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Peace and Prosperity - Hiroshima Day Remembrance

[Note: With some amendments and alternatives, this is the original version of the sermon was preached on a special occasion on 6 August 1995, exactly 50 years after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It is a topical sermon in that sense, although much of it is Biblical exposition drawing on the gospel for this Sunday. In other years Hiroshima Day has fallen during the week following or Ordinary Sunday 18 so the same Lectionary readings apply although, as in 1995, I have added special readings recommended in the UCA for the remembrance of the victims of nuclear holocaust. Rather than update the sermon to current circumstances, I am leaving it as it is in the hope that its integrity in that situation will add to its value as a resource in later years. Hiroshima happens also to be a city I had visited for an academic conference a few years earlier when the events of 1945 were clearly recalled, and I learned a thing or two from my Japanese hosts and other Asian researchers. A much more extensively revised version (2013), giving more attention to the gospel reading for the day, is now posted for this Sunday.]

Today [Tuesday, or whatever] is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of nuclear terror with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Those of us who can remember it will perhaps recall the sense of relief we had that the war may be ending sooner than people had hoped, and yet how that hope was mixed with a strange new sense of excitement and fear. I was only twelve then, and I suppose my reaction reflected the attitudes of my parents, the local community and media at the time; but I do remember a mixture of wonder and excitement as, over the coming days and weeks, the mystery of this great new atomic power was revealed. We thought such a great power could be used for good as well as evil.

After the war a new vocabulary entered our language. Things that were big, bright, powerful or shocking were called atomic, and a new rather daring kind of swimsuit for women was named after the atoll in the Pacific where atomic tests were held -- Bikini. We had the excitement too of the British testing atomic weapons in Australia. It took some time for the effects of radioactivity, and fall-out (another of the new terms now in common use) to become clear and I do not think we had any idea in 1945 how the sense of dread would develop over the coming decade as the cold war tightened its grip on the minds of people in East and West, and the testing of bigger and bigger nuclear weapons contributed to an enormous arms race. It was not long before hydrogen bombs were produced with an explosive power up to a thousand times the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and the superpowers, US and the Soviet Union, were known to posses thousands of these bombs, enough to destroy the whole world many times over.

When I went to America to study in the late fifties the tension was so great that the US used to keep a portion of its fleet of long range bombers constantly in the air armed with nuclear weapons. We used to look up and see their vapour trials cris-crossing the sky. That was before civilian jet liners were in general use. One day as I was driving along a relatively lonely part of the Coast of Maine, a good way north of Boston where we were then living, a friend suddenly said out of the blue, `Well, if they are going to drop a bomb on Boston, now is the time'. You see, the threat was always on peoples minds, but they almost never said anything about it. Somehow I think people got used to it, although there were strong campaigns for nuclear disarmament; later, tensions eased and then, after more than forty years, the cold war ended, and it has been agreed to dismantle tens of thousands of nuclear weapons -- but even when ninety per cent are disposed of there will still be thousands left -- still more than enough to destroy the world -- a world that is in some ways more unstable than it was when communism collapsed.

People have not forgotten. Not yet. [In Australia today (in 1995) there is a strong public reaction to the plans of the French Government to hold more nuclear tests, albeit underground as all tests have been for many years now. People are still afraid that some radiation will escape, I suppose there is some risk, however small, but I doubt that the risk of an accident accounts for the strength of the public response, which appears to have taken the Australian Government by surprise. The French say the fear is irrational, and there has been a great deal of irrational fear of radiation in the past; but that is not, I think the main point of people's concern.] [Apart from the fear of radioactivity from nuclear testing which seems now (2013) to have largely (but not entirely) disappeared, we have had cause to be concerned about acidients in the nuclear power stations.- 2013] I think what gives the remainin fear real strength is that most people still remember the fear of a nuclear holocaust and they are disturbed to discover that just when it appeared that such things might disappear, there are people in the world who are actually preparing to use nuclear weapons again in the future. [By 1998 the French had ceased testing such weapons, and relations between Australia and France were much improved, but India and Pakistan have each undertaken a nuclear testing program in a context of mistrust which brings a new threat of instability.] What ordinary people want is deliverance from the threat of atomic terror. They would much prefer to see nuclear disarmament than further development of such weapons. I wonder when we will hear a strong clear voice calling for nuclear disarmament, this time with a much less divided community behind it than was possible in the days of the cold war.

My friends, that is some my personal experience of living through the fifty years since Hiroshima was burned and blasted away and some of my personal opinions, informed I hope by reliable knowledge and a Christian conscience. As you know, I normally preach directly from Scripture, and I cannot help but ask whether the gospel reading about the rich fool which happens to be set for this Sunday happens also to be relevant to the fact that it is [near] the Sixth day of August [in1995]. It is a day that will mean different things to different people. [Omit:Within our congregation at Templestowe many different things a happening which are significant in different ways for different people. It is Joan Parry's ninetieth birthday, and we will celebrate that with a song and morning tea after the service. It is the day of the baptism of two of her great grandchildren, reminding us of new beginnings, in spite of the passing of the years. At these times we are thankful for the blessings of the past, for the enjoyment of peace, for whatever degree of prosperity we enjoy, and we look forward in hope, a hope which the new young lives and the commitment of their parents symbolizes.]

The Prince of Peace

Today, in remembrance of the victims of nuclear holocaust, we are reminded, again, as we commonly are at Christmas, by the reading from Isaiah, of the Prince of Peace.

The one whose coming had been promised by ancient prophets, did indeed come when a child was born and the angels sang of peace on earth.

This child, when he had grown up, taught and healed people, and after he had been killed and had risen again he became known as the Prince of Peace. Yet as the manner of his death made clear, he lived in a hostile world, in which there are many enemies of peace. It is interesting that, Prince of Peace though he was, he had very little to say directly about peace and war. As far as we know, when he talked with soldiers, he talked of faith in God and not about war. He probably shared in John the Baptist's teaching for soldiers about not bullying people and being satisfied with their pay:

Rather than deal with the difficult theoretical questions which Christians and people of many faiths have discussed through the ages, Jesus taught mainly about the Kingdom of God, and in very personal terms about loving God and loving our neighbour. It was in this way, in helping people to confront reality in their own lives about their relationship with God, that Jesus told the parable of the rich fool. Someone had asked him to settle a dispute about a will. He refused to act as judge or arbitrator, and expressed concern about the man's eternal destiny.

Then he reminded anyone who thought about it of the foolishness of building bigger barns to store his wealth if he was going to die that night. He went on to talk about treasure with God. Of course, greed is bad for life in this world as well as its affect on our relationship with God.

Why is it that greed is so damaging?

1. Health is damaged by eating too much, or too rich, food; and by living a selfish competitive life. A little emergency arousal might achieve great things, but living constantly under pressure in pursuit of more consumption goods may lead to an early death from various causes.

2. Anxious striving is also damaging directly to our relationship with God; it is distrustful and deprives us of the peace of knowing God in our daily lives.

3. We are still in a process of being made into the likeness of Christ: we are being made new creatures in the power of the Spirit as we learn to live lives open to His leading; but greed and lust for earthly things hinders that growth by directing our concerns elsewhere than to the kingdom of God.

4. We tend to build ourselves up in pride by showing our wealth to others and ourselves, seeking to be little gods (money gives a power of choice we might not otherwise have and thus it can reveal a venal character we might not otherwise be aware of) we become careless of the welfare of others and forget God; we might even imagine we can live without God. Surely it is no accident that as people in the West have become richer, devotion to God seems to have declined.

5. Pride in what we possess and concern with the power of possessions can make idols of those things, demanding our devotion and corrupting us with a false religion; the chief danger is spiritual death. The prosperity gospel is not good news.

In fact it is probably, here, at the point of idolatry, devotion to powers other than God, that wealth is most dangerous. It is closely related to pride. Money is something rather special, precisely because it is a medium of exchange. It can be changed into other things -- indeed into virtually anything, or so we tend to think, though there are some things money cannot buy. Money or wealth that can be traded gives us great freedom and power. That is the real danger, even if it is good to celebrate liberty which escape from poverty can bring to us. The danger is that in our strength and freedom we tend then to think that we can order our own lives as we wish and do whatever pleases us. Any devotion, whether it be to possessions, land, family, race or nation, that alienates us from God and our fellow human beings easily gives rise to a sense of pride which when challenged tends to justify feelings of fear and hated that lead to war. When we have such power we tend to think we have a right to whatever we can get, and to feel a sense of outrage when we cannot have what we expect. That is where the parable of the rich fool is relevant to Hiroshima. It is that rebellious human pride which tends to put ourselves in the place of God that is the real threat to peace. At the same time, what separates us from God alienates us from other people. In regard to alienation from God: no one can serve too masters, for where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also; and in regard to our fellow human beings: if our hearts are hard we may well need to do what Jesus challenged the rich young man to do, `Sell what you have and give to the poor.'

Recovery of peace in the world:

When I went to Hiroshima for an international conference some years ago I was struck by several things. It is quite a nice city, something like Adelaide. It was, of course, completely rebuilt, except for one damaged building which was deliberately left as a feature in the `Peace Park'. I found the peaceful old garden with its Buddhist shrine that mentioned I last week, which had survived behind a hill, a better symbol of peace than the official Peace Park; the Park itself, and the Museum, displayed some horrifying images of death, pain, and destruction; I saw tears in the eyes of children as one bus load after another were ushered past the displays showing pictures and models of people with their skin falling off. I remember a display of consisting of a fused mixture of roof tiles and human bones. I met a survivor: a man about my age or a little younger who was in school when the bomb went off, who saw his friends die and people with their skin falling off coming to see his father who was a doctor. However, the public memorials still tended to appeal to national pride and shame, and I remember the Chinese and Indonesian delegates at the conference in their negative reaction; I also remember a very generous word of reconciliation and friendship spoken by the Philippines delegate.

We are all a bit mixed up when our own sense of pride and worth is in question. The true message of peace, comes not from striving and dominance but from humble acceptance of the gifts of God, which include brotherhood and sisterhood. It is not to be found without humble submission and gratitude; ultimately by accepting the victory Christ won over the powers of evil.

The Prince of Peace came to put things right between us and God. When that is right, relationships between people will be peaceful. It might mean setting aside or sitting loosely on our possessions, for they have the power to claim our warmest devotion that really should be directed towards God. The kind of human pride and greed which separates us from God, also separates us from others, and when that pride is challenged the passion for war rises. Real prosperity, by contrast, comes when we are growing together in our knowledge of God and service of one another. It is quite literally a matter of life and death; and Christ, the Prince of Peace, offers us the way of life. All glory be to him.

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