Psalm 46:1-5 | Isaiah 40:28-31

When I was a kid, I lived in what I thought at the time was a small village in England, a long way away from the city. Well, it was in England, so I got that bit right, and technically it was a village, although Woodstock was big enough to have a primary school of two or three hundred children and its own high school. And that distant city was only eight miles down the road – a long walk, but easy on a bike or fifteen minutes in the car.

And since I’ve lived in Australia my home has always been in Sydney. I am, let’s face it, a city boy. To say that my knowledge of things rural is sketchy would be really quite generous. I find the sheer size of Australia, and the distances involved simply beyond my grasp. The nearest I get is that strange surreal feeling when you board a plane in Sydney, and three hours later you are still over Western Australia.

There’s a story of an Australian farmer trying to explain to an English farmer just how big the properties are here. “I get up in the morning,” he said, “and I get on my horse and I ride all day, I make camp, then the next day I get up and I ride all day, and as the sun is setting I get the edge of my property.”. The Englishman nodded in sympathetic understanding. “Yes,” he replied, “I had a horse like that once.”

Australia is a big place. Big and, for the most part, very sparsely populated. So what does it mean for us to be “The Uniting Church in Australia”?

The Uniting Church, and its parent denominations, have a long and significant history in our relationships with the remote parts of Australia. One important part at that relationship is through the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress representing our indigenous sisters and brothers, who bring into our communities of faith a deep history and knowledge of this land, and a spirituality birthed in a people who understand what it means to be truly rooted in this land.

And alongside that relationship, serving both first and second peoples of remote Australia, are the Bush Chaplains and volunteers of Frontier Services. And today it is to them that we turn for our reflections.

And the readings that Frontier Services chose to highlight this year I guess tell much of the story of what it means to have faith on God in the struggles of remote Australia today.

From Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,

   a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea

We will not fear, though the earth should change.

For those on the land in Australia the mountains may not shake in the heart of the sea, but there is no doubt that the land has changed, and is changing. Drought has always been a feature of the Australian landscape; but the geographic extent, severity, and duration of drought in the past twenty years far exceed anything seen in the previous one hundred and fifty, and show no sign of abating. Climate change is often portrayed as a rallying cry for urban elites, but the truth it is those who live on the land, work the land, who face the daily reality of higher temperatures, more extremes weather events, and deeper and longer droughts.

But thousands of years ago the psalmist already knew what it was to be dependent upon the land and to face the uncertainty of change, and wrote these words:

God is our refuge and strength,

   a very present help in trouble.

We will not fear, though the earth should change.

I love the realism of the psalms, it’s one of their greatest gifts to us. There is no claim here that God will prevent change, no claim that there will not be troubles, not even any particular expectation of what God will do about it: except this: God is our refugee and strength, and is present in our troubles.

The work of the bush chaplains of Frontier Services, and of the volunteers who work with them, the work that we are supporting through our ‘Billy Can’ donations, is to make this promise real; to make it incarnate. Those bush chaplains and volunteers are the very face and hands and feet and listening ears of that promise – a very present help in trouble, a tangible declaration of God’s presence: and not just God’s presence, but the presence of God’s people around the country in whose name they come, the presence of the Uniting Church, and those of other denominations who join in the work alongside our sisters and brothers who face the physical and economic challenges, and the mental health crises that go with them, and too often face them in isolation.

And our second reading takes this same theme on:

God gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless

Once again, no claim that God will solve the problems, no claim that God will take them away: instead the assertion of the prophet is that the presence of God, the power of God, is active in empowering those who call upon God, those who rely upon God, those who place their hope in God.

And then the prophets with those oft quoted, much loved words, words often found on inspirational posters and Bible quote calendars:

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint.

Now I have to admit that for many years I found these words more than a little irritating. For they seemed to me to make a promise that they could not deliver on; that the believer, the woman or man of faith, would be always able to keep on going, would always have the energy they needed – for doesn’t it say just that? They shall run and not grow weary? And I admit I resented this sort of ‘energiser bunny’ image of the life of faith, and the way that it seemed to mean that there was something wrong with saying “you know what, I’d love to do that, but I just really need to take a break right now”. The true believer, they seemed to say, would not need to take that break from God’s work, for they would run and not grow weary.

I remember a couple of years ago hearing a Christian leader reflect on these words, and how they seemed to inspire this attitude – ‘there’s one commandment,’ he said, ‘that Christians seem to not just break, but to boast about breaking – and that is the command to take a sabbath’. We wear our busy-ness like a badge of honour, for are we not running and not growing weary?

But the reading from the prophet says no such thing: indeed, it says almost the opposite. For who is it, who will rise on wings like eagles, who will run and not grow weary? It is those who wait on the Lord, and thus renew their strength. They will run and not grow weary precisely because they have taken the time to wait, to renew their strength.

So we can’t, we mustn’t, hear these words as an encouragement to always keep going, an expectation that we will always have the strength we need. They say, in fact, quite the opposite. That we will need to renew our strength, if we are to run without growing weary. That it is if, and only if, we take the time to wait in the Lord that we will be able to walk, and not grow faint.

Words many of us need to hear – and words that are made real for our remote sisters and brothers by the work of Frontier Services. For keeping going when the drought stretches on and on is a marathon effort, and

Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted

The only way to persevere, the only way to continue to walk and grow faint, is to also know how to wait in the Lord. And those moments of relief, of fellowship, of lifting the burden of loneliness even if just for an afternoon, those are one of the gifts that Frontier Services can offer, with their presence, their helping hand, their listening ear.

The Uniting Church owes a great debt of thanks to those of our forebears who set up the networks of care and support that still operate today: times may have changed, but the fundamental need of those living in remote areas to know that they are connected with others remains ever true. And our Church is a Church for the whole of this ridiculously big nation.