Search This Blog

Saturday 19 September 2020

The Last Will Be First

 Text: Matthew 20.1-16

On Easter Monday, 1996, at the famous Stawell Gift Athletics Carnival, an extraordinary running race was held. It was the 400m handicap race for women. Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the language of athletics, the word ‘handicap’ does not here refer to a race for people with an identified disability.  It refers, instead, to the practice of spacing the runners out as the race begins so that the ones with the strongest pre-race record start at ‘scratch’, that is, the starting line, and the other, weaker, runners are given a variety of head-starts further along the course. In theory, this means that were everyone to run their personal best times, they would all finish with a dead-heat at the finish line. On this particular occasion one runner, Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman – a sixteen year-old Kuku Yalanji girl from Woorabinda in Queensland - was the only runner to start at scratch, and the next closest runner was placed a full 54 metres ahead of her as the race began.  Some old and grainy footage of that race has been ‘going viral’ on social media over the past couple of weeks and it is worth a look. For it shows the young Cathy Freeman not only catching the field of white runners ahead of her, but also enduring a big shove from one of them as the field passes the 350m mark.  Amazingly, Cathy keeps her form and comes home to win the event by a whisker. 

That Cathy did so, and went on to become both a world and Olympic champion in this same event, is something of a modern miracle. For she is Aboriginal. She belongs to a people whose lands and waterways were stolen at the point of a gun, whose ancestors were massacred, poisoned, raped, shackled, removed from country and kin, enslaved in missions, orphanages and individual homes as domestic servants, and now continue to be the single most disadvantaged ethnic group in the country on any measure. Twice as likely to be living with a disability. 4 times more likely to live with a chronic disease. 4 times more likely to take their own lives. 37 times more likely to be imprisoned than any other Australian. 1000 times more likely to die in police custody. On that Easter Monday in 1996 Cathy was at the back of the line on handicapping. But she was also at the back of the line when it came to the likelihood that she would even be there to compete. That she was able to slip pass every single white runner, including the one who tried to take her out of the race with a physical shove, is absolutely amazing. From last in the race to first. From last in this country to sporting royalty. 

The story we read just now from Matthew’s gospel also talks about the last becoming first. In one of Jesus’ most intriguing parables, he says that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who has a vineyard. The landowner goes out at dawn to the marketplace in town where willing labourers are most likely to gather. He hires those who are there after agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage, a denarius, and they head over the vineyard to pick grapes.  But there are not enough labourers to secure the harvest, so the landowner goes out again at 9, 12, 3 and 5 to hire more workers.  Each are hired on the promise that they will be paid ‘what is right’ for their time. Now, at knock-off time, each of the workers are paid, beginning with the last hired, and finishing with the first. Those hired at the beginning of the day are incensed to learn that all the other workers, even those hired at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, are to be paid the full daily wage, just as they are. They complain bitterly about these latecomers ‘being made equal’ to themselves, even though they have worked longer. But the landowner responds ‘Did you not agree to work for a denarius? That is what you have been paid. Are you calling me evil because I am generous towards these others?’ And so, says Jesus after he tells his story, ‘the last will be first and the first will be last’.

Now. I’ve used this story in bible studies across twenty-five years of ministry, and I can report that almost every white, middle-class, person who hears the story for the first time responds, like clockwork, ‘but that is so unfair!’ This has convinced me that many white-middle class people tend to identify most strongly with the people hired at the beginning of the day. Why? Because they are raised from birth to believe that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, and that justice is primarily about getting what you deserve because of your hard work.  If you work hard, you rightly expect to be rewarded in proportion to the amount of work you have done. Since justice is proportional, it follows that those who work less than you should be paid less than you. Now, if that is what you believe, if life is most properly a meritocracy in which the hardest workers take the lion’s share of the rewards, then the behaviour of the landowner in our parable is guaranteed to offend. For it strikes at the very heart of this white, middle-class, work-ethic.  It questions, and possibly even mocks, that ethic’s certainties about what is fair and what is just.

Of course, if you are white and middle-class, there are probably a lot of things that you cannot see.  You may not be aware, for example, that you have a disability, an ailment that quite a few scholars are calling, very simply, ‘white-blindness’. White-blindness is an incapacity to see what life might be like for people who are not white and middle-class, for people whose very different social location may teach them really quite different lessons about the world and how it works.  For when I, an Aboriginal man, read this parable, I identify not with the people who were hired at the beginning of the day, but with those who were hired at 5 o’clock.  For I know, deep in my marrow, that those who are ready to work at 6am in the morning enjoy a long list of advantages that I simply cannot count on. They, for example, are most likely able-bodied. They are four times as likely as I am to be able-bodied. Which gives them a significant advantage when it comes to being job-ready. The fact that they are ready to work at 6 o’clock in the morning almost certainly means that they also enjoy good mental health.  I, on the other hand, do not. Generations of racism from the most powerful towards my people means that I carry with me a weight that is very, very difficult to slough off. It is difficult to get up each day with a certainly that I will be treated fairly when multiple generations before me were not. And that has been confirmed, many hundreds of times over, in my own experience. Simply by being Aboriginal, I am three times more likely to regularly experience high levels of psychological distress than other Australians, and that makes getting out of bed in the morning quite difficult, sometimes. I won’t go on, but I hope you are getting the picture.

From a biblical studies point of view, it is clear that those who are more latterly hired by the landowner are very likely to have been the most marginalised members of Judean society at the time. Landless peasants who are continually exhausted because most landowners exploit their labour for pittance. Widows or ‘unclean’ women who have no male patriarch to protect them. Aboriginal people like the Canaanite women we encountered in chapter 15, the one whose daughter was tormented by a demon, a demon some scholars happily name ‘colonisation’. And so on.  They are late to marketplace because they have learned – through cold, hard, experience – that there is little to be gained by being there early. They are outcasts, they are rarely picked for the work available, and therefore there is little point in turning up at all.

If you read the parable from that point of view, then the point of the story is not about the proportionality of justice, as white middle-class social programming might suggest. It is not even about a failure of such justice. It is about grace, grace here defined as an excess of loving generosity toward the last and the least.  To all who believe that justice is satisfied by getting what you deserve, this might come as very bad news indeed!  Because if you believe in meritocracy, grace proclaims the very opposite: that it is the last and the least, those who are least deserving in the eyes of the meritocracy, who can expect to receive the love and mercy of the creator and landowner of all the earth.  

For the vast majority of people who live on this planet, who are not white and middle-class, the grace at the heart of the parable is actually the very best of news. For it tells us that while the world run by white people may have forgotten us, if it even acknowledges our existence at all, God has not forgotten us. From the lips of Jesus, the very son of God, we learn that God will take us from our customary place at the very back of the field, and help us along, with Cathy, to the winner’s podium.  The last, those who get barely enough work to get by, will nevertheless be made equal with those who can depend on work every day.

Let’s be clear, however, that none of this happens by magic. Faith will not, for example, immediately deliver the poor and the oppressed to the front of the queue. Faith, rather, will assure the poor one, the enslaved one, that she or he is loved, accepted and free in Christ. And this knowledge, in turn, will give her the confidence and courage to have a go, and keep having a go, even if the chips are down and the system is against you. You know, when Cathy won her gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she had some help. She said that her ancestors rose up from the ground beneath her feet to fill her with the strength and confidence she needed to prevail against the odds. Here Cathy is speaking in an Aboriginal way about the divine. For us, the divine is at work in our ancestors, who live in the earth and flora and fauna, all about us, just as the Holy Spirit lived in Christ and now lives in his church. Cathy is saying, therefore, that the confidence and help of her ancestors filled her with everything she needed to run, and to run without giving up. The divine does not run the race for us. God gives us the power and courage, rather, to finish the race as equal partners in the gospel with all who have had a better start in life. 

For, in the end, it is grace that saves us all, through faith, whether we are at the bottom of the social pile, or in the middle, or at the top. It is not our work, nor our status, as the most powerful would measure it. Such is the way of Christ. Such is the way of the gospel. So, on this Social Justice Sunday I leave you with just two simple challenges. If you are poor, God in Christ has come to raise you up, so trust that his grace will get you there, even to the banqueting halls of heaven. If you are wealthy, then God would have you leave those chains behind for the sake of the poorest and least. For by emptying yourselves of such riches (as Christ did) and sharing your wealth with the least (as Christ did) you will become rich in the eyes of God.

Glory be to God – Creator, Son and Holy Spirit – as in the dreaming, so now, and for ever. Amen.

Garry Worete Deverell
Social Justice Sunday 2020

Tuesday 15 September 2020

On Aboriginality

Yesterday I went for a drive with my extended family in northeast lutrawita (Tasmania) along the coast road between Bridport and tebrikunna (Musselroe Bay), where we were able to clearly see the islands of the Furneaux group to the immediate north. This is a part of the state that I love very much, not least because it was my ancestral home. Like a great many of my contemporary brothers and sisters in the palawa (Aboriginal Tasmanian) community, I am a direct descendent of the trawoolway chieftan and warrior known as Mannalargenna.

As we sped past the sacred mountain, wukalina (Mt William), where the clans traditionally gathered for trade and sacred ceremony, a member of my wife's extended family initiated a conversation about a live dispute between his church and the neighbouring Aboriginal Centre about the placement of a fence. He observed that the Aboriginal community in question was probably made up of people who had come from other parts of the state, because 'there were no Aborigines in our part of Tasmania when the settlers arrived.' I informed him that there were a number of Deverells involved in the palawa community in Burnie, to which he responded (and I quote), 'Oh, the Deverells are as Aboriginal as I am'. Since the ancestry of my wife's family is strictly Scots and German, I assume that what he meant by this is that the Deverells - myself included - are not really Indigenes of Tasmania at all, and that our claims to the contrary are therefore spurious at best.

I have to confess that I was rendered quite speechless. Which is not a condition I am used to. Not at all.

This incident raises, yet again, a question I have been dealing with all of my life. In what sense can a white-skinned and red-headed lad from Sheffield, Tasmania - who, incidently, happens to have an Irish family name - claim to be Aboriginal? If Aboriginality is not primarily about the colour of one's skin and the keeping-intact of traditional european notions of blood and ancestry, then what could possibly remain?

I will not, here, rehearse the history of colonialism in Tasmania. Others have done that very well - Lyndall Ryan, James Boyce and Henry Reynolds amongst them. I simply want to summarize what these scholars, amongst many others, have concluded: that Aboriginal identity in not primarily about the dominance of a particular biological inheritance over and against others; nor is it about the preservation of a particular, primitive and tribal, way of life. Aboriginal identity is about the perseverance of a sense of spiritual connection to particular places and the kin (animal, plant and human) that belong to that place, and this over and against the will of a dominant culture and society that has demonstrably sought to erase such things. Given the devastating success of the colonizing will, especially in places like Tasmania and Victoria, this means that Aboriginality is most often preserved in the form of a memory and a deep-down sorrow pertaining to what has been lost or stolen - land, kin, spirituality - a sorrow that is manifested in various forms of grief and mourning, but also in the search for a justice in which these things might be returned, or at least acknowledged as having been stolen, along with appropriate gestures towards repentance and recompense.

My own Aboriginal identity is manifested, I believe, in the way I look at the landscape of lutrawita. What I see and the way I see it is very, very different to the way in which my in-laws see it. As we drove along the coast-road yesterday, my father-in-law very often spoke of the productivity of the farmland, the breed of the dairy-herds, the people he knew who were, or had been, engaged in the mining and farming of the land. He spoke with the pride of a family that had come from the other side of the world and made itself prosperous by the sweat of its collective brow. It was a discourse of celebration.

What I saw and felt could not be more different. I saw a land that was filled with older memories and songlines. At each creek I imagined a small group of kin searching for swan's eggs. At each open plain I saw men chasing parlevar (kangaroos and wallabies) with spears. As we passed wukalina I imagined the ecstasy of dancing out the dreaming stories of our tribe, the shrewdness of trade, the skill of legal and theological storytelling and dispute. When we stopped by the bay, I saw women diving for shellfish, and fires on the beach around which proud families gathered to consume stories and news along with their food. I also felt the loss of these things: the drying-up of foodstocks as new 'settlers' pushed up the rivers; the hunting and stealing of people and of land; the agonizing deaths wrought by new diseases. I looked across the straits at the Islands and saw the devastation on my ancestor Manalargenna's face as he realized he was been consigned, along with the peers he had sought to rescue, to the world of the dead.

This is a sensibility that I wish I could successfully share with my in-laws and the wider community. I have tried to do so in various ways across a number of years. But I fear I have failed, for the look of incomprehension so often remains, even after telling my stories many times over.

Garry Deverell

An expanded version of this reflection can be found in my book Gondwana Theology: a trawloolway man reflects on Christian Faith (Melbourne: Morning Star Press, 2018).

Sunday 13 September 2020

The Paradox of Forgiveness

Text: Matthew 18.21-35

On August 22 in 2005 an extraordinary rite of mutual forgiveness was simultaneously enacted in the English city of Coventry and the German city of Dresden.  The English ceremony took place at Coventry Cathedral which, on the 14th of November 1940, was destroyed by German bombs.  The German ceremony took place at the newly restored Frauenkirche, which was destroyed by English bombs on the 13th of February 1945.  For the blindness which led to their mutual destruction of each other in the 2nd World War, the German worshippers sought forgiveness from the English, and the English worshippers sought forgiveness from the German.  Real forgiveness, as we learn from the parable in today’s gospel, is hard. It cannot be granted without an acknowledgment of real guilt or a commitment, from the parties who have breached the relationship, that they we seek to make amends as best they can. So the liturgies at Coventry and Dresden did not shy away from covering that territory.  The words that were spoken on that day were the result of many meetings, over many years, between representatives of the Christian communities in both cities. For this was no small thing. The bombing of Coventry was part of a campaign explicitly designed to kill people—women, men and children—and so to cower them into submission and surrender.  The Dresden bombing took place when the war was all but over.  It is widely acknowledged that there was not even a strategic military reason for the bombing, which levelled Dresden and killed 40 000 people. The motive was revenge. It was humbling to be in Dresden on August 13th of 2005 to hear a local Catholic priest tell us, with tears, how much it meant to him, and to the people of Dresden, that my colleagues and I should come to Dresden to reflect with them on the forgiveness at the heart of our shared gospel.

The crimes committed in the 2nd World War were, you see, not only crimes committed by one group of human beings against another.  They were also crimes committed by one group of Christians against another.  Most of the soldiers, sailors and airmen involved in the conflict were Christians—Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, Orthodox and Roman Catholic—Christians who were killing each other not for Christ, but for territorial Empire.   What the Second World War highlighted, graphically and tragically, was not only the inhumanity of men and women towards other men and women, but also the lack of true peace or reconciliation at the heart of European Christianity.  

Turning now to today’s gospel reading, I’d like you to note just two things.  First, that Peter’s question about forgiveness is not occasioned by the misdeeds of someone beyond the community of faith.  Peter asks how many times he is called to forgive a member of his own church.  “Seventy-times-seven” times, says Jesus, or, if I may translate, as many times as is necessary for the sake of reconciliation.  For what is the church if not a reconciled community, a community that is able to live at peace with itself in spite of all the sins of its members?  What is the church if its members cannot forgive each other as Christ has forgiven them?  If the church cannot do this, then it is not the church.  It is nothing more than a sociological or political reality where birds of a feather flock together.  If a church’s members cannot live with each other’s differences and forgive each other’s sins, then we are nothing more than a social club, gathered around the very ghettos of race, class or gender that Christ came to overcome.  

People sometimes ask me why I am still part of the church, especially given the church’s participation in the genocide against my people.  The people who ask are usually those who have been wounded by the church, people who feel that the church has let them down or, at least, undervalued what they had to contribute.  My reply usually goes something like this:  the scandal of the gospel is that Christ, who had no sin, yet became sin for our sake.  He took on the flesh of people who hate and kill each other.  By doing so, he loved and accepted our fragile humanity.  He forgave our sins and made reconciliation possible.  Who am I, then, to pretend that I am somehow superior to anyone else in the church?  The church can only exist by forgiveness.  How can I, who have been forgiven my sins by both Christ and my sisters and brothers, refuse to forgive the church?  I cannot. 

That does not mean, of course, that we should forgive each other’s sins willy-nilly, whether there are any true signs of repentance or not. Expecting victims to forgive a perpetrator who shows no signs of remorse and no willingness to change their behaviour is simply to reinforce the power of perpetrators, and does nothing for victims except to retraumatise and preserve them in their victimhood. Last week’s reading, from earlier in this same chapter of Matthew, should make that clear. The one who has clearly and incontrovertibly sinned against another needs to repent and amend their lives if they are to retain their membership of the church. For where there is, in fact, true repentance and amendment of life, true forgiveness also becomes possible.  Without it, though, forgiveness should remain forever off the table.

Which brings me to the second thing I would like you to notice about today’s gospel passage: that forgiveness is only possible for people who are willing, themselves, to forgive.  That’s the point of the story about the forgiven slave who cannot forgive his brother, is it not?  Although the king, out of sheer mercy, had forgiven his unpayable debt, the slave was not able to do the same for a brother who owed him something.  So the king threw the unmerciful slave into prison.  Now, some of you, I know, will think this very harsh.  Perhaps some of you will even get a little theological and say that this story encourages a gospel of works because what it says, in the end, is that it is our capacity to forgive that ultimately earns God’s forgiveness.  Well, to that I would reply in the classically reformed way:  that our capacity to forgive another does not earn God’s forgiveness, but rather shows that we are people who have truly experienced the power and truth of forgiveness ourselves.  Only the person who knows that they can never repay the debt owed to God, only the person who knows themselves to be loved and forgiven it all, would possibly be able to forgive the crimes of his or her brother.  If we do not know this, deep in our bones, perhaps we have never experienced the true power of forgiveness?

At a human rights conference at Whitley College in 1997, in the midst of lots of grand speeches about the call to justice and reconciliation, I met a man named Retosa.  At lunch one day, I asked him where he was from, and what he did all day.  His reply showed me what forgiveness really looks like, in practice. Restosa was from Liberia, and what he did all day was this:  gathering families who had killed each other’s children during the first civil war (1989-1997) together into a room to confess their sins and learn the journey towards forgiving one another.  “Only the person who knows the depth of their crime, and the amazing liberation that is possible because of God’s forgiveness, could possibly summon the courage to forgive such crimes from the heart” said Retosa.  Perhaps that is why this extraordinary work is being undertaken by a Christian pastor rather than a social worker.

Allow me to summarise what we have noticed in this way.  (1) That the church is called to be a community of reconciliation.  (2) That our capacity to be that community is directly related to the extent to which our sins, which are many, are forgiven in Christ.  And, finally, this:  (3) that Christ’s forgiveness comes alive in the world only where the church knows itself to be a community of forgiven sinners.  For that, my friends, is what all that talk in Matthew about binding and loosing is all about (see 18.18-20).  Christ will only do in the world what his church is willing to do.  For we are his body, in whom the Spirit of Christ faces this world.  What we do, or do not do, is what Christ himself does.  Such is Christ’s vulnerability.  Such, then, is our responsibility.  

The paradox of forgiveness is this, then:  that we are forgiven only insofar as the truth of our own forgiveness has so penetrated our hearts that we are able to regard others, also, with mercy and grace.  May God help us to repent, and amend our lives, and forgive those who trespass against us, as God in Christ has forgiven us.

Let me finish with a prayer, the litany of reconciliation from Coventry Cathedral:

‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
    Father forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
    Father forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
    Father forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
    Father forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
    Father forgive.
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
    Father forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
    Father forgive.

‘Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’

Garry Worete Deverell