Toorak Uniting Church

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What Australia needs is written in the Scroll!

Epiphany 3
Luke 4: 14 – 21
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
27 January 2013

The local Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluru.
This word has no further particular meaning in the Pitjantjatjara language, although it is used as a local family name by the senior Traditional Owners of Uluru.

I love the picture on the front of today’s order of service. I have only been to Uluru once and that was five years ago when Anne and I spent a week travelling from Alice Springs through Kings Canyon to Uluru. The first sighting of this rock is spectacular. But it is not just the fact that it is this enormous rock, it is also that it seems to be in the centre of Australia – in the middle of the continent – and there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. I have wondered if it is a tombstone placed in the centre of this dry, barren and harsh land. Or is it a monument to ancient wisdom and survival; a symbol of physical and spiritual power that both transcends the landscape and also gives Australia its unique meaning?

What is an Australian?
What is an Australian? I think if I hear that question asked one more time I will scream. You may have noticed the numerous articles in the newspapers this week, as we approach Australia Day, asking this question, "What is an Australian?" Some I found particularly interesting. An article by Amanda Vanstone explored the difference between patriotism and nationalism: I thought it was quite insightful. My sense is that patriotism is a feeling of belonging to a group – often a big group – and giving one’s heart and soul to the values of that group. But it is an emotion and, like all emotions, can have extreme consequences. Nationalism on the other hand is primarily where the boundaries of a country are drawn. We in Australia are in the unique position of having a single continent that is one nation. Does that exist anywhere else in the world? Of course if the Dutch had settled in West Australia or the French in South Australia then we may have been three nations.

But what does it mean to be Australian? Well, here are a few things that do not mean you are an Australian. First, that you have to be Anglo-Saxon. It is plain and obvious that like every "second-world nation" Australia draws its ancestry from the world. Irish, Scottish, Polish, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, African…. And it is also obvious that it doesn’t mean that you were born in Australia. Almost 30% of Australians were born outside Australia – Umm! Those New Zealanders will do anything to become Australian. Nor does it mean that you have to be a Christian. Sadly, there is a movement in Australia that draws its inspiration from groups in the USA and argues that Australia is a Christian country. I had a lovely conversation with a man after a funeral I conducted on Friday. He approached me and said, "Thank you Reverend, that was a lovely service. I’m Uniting Church, but I don’t go anymore." "Well", I said with a smile on my face, "Join the club, there are plenty of you out there. But if you ever want a second try, then Toorak Uniting is the place to go!" He laughed and we talked about what he did before his retirement.

You can’t be a Christian country by legislation, or religious absolutism or a kind of theocracy. We are open to all expressions of religion and of no religion. There have been many examples throughout history where religiosity has been legislated and every one of them has been disastrous.

What Australia needs is written in the Scroll!
Now see if I can connect this question of being Australian to the passage read earlier. In my opinion, what it means to be Christian in the nation we call Australia comes from the scroll read 2,000 years ago by a rabbi who had a flock of a couple of dozen followers:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Do you think we could get a referendum going that had as its preamble that this is what it means to be an Australian?

To be an Australian you must proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free.

The problem is of course that these things cannot be legislated. They are things of the heart and therefore are won by love and compassion not by punitive measures or disciplinary actions. And they are not just Australian values but human values.

I also know that some will see such a statement as un-Australian. Let the poor get a job and work harder! Build more prisons and as long as I am free others can look after themselves! This message from the scroll read by Jesus, echoing the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, were in Jesus’ day, as they are in our contemporary world, counter-cultural. As I have suggested, they are ways of being in the world that are shaped by what is in your heart – what you believe about life and love – what you see as the centre and purpose of life.

Reading the scroll of life:
I’d like to take this image of the scroll one step further. Some may have seen the paintings by known Australian artists on the front page of the Age newspaper yesterday. Each of the artists depicted Australia in their own way and their own style. What I found fascinating was that with the exception of one painting depicting a cricket game, each of paintings was a form of landscape. Very different styles and perspectives, nevertheless the over- whelming impression was that to be Australian has a lot to do with the ground beneath our feet and the sky above your head. Perhaps the Australian landscape, the bush, the ocean, the coastline, the mountains, the desert, the rainforest, the rivers, are a sort of scroll we read and take into our souls.

Norman Habel, the Lutheran theologian from South Australia, has been for years encouraging us to read the text of the Bible through the lens of the text of the earth and the universe. The earth, he says is a sacred text, a scroll, that forms and shapes not only our outer experiences of life, but also our inner life. Habel writes in his latest book Rainbow of Mysteries about developing our ability to hear the voice of the landscape. He writes:

The voice of nature is a mystery few seem to hear. Bird voices often sing in the forest, but the voice of the forest is rarely the focus of attention. Animal voices may be heard in the fields, but the voice of the field is ignored and the music of the wind goes unnoticed.

We need to listen to the voices of the earth and her domains, whether they are heard as songs of celebration or cries of anguish, whether they praise God or lament their lot. Yet so often these voices are not taken seriously.

To be an Australian:
So to be an Australian I want to suggest that there are two scrolls, two texts, two voices that we need to read, listen to, interpret and live into. The first is the words of our tradition that can guide and inform our lives. Now this is where we need to recognize that it is the truth of these words, and not just that they come from the Judeo-Christian tradition. To proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free are values that are found in all human traditions. They are inclusive of all people, all races and all religions. Australia is perhaps one of the best examples in the world of differing religions and cultural traditions valuing each other and living together in relative harmony.

And then there is the second scroll that we read; listen to; interpret and live into. And that is the Australian landscape. While the first text may come from our human universal experience of the Divine word, the second text, the continent of Australia, is a unique world to those who live in this place. And as Norman Habel suggests, I believe this continent has a voice that is speaking to us.

So here is my answer to the question of what is an Australian. An Australian is one who listens to both the voice of wisdom in the sacred traditions and also listens and responds to the voice of the unique landscape in which she or he has been planted or replanted. To be un-Australian is to be deaf to the vibrant story being told in each human tradition and inattentive to this life-giving landscape that we encounter each moment of each day.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

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