A sermon on Proverbs 8. 1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8 & John 16. 12-15 by Garry Deverell
A few weeks ago in his Deakin lecture, the celebrated Nyungar novelist Kim Scott spoke movingly about Aboriginal identity in contemporary Australia. Being Aboriginal today, he said, is perhaps even more difficult than it was in the bad old days. It is difficult because many, if not most, Aboriginal people are not able to say who they are, either to the peoples and communities around them, or to themselves. At least in the racist ‘past’, despite all the cruelty and deprivation attending that experience, most Indigenous people could still tell you who they were: where their land was, who their kin were, what they were called to do and be in life. But now, in the wake of 200 years of colonial practices, practices which have finally come to light for everyone to see, those three simple indices of identity are quite beyond the grasp of a many Indigenous Australians, especially those who find themselves living in cities and towns. And that brings with it a deep and ongoing sense of grief for all that has been lost: a lament for that dwelling-place which all of us long for, Indigenous or immigrant, that defining place of identification in the womb-like folding of land, family and vocation.
I can personally attest to the truth of these claims. On my father’s side I am of the Trawl-wool-way people of Cape Portland, in the North-east of Tasmania; I am from the line of Manarlagenna: warrior and healer; my responsibility and vocation in life is to listen to the numinous and be its voice. But have not always known these things. For many years I did not, and I was a very lost, and very depressed soul. I didn’t know where I fitted in the world. I didn’t know where my home was. Even now, I am really only beginning to learn these things.
Let me suggest to you that the way to a secure sense of one’s identity almost always involves a pilgrimage into that realm which Aboriginal people call ‘the dreaming’: a primordial twilight, the sacred dwelling-place from which each one of us is born into the harsh light of day. The dreaming is a people’s true home, a unique and special landscape populated by angels and demons: those spiritual energies which have, from time immemorial, possessed and guided a people on the way to their own unique sense of destiny. The dreaming is with us always, hovering beneath the surface of both society and consciousness. But in the hustle and bustle of modern life it is exceedingly difficult to hang on to one’s dreaming. Indeed, for many it has become almost impossible. Modern life has effectively contrived to remove us from our dreamings. The modern world has forgotten, you see, that personal identity is not primarily individual and economic, but social and cosmic: that is, always already given us in the stories of the tribe and the landscape of their dwelling. The dreaming is the primordial gift of who we are, and how we ought to live. And so, when our dreamings are lost, that loss is like the primordial casting of Adam and Eve from Eden. For without our dreamings our very selves become lost, like the early European explorers of Australia, who wandered into an alien landscape and disappeared without trace.
The church of Jesus Christ is a tribe, and this tribe has its own unique dreaming. The dreaming of Christians happens within a sweeping landscape of desert wanderings, baptismal seas, mountains of epiphany, and yes, even cities: both cities of exile, and cities of God. The dreaming tells the story of a people called out by God to a particular vocation and destiny: to covenantal love, to social justice and right stewardship of the land, to making ready a dwelling-place for God’s glory in the heart of God’s material creation. Interestingly, the voice of this dreaming comes to guide the tribe in a three-fold form. And I’d like to take a moment or two to dwell on each in turn.
The first of the dream-forms is that of Sophia, or divine Wisdom, a feminine figure who waits in the liminal places, the thresholds of crossing between divine and human realities:
Does not Wisdom call,
And does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
At the crossroads she takes her stand;
Beside the gates in front of the town,
At the entrance of the portals she cries out:
‘To you, O People, I call
and my cry is to all who live’.
Aboriginal and biblical dreamings are agreed that one is most likely to hear the voice of Wisdom in liminal places, where elemental forces collide with one another. On hill and mountaintop, in the elemental dancing of light, storm and stillness; away from the beaten tracks of commerce and off in the bush somewhere; at the crossroads where difficult choices have to be made, and where encounters with the strange and the stranger are most likely; at the feet of elders and holy women, who offer their teaching in places of arrival and departure. Certainly, my own experience accords with this claim. The places which I seek out in times of quest and ‘walkabout’ rarely let me down: atop the mountain near where I was born; walking in parks and bushlands where Indigenous singing may be heard; at the feet of wise men and women on spiritual retreat; and even an occasional encounter with the surreal: like the time when an old homeless fellow, who didn’t know me from a bar of soap, told me that I would make a great priest! According to the book of Proverbs, it is Sophia who addresses us in such moments. Sophia – a divine figure who shares in the making of the world, and is especially concerned with people and their destinies. There are those – the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, for example – who say that Sophia is one of the names for the first person of the Trinity. For she is the Maker, the one who causes all things to be, suffusing all things and holding them together in being (Wisdom 7.29).
A second dream-form finds its voice in Psalm 8, which speaks of an infant, or small child, by which God protects his people from the violent intentions of their enemies. Not, here, the child-soldiers of modern Africa, Palestine or the Balkans, thrown into the front lines as a sacrifice to the gods of hatred. Rather, Yahweh is said to raise a defence by the singing voices of Jerusalem’s children, raised in the psalms of praise which reverberate through the sacred temple at the centre of the city. Here God is heard as the praise of God, a praise which takes the eyes of God’s people away from the enemy at the gate, and upward toward the majesty of a God whose glory fills the whole universe. Here the Psalmist wonders at the power in the child’s song, the way in which the fear of one’s enemies is driven away by praise. There are some who would name this child-voice ‘the Christ’, the second figure in the Trinity, for Christ is the divine Child whose whole life might be characterized as a psalm of praise: as from a Son to his cosmic father. In Christ, says Paul, we are made free to praise and to hope and to trust. Even in the midst of evil and death.
A third dream-form is that of one whom John the Evangelist calls the ‘Paraclete’, a Spirit whose companioning presence is promised to all who belong to Christ. She is the truth-teller, one who both listens for the divine voice, and becomes that voice for the disciples. This implies, of course, that the disciples are listening – listening after the manner of the Spirit, who listens before she speaks. Amidst the noise of advertising, telecommunications, and commercial exchange, listening is easier said than done, however. Even on those rare occasions when our media devices have been turned off their loud voices continue to ring in our ears. ‘What are you worth?’ they say. ‘Are you earning enough to be free from the shadows in life, the evils that lurk around the corner? Is your car good enough? Your house? Your insurance and superannuation? What if something goes wrong, what if you get sick and you lose it all? What are you worth, afterall, without an income?’ . . . But the Spirit comes as a still, quiet, whisper, calling us back to our dreaming. Calling us back to that unmerited, unbought favour, the primordial gift of our communion with Christ. And we need that dreaming desperately, we need the truth of it. For the noises of modernity seek only to divide us against ourselves so that we desire not the one gift, the sheer grace of who we are in Christ, but the clamour of the many, the things we can earn or buy through our own self-sufficiency. The Victorian explorers, Burke and Wills, died in the desert because they had not taken time to learn from their Aboriginal comrades the art of finding water and recognising bush tucker. They did not listen, they did not learn to receive what God had already given, and so they perished. And the vultures ate their bodies.
Today is the festival of the Trinity, the day when the Christian tribe remembers and celebrates the God of its dreaming, the God who speaks as Maker, Child & Spirit. I call it a ‘dreaming’ because there is very important sense in which the Trinitarian stories of Christians resemble the more archaic dreaming of Australia’s Aborigines. Both imagine the divine not as a monad, a single supreme being who rules over other beings, but as a community of being: a community in which even mortal women and men are invited to participate, and so find their true being. Aboriginal people find themselves anew – their identity, their being – through a communal participation in the ‘speaking land’ of homeland and family. There they are addressed in the spiritual voices of the divine ancestors who populate the landscape as hill or tree or animal. And when they are cut off from these things, they find themselves adrift, like ships without a rudder. So too, Christians find their sense of purpose and identity by returning to the ‘speaking land’ of Israel & Galilee, a land in which God addresses them with the threefold voice of Sophia, Divine Child and Spirit. Here God invites all who hear to join the communion, to become one with Father, Son and Spirit, and so find their own true being. To share in God’s love, in God’s joy in creation, in God’s mission for justice and the integrity of all creation. And when Christians are cut off from this God, when they cease to visit the places of dreaming, they too become lost. And their capacity for vitality and life ebbs away.
You and I are of the tribe of Christ. We came together tonight because we need the truth of our dreaming, which is the Trinitarian faith. Let me encourage you, simply, to keep placing yourselves in the way of that dreaming, that the unmerited love of God might visit you, and sustain you in life and hope. Stick to your prayers and your sacred readings, and your works of compassion. ‘Cause the world is a crazy place, and we will, all of us, get very, very lost if we are not careful . . . And one final word: please pray for your Aboriginal sisters and brothers, and especially for those who have lost their dreaming. For there is nothing worse in all the world.
In the name of God – Maker, Christ & Spirit – as in the beginning, so now and forever. Amen.