Sermon for the Memorial Service for Victorian Bushfire victims

31 March 2009 at 18:00 pm

The Right Reverend George Browning, former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn

To this Abbey Church of St Peter we come today, as many thousands have before us, to grieve enormous pain and loss, to remember those who have so tragically died and to affirm they will not be forgotten. We also come to testify to the hope that lies within us that through God’s grace we will triumph over tragedy, that our communities will be strengthened, that the trees will again sprout, the song of the bird will again be heard and the ashes which have covered us will in their own way wash down and nourish the life that is yet to be born. Here in London the days are lengthening and signs of spring are all around us, yet in the Victorian Hills the evenings are now shorter, the temperature is cooler, the immediate threat has passed and space is emerging for rest and the long hall of restoration has begun.

The two readings chosen for today speak profoundly to our situation.  The first, was originally spoken out of a situation of unbearable tragedy and humiliation - the great exile.  So many had been killed, identity was lost and vision in ruins.  Yet out of this tragic environment the prophet imagines the emergence of a servant leader of restoration whose bearing is not arrogant or triumphant, he does not trade in bravado or certainty, but wears the ashes of tragedy on his face and clothes. He appears like the first fragile and yet beautiful mauve tips of new life on the scarred gum trees, his bruises and burns are his badge of honour, the service and building of his people his mission, his imagination for a newer, gentler, more harmonious community  his driving force.   The Christian Community has long seen this figure to be the first inspirational window into the coming Messiah - Jesus, the one whose crucifixion and resurrection we celebrate in ten days.

The insight could also be true of the best of the Australian character, for out of this tragedy have  emerged ordinary and yet extraordinary men and women: fire fighters and cooks, school children and the elderly, who have combined to relieve the immediate danger and who have promised to remain in the long haul of recovery.

The second reading takes us to our foundations of hope. The human spirit need not be cowered by any external circumstance, as tragic as it might be.   We have experienced flood and fire before, our men and women have fought and died in many foreign conflicts, our communities have been challenged to their core by withering drought, but through them all our resolve has been strengthened, our trust in God undiminished, our hope renewed in the Easter message that even death has been overcome: “nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

As we move forward we take with us the memories of these terrible events and we are changed by the learning that comes from them. We can build houses that are more fire resistant, we can give better warning to people, we can learn more about the cycles and rhythms of which fire is an inevitable, and in the right circumstances, a life giving part.  But there is something else we have learned, it is that the combination of extreme conditions are likely to occur more frequently and that here and throughout the world we are all more likely to be threatened. Weather patterns are changing and the human footprint is a major contributor.   I am therefore grateful and proud that the Australian Government has made a significant commitment to reduce the Australian contribution to the adverse effects of the human foot print.  That we can and should do more, few with knowledge would argue against, that we should do less, only the fool hardy, the self interested or the reckless would even contemplate.

We dare not contemplate a future without learning the lessons this experience has taught us.  We Australians live in one of the most wonderful continents on earth. And yet we must live on it in humility not arrogance, in a spirit of stewardship not exploitation. We need to understand its vulnerability, for it is a vulnerability we share. We need to work with its rhythms rather than impose our own and to walk its song lines as generations of people have before 1788.

We come to this Abbey in gratitude for our heritage and in thanksgiving for the generosity shown to us from peoples across the globe. In quiet resolve, like the servant figure of the Isaiah passage, we shall strive to ensure that on our continent, and on our watch, a bruised reed will not be crushed nor a dimly burning wick of hope ever be put out.

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