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Abundance out of poverty: remembering our unsung heroes

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on Remembrance Sunday 2015:

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Jesus said: ‘All of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had’ (St Mark 12.44).

In this season of Remembrance we give thanks for the sacrifice of those women and men who served in our armed forces and, who through their often selfless service, have enabled us to live out the values we cherish: a life in liberty, in a society founded on justice, freedom and opportunity. In our remembrance we tend to commemorate those whose service has been recorded in the pages of history: field marshals who led armies into battle or who, like Lay Canon Sir Harry Chauvel, secured a timely retreat for those embroiled in the bloodbath of Gallipoli. We tend to remember those who took up arms, and gave their lives in battle, or took to the skies in bomber squadrons and single combat Spitfires. We recall those who dug trenches and fought in the lines, think of those who operated tanks and advanced battles. Our corporate remembrance centres on those who gave of abundance; who gave of their strength. All too often we tend to neglect those who contributed out of their poverty; who gave all that they had – the unsung heroes of our conflicts, whose service tends to go unseen.

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Quite literally so, in the case of Sister Lilian Bessie Kiddle of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. Commemorated in this Cathedral not on a large brass plaque in the aisles, but on a simple wooden board in the corridor outside my office. Sister Kiddle was trained in St Kilda, and embarked on one of the first transports to Europe once war had been declared to join the Imperial Military Nursing Service. As a result, Lilian Kiddle was one of the first of 30 Army sisters to cross over into France in October 1914. Her nursing care knew no boundaries, no enmities: she cared for Allied servicemen and German soldiers alike. Anyone caught up in, or between the lines, servicemen or civilians. In her service Sister Kiddle put herself in harm’s way: her nursing apron pierced with shrapnel, her torch often the only source of light in the field hospitals because of blackouts and fear of attacks from the nascent German airforce. Sister Kiddle remained with ‘her men’, working on ambulance trains behind the lines, and moving along the front as they did, retreating only when they did (The Australasian Saturday, 15 March 1919, p. 35). Sister Kiddle survived the war, returning home to Melbourne in 1919 after giving six years in service to a conflict far away from home, giving not out of the strength of force, the abundance of power, but nevertheless ‘putting in everything she had’ in her service.

Also not commemorated among the military heroes in this Cathedral, but a war hero nevertheless, is my illustrious predecessor Frederick Waldegrave Head, the Seventh Dean and also concurrently the Archbishop of Melbourne. The Senior Tutor and Chaplain of Emmanuel College Cambridge when the Great War broke out, Head considered joining up as an Army Chaplain but swiftly rejected the idea: at 41 he felt too old to serve in the forces, so joined as one of the Chaplains attached to the YMCA providing pastoral care to servicemen behind the lines in France in 1915 instead. A year later, he was commissioned as an officer and chaplain with the Second Guards’ Brigade, and soon became a senior chaplain to the entire Brigade. In an interview on his appointment as Archbishop and Dean Head reflected on his experience at the front of the ‘blood-soaked line from the Vosges to the Channel’: it was his sheer hard work that enabled him to cope with the terror of ministering to an endless stream of injured and dying soldiers, comforting, as best as he could, those who had come to the end of their lives, or those who were, once more, thrown into the fray. The war disturbed, but did not break him, Archbishop Head reflected, and would say no further to the Melbourne press on the matter. The fact that he was awarded a Military Cross in 1917, and had a bar added in the final year of the Great War are external testament to his heroism (Table Talk, Thursday 23 January 1930). A heroism borne, again, not out of strength or abundance, but once more out of a desire to ‘put in everything he had’ for his beliefs.

Confirmed in their belief to ‘put in everything they had’ in times of great conflict both Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head continued their work for those most in need. Sister Kiddle continued nursing in Melbourne, even after she married one of the officers whose life she saved in the final stages of the war: the fellow-Victorian Lieutenant Hugh Hanna MC. Kiddle ran first aid and home nursing programs in order to enable others to extend, in times of peace but relative poverty in the post-War years, the care that enabled her save lives through her heroic service. Likewise, it was the experience of the bloodshed and destruction of the Great War, his own experience of having given out of his poverty, that led Archbishop Head to set up programs to promote greater social justice in Melbourne: he was one of the first church leaders to visit, and seriously engage, with those living in what was then the ‘Broadmeadows Camp for the Unemployed’, praying with those suffering from the effects of the Great Depression, and preparing them for confirmation (The Argus, Wednesday 29 April 1931). His advocacy for those in need was ceaseless: he invited the Brotherhood of St Laurence to move to the diocese, and establish their first social outreach programs in what then were the slums of Fitzroy, in St Mark’s parish.

For both our unsung heroes I believe it was the experience of being able to give out of their poverty that equipped them for their future ministry. Both ended up as highly decorated war heroes: Kiddle a recipient of the Mons Star and Royal Red Cross Ribbon, Head an MC with bar. Yet they are remembered not for their heroism, nor for their winning campaigns or battles, but for their selfless service: ‘out of their poverty they put in everything they had’.

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Heroes are sometimes like that. Like the widow in today’s Gospel reading, they are people who contribute out of weakness rather than strength, bring great riches of character and principle, sacrifice and service out of the poverty of their power. They would very likely say of themselves that they have ‘just done their bit’ or how they wished that they had been able to do more. You very likely know one or two candidates for such quiet heroism. They would probably prefer to remain unsung, unremembered, would prefer that no fuss was made to celebrate their service.

Yet it is that very remembrance, our bringing to mind and making present of their actions, that enables us to ensure that the principles for which they strove are fostered in our own generation. They encourage us to do ‘our part’ in promoting the values of justice – looking out for those who have no one to speak up for them, caring for those who have no one to care for them – the values of freedom and opportunity – enabling others to flourish in spite of their background and to engage those who find themselves at the margins.

All too often we may feel like them: confronted with an almost insurmountable task when faced with so much need. It is especially at times like these, that the example of those who have given out of their poverty, is encouragement for us to go and do likewise.

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The examples of Sister Kiddle and Archbishop Head encourage me do what I can to ensure that their work of care in this city – a care that for our two unsung heroes was borne out of the wounds of the Great War – is continued. The same care – now borne out the wounds of the acts of terror and warfare of our own generation – needs others to ‘put in everything they have’.

For us at St Paul’s this is a care that, like Sister Kiddle, looks at people, not passports. A care that reaches out to migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, in making them welcome, safe and enabling them to share in our values of freedom and opportunity. A care that, like Archbishop Head, engages with people, not problems. A care that reaches out to individuals in helping them become the people God calls them to be, and enables them to witness to Jesus’ call: the motivation of all our calls.

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This care calls for modern heroes. Some of those are very likely seated right here, in these pews. They probably do not regard themselves as such, but are those who create an abundance out of their own sense of poverty, are those who already put in everything, so that the treasury of God’s care for others may continually be filled. Jesus said: ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she, out of her poverty, has put everything she had’.

Lest we forget.

© Andreas Loewe, 2015. All rights reserved

Returning to the garden of God’s goodness: doing God’s will of reconciliation

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, 7 June 2015

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Today’s readings are all about God’s work of forgiveness in a world of conflicting standards. They take us to key moments in the life of God and his people, to explain how evil entered the world and what God is doing in order to ensure that evil will not have the upper hand. They remind us that evil can take many forms – like the serpent in our first lesson or the demons referred to in our Gospel reading – and that it is impossible to make a good bargain or deal with evil – for evil delights in deceiving. They urge us to call on God when we feel burdened; when find ourselves in the depths out of which our psalmist addressed his heartfelt prayer to God. They show us how, through Jesus Christ God has already bound evil, and plundered evil’s store of deceits and deceptions, like the property of strong man in our gospel reading.

Because God was there at the beginning of the story of evil’s sway over humankind, and because Christ has already taken away the ultimate power of evil and death, today’s readings encourage us never to lose heart: even if our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. And the key to that constant renewal, our lessons tell us, is seeking God’s friendship, his protection, and forgiveness.

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Our first lesson (Genesis 3.8-14), from the first book of the Bible, tells the story of creation in allegorical terms. God has created a universe he knew to be very good, and placed humankind in the middle of his garden of delights. There is no no harm, no hardship, no death; only goodness, growth and life. Everything in God’s garden promotes life; especially the trees at the heart of the garden: ‘the tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2.9). In return for life in his presence, in return for his goodness and the absence of any evil, God commands humankind not to consume the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In an environment that is all good, with the tree of life to give life, and no form of evil at all, there is no need to discern between good and evil, God knows. Indeed, the very act of seeking to know of evil in an environment that is all good, God knows, invites evil, harm and death into the garden of goodness. And so God tells humankind not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ‘for on the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die’ (Genesis 2.15).

The people did not die immediately, once they had eaten of the fruit that invited evil into God’s good creation. But with the knowledge of evil in a world of goodness came evil itself – not only the temptation to be like God and to be enabled to navigate the complexities of discerning what is good and wholesome and what is evil and destructive – but the very evil that leads to death and mortality. Indeed, a chapter after our first lesson sees the first fruits of evil and death: a deep-rooted jealously that led to pre-meditated murder as Cain killed his brother Abel. Once evil had been admitted into God’s good creation, our story tells, there was no more protection from the ultimate fruit of evil. Where once the fruit that sustained humankind had been the goodness of the fruit of life; now there only remained the decay of the fruits of death, as people daily are confronted with the need to discern what is good and what is not, and folk sense more and more how their outward nature is wasting away, on the way to the ultimate, universal, human destiny: death (2 Corinthians 4.16).

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It is this very physical experience of evil and oppression, of death and destruction, that led our psalmist to cry out to God ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130.1). Our Psalm is one of the fifteen psalms of ascents, the songs of pilgrimage of the second temple that were sung by faithful followers of the God of Israel on the way to, or on the steps of, the restored Jerusalem sanctuary. Our psalm is written from the perspective of exile and distance, recalls the time in captivity, when God’s people were driven away from the land of their promise by fault of their own disobedience, when they were ‘led away’, by the Lord, ‘with the evildoers’ (Psalm 128.5). As in the garden of goodness, so here, on the steps of the temple sanctuary, our writer recalls, appeals to, God’s goodness. We might find ourselves in the depths, might find ourselves afflicted and oppressed, like God’s faithful followers in exile. Yet even when confronted with the reality of the fruits of evil, and an absence of goodness to discern, there remains a sign of our hope: our direct appeal to the One who created this world to be very good, and who will hear the supplications of those who call on him – wherever and in whatever circumstance of life we might find ourselves: ‘let your ears be consider well – be attentive to – the voice of my supplication’, our psalm writer prays God (Psalm 130.2)

Our psalmist knows that, having presumed to take the place of God and discern between good and evil, humankind had, all too often, chosen the path of evil rather than goodness. If God were to do what humankind appropriated to itself – the right to pronounce judgement of what is good and what is not, the right to know what is good and what is not – then none would stand; all would fail and fall, the psalmist has experienced: ‘If you, Lord, should note what we do wrong: who then, O Lord, could stand?’ (Psalm 130.3).

At the same time, the writer, who plunged the depths of human experience, also knows that God will readily show mercy, if only we ask him to take away our the evil that oppresses, and our own sins: ‘there is forgiveness with you … with the Lord there is mercy, and with him ample redemption’ (Psalm 130, 4, 7). ‘Trust in the Lord’, the writer appeals to those who, like him, have known of the misery of the depths of evil and human frailty: ‘God will redeem his people from the multitude of their sins’ (Psam 130.8).

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Our gospel reading from Mark’s account of the story of Jesus and his followers, gives us a very practical insight into how God has redeemed his people from the multitude of their sins through his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus had just called to himself a group of twelve apostles, followers whom had had commissioned ‘to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out evil’ (Mark 3.14-15). These returned with him to his home in Capernaum and, because he had healed many, ‘a great multitude followed him’ (Mark 3.7). So large was the crowd, so desirous to be healed, to be set free from the fruits of disease and death, that Jesus and his apostles ‘could not even eat’ (Mark 3.20). Jesus’ own family come to take him home for a meal and a rest: the experience of healing so many, of setting folk free from the fruits of evil – which for Mark included possession by evil forces – had worn Jesus out, they believed. Or at least their neighbours thought so, the people who kept on saying: ‘he has gone out of his mind’ (Mark 3.21). But they are rebuffed by their son and brother: are sent away so that Jesus is enabled to explain why it was that he did what he did.

Until now in Mark’s gospel, we have only seen the fruits of Jesus’ ministry of countering evil in all its guises – at this stage only evil personified knows Jesus’ true identity and mission: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God’, the demons address him (Mark 1.24). Until now in Mark’s account, we have only seen the fruits of his mission to be a physician to those who are sick in body, mind or soul; to be the One who pronounces forgiveness to those who have sinned, or are so deeply affected by evil that they feel as if demons had conquered their innermost selves. Until now in Mark’s story, only those set free, only those healed, know Jesus’ true identity: the others are amazed, attracted and follow him; or are unsettled, upset and call him a blasphemer.

The reason why Jesus does not have time to go home and rest, why he sends his own family away, and calls his disciples and anyone else who ‘do the will of God’ his ‘brother and sister and mother’, is not because he does not love, or care for them, but because he is about to engage those who are unsettled, and reveal to all what doing the will of God entails for him. For Jesus doing God’s will means nothing less than entering ‘the house of the strong man and plundering his spoils’ (Mark 3.27).

The ‘strong man’ in our gospel reading is evil personified. From the moment of the story of evil entering human existence in the garden of God’s goodness, evil had steadily increased in power, built for itself a strong fortress, gathered for itself spoils from frail humans. Jesus’ task is to bind evil, to storm his fortress, and to plunder his spoils, Mark tells in his story. Only by binding evil and setting free those drawn into its sphere of influence, drawn into the strong man’s house, people will be able to taste again of the fruit of the tree of life. Jesus tells the scribes and teachers of the law who have come from Jerusalem to ascertain his motives: ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins’ (Mark 3.28). Those who believe that Jesus is the agent of this deliverance will be able to call on God out of the depths of even the deepest distress, and be given the assurance of a new beginning, a new life. Those who only see the power of the strong man, ‘Beelzebul, the ruler of demons’, do blaspheme against the power of God, and the Holy Spirit through whom God accomplishes the work of deliverance (Mark 3.29). Those people, Jesus says, will remain in their depths of distress, will not able to lift their heads above the parapet of the depths from which they call: ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’, Jesus rebuked those who had come from Jerusalem to rein him in (Mark 3.29).

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This liberation by Jesus Christ is the reason for the hope expressed so poetically in our epistle reading: because Jesus has bound the powers of evil, and set free those in death’s domain from eternal death, we may have hope, Paul knows. The fruits of the tree of life are given us to sustain us in our own journey of mortality, the apostle tells, are set against the wasting away of our outer nature. Where the outward is wasting away, ‘the inner nature is being renewed day by day’ (2 Corinthians 4.16). Where the fruit of evil and sin is death, the One who has overcome death by his own death, and bound evil by overcoming this world and its ruler, has returned to us fruit from the garden of God’s delight. And that is why ‘we believe: because we know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus, and will bring us – with you – into his presence’, Paul affirms this firm and certain hope (2 Corinthians 4.14). Hope this certainly is: hope that cannot be seen – ‘for what can be seen is temporary’, and is subject to destruction by death; hope that cannot be seen, because ‘what cannot be seen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4.18).

The call from the depths of our oppression, the call from the depths of death, has been answered, Paul proclaims. Even though ‘the earthly tent we live in is destroyed’, even though we continue to share the certainty of mortality with the first Adam, we also share the hope of immortality of the second Adam. The hope of heaven reopened, a garden prepared for us, and it it a tree of delights and life: ‘we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’, Paul knows (2 Corinthians 5.1). Evil may well be a daily reality; the discernment of good, in a world that shows so much evil, will continue to be a labour of sweat and toil of tears, ‘till we return to the ground’ (Genesis 4.19). But we undertake this labour in the knowledge that the root of all evil has been bound, and the stronghold of evil been conquered, by the One who calls us to be his brothers and sisters, his family; people who join him in doing the will of God.

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God’s will is for this creation to be very good. God made it good, and remade it by binding the power of evil and giving us fruit from the tree of life to sustain us in our journey to his ‘house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5.1). God invites us to join in the work of promoting goodness and life, invites us to be members of the family of his Son, who share with Christ in doing the work of reconciliation and resurrection.

As we seek to do God’s will at the heart of this city, by our listening to God’s word, our sharing of his good news, and our ministry of bringing others closer to God, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we may know God’s salvation, trust in his mercy and know his love, rejoicing in the righteousness that is ours, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015

Love good, shun evil, transform the world around you

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 25 May 2014:

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This morning’s lessons (1 Peter 3.8-22, John 14.15-21) invite us to live by the principle that lies at the heart of the Trinity—the principle of the love Christ has for his Father; the love that flows from both the Father and the Son: the love of the Holy Spirit. They give us powerful insights into how this principle of sacrificial love was lived out in times of persecution and great insecurity about the future of the Christian church. They encourage us to believe that, whatever external circumstances we may face—whether we are buoyed up in times of growth and strength, or weighed down in times of hardship and persecution—‘those who love Christ will be loved by the Father’, and that Christ ‘will love them and reveal himself to them’ (John 18.21). Finally, they invite us to share ourselves in the work of transformational living—living so that others may be brought to the love we know and believe in—through our giving and our living.

Our epistle reading from the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 3.8-22) was written in the second half of the first Christian century, a time of incredible uncertainty and hardship for the early Christian communities of the Roman Empire. During the brutal reign of emperor Nero, Christians and Jews were routinely persecuted: it was Nero who put the apostles Peter and Paul to death and, with them, innumerable Christians in Rome. In his Annals, Tacitus, one of the greatest first-century historians, suggests that Nero’s persecution of Christians was an elaborate cover up for the infamous burning of Rome (Annals, XV, 44).Written in the smouldering ashes of Rome and with the memory of the first generation of Christian martyrs very much alive, our epistle speaks a message of peace and love into a world full of uncertainty and hostile to people of faith.

The congregations to whom our epistle was addressed are called to live by the way of love, not share the hatred of their oppressors. They are invited to remain united in face of danger, to share in one another’s sufferings, support one another in hardship and difficulty. They are encouraged to ‘have sympathy’; now the Greek word sumpatheis really means ‘share in someone’s feelings’ rather than warm to someone: ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’ is how the apostle Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans (Romans 12.15). When faced with the persecutions of their Roman overlords, the early Christians were encouraged to bury their differences, to look out for one another and to share in the love that characterised their faith. As Jesus had said at the table of the Last Supper, only a few verses before today’s Gospel reading commences, ‘by this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13.35).

Love, for the writers of our epistle and our Gospel readings, was not just a warm feeling in the heart, or the creation of a deep emotional bond. In the first Christian century to love someone meant first of all to act with righteousness towards them; to treat them as one would expect to be treated oneself. And from this first principle flow a number of important instructions to the Christian community that go beyond the principle of love, of ‘having a tender heart and a humble mind’, as first Peter puts it (1 Peter 3.8). Faced with the ruthless and organised persecution of Christians in the capital and provinces of the Roman empire, our epistle challenges us to love even those who persecute us: ‘Do not repay evil with evil, or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.9). It is hard to bless those that insult you, let alone bless those that seek after your life. Yet this is what the first epistle of Peter instructs the persecuted Christian community to do: ‘do not repay evil with evil, but repay with a blessing’ (1 Peter 3.8).

Evil that is countered with evil, the writer of our epistle knew, only creates further evil: the cycle of violence and hatred can only be broken where people have an absolute passion for goodness, an utter lack of provocation. Refusal to retaliate where others accuse unjustly, the writer of our epistle tells us, can break the cycle of escalating conflict. Where people return evil for the evil they have received, they only stoke the flames of conflict. ‘Repay instead with a blessing’, first Peter encourages us, ‘because it is for this that you were called: that you, too, might inherit a blessing, might inherit salvation’ (1 Peter 3.9). Those who live by the way of love will receive blessing and salvation, our Gospel reading echoes first Peter. In fact, those who shun the way of breaking evil by love, our Gospel reading suggests, may never know this love-filled way of life, nor the Spirit of God that makes known this life: ‘the world cannot receive this Spirit of truth, because it neither sees nor knows him’ (John 14.17). Rather, it is those who live lives that counter evil with good, hatred with love, who know God and will be known as his children. Who will be sustained by God’s strength to undertake their work of building up and transforming the Christian church: ‘you know the Spirit of truth’, our Gospel reading tells, ‘because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14.17).

In setting before us the way of transformational living by sharing in God’s love, our readings also make an important distinction about suffering persecution. While there will without a doubt be many who are called to suffer for their belief in Jesus Christ, not all are called to suffer persecution: ‘if it should be God’s will for you to suffer’, our epistle reminds us, ‘it is better to suffer for doing good than to suffer for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3.17). Though there will be some among us present here who have suffered persecution for their faith—I am thinking in particular of those who had to flee their homelands to escape the kind of persecution our epistle speaks of—for many of us the sacrifices we may be called to bring for our faith may not be through physical suffering. Not all will suffer persecution, our epistle assures us, yet all are called to shun evil and do good; all are encouraged to work for goodness and peace in their own generation. We all are called to contribute, through whatever means we may be able to do so—by offering of ourselves, our talents and our gifts, our finances (and yes, in the case of some, even by facing persecution and hardship because of the hope that lies in us)—to bringing about the vision of transformational living our readings speak about.

At St Paul’s Cathedral we have made the way of life that today’s readings speak of our Cathedral vision. Our Chapter and Cathedral team believe that together all of us can help transform our city and diocese. In the conversations that the Precentor and I have been conducting with our congregations over the past weeks, it is clear that many of our members share our vision. The transformation that our Cathedral vision upholds is both an inner, spiritual transformation, and an exterior physical transformation—as in the case of the physical reshaping of our office facilities and meetings rooms over the next few months, in order to ensure that our ministry is well-resourced for future generations. This work of transformation will not come without effort or even sacrifice; indeed, in the case of our refurbishment project it will create much physical upheaval, and a significant financial burden, that relies on the generous response of many to carry. But we undertake this, and other work, encouraged by certainty contained in today’s readings: the insight that where we all join together in the work of transformation, others will be able recognise the hope that lies at the heart of our faith, and come to share in our work of ministry.

By sharing the Good News of the life-transforming, world-changing death and resurrection of Jesus, this world truly may be changed for good, our readings tell. They also affirm that this message is not only for the first generation of Christians but for all time and all places, including our own generation and this land. Through the grace of God and the gifts, talents and vocations of each one of us, each one of us is indeed enabled to show forth the transformational love of Christ: in our congregations, and our city and diocese. Today’s readings invite to commit ourselves once more to Christ’s way of transformational living. They invite us to show forth in practical ways that we truly believe in our hearts what we profess: that by our sharing in Christ’s ministry of love, that by our bearing fruit that will last in his name, others will know that we truly are Christ’s disciples, and will themselves come to know and love the One who first loved us and called us his friends (John 15.16, 13.35).

‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen’ (Ephesians 3.20).

Mary, Cleopas and we: Making the Easter Vision real

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Third Sunday of Easter at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne:

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‘The Lord is risen indeed and he has appeared to Simon’ (St Luke 24.36), the couple rushing back from Emmaus told the startled disciples—a couple transformed by their meeting, on the open road, with the risen Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, we hear how Cleopas and his wife Mary, who had stood with the women under the cross of Jesus (John 19.25; for the view that Cleopas’ unnamed companion is, in fact, his wife, Mary of Clopas, see: Richard Bauckham), make their way from Jerusalem through the hill country to ‘a village called Emmaus’ (St Luke 24.13). All their hopes were quashed, ‘they stood still, looking sad’, we hear (St Luke 24.17). And they told the stranger who had joined them on their walk about the things that worried them: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, was mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. Our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place’ (St Luke 24.19-21). ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’, they said to the stranger. And in their hearts may well have thought: ‘but this was not to be. It was all in vain’, they may have thought. ‘And now it’s too late to do anything about it’.

And the stranger who had joined them on their way told them: ‘You fools—do you not know that the Messiah had to suffer in order to be glorified?’ (St Luke 24.26). The Messiah has to suffer, he told them, before he can be revealed in glory. And he interpreted the Scriptures, so that they would understand why this was so. And they took to him, and asked him to stay with them: ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over’ (St Luke 24.29). And it was there, as night fell and deep darkness surrounded them, that they recognised the stranger by the way he broke the bread at table. And just as they recognised him, Jesus—for it was he—disappeared from their sight. And they said to one another: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (St Luke 24.32). And Cleopas and his wife Mary rushed back into the night to return to Jerusalem, to tell the other disciples that the Lord had indeed risen from the dead.

The couple on their way from Jerusalem were wearied from the events that had led to Jesus’ arrest and his crucifixion. Their world had been shattered; they still found themselves surrounded by the darkness that descended onto Jerusalem on the afternoon of Good Friday—during the time that Jesus hung on the cross. That cloud had not been lifted from them. And for some of us, that cloud may not have been lifted, either. On the contrary—news reports from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and, closer to home, Nauru—only add substance to that darkness. And then there are the many personal darknesses in our lives. I can understand why Cleopas and Mary want the risen Christ to stay with them: many of us would want the risen Christ to remain with us in our darkness: ‘Stay with us’, we’d like to say to him, ‘because darkness is gathering, and it will soon be completely dark outside’ (St Luke 24.29).

Stay here, Lord, stay with us and shield us from that darkness. But that is not what Jesus does. Jesus does not stay with the couple on the road to Emmaus. Instead the Mary and Cleopas leave their homes once more, and turn back, and enter the darkness once more. They brave the darkness that holds all their fears in order to return to their friends, to tell them that it is indeed true: ‘The Lord has risen, indeed’, they say (St Luke 24.34). And their joy at the news of Christ’s resurrection bursts through the darkness that had frightened them so much. The psalmist assures us that darkness, the thick tangible darkness where those horrors lurk that make the news or the subject-matter of deep and difficult conversations, that that darkness is not dark in the eyes of God: ‘Even the darkness is not dark to you’, we read in Psalm 139, ‘the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you’ (Psalm 139.11). And in the light of this assurance, and the experience of Cleopas and Mary, we are to do as they did: we, too, are to rush out back into the darkness to tell others that there is no reason to be afraid any more.

How great the surprise of Mary and Cleopas must have been when they returned to Jerusalem: they had just finished telling the other disciples what had happened on the road, and how they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread when, we read in the continuation of today’s gospel story, ‘Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (St Luke 24.36). The same Jesus who would not stay with them in their comfortable road-side inn, the same Jesus who sent them hurrying back into the night of their fears and worries, that Jesus appeared before them in the midst of their room and told them: ‘Peace be with you’. And they must have understood why Jesus just could not remain with them in the inn at Emmaus. Why they had to journey through the night—only to be greeted by Jesus at Jerusalem. The peace that Jesus bestows on them—the ‘peace be with you’—was the peace that had overcome their experience of the darkness, on the road back home.

Meeting Jesus can change lives like that. We heard in our first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, how the frightened disciples, who in last week’s gospel were still seen meeting behind bolted doors in that desolate upper room of the Last Supper, became bold preachers of the message of Christ’s resurrection. We read how they overcame their own darknesses to spread the light of Christ. And we are told, that we are called to be ‘witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48). We, too, are to tell those around us that there can be light in the midst of all that darkness. We are to tell—we read—‘that forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’ (St Luke 24.47). And this is the most important message to us this Easter-time: that meeting Jesus changes lives. That Jesus—now as much as then in that Upper Room—speaks words of peace to his people. And I have come to know that this work of transformation from sinfulness to forgiveness, from fear of darkness to peace and radiant light, begins when Jesus’ followers—when you and I—join together in making this Easter vision a reality.

It is this Easter Vision that lies at the heart of our Cathedral’s vision to become a place of transformation in the life of our city and diocese. We can glimpse it when we meet to break bread in our worship Sunday by Sunday; when we share a meal at our monthly congregational lunches and young adults’ group meetings. We can see it in the lives of others whenever our many volunteers—Chaplains, guides, shop volunteers and welcomers—welcome visitors to this building. We observe it through our work with migrants and refugees through our English as a Second Language program, our ministry of prayer and healing. We see it at work when we witness adults and children come to faith through our enquirers’ programs, through baptism and confirmation preparation. We see it at work even when we plan to renew our office and meeting spaces, or our procedures and governance, so that they become resources and instruments for ministry.

A record of this lived-out vision is set before us in our 2013 Annual Report. It gives glimpses into our rich life and many ministries, and pays tribute to the generosity of time and talents of our staff and volunteers, and records some of the milestones on our journey—the achievements our Cathedral community who have already joined to help make our Easter Vision a reality. I am delighted to serve this Cathedral as Dean, and am thankful for the many moments in the past year when the Easter Vision has been shown forth in the lives of our congregations, and our Cathedral community: moments that help us on our journeys to transform our city and diocese through the light of our Easter faith.

The Easter Vision that today’s readings set before us encourage us first of all to recognise the signs of renewal in our midst—the ‘talking on the road’, the sharing in the breaking of bread, that can lead to recognition of the living Lord in our midst, that can set our own hearts aflame. And out of that recognition, our readings tell, comes the motivation for action: with the first disciples, and all those who, through the generations have borne witness to this Easter truth, we, too, are called to share in that life-changing power: we are invited to recognise the signs of Easter life in our midst, and then to go and face the darknesses that surround us. I look forward to contributing with you—through giving of our gifts, our time and our talents—to this Easter Vision. For like Mary and Cleopas, who braved the darkness of the Emmaus road to witness to the true light in their lives, so we, too ‘are to be witnesses of these things’ (St Luke 24.48); people who to carry the good news to those who yet have to recognise and believe that the Lord is risen indeed, and is alive and changing lives in our midst today.

© Andreas Loewe, 2014.

Highways to God for the Heart

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, at the second annual Provincial Choral Evensong for the Anglican Province of Victoria, on 9 March 2014, at the Metropolitical Cathedral Church of St Paul, Melbourne:

Tonight’s readings (Isaiah 40.1-112 Peter 3.8-15) encourage us to place our trust in God’s future. They tell us that the future that God intends for this world is to be a place ‘where justice is at home’ (2 Peter 3.13), and they encourage us to become partners with God in shaping our world to reflect that future. Above all, they invite us, as clergy and people of this Province of Victoria, to become ‘heralds of good tidings’ to those among whom we live, work and worship (Isaiah 40.9).

Our first lesson, from the second part of the prophecy of Isaiah, are words of comfort spoken to a people without hope; a people whose homeland and sanctuary had been destroyed, with the city of their faith in ruins. The place where all Israel had come together to ‘give thanks unto the name of the Lord’ lay in ruins (Psalm 122.4). The place promised them during the Exodus, the place ‘that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there’, had been devastated by a superpower (Deuteronomy 12.5). Babylonian invaders, who exiled the nation and turned their city of peace, Yerushalayim, for that is what the Hebrew words from which we derive the city’s name ‘Jerusalem’ mean, into a spiritual and physical wasteland.

For generations, the people of Israel had been in exile, cut off from their homeland and the place of their religious loyalty. For years, they had marked ‘the day Jerusalem fell’; solemnly recalled in their prayers how their enemies cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations’ (Psalm 137.7). The Psalmist tells us how they sat down ‘by the waters of Babylon, and wept as they remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137.1). In Babylon, their pagan tormentors lorded it over them. Their captors not only ridiculed their continued service of the God of Israel, a God who ostensibly failed them in their time of need, but also perverted their worship: they ‘called for mirth: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion”. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’, the Psalmist expressed his people’s affliction (Psalm 137.3-4). How can we remain loyal to the city of God in servitude and exile?

And now God’s prophet speaks to the exiles in Babylon, speaks to them as if Jerusalem lived on in their hearts. He speaks tenderly, not to a ruined city, but to a whole nation: ‘comfort, comfort’, he says. And he assures them that in spite of the destruction and devastation they had experienced they remain God’s people: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Now their ‘penalty is paid’; they have ‘received from the Lord’s hand double for all their sins’ (40.2). Even though they now live far away from the place where God’s glory dwelt on Mount Zion, their God still cares for them. And God gives them a vision of the future: a highway that leads them out of the desert of their exile. In speaking to them his words of comfort, God in fact inscribes in their heart ‘highways to Zion’ (Psalm 84.4).

Those highways are broad and level; where they lead through the desert the wasteland will become ‘a place of springs’ (Psalm 85.6). They are a way on which those who walk on it ‘will go from strength to strength’; a way that leads each one who travels on it to ‘appear before God in Zion’, as the Psalmist sings (Psalm 85.6-7). The Zion to which it leads is not the ruined city they left behind, but a new Jerusalem. The highways of their hearts will lead to place where ‘the glory of God is revealed’, where God is made known to all nations: ‘all people shall see God’s glory together’ (Isaiah 40.4). Although God’s people still live in captivity, although the city of their faith they left behind still lies in ruins, God sets a future before his people. He points out to them the place where his glory continually dwells. He instils in their hearts not only a deep yearning for that place, but also plants in their hearts the highway to that place, that city.

It is in the strength of that yearning that God encourages his people in the words of prophecy: ‘make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Isaiah 40.3). That highway for God is the highway to Zion. It is a highway of the heart, and not necessarily a physical road. And it does not matter that this road, that lifts up every valley and makes low every mountain, may not at first be a physical road; for it is real in every member of the people of God who yearns for God’s presence, and for his glory to be revealed. Nor does it matter that each generation passes away, ‘withers like the grass, fades like flowers’; for the promise of a road that leads to God has been granted to every generation; that promise will ‘stand forever’, like the word of God that ensures and safeguards our futures (Isaiah 40.7-8).

This yearning for God to establish his city of peace among us so that we might go there, worship him there, and live with him there, is ours as much as that of previous generations of believers. Our second lesson, from the second epistle of Peter (2 Peter 3.8-15) gives us an insight into that yearning for God to rule and reign from the point of view of one of the first generations of Christians: ‘the Lord is not slow about his promise’, Peter writes to the early Christian church (2 Peter 3.9). We may still wait for God to act, want him to bring his city to earth, and build his highway to take us there. But God ‘is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but wanting all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3.9). God will bring his city, will bring his rule to earth at an unexpected time of his choosing: a time when ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’, a time when ‘everything that is done on earth is disclosed’, Peter assures his readers. In the strength that promise, ‘we wait for a new heaven and new earth, where righteousness is at home’ (2 Peter 3.13).

As they yearn for the coming of God’s new heaven and new earth among them, Peter exhorts his readers to use their time of waiting wisely: ‘while you are waiting, strive to be at peace, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation’ (2 Peter 3.14-15). When God brings in his rule of righteousness, there will be no more room for injustice, Peter explains. Earlier in the chapter, Peter spoke of the fate of those who act against God’s rule of love: they are ‘stored up for fire, are kept until the day of judgement and destruction of the ungodly’ (2 Peter 3.7). God’s people will be vindicated on the day God levels the mountains and lifts the plains, and finally reveals the highway to his city: ‘the Lord God comes with might, his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him’, our first lesson put it (Isaiah 40.10). Until that day, however, God places into our hearts that yearning desire for a world of justice and care for those who are oppressed; a world where the hungry are fed as by a shepherd, and the vulnerable gathered like lambs in the shepherd’s arms (Isaiah 40.41). Until that day, God teaches us patience, so that we may bring many to share our yearning for God’s values to shape the world we live in today.

When he reveals his glory, God will break all injustice, and restore the rights of those brought low, our readings assure us; if needs be he will do so by bringing in a new creation altogether. At the same time our readings assure us that God does not wish to bring destruction to the people he made: he does ‘not want any to perish, but rather wants all to come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3.9), ‘so that he may be merciful to all’ (Romans 11.32). And in doing so, God relies on us, the people of each generation who heard and believed his word, to assure others that his promise is certain: the promise of a future where all can know and be known by God; the promise of a world where righteousness is at home. This promise is both for our future—a time when God’s glory will be revealed to all people in his kingdom of justice and peace—and for now—a time when many neither know justice nor peace. At the end of time, it will be God who will ‘come with might’, bringing reward and recompense, bringing justice and peace, care and comfort for his people. Until that day, however, it is you and I who are called to show forth, through our actions, the values of God’s rule in own generation.

Here at St Paul’s we believe that this Cathedral can be a place where the transformative message of God’s kingdom can be made visible for our City, Diocese and Province. We believe that by living out the values of God’s kingdom we can be a place where people can find and nurture their own ‘highways to Zion’, their own pathways to God’s rule. We do so through our ministry of prayer: when we pray each day for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven; for God’s people to be given their daily bread; when we pray that God would forgive our sins, and in turn commit ourselves to live by the way of forgiveness and mercy. We do so through our ministry of welcome: welcoming those who increasingly know no welcome in this country, working for and with migrants and refugees in the heart of our state capital. We do so by sharing our conviction that God gives us a future, and by inviting others to put their trust in our hope. We do so by caring for the physical environment around us, and ensuring that generations yet to come will enjoy grass and flowers, mountains and valleys, and God’s breath blowing over them. We do so by inviting others to belong and find their home here in this church, and to know it to be a place where ‘the highway for our God’ can be found.

As we celebrate our belonging together and our joint ministry as Christians in this Province of Victoria, I invite you to share with us who worship and work at your home church in Melbourne’s CBD in being heralds of good tidings to those who may not yet know God’s good news; the good news that God gives us a kingdom and a future, that he assures us that our penalty has been paid in his Son Jesus Christ. The good news that he seeks to be ‘merciful to all people’ and that, as a token of this promise, he inscribes in the hearts of all who love him the map to this kingdom of peace and justice, reveals to us the ‘highways to Zion’.