An Advent sermon. Aboriginal land and the Uniting Church’s covenanting process.

An Advent sermon presented to the West End Uniting Church, December 15 2013.

(The original sermon included a commentary on James 5:7:11 in accord with the church lectionary readings for the week but it is of only tangential relevance to the substance of the sermon so I have left it out)

Advent is the time when we prepare to celebrate the festival of the birth of Jesus and a time when we prepare for the incoming of God’s kingdom in all its glory.

Jesus is the liberator who brings good news to the poor, release for the captive and liberation for the oppressed.

Advent is a season of expectantly waiting, let us expect Jesus the liberator and in terms our covenanting process, let us expect liberation and justice for Aboriginal people.

The constitution of the Uniting Church states –

The First Peoples (Aboriginal people) had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers. The Spirit was already in the land (this land Australia) revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.

(Theresa Creed presentation of Kalkadoon traditional dance)

The bible is Tribal!

Jesus was a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, of the branch of Jesse and of the House of David. He has traditional land rights by way of his ancestors’ covenant with God and by way of his circumcision.

The book of Matthew’s nativity story begins with Jesus’ ancestral genealogy. The birth of Jesus cannot be understood without understanding his connection to his ancestors, or at least that is how the writer of the book of Matthew saw it.

The old and new testaments were written by tribal indigenous Hebrews.

Since the Christian church became an agency of the Roman empire, the Holy Roman empire and the Christian kingdoms of Europe it has tended not to see the indigenous connection to land embedded so deeply in the old and new testaments.

In your bible reading I urge you to re-imagine the stories as being written by, about and for indigenous people. Although it may be hard to imagine this, this is what the bible really is. It is the tribal indigenous Hebrew dreaming stories.

Luke 4 16 – 21

16 And Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read;  and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.

He opened the book and found the place where it was written, (Isaiah 61) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The acceptable year of the Lord proclaimed by Jesus and Isaiah is the Jubilee year, described in Leviticus 25 as the year when all debt is abolished, all slaves are freed and all land is returned to its traditional owners. The Jubilee is the centre-point of the Sabbath calendar. Every seven days the land and the people rest. Every seven years the land rests for a whole year. Every seven times seven years the Jubilee year is proclaimed and the land and the people are restored to their original right relationship with each other.

The Jubilee restores the tribes of Jacob with their ancestral land.

Joshua 11: 23 So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. 
 Then the land had rest from war.

The land rights and the peace of Joshua’s original tribal division of land is the Jubilee proclaimed by Isaiah and Jesus.

Today’s Advent theme is joy

Today’s lectionary reading is Isaiah 35. It is a utopian vision of the land itself rejoicing at the return and healing of its traditional custodians, the people of Abraham’s covenant.

35 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,[a]
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it,[b]
and fools shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah’s utopian vision was in the context of war and despair. The once unified tribes of Jacob had now formed into two warring kingdoms, the Northen Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. As well as being at war with each other they are at war with the Assyrian, Phoenician and Babylonian empires as well as neighboring kingdoms such as Edom. The first half of Isaiah, that Isaiah 35 is a part of, is about the imminent defeat of Israel and Judah and the second half is after the defeat when Israel and Judah are plundered and taken captive. Isaiah 61, that Jesus quotes in Luke 4, is in the latter part.

In Isaiah 35 the land is not just productive and abundant but it is actually happy. It is happy because its people are healing, the blind are seeing, the lame are walking and so on. The end of Isaiah 35 speaks of a Holy Highway upon which the tribes of Jacob will return to their holy land and sacred sights.

There is a background story to the Holy Highway and there is a clue to that story in Isaiah 34, the preceding chapter, that describes the destruction of the Kingdom of Edom. Edom was an enemy of the Kingdom of Judah and its immediate neighbor to the south. Edom supported the armies of Babylon to defeat and capture Judah but was then itself concquerd and enslaved by Babylon. But long before that, when Moses was leading the Israelites to the promised land of Abraham’s covenant, the Kingdom of Edom would not allow Moses and the Israelites to pass through its land in order to reach Jerusalem from the south. Edom threatened to kill the Israelites if they attempted to pass so Moses lead the people around the eastern side of the Jordan and lake Galilee and entered the holy land from the north.

Edom blocked the highway into Jerusalem and prevented the Israelites from returning to their sacred sites. The destruction of Edom, as described in Isaiah 34, opened up the holy highway for the tribes of Jacob to return.

There are common themes in Isaiah 35, Isaiah 61 and Luke 4. Isaiah 35 speaks of the healing of the people and their return on the Holy Highway to their sacred sites. Isaiah 61 and Jesus speak of the healing of the people and the Jubilee, the return of ancestral land to its custodians. They all speak of healing and the reunification of the tribes of Jacob with their ancestral land.

Isaiah and Jesus also speak of restoring sight to the blind.

In Isaiah 35 the land will rejoice at the return and healing of the traditional custodians.

This land Australia, the earth beneath the floorboards, will also rejoice and be abundant when its custodians are returned and healed.

This is the relevance of Jesus the liberator to our covenanting process

What is the Uniting Church’s Covenanting process?

The covenanting process began in 1994 but it evolved from the Aboriginal reconciliation process within the Uniting church. It is an attempt to establish a right relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people in the Uniting Church and broader society.

There is no covenant as in a legal document or treaty. There is a document that acknowledges a spiritual covenant relationship between the National Assembly of the Uniting Church and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. The covenanting document is two independent statements made in 1994, the first is a statement from the Assembly to the Congress and the second is Congress’s response to the Assembly.

I urge you to read the two statements in full because they cover a lot of ground and have a lot of implications. The following is my attempt to put it into a nutshell in my own words –

Assembly says to Congress –

a/ they acknowledge the church’s direct involvement with land theft, violence, desecration of sacred sites, implementing racist and paternalistic policies, stealing children, moving people off their land,

b/ they apologise, seek forgiveness and asks for help to find ways to make amends

c/ they commit to make amends and to work for justice for Aboriginal people

Congress responds to Assembly –

a/ It easserts the wrongs that the church has done to Aboriginal people and affirms that it is right for the church to repent.

b/ It says because the church today reminds Aboriginal people of the church of the past and because there is much anger and resentment towards European people, forgiveness cannot happen without a commitment to work towards justice and a new relationship

c/ Congress Invites Assembly to “develop a new relationship by entering into the struggle of those issues that presently are the cause of continuing injustice resulting in broken relationships.” (quote is wording of document)

The 1994 process began discussions at the highest level of Assembly and Congress to properly incorporate Congress into the structure and authority of the church and transferring some real estate. This high level process continued until 2009/10 when the constitution of the Uniting church was amended to incorporate Congress and the covenanting process into the law of the church. The preamble of the church was also amended to acknowledge the past wrongs of the church and to affirm the integrity of Aboriginal spirituality.

In 2007 Assembly and Congress co-produced the “Building Partnerships” process that was designed to involve congregations and church groups into the covenanting process at a grass roots community level. The West End congregation engaged in this process in 2009/10.

All this, the 1994 covenating statements, the changes to the constitution and the “Building Partnerships” program, is what the Uniting Church calls the covenanting process

When Isaiah and jesus speak of sight for the blind, I have no doubt that they were in part speaking of eye disease which is a common problem in poor communities and was most probably a serious problem amongst the disposessed peasants and urban slaves of Jesus times. The work of Fred Hollows and the Free Hollows foundation has highlighted the problems of poverty and eye disease and has indeed restored the sight and brought good news to the poor.

However the bible also speaks often of spiritual blindness and I also have no doubt that Isaiah and Jesus were in part speaking of spiritual blindness.

Jesus says in Matthew 23:25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. 26 You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Jesus says the Pharisee was blind but I do not think he was referring to eye disease.

The covenanting statements and even the constitution of the Uniting Church acknowledges the role that churches played in the invasion, genocide, colonisation, disposession and ongoing disadvantage of Aboriginal people.

Good Christian people and Christian churches engaged in the most terrible evil. What better term could be used to describe the church’s role in colonisation than “spiritual blindness”. Obviously good Christian people were spiritually blind to the evil they were doing, blind to God in this land, blind to God’s relationship to the people of this land.

But now the church sees.

In the past the churches have demonised Aboriginal law, custom and ceremony but now the Uniting Church’s constitution acknowledge that God is revealed in Aboriginal custom, law and ceremony.

The church was blind but now it sees.

The covenant is evidence of the blind receiving sight.


Jesus is the liberator. He brings good news to the poor release to the captive, sight to the blind, liberation for the oppressed and the reunification of the land with its custodians in healing, peace and prosperity.

In the desolation of Isaiah’s times or the colonial domination of New Testament times or the lives of dispossessed Aboriginal refugees in their own land here today, Jesus means liberation.

He releases Aboriginal people from the chains of colonial power. He releases the European church from the same chains of its own blind history.

(Theresa – Redemption Song)

John Tracey


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