Pentecost 14A/Creation 2A, 2011
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Matthew 18: 23-34

A Liturgy is also available


Some years ago now, the well respected journal New Internationalist
published an article on the state of the global environment.

In part that article said:
“Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of the earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.  The provision of food, fresh water, energy and materials to a growing population has come at considerable cost to the complex system of plants, animals and biological processes that make the planet habitable”
(NI, No. 378. May 2005).

Such warnings were and are not new.
And they continue to be debated, and challenged
by nearly every government on earth.

But do we really see and heed the warnings?
Or dismiss them because we don't believe the science.
Or do they just massage us, washing over us,
because we feel too powerless to go beyond simple acts?

Today we continue our journey into the Season of Creation.
The Season of Creation is an addition to the Lectionary.
Traditionally the church calendar or Lectionary is shaped around three years.
Each year has seven main seasons:
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Pentecost, Lent.
And the rather long general time, called After Pentecost.

This additional season claims some of that After Pentecost time
by designating the sundays in September (the southern hemisphere Spring)
as the Season of Creation.

And each of those four sundays have been given a theme.
This year’s themes are: Forest, Land, Outback and River.

So this is the context for sharing with you all
the concerns expressed in the New Internationalist article.


Today is Land Sunday.  A time to reflect on the land
on which we walk, live, grow things,
plough and mine, are usually buried in,
and unfortunately, often pollute.

In recent years we in Australia  have been made aware of a different understanding of land.
An awareness which comes from 
the indigenous Aboriginal peoples.

As in the past, Aboriginal clans today hold deep religious links with their lands
which were formed in the Dreaming.

The land belongs to the Aborigines and the Aborigines to the land.

As an explanation of their myths instructs us:
“The great ancestral creative beings, who journeyed across the continent at the beginning of time, established the land boundaries between different Aboriginal groups and the sacred sites.  Carrying out ritual obligations at these sacred sites and performing religious ceremonies are the way by which Aborigines feel bound to their lands and protective towards it”
(Marji Hill. Australian Aboriginal Culture 1993).

Aboriginal people do not live on the land.
They live with the land.
They are bound to it by spiritual links.

We now know Aboriginal people
have lived in Australia and the Torres Strait Islands
for more than 40,000 years - probably even longer.

We now estimate that at the time of the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788
there was between 500,000 and a million Aboriginal people in the land.

And we also know that the policy of terra nullius,
or ‘empty land belonging to no one’,
which took effect from the moment Captain Arthur Phillip arrived in 1788,
has severely devastated the Aboriginal peoples
and their traditional lands.

In 1992 the High Court of Australia, in its now famous Mabo decision,
rejected the doctrine of terra nullius as part of Australian law.

Justice William Deane, later to become Governor General, said:
”The doctrine of terra nullius... provided the legal basis for the dispossession of the Aboriginal peoples of most of their traditional lands.  The acts and events by which that dispossession in legal theory was carried into practical effect constitute the darkest aspect of the history of this nation.  The nation as a whole must remain diminished unless and until there is an acknowledgement of, and retreat from, those past injustices...  The lands of this continent were not terra nullius”.

Strong, passionate words from a person who is known universally
as being very compassionate!

There is still much we should know and do and work towards.
Aboriginal peoples in the main remain disenfranchised
because of prevailing attitudes and the exercise of power, others
- governments and people - have over ‘the land’ and our history.

On a Sunday when the theme is ‘Land’
thoughts on reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples
need to be pondered some more, and
continuing dialogue and even compensation, encouraged.

The Revd Dr Djiniyini Gondarra from Galiwin’ku (Northern Territory),
in some wise words, says:
“We, the Aboriginal people, are a gift to the land and to the people who come here.  You who have come these last 200 years are also a gift to us.  Justice, honesty and genuine reconciliation is the result when we have respect and honour for one another”
(Gondarra 1988: 6).


Perhaps there is an echo of all this
in Matthew’s Lectionary story we heard this morning

In the difficult story/parable of the ‘Unforgiving slave’.
But we will not hear this echo if we spiritualise it,
or fail to hear it as a story about power!

The ‘slave’ or high-ranking bureaucrat has power over other subordinates.
He is responsible for collecting tribute from them, as they are from others.
And he has done this very well, using calculating and cunning tactics.

Likewise the bureaucrat’s ‘ruler’ or master,
in a pure display of unfettered power, threatens to totally destroy him
because he has overreached himself
and can’t pay what is immediately due the master.

This scenario is then played out a second time.
But between the bureaucrat and one of his subordinates.

Having been shamed before the master 
he must gain some prestige by exerting power over a subordinate.
That’s our story.
There are several 'twists' or surprises in this story.

The first ‘twist’ comes when the master,
in quite an extraordinary act for any agrarian ruler,
waves a debt of unimaginable proportions.

A second ‘twist’ comes when the bureaucrat, in a similar situation,
does not act as his master does
and therefore brings shame on his master
who now must act to save face .

For all the strength shown in the master’s earlier decision,
the ‘system’ which supports all of them, is unable to show mercy.
So the ‘system’, says the parable,
is not the place to look for a hopeful solution.
Which I guess, is a different interpretation than that usually offered this parable!

However, another ‘twist’ reflected in the story is the storyteller himself
and the story’s openness.  Let me tease this out a bit.

Loyal Rue, professor of philosophy and religion at Luther College, Iowa,
in his book Religion is not about God, suggests that religion
is not about God but about us.

He argues that successful religions are narrative or myth traditions
that influence human nature so we might think, feel, and act in ways
that are good for us, both individually and collectively.

Rue writes:
“Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments.  Religions have always been about this business of adaptation, and they will always remain so” (Rue 2006:1).

Now back to our story.
The third ‘twist’ is the storyteller doesn’t invite the hearer (then or now)
to take sides.  To blame someone.
Instead that storyteller seems to have Jesus
drawing his hearers (and us?) into wrestling with
the larger social and economic inequalities that embrace us all.

We may be willing to ‘bash’ the Banks and their aggressive push for profits.
But are we also able to recognise how we so often live off
the poverty of Asian ‘sweatshops’ and cheap labour?

Open-ended hey...
Reminding us to act in ways that are good for us
both individually and collectively.

Maybe we just need to ponder this story a bit more.


Most Australian Aboriginal leaders feel the ‘system’ does not fill them with hope in the matter of ‘land rights’.
Until recently - the last 25+ years or so - Aboriginal communities have had
neither the resources nor access
to the judicial process, to assert their land claims in the courts.

Because, as we heard echoed in Matthew’s story,
justice questions come from below, not from above.

They are raised by communities and individuals who do not have
social power or a voice within the social system.

If the matter of ‘land’ is to be resolved in Australia,
then the solution will not come from a legal decision,
but from a political one, initiated by the people - you and me.

Saying ‘Sorry’ was certainly the hardest word of all to say
for at least one Australian government prior to 2007.
It upset their perceptions of power – both political and economic.

But grace given and received is the only basis for reconciliation
as we saw and experienced in early 2008 when a new government
did say 'Sorry'.  And the sky didn't fall in!

Justice, honesty and genuine reconciliation
is the result when we have respect and honour
for one another and for the land.

Gondarra, D. 1988.  Father, You Gave Us The Dreaming. Darwin: Published privately.
Hill, M. 1993.
Australian Aboriginal Culture. Canberra: AGPS.
Rue, L. 2005.  Religion Is Not About God. How Spiritual Traditions Nurture our Biological Nature. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.