a sign of hope to those who have been hurt in unimaginable ways, by losing an infant, a daughter, a brother, a son, a partner. The bells of St Paul’s were audible reminders of our own prayerful presence in this great city. The three great spires of our Cathedral served as pointers to the hope-filled future that God has in store for us: signs that point our city to the heavenly place God prepares for all of us. The place where, as our second lesson (Revelation 21.1-7) assures us, ‘God himself will be there, and wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 21.3). The City where ‘death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (21.4). The City that will be the end of all our longing, the fulfilment of our hope. The City that comes to us as gift at the time when God makes all things new.
Until that time, we live with the imperfections of our earthly homelands; live with the determined effort of Kingdom-living. Until that time, we live with the pain of loving and losing loved ones; live with the difficulty of finding words of hope at times of anguish, mourning and shared pain. We live with the cost of working for reconciliation between the first peoples of Australia, and those of us who arrived later in the story of our nation. We live with the obligation of continuing to welcome new arrivals – the present-day exiles of present-day conflicts – and equipping them to share in the welfare of our city. We live with the need to provide for those who struggle in our communities, and the effort of reaching out to those that are hard to love.
Even though our world will always be imperfect, God gives us a hope-filled future. We know that when we seeking the welfare of our city and nation, we ourselves will find our own welfare. We know that if we live out the values of God’s Kingdom, that that kingdom will begin to take shape among us and grow. We know that if we work for the coming of God’s Kingdom in our own times, God will continually equip us with his sustaining grace to aid us in our striving. We know that the vision God sets before us is for not only for past generations, but that it is there for today and for tomorrow, and until the day when God will ‘gather us from all the nations and all the places where he has sent us’, to the city he has prepared for us in heaven (Jeremiah 29.14).
This Australia Day weekend, I give thanks for the vision for our world that God sets before us. I give thanks that he calls us into partnership to bring about the hope-filled future that he wills for all people. I give thanks for for the many in our own community who already live out the values of God’s Kingdom by seeking the welfare of our city and state, nation and world. At a time when our own city is hurting, I give thanks especially for all those who in the past weeks have contributed to the welfare of this city by their acts of compassion and care. I pray that God would continue to instil in us hope and certainty for our own futures; that he would bless this city and nation, even as we long and strive for the Kingdom that is forever. The Kingdom into which he will gather us at the end of all time, and where he will dwell with us, to take away all mourning, crying and pain, at the time when the first things have passed away, and all is made new.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21).