Sermon: Day of Mourning

Sermon for Williamstown
Day of Mourning, 20th of January, 2019

Luke 4:14-21

I need to start today’s sermon by apologising. Those of you who follow the Lectionary might have realised that although we are in the Year of Luke the gospel reading we were meant to have heard today was the story of the wedding at Cana told in the Gospel according to John. Instead I’ve swapped two weeks around and today we heard the Gospel and Epistle readings from next week. (If you didn’t know that, and didn’t notice anything, please ignore this.) The Uniting Church has agreed to commemorate today, the Sunday before Australia Day, as a Day of Mourning. This acknowledges that while for most of us the colonisation of Australia was a very good thing – I for one am very glad that Australia welcomed ten-pound-Poms after the second world war – for the First Peoples of this country colonisation saw their land stolen from them and their culture almost destroyed in ways in which we are only beginning to confess. We cannot celebrate everything that Australia has become without acknowledging the shadow side of our history. This acknowledgement seems to me to be illuminated by the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel according to Luke, the Nazareth manifesto.

The tale Luke tells, of Jesus returning to his home town and reading from a scroll in the synagogue, is also told in the gospels according to Matthew and Mark. In all three gospels Jesus’ return home ends badly, he is rejected by his own people. But only Luke puts this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and only Luke names the scroll from which Jesus was reading. It’s only in Luke that Jesus quotes these great words from Isaiah, editing together two prophecies to make his point:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

As I have said before, and will say so often this liturgical year that you will be sick of it, Luke’s gospel is pre-eminently the gospel for the poor. It is only in Luke that we hear the ‘Woes’ after the Beatitudes, so that we are not just told ‘blessed are the poor’ but also ‘woe to you who are rich’. According to Luke, good news to the poor and oppressed and warnings to the wealthy are at the absolute core of Jesus’ ministry and message. Jesus’ mission as the messiah, the anointed one, is revealing God’s kingdom of peace and justice, and that kingdom is not just a kingdom of spiritual freedom from oppression, but a kingdom of basic, down-to-earth, physical and socio-economic freedom.

The prophecies of Isaiah that Jesus quotes were addressed to the entire nation of Israel. All the people were commanded by God to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into their houses, and to cover the naked. The kingdom of God is the place in which all these things happen; the messiah is the one who initiates it; but that does not mean that human beings can leave it all up to God. Isaiah spoke God’s words to the people of Israel; and in the same way Christians hear Jesus quote the words of Isaiah and know that we, too, are called to share in Christ’s ministry to the world. This is a terrifying responsibility.

It is a responsibility that many Christians failed to live up to over the course of Australia’s modern history. In 1994 a Covenant was signed between the Assembly of the Uniting Church and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. At the making of that Covenant the then-President of the Assembly, Dr Jill Tabart, apologised to the members of the Congress for what had been done to them in the name of Christianity. Among other things she said:

 … we who are non-Aboriginal members of our church grieve with you, our Aboriginal and Islander brothers and sisters. We grieve that the way in which our people often brought the Gospel to your people belittled and harmed much of your culture, and confused the Gospel with western ways. As a result you and we are the poorer and the image of God in us all is twisted and blurred, and we are not what God meant us to be.

We lament that our people took your land from you as if it were land belonging to nobody, and often responded with great violence to the resistance of your people; our people took from you your means of livelihood, and desecrated many sacred places. Our justice system discriminated against you, and the high incarceration rate of your people and the number of Black deaths in custody show that the denial of justice continues today.

Your people were prevented from caring for this land as you believe God required of you, and our failure to care for the land appropriately has brought many problems for all of us.

We regret that our churches cooperated with governments in implementing racist and paternalistic policies. By providing foster-homes for Aboriginal children, our churches in reality lent their support to the government practice of taking children from their mothers and families, causing great suffering and loss of cultural identity. Our churches cooperated with governments in moving people away from their land and resettling them in other places without their agreement.

I apologise on behalf of the Assembly for all those wrongs done knowingly or unknowingly to your people by the Church, and seek your forgiveness. I ask you to help us discover ways to make amends.

In response, the Chairperson of the UAICC, Pastor Bill Hollingsworth, replied:

Your ancestors came to us in different ways and we saw little of our caring God in them. They did not come to us as God’s will would dictate, but to dispossess us, take our children, rape our women, kill our men and boys and destroy our culture, reject our values and beliefs and ultimately claim our lands as their own.

As a direct result of this violent dispossession, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived as strangers and outcasts in their own land.

Whilst the church attempted to stem the decimation of our people and culture by providing missions and sanctuaries, in very many instances it did not attempt to understand our ways, our laws or social and economic structures.

We agree with you that the church, which had a responsibility to be the conscience of the invaders, in many instances relinquished this responsibility and joined with the invaders in a great many atrocities by smoothing the pillow for what was believed to be a dying race. Many of our people look upon the church in our country as condoning what was happening and watched the church stand by as our future was slowly being shortened by westernisation, assimilation and policies of prejudice.

Along with the past governments of Australia, the church is held accountable in our society for the injustices/atrocities inflicted on our people.

Day of Mourning.jpg

Adnyamathahna woman Rev Denise Champion, Pitjantjatjara woman Auntie Mona Olsson,and Canadian First Nations elder Lorna Standingready mourning together at Colebrook Reconciliation Park in Adelaide, a former home for Aboriginal Stolen Generations children (March 2018).

Two years’ later, after the Bringing Them Home report revealed the extent to which Aboriginal children were stolen from their families and communities, the Assembly Standing Committee apologised for the church’s involvement. The ASC said that in many cases the churches and individual Christians thought they were doing the right thing, but that was because they were, as the apology said, ‘blind to the racist assumptions that underlay the policy and practice’.[1] In 2009, the Uniting Church added a Preamble to our Constitution to acknowledge that God was already present in Australia before 1788, that God had not been brought over as a passenger on the First Fleet.[2] And last year the Fifteenth Assembly agreed to commemorate the Sunday before Australia Day January 26 as a Day of Mourning, which is what we are doing today.

All these things, the Covenant, the Apology, the Preamble, the Day of Mourning, are done because as a church we recognise that Jesus calls us to live towards the world he described in the Nazareth Manifesto, a world in which good news is given to the poor, release is proclaimed to the captives, the blind recover their sight, and the oppressed go free. They are also done because we recognise that the words Jesus quoted were words addressed to an entire nation. Even when we as individuals have not been guilty of dispossessing the original owners of the land, stealing children, raping women, killing men and boys, and destroying culture, we are part of the nation that did. We all now live and worship on land taken from the original inhabitants.

Often the Uniting Church is accused of being too political, of politicising a faith that is meant to be spiritual. The people who accuse us of that can’t have read the Gospel according to Luke! Throughout this Year of Luke we will hear a lot more about God’s particular care for the poor and the oppressed, and we will be reminded again and again that following Christ includes doing our part to work towards God’s kingdom in which the longings of the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned are fulfilled. As a church and as individual Christians we are called to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, as Jesus did in that one small, local synagogue in Nazareth. This is the calling into which we have been baptised, and the God who called us is faithful and will not fail us. Amen.

[1] ASC Resolution 96.73; a year later the Assembly affirmed that apology, Eighth Assembly Resolution 97.33.02-11.

[2] Twelfth Assembly Resolution 09.08.02-03.

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