The earliest inhabitants of the area now covered by the City of Port Phillip were the Yalukut Weelam, one of the five clans of the Boon Wurrung, known as the coastal tribe, and who were members of the Kulin nation, the sovereign First Peoples of this place.
We honour their elders past, present and emerging together with all descendants of this Nation, We acknowledge their call to be a people of Law, land and culture, cared for these lands and waters since creation.
We remember the tragic history of our nation and the violent dispossession of her First Peoples.
The Uniting Church has a day of Mourning. Today we mark in lament the truth of our shared history and we lift up to God our prayers for First Peoples and our nation.
We say sorry and we pray for forgiveness, healing and hope. But today is also a day of worship. So we come together and give thanks to God for the abundant grace and liberating hope which we know through Jesus Christ and which is for all people.
The Sermon of Rev Rob Hoskin
I began worship by stating that the Uniting Church has called us to a Day of Mourning, to lament the ongoing effects of Colonisation on the Aboriginal and Torres Straits people of Australia.
With this topic in mind, I want to share what it meant for me to participate in four days with an international school of theological studies called NAIITS where we focused on an Introduction to Indigenous Theology. There were three major differences to this course and this learning to any theological education that I might have had in the past.
FIRST, the 30 or more participants in the course who gathered at the Salvation Army College in Ringwood were mainly Indigenous peoples from all over Australia. I, as a non-Indigenous person, was in the minority. As the facilitator Terry LeBlanc, a native American from Canada explained, this is radically different to past Theology courses when Indigenous people were in the minority. To be in the minority is to have little power to speak and to be heard. NAIITS seeks to redress this imbalance.
SECOND, the content and themes of the course were geared to the needs of Aboriginal people, helping to reassert their culture and ethos rather than a Western Christian package given to them in the past. This package often labelled Aboriginal people in negative ways and alienated them from their land and culture.
THIRD, as Western theology said little about God’s revelation in and through the land, Aboriginal people and their culture were naturally not included in the conversation.
I want to briefly give you a picture of what it meant for me as a Whitefella to take part in this shared exploration of our Christian heritage. But first some words on the Gospel.
You heard the story of calling of the disciples. This story is common to each of the four Gospels. What you may not realise is that each Gospel writer takes the bare bones of Jesus calling the disciples and adds details that are relevant for the community to which he is writing. Let’s explore this in a little detail:
For Mark, Jesus meets Simon later to be called Peter, and brother Andrew, as they worked on the Lake, said Come follow me, and we read they followed him at once. It could have been here on the Lake which I visited last February. (photo of Lake Galilea)
Matthew and Luke take the event a little further:
Matthew adds the words, I will send you out to fish for people, while Luke takes the story to a new level, adding extra detail such as two boats, and adding the story of the miraculous catch. Luke takes the story into the spiritual realm with the disciples bowing down in wonder and awe. Here we catch a glimpse of the risen Jesus.
And now we come to John: Here it is John the Baptist who points out Jesus to Andrew saying this is the lamb of God, a foretaste of one of the major themes in the Gospel, the glory revealed in Jesus’ crucifixion. (picture of the sacrificial lamb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre)
The point that I want to make is simple: if the Gospels were written to tell the story of Jesus in different ways to different communities, so it is very important to acknowledge that this great story will be told and heard differently by different people around the world.
With this understanding, I want to share a few details about the course which had its focus on revelation: how can we know God in our contemporary world?
In the past, Christian missionaries and the church at large placed little emphasis on creation. For example, last year we took 24 people to visit Kunmunya a remote place in the Kimberley where missionaries contacted the Worrorra peoples. One of the first buildings to be erected was a church. Then later when the people were shifted down the coast to Old Mowanjum near to Derby, again the missionaries pushed for the building of a more substantial church. They did this because they believed that God is found in a sacred building. The missionaries thought in terms of sacred and profane, so that God was either up there in heaven, or resident in the sacred building. Aboriginal people do not have the same dichotomy between sacred and profane, nor would see God in a building. God is revealed in the land. Terry Le Blanc, our facilitator reminded us of Job 12: the animals on the land and the fish in sea will teach Job of the glory and wonder of God. This is what Aboriginal people would think for God was as much in the land and the creatures of the land as in heaven.
We recalled Paul’s word in his letter to the Romans: 1: 20 For since the beginning of creation God’s divine powers have been clearly seen in what God has made.
Many early missionaries thought that they were bringing God to Australia as if the people did not know God. This was an untruth, for as my dear Brother Eddie who died last year continually reminded me, the people knew God revealed through the land and in their law. All the missionaries did was to remind them of what they were already aware.
Yet, you could ask, “and what is this revelation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus?”
Aboriginal people such as my friend Eddie knew Jesus as the one who changed is life. He was a living reality in his life.
And in like manner, Terry focussed on that revelation that occurs in the Christian story.
The problem is that the missionaries and Christian church presented this story in terms of their culture, expecting Aboriginal and other Indigenous peoples to be civilised, that is to become like White people before they could become Christians. This is a polite way of saying it. At times our Christian church treated the people as savages or worse, seeing them as fallen creatures needed to be lifted up by the Gospel message.
Worse, the message was often influenced by Genesis 3 and fall, focusing on what was wrong with Aboriginal people and their culture rather than what was right.
As l listened to participants sharing in the four days, I was struck by so many stories of Aboriginal people seen as second-class citizens in Christian churches. For many participants there seemed to a dissonance between what Christians said of Jesus, and their behaviour toward Aboriginal people. They would hear the call not to steal; yet watch as the church said little when government and pastoralists stole their land, their children and their culture.
Yet, despite all the atrocities of the past, Aboriginal people have remained faithful to the Gospel, and focus on the story of Jesus.
So, Terry our facilitator led us through an array of New Testament references to assert the authority of the first leaders sharing the story of Jesus: Peter one of the first disciples called to this task, and Paul later called by Jesus on the Damascus road.
I was both challenged and uplifted in this process. On the one hand, I found it challenging to hear the weight given to the New Testament story and witness. Terry argued that in his culture, one would accept and tell the story as it was, asserting the authority of the ancestors who told the story in the first place.
Peter, Paul and the various writers of the story were the original storytellers and from his point of view they were closer to Jesus than we, and thus their account could be trusted, particularly when it comes to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As much as I affirm this way of seeing the Gospel and the story, I am trained to be critical of the Biblical text. I was left wondering what to do with some parts of the Gospel story which I think were artistic additions rather than historic happenings. I could go into the Virgin birth and other birth stories for instance.
Yet, when this is set aside, I listened to the story of Jesus afresh and met a living master, who can transform people’s lives. The New Testament witness is to the risen Jesus who is there to transform the lives of those who are called to follow him.
I listened to many stories people who were transformed by this meeting with Jesus. And I appreciate that our Western progressive and critical approach to the Gospel may be inappropriate for helping people to meet this Jesus.
I am conscious that I have only given you a glimpse of what it meant to take part in this unique encounter with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as they explored issues of theology and revelation.
The church came under fire, and at times I would have like to defend the actions of the Uniting Church. Yet, this was not the time for defending our past, rather of listening deeply to stories of how people had been hurt by the church, for whether we like it or not the past is still present and we have to take this into consideration as we prepare for the future.
I am convinced that NAIITS is God’s way of leading Indigenous people to find empowerment in the Gospel as they gather to tell the story in their culture and context. One of the many joys of the four days was to spend an hour or so going through a paper paragraph by paragraph with Victor, who was Eddie Mabo’s nephew. I would hear him discover what it meant for the Christian church to come to his people and argue that the language and the culture be set aside in favour of them becoming like White people, adopting white culture as they adopted the Gospel. Now, I could see him, as I saw many others finding strength in the Gospel as it was shared in their terms.
I think that this is the beginning of a new stage in our journey with Indigenous people. They are finding their voice in all kinds of ways, both theological and secular. It is up to us in the mainline church to encourage this development and listen to what they will discover. If only we had done this in the early days of colonisation, Australia would have been a different place.
If you are interested to engage this unique group of people, there is a seminar next weekend to which you are most welcome.