“Bala limurr roŋyirr ŋorraŋgitjlil”. This phrase from the languages of the North East Arnhemland Yolŋu clan/nations was first spoken to me more than 15 years ago by my brother-in-law who was my boss and my mentor, the Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM. An interpretation goes like this:
“Let us return to the white ash of the fire”. The rich meaning of this phrase is greater than I can fully comprehend. However, for our context it urges us to return to the foundations of faith, to look at the way the people of God, and the communities of Christ have been sustained and enlivened by the Spirit’s flame, for generations. To remember the wonderful people, our ancestors of faith who have gone before and who were warmed by the fires of the Spirit.
The late chairperson of the Northern Regional Council of Congress the Rev M Garawirrtja said: “We return to these white ashes of the fire and know the place for the first time.” For First People it’s a remembrance of the ancestors who have cared for this land, protected life and law and kept clan/nations strong and in covenantal relationship. The fire of the Creator Spirit gives them life!
If you know fire, you will know that with some kindling and a little blowing, from the white ash will come forth new flame, and fire will burst into life.
When I was discussing our theme: ‘Hearts on Fire’ with Rev Prof Robert Gribben in preparation for this week’s Cato Lecture I referred to a passage of Scripture from Leviticus C6 “The fire on the altar must be kept burning, it must not go out (v12).” I’d said to Robert for me this relates to the fire of the Spirit in our hearts and Robert referred to the hymn ‘O Thou Who Camest From Above’ (TiS 572), and this line:
“Kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart …… there let it for thy glory burn/with inextinguishable blaze!”
“Bala limurr roŋyirr ŋorraŋgitjlil”. How might this rich concept speak to us as the Uniting Church? How might God be speaking through First People to us at this time?
The book of Acts may be considered an account of the foundations of faith, of the beginnings of the Christian movement. And so for me returning to the white ash of the fire and knowing the place for the first time has meant re-reading Acts, alert to the Spirit’s leading; this is why we have read tonight from C4. This is why I pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Friends, the flame of the Spirit’s sacred love carried in our hearts needs to be rekindled so that it burns with inextinguishable blaze! When we look at the result of this filling of the Spirit in Acts 4 we see that the believers were “one in heart and mind” (v32).
At this 14th Assembly we will celebrate the 30 years of relationship/communion with Congress and the 30 years since declaring we are a multi-cultural church.
We will be encouraged to think about the concept of ‘unity in diversity’ as a grace gift. Not uniformity, which is assimilationist in practise, but a oneness in Christ, a oneness of heart and mind.
Charles Harris, one of those whose vision birthed Congress, speaking of his hopes for the covenant between First and Second Peoples within the Uniting Church said the covenant would: “contribute to a more just church and nation”. And Djiniyini Gondarra, also one of the visionaries who birthed Congress, speaking of a ‘new Australia’ said prophetically: “God seeks a new kind of leadership in Australia built on a new heart and mind which the prophet Ezekiel speaks of”. It is my belief that both these statements continue to set before us a Godly vision and vocation for us as the Uniting Church in Australia.
In the firm hope and belief that this covenant relationship and the way we honour a sovereign First People, is clearly about our God given destiny together. This passage which Djiniyini refers to from Ezekiel C36 and that we have read from tonight has also been proclaimed by other Indigenous Christian leaders (e.g. Ps Cedric Jacob). They have prophetically spoken of a Godly purpose and plan for God’s people and our nation.
Charles Harris spoke of justice in our nation, and the psalmist declares (89:14) righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s kingdom. Could these then be the foundations of faith, the white ashes of the fire which the Spirit would rekindle as fire in every heart?
We are reminded by the words of the psalm that it is both passion and compassion which is the fullness of this gospel flame at work in individual lives and in the church. That is a passion for telling the wondrous story of the Christ who died for us and the compassion of Christ the suffering servant who calls us to a shared humanity including the suffering of others.
John Smith says of compassion it is “to feel what it is like in someone else’s skin”. I have always said it is to ache with the ache of a sister or brother. I admire the young adult leaders in our church. One recent example of this “aching with” I speak of, occurred earlier this year when the Australian government was about to transfer young pregnant women, and mothers and their babies from the detention facility in on the outskirts of Darwin to offshore detention centres.
My young friend was physically and emotionally “aching with” each of these women, and particularly the ones she had grown to know through regular visits to the detention facility. It was her aching heart, joined together with other compassionate hearts which led to all night prayer vigils outside the detention facility and to a service of worship being shifted from a local Uniting Church, one Sunday morning to a veranda in front of the Country Liberal Party, Federal member’s office.
The good outcome of these compassionate acts of protest, and other actions around the nation, were that the women were not transferred.
However we continue as the people of God to be ashamed of our government’s policies relating to asylum seekers and in particular, children in detention. Mothers and infants together with children have since I prepared this sermon been moved out in the dead of night to be sent off shore. One wonders at our government’s shame that they do this under the cover of darkness for indeed it is evil.
These actions together with the colonising approach we have used showing little regard for any other nation’s concerns has turned our warm and lucky country into a Dickensian, Scrooge like, cold hearted nation.
Sister José Hobday was a Native American Elder and story teller, and a member of the Franciscan order. She died in 2009 at the age of 80. I want to quote what she said when speaking about generosity for it speaks to me of the Spirit’s warmth carried in the heart. “We used to say you could tell if a person was an authentic native whether or not she had a ‘red’ heart. A red heart had to do with whether the heart had blood from being massaged by good works, especially sharing.”
For John Wesley justice and mercy were inseparably linked. It is said of him that he found it difficult to get to the end of a week with money because he was concerned with the poor. His concern, it is said was “saturated with a sense of respectful curtesy for the recipient”; motivated and by: “A mixture of honour and love which I bear the Creator for all his creation.”
Our Cato Lecturer Rev Dr Lin will touch in her lecturer on Bishop Ting’s concept of the Cosmic Christ and I leave that for Dr Lin. However Bishop Ting has said: “Christ extends his providence to the whole universe, and the nature of his providence is love.”
Each of these three faith-filled people stand starkly in contrast to our Prime Minister’s “nope, nope, nope” approach to human suffering. This brings us to tonight’s gospel reading from John 15: “This is my command: Love each other.”
The passage begins with Jesus petition that the disciples remain in his love. Friends, the white ash of the fire of faith which the Spirit would rekindle and set ablaze is firstly this love in each heart.
The gospel writer next quotes Jesus as saying that his disciples have been chosen and appointed to go and bear fruit. Disciples of Jesus, beloved followers of the Way of love, are to go and bear fruit.
The flame of love fires disciple’s hearts to works of love and service. And the fruit is three fold:
First, there is the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives which Paul’s letter to the Galatian church speaks of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
That is to say the flame of love nurtured in the human heart by the Spirit will produce Christ like character. We will only bear fruit if others observe and experience in us the character qualities of a Christian disciple.
Secondly, we do need to be able to share our story, the reason for the hope we have, the faith we place in Jesus Christ. The integrity of our story evidenced by our lives will speak most powerfully to others.
The Spirit also works through the Scriptures and our words to bear fruit, i.e. in old fashion language to win souls for the kingdom; to kindle a flame of love in another heart. Therefore it is important we make space for grace, as our National Multi-Cultural Ministry Reference Group encourages us through their paper for this 14th Assembly. Space to embrace, to grow relationships, to learn from each other’s stories and wisdom, and space for the Spirit to lead us. It is in these “grace spaces” the good fruit that will last is produced.
Thirdly, and finally, we return to Sister José’s proverb, it is good works which ensures the heart is massaged and remains “red”, so the fire of the Spirit is truly ablaze. In these hearts the Spirit produces a spirit of generosity. And so it’s also this spirit of generosity which I believe the fire of the Holy Spirit would set ablaze among us as church.
Our church does amazing things to help those most disadvantage and often marginalised in our society. And friends, in adversity, when we come together as the body of Christ, for the sake of the least, God does amazing things!
We’ve seen it as Uniting Care Qld came together with Frontier Services to avert a crisis in aged care services in the Northern Territory. Now we have a new Uniting Church entity Australian Regional Remote Community Services delivering quality aged care services in the NT.
Graham Kendrick, a contemporary Christian songwriter wrote the song ‘God of the Poor which included these words: “Change our love from a spark to a flame”.
That happens through the work of the Spirit and when we act like “body”, when we come together in the name of Christ, for his love compels us (2Corinthians 5:14a).
When I spoke of Charles Harris earlier I referred to Psalm 89v14, of righteousness and justice being the foundation of God’s kingdom. The other part of the verse psalmist penned reads: “Love and faithfulness go before you”.
Just as righteousness and justice are foundations of the kingdom, love and faithfulness ensure the flame of the Spirit burns brightly in heart of the church.
“Bala limurr roŋyirr ŋorraŋgitjlil”. Let us return to the white ashes of the fire, inviting the Spirit to blow upon us to rekindle the flame of God’s sacred love so that it becomes an inextinguishable blaze! Together as First and Second peoples let us strive in Christ’s name for a more just church and nation.
Through the spirit of generosity at work in us, through acts of justice and love may our hearts be truly red. And let us stand in unity, one in Christ who is our head.
May our lives with integrity tell a story of love and faithfulness as we retell the story of Christ’s love and faithfulness; beloved go and bear fruit in Jesus name. Amen.