Sunday 21 • 21 Aug 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Rev. Chris Udy

“You have not come
to something that can be touched,
a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom,
and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet,
and a voice whose words made the hearers beg
that not another word be spoken to them. ...
But you have come to Mount Zion
and to the city of the living God,
the heavenly Jerusalem,
and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,
and to the assembly of the firstborn
who are enrolled in heaven,
and to God the judge of all,
and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect,
and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant ...”

A few years ago
the ABC produced a documentary series
called “The making of modern Australia”.
The last program in the series
was called “The Australian Soul”,
and it began with footage
of a little weatherboard church
being transported on the back of a truck
into a rural Australian landscape.
It told the stories of people who grew up
through Sunday School and Youth Fellowship
between the two World Wars
and have seen the place of the Church
change radically over their lifetimes.
It touched on that deep sectarian divide
between Catholic and Protestant Christians
that’s thankfully almost disappeared.
It described the Billy Graham rallies
where millions of Australians
made Christian commitments;
and then the political struggles involved
in the emergence of the DLP
and in response to the war in Vietnam.
It showed interviews with priests and nuns
whose spiritual universe is profoundly different
from the day they first took vows
and put on clerical collars
or those layers of linen in the habit,
and it ended with a very small glimpse
of what it means to be Muslim in Australia,
and into the community life and worship
of some Buddhist and Hindu Australians.

The Australian Soul is complicated.
Our neighbours are unlikely
to see matters of faith as we do.
There are now more Australians
who say they have no religion (18%)
than those who go to Church Sunday by Sunday (8%) -
and I think if we were to ask
just who those regular faithful Christians are
and where they come from,
we’d discover that many of them -
maybe even most of them -
pray in a language other than English,
and gather in congregations
whose ministers weren’t born in Australia.
That transplanted Church
that arrived in an Australian rural landscape
is very different from the one we’re in today,
and the church in the city
has a very different mission
from the one that was carried here
by colonists and migrants and refugees.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews
wanted to send a message of hope
to people who were facing changes
even more radical and confronting than ours.
They were Hebrews -
they understood themselves
as Jewish women and men -
Jewish men and women who’d found the Messiah -
but they were a long, long way from Israel.
They read the Jewish Bible in Greek,
and it looks like they were living
in a city, somewhere in Italy (13:24) -
some think it could have been Rome.
So they were migrants - maybe even refugees -
and now they were cut off
from the place that had been their spiritual home:
the Temple in Jerusalem.
We don’t know exactly when the letter was written,
but it talks about persecutions -
people being martyred for their faith -
and it’s possible their community
was one of those caught up
in the Emperor Nero’s attempts to find scapegoats
for fires in Rome during AD 64.

So they were caught.
They couldn’t go back
to who and where they’d been.
That world had disappeared -
and it was around that time - in AD 70 -
that the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed.
They couldn’t go back -
there was nothing back there to go to.
And now their place of refuge,
the city to which they’d come,
was growing more hostile, and getting dangerous.
Some of them apparently thought
that the easiest thing to do
was to camouflage and blend in;
to deny their heritage and disguise their identity,
to look and to act, as much as they could,
like their neighbours,
and to give up on their guiding vision -
on the hopes they had for the future -
to give up on the possibility
that they could live in a city
where the things they most valued
could be found.
They were going to stay quiet.
They were going to compromise.
They were going to do what they could
to keep themselves and their families safe,
but it would be at the cost
of the things they most deeply believed in.

So the writer of the letter to the Hebrews
wanted to send them a message of hope,
and the hope he wanted them to hold onto
grew out of two foundations.
First, he wanted them to rediscover
the rich resources of their heritage.
Even if the Temple was no longer accessible to them,
he wanted them connected to their roots.
He wanted them to trust the wisdom
that came from their tradition -
so all through the letter
he re-tells and interprets and explains
the stories of the faith.
He urges them to read, and study,
and celebrate, and understand
their scriptures, their songs, their prayers -
because it was through them -
through that heritage and tradition -
that God had spoken to them
and guided them in the past.
That was their first foundation;
they were Hebrew people,
people whose history and culture was Jewish.
People whose ancestors had found their way
through times of desolation and upheaval
by trusting God - through living in faith.
So their first foundation,
their first secure connection
was to their tradition -
but tradition wasn’t enough for them
to find their way forward through life.

They had a second foundation -
a second point of reference.
They were not only Hebrew,
they were also Christian.
So, not only did they have
a rich and deep tradition,
they also had a promise.
They were on their way,
not just to a piece of land,
but to a city:
to Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem,
to the city where they
and their children would be welcome,
to the city where their values
were respected and upheld -
to the city where their hopes would be fulfilled.
That was their destination -
that was their goal -
but it wasn’t a place on a map,
or even a point in time -
it was an idea, a vision, a promise from God.
And it was because it wasn’t physical -
because it wasn’t built
out of bricks and mortar and stone,
that it was secure.
No earthly city - not Jerusalem, not even Rome -
could ever express and contain God’s promise.
Earthly cities were constantly in decline.
They were made - thrown together -
out of things that would break and decay.
They could be attacked and occupied and overrun -
they could be shaken apart by earthquake
and inundated by flood,
and they simply couldn’t be trusted and safe.
But the city that the readers of the letter would receive -
the city they were on their way to -
was not made out of perishable stuff,
it was built on the unshakable promise of God.
And at its heart
there was no Temple that could be demolished
and no Emperor or King
who might decide to do them harm -
there was no need of either palace or Temple -
because God was the ruler and judge
of the heavenly city,
and at its heart was Jesus -
the mediator of their new covenant -
the one who had brought them reconciliation -
peace with God.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews
wanted them to remember who they were.
He wanted them to accept and embrace
their heritage and tradition -
and he also wanted them
to trust and believe in who they would be.
He wanted them to hold fast
to their hope and vision.
They would never again
be the people they once were.
Those days and communities were over and gone -
but what their heritage could give them
was a sense of direction -
a moral and ethical compass,
a taste for justice;
and what their tradition could teach them
was the vital importance of faith -
trust in God -
and the absolute necessity of hope -
always looking forward to God’s promise.

Australia isn’t the promised land,
and Sydney isn’t Jerusalem - or Rome,
but the message of the letter to the Hebrews
is exactly what Australian Christians need to hear.
We also need to remember who we are,
to accept and embrace our heritage and tradition -
not only the stories of the Bible,
but the story of the Church,
and especially the story of the Church in Australia.
The Royal Commission has confronted us
with some terrible episodes in our history,
and we need to hear them and respond –
but that’s not all there is to the Church in Australia.
William McInnes was one of the writers
and the narrator of that documentary series on the ABC.
I’m pretty sure he’s not a religious person at all,
and he obviously wanted to tell the stories accurately,
but he also, clearly,
wanted to be sympathetic and open
to what the Church had contributed
to Australian society.
So the stories he told weren’t in the least bit cynical
or dismissive of faith -
and there was a real sense of warmth and celebration -
even about the way
the face of faith in Australia is changing.
We are who we are
because of our heritage and tradition -
it’s given us our character and identity,
and we need to remember and tell our stories
with honesty and courage.
Our families and our neighbours
need to know the history that has shaped us.
They need to hear the stories
of communities like this one,
people and groups
who’ve been active in this neighbourhood
for more than a century,
people of faith, who’ve been here Sunday by Sunday
celebrating life,
reconnecting with each other,
encouraging each other
to forgiveness and compassion,
passing on the stories of the faith
to another generation.

But that’s not enough.
We can’t stop with heritage and tradition -
or all we’ll be is history.
In addition to looking back
and knowing our stories,
we also need to look forward to our hope.
We’re on our way to the city of God,
and Sydney isn’t the heavenly Jerusalem.
Life in the city is complex,
and always changing.
Sometimes we’ll feel
that the changes leave us poorer -
that we’re always losing
the people and places we treasure -
but when we live by trusting faith,
when we remain open to God’s promise,
when we offer hospitality to our neighbours
and do what we can to befriend and welcome
the people God sends to us,
then our hope remains alive.
It keeps us focussed forward,
and we continue to live
as those who went before us did,
with the peace and confidence
that comes from the life of faith.

Just like those
who first read the letter to the Hebrews,
we live in the tension
between heritage and hope.
Heritage without promise is just history.
It’s dusty and lifeless -
broken rocks and grainy pictures.
And hope without memory has no direction.
It’s shallow and pointless.
It can’t guide our choices,
it can’t tell us how one option
might be better than another.
So we need them both -
heritage and hope,
memory and promise -
and in the life of faith
we try to hold them both together.

We already live in the realm of God;
the kingdom that has already been proclaimed,
but is not yet present.
We are already the body of Christ -
but we’re also learning
how to be Christian.
We live as people
who are already saved by grace -
but we’re always spiritually struggling.
We are citizens of heaven -
but we’re also bound to the earth -
and it’s in that tension
between what’s been
and what is yet to come
that God is bringing to life
God’s new creation.