Cast your mind back 9 months – well actually nine months tomorrow – to December 26th last year. Boxing Day. When we woke to sketchy news items about a major earthquake off Indonesia. I remember very clearly the development of the news reports, from one earthquake to a series of major quakes.

Then came news of a tsunami – which must be one of those phenomena in nature which strike unimaginable horror into people’s minds and hearts.

Since then, we have learnt a whole lot more about the catastrophe which befell our northern neighbours. The numbers are staggering: 300,000 dead and 1.6 million people displaced, across 8 or more countries. The estimate to re-build the Aceh Province of Indonesia alone is about $4.5 Billion US dollars.

So why raise this now, in this context? Today is Social Justice Sunday, the last Sunday of September when churches around Australia are encouraged to give attention to a specific justice issue.

This year, that issue is the tsunami and its aftermath, and to reflect on what it means to build justice and peace in the wake of this extraordinary event. So it’s not just because I took an imaginative leap from the Exodus reading!

What is our response to the tsunami? When the appeal went out to Australians, we responded with the most generous level of donations ever seen. Our Government committed $1 Billion to the relief effort.

We prayed. For a few days, perhaps longer, we paused and thought about what life on this fragile planet might mean in the face of such awesome forces. For some in our congregation the event was more personal than for others – either through friends or proximity. Many Australians went to help on the ground, from our defence forces, caring agencies and volunteers.

We stopped and thought about how closely, or distantly, we share our humanity with everyone else on planet Earth. The Apostle Paul urges us to avoid thinking of ourselves as being different to those caught up in the tsunami – let alone think ourselves as better. He also calls us to live in humility, with Christ as our example, to put others’ needs ahead of our own. A part of that it to set aside our own agenda as we respond to those in need.

That means that our goal in assisting is to be to give of our best, not of what we think we can do without, and not with an eye on helping in ways which benefit us.

Sadly, it seems that Paul’s lesson is lost on some in Australia. Some weeks ago when an Indonesian court convicted Shapelle Corby, it was reported that some people who had donated to the tsunami relief appeals demanded their money back! Mind you, our Federal Government was also less than fully open with us about its $1 Billion commitment. It seems that half the money will be in loans, which Indonesia will have to pay back. And of course, as with all our aid commitments, over 80% of the money will be spent in Australia on goods and services here.

After the tsunami, some very strange Christians were heard to comment that it was somehow God’s judgement on the people affected. It seems that such fundamentalists, while claiming to take the Bible literally, don’t actually read it – or perhaps they ignore the bits which don’t fit their view of the world or of human life.

Our Exodus reading is a case in point.

Of all the things that could have been reported here, one is strikingly missing – God does not condemn anyone involved in the story, nor get angry. There is no Divine wrath directed at the grumbling Israelites, nor is there evidence of short tempered-ness with Moses who trots out his own bit of grumpiness. And goodness knows there has been enough talk about grumpy old men to make us think that Moses might fit that bill!

No – God’s message to Moses is about meeting the needs of the people. God ensures that the people have what they need to survive – very much like last week’s readings of manna and quail and the workers’ need for a living daily wage.

You may think that the Exodus reading was chosen to fit with the tsunami theme, but that is not how it works. When each year’s social justice material is produced, it is done using the lectionary readings for the day – no cheating by pulling out favourites. But I can tell you that a few years ago when we were preparing for Prisoners’ Sunday (which we do among the social justice bodies of the Anglican, Catholic and Uniting Churches here in Perth) we shifted the observance from one Sunday to the next. The reason? Well, the Gospel for the actual Sunday was:

But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into.

Mind you, as Prisoner Sunday is the Sunday nearest International Prisoners’ Justice Day, which happened to be mid-week that year, we felt we could get away with it.

But back to Moses for a moment. The other interesting point here is that Moses comes out of the event still as leader, not because he has exercised power or control, but because he has done what was needed to meet the needs of the people. It’s a lesson which some of our political leaders could learn. Putting aside bitterness and anger and grumbling, as Moses was able to do, is a lesson that a recent former political leader in Australia could learn, too!

But let’s not keep the lessons ‘out there’ – after all what point is the story if it’s not our story?

What about control and the way it is exercised? I’ve already alluded to my disappointment with the Australian government’s aid effort post-tsunami, but in our own minds would we like to control how our dollars are spent after we give them? I’m not just thinking about the tsunami either – what about when we give to charities here – do we stop giving to charities which use ‘our’ money in ways we don’t like? It happens, you know!

What is Paul’s message here? Be of the same mind as was in Jesus? Selflessness, giving all, holding nothing back, not condemning, even to death.

Each Sunday, in our liturgy, we proclaim our faith in its highest forms and commit ourselves anew to life in God and conclude with: “Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory”. YOUR praise, YOUR glory.

What happens outside the Church door, then? Are we the first son, who says “No” to God, but fulfils the request anyway? Or do we say “Yes” to God and go our merry way? Aah for the strength of heart and mind to say “Yes” and to live by our “Yes”!

It’s the same with the nation, of course. How many times do we hear that “Australia is a Christian country”? – generally used as a weapon to punish rather than to welcome, admittedly, but it gets said often enough.

If it were so, what would we demand of our government after reading this parable?

To begin, we would ask for truth in government statements about our aid budget. If we say that we are going to provide $1 Billion to Indonesia, let’s see the cheque being handed over, made out to the Indonesian government, not to our banks, consultants, manufacturers and government departments.

Then perhaps we would also draw attention to last Sunday’s parable and ask for an industrial relations system which protects the people at the bottom of the heap, and which provides a proper living wage.

And we would go so far as to tell our government that listening to critics is a sign of maturity, and that trying to silence critics is the way of autocracy, not democracy. We could point out that government threats to withdraw funding from service delivery agencies which criticise impoverishes policy development.

In the spirit of the God who does not condemn when people need help, we could add another few items to our list of demands put to government for its ‘to do list’, too: cancellation of unpayable Third World debt, so that others can get on with building decent lives in viable communities and vibrant societies. Or how about an end to militarism so that people can live in peace and unafraid, as the prophet says.

These are all consistent with our faith, they resonate with the way we see our lives of faith being lived out, so why are they not part of our national agenda, whether we are a Christian nation or not? Do we not project our own ideals and principles onto the larger stage of our national life?

We should, and inherently we do – trouble is that we are caught somewhere between the first and second sons. AMEN

Page updated February 19, 2006