Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
Home Thoughts from Abroad (Revd Neville Watson) 27.7.2008
I have entitled this morning’s sermon 'Home Thoughts from Abroad'. It is not intended to be a travelogue – although there will of necessity be a recounting of our travels. What I would like to do is to share with you some of the theological insights that came as we travelled and I meditated.
Margaret and I spent June abroad – nine days in Croatia and Bosnia and fourteen days on a ship cruising down the Danube and the Rhine from Budapest to Amsterdam. The cruise was fascinating. Each day there was a new town or city and each day there was a guided tour. There were 168 other people on the ship, almost all of them Australians. As with many 'average Australians' it seemed that the question 'How shall I live my life?' never crossed their minds. It remains for me one of the primary questions, and I find it tragic that so many people do not ask it. Some do ask the question towards the end of their life, which if it wasn’t so tragic would be laughable. In the course of two weeks I had one deep and meaningful conversation. So rare was this that at the end of the cruise one of the other persons who had been sitting at the table came up and said how much he had enjoyed listening in to our conversation.
We talked about climate change – his optimism and my pessimism. I am by nature an optimistic person but with respect to climate change I am very pessimistic. Coping with climate change involves some kind of global governance and the surrender of sovereignty by nation states – and I don’t see too much hope of that at present. It would need massive and unprecedented levels of goodwill. It would also involve a downsizing of growth, and growth remains the only criteria of the economist today. I spent last Sunday with my grandchildren at the Maze near Bullsbrook and as I watched them running through the Mazes I experienced a wave of sadness for their future. They would have to experience the consequences of our stupidity. Three days later, Australia’s leading journalist (Paul Kelly of The Australian) attacked the Green Paper on Climate Change on the grounds that 'It means asking the present generation to make a sacrifice for the gain of future generations'. Poor us! I was staggered that such a sensible person could say such a stupid thing.
As Tony Campolo expressed it recently (on another subject): Of climate change I would say three things. Firstly, that it will have a devastating effect on the human race. Secondly, that most of us don’t give a shit. Thirdly, that you are probably more concerned about the fact that I used the word shit than you are about climate change.
So, the first theological insight: The problem with living is that we 'understand it backwards but have to live it forwards'. (Richard Holloway). Our problem is that we have no positive vision for the future. The problem is that we understand life backwards and have to live it forwards. The Kingdom/Republic of God enables us to live it forward. The idea of the Kingdom of God is one of key concepts of the Christian faith. By neglecting it in our preaching, we have lost the integrating and central core of the gospel. As Jim Wallis says, 'The disastrous result is 'saved’ individuals who fit comfortably into the old order, while the new order goes unannounced.' The social meaning of conversion is lost and a privatised gospel supports the status quo. 'There remaineth faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is the status quo.'
The question 'How shall we live our lives?' remains one of the key questions for each and every one of us. Life is more than 'one damn thing after another'. Theological insight No 1: The problem with living is that we 'understand it backwards but have to live it forwards' – and of such is the kingdom of God.
There was plenty of stimulus on the trip for asking some basic questions. One of the cities we visited was Nuremberg – the place where Hitler held his huge rallies, where his eloquence entranced hundreds of thousands of people at a time. A bus load of us went to see a permanent display at the building modelled by Hitler on the Colosseum but three times bigger. We also sat in the room where the leaders of the Nazis were condemned to death by the War Crimes tribunal. You will remember that Hitler was democratically elected on the promise to do something about unemployment and inflation. He did that and conned a nation of people into following him as a great leader. The adulation, the worship, the unswerving obedience that they offered him puzzled many of my fellow travellers. It did not puzzle me. I have seen too much of it. If you don’t believe in something, you will believe in anything. We are culturally conditioned – we cannot escape it. As I looked at the photos of the dead Jewish children, I compared them with the dead children I saw in Iraq and I recognised how culturally conditioned we are and how easily we were led into the war in Iraq on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction. What there is, as has been recently stated, are the greatest oil reserves in the world. Why am I not surprised? We are without doubt creatures of our culture. Peter reminds us of this in Acts 2 when he says 'Save yourself, remove yourself, confront the 'sick and stupid culture'. Dorothy Day referred to it as 'the filthy, rotten system'. We are, all too often, creatures of culture.
The second theological insight: 'We need to remember how many of us would make good Nazis'. (Trevor Greenfield)
Prior to the cruise, Marg and I spent time in Croatia and Bosnia. Croatia you may say is understandable. It is the new 'must go' destination for world travellers. But Bosnia? Isn’t that the place where there was a war in the nineties? Yes, and that is why we went there. I was there during the war. It is a beautiful country with its mountains, strong flowing streams and deep green forests - so much so that when I was there I said to my driver, 'One of these days I will bring my wife to see this beautiful country.' His response 'But not just now. It is a bit too noisy'. It’s pretty hard to hit a moving target with a mortar but that certainly didn’t stop them trying!
At Mostar, Marg and I stayed within a stone’s throw of what was known for centuries as The Friendship Bridge. It was destroyed in 1993 and I well remember crossing it on a few makeshift boards and steel cables. It has now been repaired in the precise form in which it was built. It is now known as 'the old bridge' or 'the crooked bridge' - crooked because a fault in the aligning of original bridge was faithfully followed in rebuilding it.
Today when you step on to it, there is a stone on which has been painted the words 'Remember 93'. For many it is just a reference to when it was destroyed. It has, however, a deeper significance. Just before Milosevich was elected he toured the country with the banner 'Remember Kosovo!' I naturally asked what was Kosovo and was astounded to find that it was the battle in 1448 when the Turks beat the Serbians. 1448! Six hundred years and still controlling and influencing the present!
I remembered, of course, the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt who uses the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to illustrate the continuing influence of the past. She maintains that without forgiveness we are locked into the past and that 'the discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth'.(The Human Condition p238)
I had two conversations about Bosnia. One was with a Sri Lankan doctor on the ship. Sri Lanka you will no doubt be aware is a country torn apart by issues dating back hundreds of years. When this doctor learned I had recently been to Bosnia he asked how things were going there. My answer was it was much the same as it has been for centuries with religious and racial issues seething and bubbling beneath the surface.
The other conversation was with the hotel manager in Mostar who asked whether it was my first time in Bosnia. I told him of my time in '94 when I found in the bombed out ruins of his home an old Muslim man. He couldn’t speak English but had graphically expressed the situation. Pointing to the hills on one side, he said 'Serbs' and then pointed to where we were and said 'Boom'. Pointing to the hills on the other side, he said 'Croatian' and then pointed to where we were and said 'Boom'. And then he said 'Muslim here'. When the hotel manager heard the story he became emotionally disturbed and said that he was a Muslim and was only nine years old then but he remembered clearly his parents being held in a concentration camp. They had now left the country and he said in a plaintiff voice, 'All we want to do is to live in peace.' How difficult that is when the past is so much with us.
Third theological Insight: Jesus was the discoverer of forgiveness and offers us the chance of beginning again. Without forgiveness we are without hope.
One theological insight remains, the one that I regard as the greatest. It is linked with the comment of one of my fellow travellers. 'Not another bloody abbey!' Churches and abbeys and cathedrals did figure prominently on the trip – some of them taking over 300 years to build. I found many of them quite fascinating, for example, the one at Vienna where the grave of the Prince Bishop occupied the central place at the front and the carving of the crucified Christ was relegated to a side wall. In the Cologne Cathedral a large side window has been replaced by something that looks like a kaleidoscope. Some wanted a window showing contemporary martyrs like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero. They were outvoted and the cathedral ended up with a very pretty but innocuous window.
The overwhelming impression given by all the Cathedrals, and Abbeys and Churches we visited was that the Christian faith was of historical importance but is of no relevance today. We listened to a recital on the biggest organ in the world (18,000 pipes) and still the overwhelming impression was the irrelevance of the Church today.
While we were away one of my patron saints Keith Rowe was writing for With Love to the World. I relished his comment that 'Belief in God is more than an answer at the end of philosophical gymnastics. It is something to be experienced'. I differed with him however when he said with respect to Abraham and Sarah, 'What do you do while you wait for God to touch you with grace and to bless humanity through your obedience? You just carry on doing the small things well – offering hospitality, being generous, living in hope in barren times. The faithful church is learning to do exactly this.' He may be right but I see that as a recipe for disaster – that all we have to do is to keep on keeping on and be faithful. The fact of the matter, as evidenced over the whole of the time that we were away, is the Church relates to the world through symbols that increasingly have no relevance to our day and generation. The phrase 'Lamb of God' may have had significance in a day when lambs were being slaughtered daily in the Temple. It has little or no significance today. It looks back to a world that has gone. And that unfortunately is true of so much of the Church’s life today.
So the greatest and the most significant theological insight of our time away is this: We must retell the old story in a new way. As John Carroll says. 'The waning of Christianity is easy to explain. The Christian Churches have comprehensively failed in their central task: to retell the their foundation story in a way that might speak to the times.' We must retell the old story in a new way. We have to find a way of speaking about God that does not fly in the face of all we say and know about the world in which we live.
What do these theological insights mean for us as a congregation? I don’t know the answer to that question and, quite frankly, I’m too old to do much about it. But it remains for me the essential task facing us today: to re-narrate and re-late our faith to the contemporary world. If we cannot do, and do not do, this then I have the feeling that it’s a case of last one out turn off the light. Keith Rowe may be right and we should just keep on keeping on, keep on doing what we are doing. I think, however, that we need a new understanding of what we mean by the term God, a clear vision of what we mean by the Kingdom/Republic of God, and what it is to which we are being called in our day and generation.
In the coming months I am going to try and come to grips with these questions and to share my meanderings with you. At the moment the topics are 'What do we mean by the word 'God'? 'Are we creatures of Culture?' 'The Republic of God', 'The Importance of Forgiveness' and 'What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus today?' You may care to read and think about these subjects in the weeks and months that lie ahead.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands