Sunday 19 • 13 Aug 2017


Genesis 9:8-17
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33


Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson



Let’s imagine - for just a moment. Let’s imagine that you are the Archbishop of Sydney. Let’s imagine that ABC National Radio have been in touch with you. Let’s imagine that you have been asked to deliver the Boyer Lectures for this year. The Boyer Lectures comprise 6 lectures – and each year they are delivered on successive Sundays in the latter part of the year. This year, let’s imagine, you have been asked to present these lectures which will then be collected into a small book that will become available through ABC outlets and your local Dymocks.

Let’s imagine you have accepted: you are delighted to draw upon your experience and what you know and share that with others. The moment you said that you would do this you placed yourself inside rather august company. The brief for the Boyer Lectures is that they should be on a theme to do with major social, scientific or cultural issues. They are to be delivered by prominent Australians like yourself and you will now join the company of former governor generals, health experts, generals, historians, scientists and philosophers, writers etc.

You have been asked to deliver your series because you are a leading figure in the church. You have an acquired a public reputation for what you have say on a range of matters. You are no longer talking to a congregation or a church meeting. This time your audience is contemporary Australia with its spectrum of opinion ranging from no religion to any one of a number of other different faiths.

There is a sense in which you are being asked to discern the signs of the times. You have been asked to deliver these lectures because the ABC Board feel that you are able to interpret the present time in the light of your religious faith. And then the reality hits you. You’ve been given plenty of time to prepare but now you have to organise 6 different topics on what you would like to speak about. And so here’s my question: for this series of Boyer Lectures what are the six issues that you might like to address on national radio?

Now that invitation, that request is perhaps not quite as far-fetched as you might imagine. Back in 2005 Peter Jensen was the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. For the first and only time in its sixty year history a representative of the Christian faith was invited to deliver these lectures. The theme Jensen chose was “The Future of Jesus”, by which he meant what were the prospects for the future belief in Christ here in Australia. The Archbishop was aware of how Jesus becoming like a footnote in the history, the national story of this country; his presence was becoming progressively more anonymous with the passage of time.

Maybe we could say that Jensen was seeking to interpret the present time. With the benefit of hindsight I would have selected one or two different topics if I had been asked to give these lectures. On the evening of the third lecture the Cronulla riots broke: the violence and fracture lines took everyone by surprise, though there had been tremors recognizable long before that first night of trouble. There was no reference in those Boyer Lectures Peter Jensen delivered to the way in which different faiths and cultures relate to one another.

Let’s imagine you have been invited to interpret the present times. Following in that tradition of Luke (rather than Matthew) you were seeking to read the signs of the times – and maybe one of those might have been the place of fear in modern life; it matters little whether that fear is generated by the home-grown radicalisation of young people – the rhetoric of particular political parties, - the way in which North Korea is behaving – the media coverage of rumours of fears at home and abroad; it does seem as if fear has become a companion of our times. Maybe that would be one of the themes you would choose. What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ in a time of fear? One of the best theological texts in recent years has been Scott Bader-Saye’s Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.

And, if you did, then you would be tapping into one of the strongest emotive responses that pervade the Bible; it is relatively common in the book of Psalms and the gospels as well. It is there in our reading this morning from Matthew. Jesus has sent the disciples on ahead; they are crossing the lake; the wind begins to blow, the waves buffet the boat: shortly before dawn, so the story goes, Jesus comes to them walking on the lake: when the disciples see this, they are terrified: “It’s a ghost”, they said, and cried out in fear.

Windsurfing on Sydney beaches yes – but walking on water – that stretches the imagination. Fear and storms, wind and sea – we know those things, though – and it seems if 97% of climate scientists are right we should expect those weather events to become more intense as time unfolds. Not that Jesus and his disciples would have known that.

Jesus was not a first century deep ecologist ahead of his time. He was no Tim Flannery from the Climate Institute and Australian of the Year a few years ago. Jesus had nothing to say about carbon dioxide emissions, carbon taxes and carbon sinks. Nor did he talk about rising sea levels, melting ice gaps and glaciers; there is no reference anywhere in the gospels to fossil fuels, coral bleaching, population pressure and the acidification of the oceans.

Jesus was not a climate scientist. And, so well might you ask: why should anyone say that how we respond to current worries over climate is one of the signs of times for which faith should be concerned? There are different kinds of fears: there are those which can haunt us, pursue us, cripple us; there are those who have explored the phenomenon of fear identify as a right fear, an appropriate fear, a right kind of warning that can bring us to our senses. Jesus beckons to Peter to come; he has a failure of nerve; he is afraid and calls out, “save me”.

Late last year I visited some people who live with a great deal of water-borne and storm fear. Their everyday life is lived within the experience of what the experts call ambient fear. Late last year I went to Tuvalu. This group of nine islands spread themselves out across the Pacific just south of the Equator. They are the home of about 15,000 people on a total of no more than 26 square kilometres. The highest point in the islands is only 4 metres above sea level. Along with their neighbours Kiribati they are like the canaries in the mine: the rest of the world is watching what happens to these vulnerable specks in the ocean.

The islanders are overwhelmingly Christian. This morning nearly all of them will be in church. They look to their faith to try and understand what is happening. The winds are changing; it doesn’t rain like when it used to; the seawater is bubbling up under the coral; their freshwater has become salty; the king tides surge across the narrow strips of land and can create a moment of terror; the bottom floor of the hotel in which I say was swamped by the sea a few months before; sometimes the smallest children are placed in eskies because they will float; the crops no longer grow – it seems to be only a matter of lime before these islanders are compelled to leave the lands – their ancestral home – for God knows where. There is no international legislation that concerns itself with being a climate refugee.

For them rising sea levels and climate is no abstract theory; it is part of daily living – and, it will come as no surprise, that parents and grandparents wonder what the future holds in store for their children and grandchildren. That is a familiar cry around the world even though climate change is a big enough issue to leave us numb and uncertain as to what do next.

These islanders are overwhelmingly Christian. Some of the older generation believe that God will not let their homes be inundated with water. They look back to the covenant God made with Noah and the promise sealed by the rainbow that there would be no great floods again. It is one of the quirks of location but rainbows here are a nearly daily experience.

Sometimes they wonder what have they done wrong? What is it that has caused God to be so angry with them - when, of course, their carbon footprint is miniscule. And, sometimes they look in our direction, to the rich countries of the world and they ask one question: are we not your neighbours? And they pose that question with an unspoken “for Christ’s sake” following.

Let’s visit your imagination again: you have been asked by the ABC to comment on the signs of our times. You are to give the Boyer Lectures this year; you are do so from the perspective of your faith. You know that some years ago Kevin Rudd declared that climate change was the most important moral issue facing our generations. That is one thing that he got right. So many leading theologians agree – and they do so not because they are greenies in disguise; they do so because if we do not respond, then we run the risk of reversing God’s good creation. Sallie McFague suggests we run the risk of creating uncreation. Others reckon we are like the prodigal son we will need to come to our senses about the earth.

And so you make a decision. One of those 6 lectures to do with the future of Jesus will be on climate change. That may seem to some like you’re coming out of left field. After all the traditions of our faith have not always been helpful. So often the hymns we have sung in the past have looked upon this world as the stage upon which our personal salvation is worked out; heaven is more important than the earth – and the earth itself is, it seems, disposable.

It’s almost as if Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray, Our father in heaven, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It is almost as if the first Genesis story of creation did not say that God declared this creation to be very good; it is almost as if the psalmist never spoke of how the seas roared and the trees clapped their hands in praise of God; it is almost as if the letter to the Colossians was never written and then speaks of how all things were made through Christ, in Christ and for Christ.

It is almost as if we were not called to love our neighbour as ourselves; it is almost as if we were invited to take care only of ourselves and forget about those who are nearby and in need because they are among the first people to feel the threat of this new age in which we find ourselves.

There will be more storms; they will become more intense; there will be high winds; there will be storm surges and for some ever more frequent invasions of their land. We will need to come to senses about how the earth system has been altered by the presence of us human beings; some things will not be able to be reversed in the foreseeable future, no matter what we do, no matter how resourceful we are. We are now entering into a new age – it is called the Anthropocene. We will need to come to our senses about how we live in relationship to others, our neighbours in need, for we have been called to love our neighbour as ourselves.

We will need to come to our senses: and yes, most of us cannot do very much by ourselves. We are small and the problem is so big. But we can inform ourselves and we can follow the patterns of some congregations and seek to be a witness to the goodness of God’s creation and how it is in peril. We can speak up in support of our neighbours in vulnerable islands when they are looking for somewhere to live.
I look forward to your Boyer Lectures.