Toorak Uniting Church

Previous Page

Next Page

Australia: Old and New; Darkness and Light!

Matthew 4: 12 – 23
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
26 January 2014

The picture on the front of the order of Service and the words from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem My Country are intentionally meant to create a sort of conversation between the two different images that arise from these two distinct cultures. The picture is a painting in the style of Aboriginal dot paintings, while Dorothea Mackellar’s poem draws in part from the later arrivals to Australia. A poem that most of us came upon and often memorized in primary school – even in Queensland primary schools!
The poem begins with the verse:

The love of field and coppice
Of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance,
Brown streams and soft, dim skies
I know, but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror,
The wide brown land for me!

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die.
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine
She pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze...

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand.
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

The painting takes Australia’s most powerful natural and ancient icon, Uluru and stylizes it with Aboriginal images. And Dorothy Mackellar also draws from nature but adds the experience of the new culture coming to grips with a difficult and often hostile the landscape; one that produces both beauty and terror.

The Two Voices of Australia
There are many voices calling us to how we can be Australian. But this morning I want to consider just two voices. First, the ancient voice of the Aboriginal people – a voice that calls us back to the land and back to the Spirit of this wide brown country, and the voice of another Australia, the Australia that has built a people and a culture, albeit a diverse culture. Nevertheless, an Australia which, while diverse, has a hidden wholeness.

Ancient Australia
It can be easy to forget that many of the images in both the New Testament and Hebrew scriptures are drawn from nature – from the land and the landscape in which the Hebrew people lived. The Psalm read earlier draws on such images:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal their knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

Not dissimilar to the relationship between the Aboriginal people and the land. For them the land was and still is sacred, holy and divine. It speaks of the presence of God without words. It is unfortunate for us today that the early settlers devalued the aboriginal relationship to the earth, the sky and the sea. Ancient does not always mean unsophisticated, or simplistic. The philosophy that underpins our culture today - the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle - was penned almost 400 years before the birth of Jesus. And the first writings of the Old Testament are at least 600 years before the birth of Jesus.

Ancient truths can be both foundational and brought into contemporary expression, as we often do with the words of Jesus and the writings of St Paul. But a humility and curiosity are called for if we are to mine the wealth of these ancient ideas and ways of being. I may have told the story before, but in 2007 Anne and I travelled to Alice Springs and then to Uluru. We spent three days at the Rock. We had decided not to climb it. I think it may have had something to do with the effort, rather than respect for the elders. At the bottom, where people do begin their climb, there is a sign explaining the views of the local Aboriginal tribe and the spiritual significance of the Rock. It also said that 37 people had died climbing Uluru. Someone later told me that many of them were trying to catch their hat, which had blown off in the wind.

At the bottom of the sign someone had written, "What is it with you white fellers. Why do you always want to get to the top of everything? Why don’t you just walk around the rock in a circle and let it speak to you." So we did and the Rock did indeed speak to us. Not in words, but in the inarticulate murmurings of the heart and soul. Ancient wisdom can traverse the centuries and come alive today.

New Australia
I love Australia. I have said that if I only ever had my holidays in Australia for the rest of my life I would be happy. That may be because I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning. A sobering thought. It is the landscape that forms and shapes me and my love of this place. While living in Canada for ten years – a place that I also loved – I often felt this sense that I was like a tree that had been displaced. It had been planted in a beautiful garden (except for the snow each year) but knew that it came from somewhere else. That experience gave me the conviction that it is wrong to expect a migrant to completely give up their mother culture and exclusively adopt a new culture. It just isn’t possible. Of course we can live in Australia, within Australian law and custom, but we can also offer the best aspects of the culture we have come from to this new land. And with time and patience there will be assimilation.

To shift the slant a little, isn’t that what happened in the early Church among those first believers. They had their ancient culture from Israel and they brought into that religious culture their own religious ideas and ways of being. Then the long and sometimes painful process of accommodation and refutation – knowing what to keep and what to discard – begins and takes generations. They had to discern what was light and what could be left in the dark. And the strongest example of this was the practice of circumcision, which by the second century was left in the dark.

When cultures, or new ideas, or expressions of faith confront each other, there is the possibility of hostility or infrequently harmony, but most often a uneasy dialogue that hopefully moves through tolerance toward friendship. And friendship does not mean uniformity or conformity.

Matthew’s words in the 4th Chapter of his gospel paint a picture of this new way, the Jesus way, first emerging and then spreading. First among the Jews of Israel and Judah. Then across the Jordan into the land of the non-Jew. Initially with hostility, but then a willingness to converse with the "alien" culture:

"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned."

It was like a light going on for these people who were not of the Jewish religion, but now seeing in the teaching and way of Jesus a new way of being; one that would begin to transform their lives and culture. But this is important. They didn’t change everything. Their dress remained the same. Most probably, what they ate remained the same, the songs they sang and so forth. Many of their rituals and gatherings would remain as they were, but now informed and held by a new way of being.

Some years ago a missionary who had worked for 30 years with the Aboriginal people in Central Australia spoke at a conference I attended. He spoke passionately about how the patronizing methods of past years were being replaced with more cooperative programmes. But he said one thing that I have long remembered. He said that because of the way the Aboriginal people were evangelized and became Christian, it was very difficult to convince them that the white missionaries didn’t bring God to Australia. That, in fact, the Spirit of God was alive in them and in this land from the time of creation.

We live in a great country and remarkable nation. It is not a perfect nation by any means. There are days in this fair land when cruelty outweighs compassion; when hate and violence usurp love and freedom. And maybe our greatest fear is that we will be invaded, not just by people, but by people who are not like us. We have to get over that and show the world that we are bigger than intolerance and bigotry.

When I walk down Lygon Street in Carton, I am grateful that in the late forties and through the 1950s the Italians came to Australia - and now we have the best coffee in the world.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.