Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on 19th February 2006
‘I was appointed from eternity,
from the beginning, before the world began’
The following words are from a BBC interview with Dag Navarette, a rescue worker on the Philippine island of Leyte:
When we arrived at the village, we were shocked at the scale of the disaster. A huge area has been affected.The mountain rose to about 1,000m above sea level and it now looks as if about half of the mountain has collapsed onto the village.
The area is not yet stable. We had to call off the rescue because the mountain is still crumbling. We hear it rumbling all the time. It sounds like an army of tanks making for us. The paddy fields are covered, it looks like an ice-cream of mud has melted down the hillside.
We have recovered 19 bodies so far. I’m here with the Southern Leyte emergency rescue team, the air force, army and the Red Cross. We arrived at 12 noon but in order to get here we had to cross two big rivers flowing furiously and walk for 1.5km.
The statistics are scary. There are 320 households in the village but the average household has 5 inhabitants.The landslide has also buried a school and we estimate that 246 pupils, 6 teachers and the principal were inside at the time. We have evacuated 375 people from the area and surrounding villages. The parents aren’t around. Most of them have probably been buried by the landslide.We have recovered 19 bodies. I myself pulled out the body of woman and a child who must have been as young as my own daughter.It’s all so traumatic.
People are in shock. The survivors we have picked out are in really bad shape. We’re just pulling them out from the mud and it is waist-deep on the outer edges of the district.
The school is the biggest task for us. We have to recover those kids. First thing tomorrow morning, we will go back to the area. Right now, we’re managing the evacuation centre providing initial relief and counselling from the Red Cross.
Geological experts are coming tomorrow to assess the damage and try to work out the cause of the landslide. This is a very high ridge and the land lies along an earthquake fault.We have had rain for over a week and the initial thoughts are that this was a major factor in the disaster. But for now, we need more help. Evacuees need shelter and to continue our work tomorrow we need more equipment.’
Dag Navarette’s words were reinforced by television pictures of the area where the village of Guinsaugon had been. Now for miles around there is nothing other than a vast covering of mud.
Anyone who preaches on today’s readings and suggests that the world is simply a good and beautiful place has not understood the reality of the planet we inhabit; there is nothing good and nothing beautiful in hundreds of people being buried alive.
The villagers of Guinsuagon would have been devout Christians. The Catholic diocese of Maasin in which Guinsaugon is situated includes Limasawa, the place where the very first Mass in the Philippines was celebrated in 1521. The school day would have begun with prayers. Yet all their faith made no difference in averting the disaster that befell them.
Sometimes we as Christians think that we and the Jews are the only people who have ever had a story of Creation as part of our faith. Yet when we look at the history of civilisations around the world, we find that each people had their own story of how the world came into being. Some of those stories are fascinating to readâthe aboriginal stories from Australia about the dreamtime; the Huron people in Canada whose hope is that when they die they will go into the far west where their spirits will be with their creator; the Norse myths with their lands of fire and ice; the Babylonian epics which include a story equivalent to our story of Noah’s flood in Genesis.
What is it that we have to offer that is different from all the other stories? What is it that makes the Christian understanding of the world true for us?
Certainly, as we see from the events in Leyte, it is not that our God makes sure that only good things ever happen to us. Any Christian who thinks more than thirty seconds will think of times in their own life and times in the lives of the people they love when very bad things have happened and where the world seems a very hostile place.
Even in the words of Psalm 104, there is a sense that the world poses dangerous threats,
‘When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust’Psalm 104:29
‘he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke’ Psalm 104:32
So when we read from Proverbs that Wisdom (whom we identify as Jesus),
‘was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began’
when we read from Colossians that Jesus,
‘is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’ Colossians 1:15-17
when we read from John,
‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’.
what is it that we are claiming about Jesus? What is it that we are saying about our Christian faith?
The events in Guinsaugon show us that we cannot claim that God is in simple control of events.It would be a very strange God who would drown a whole school in mud.
What the story of Jesus says to us is that there is a God out there beyond the beginning of the cosmos and that God takes on our life and shares in the reality of our lives, a reality that includes the horrifying landslide in Leyte, and all the other natural disasters that occur around the world on a daily basis.
‘When you hide your face, they are terrified’, says the psalm; the natural order of things in our world is often not pleasant, but in the midst ofdisaster God is with us.
‘I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began’. Without that faith in God with us, from the beginning and through time, the world is without hope and our lives are without meaning.
As the rescue workers in Leyte uncover the village, and as people come to terms with the awful events, we pray that God will be with them.