Readings Joshua 6:12-21 and Matthew 15:21-31
We heard two stories involving Israelites and Canaanites and I wonder, where you think you might be in both of those stories?
We are continuing our series on Why We Do What We Do, exploring the building blocks of our Sunday service, and though we have been working backwards through the service – this week, because it is NAIDOC week, we are going to disrupt that procession and ask, why we do what we do, in terms of opening our service with an acknowledgment of country.
This week I got to hear a lecture from the Black American theologian Willie James Jennings. He mentioned how he used the story of the Canaanite woman in workshops at churches and asked our opening question to them – where are you in the story? The answer, typically, was in the position of Jesus, or perhaps, as the disciples with Jesus, but unlike the other disciples we would actually be leaning over to Jesus and telling him to be nicer to this poor woman. Against this Prof Jennings points out, that we (gentiles in the church) are her, we are the Canaanite woman – she, indeed is the mother of the gentile church.
Jesus makes it clear in this passage, he has come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The only way it is shown in the gospels for a Gentile to get Jesus to listen and respond is to take drastic action to show that you are ready to stand with and learn from the house of Israel.
The Canaanite woman calls Jesus “Son of David” – a Jewish term, one she must have learnt. She also enters into a practice of midrash and argument with Jesus, engaging his claim as a rightful starting point but challenging its end – not by virtue of her own status, but by appealing to the nature of God’s superfluous love and mercy, able to spill over any table. In another story a Gentile Centurion asks for his slave to be healed. And yet it is not even he who comes to Jesus, indeed he notes that he is not worthy for Jesus to come under his roof – rather it is the local Jewish elders who appealed to Jesus earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ The Gentile centurion is recognised for his solidarity and material/religious provision for the people of Israel, and this, coupled with his trust that Jesus is able to heal without even coming to his unworthy house, that leads to the one in his care being healed.
The church (we Gentiles) are those who have (to use Paul’s language) been grafted onto God’s story with Israel. We are the ones who receive a spirit of adoption, and set on a process of learning what it means to be a people of God. Our status is one of gifted, grafted, and guest. This reality should not cause us anxiety or resentment about not being first, rather it is a reminder of the extraordinary scope of God’s love and grace, a capacious embrace if ever there was one!
Unfortunately, what evolved in the church - fuelled by anxiety and resentment - was an attitude by which we saw ourselves as a replacement of Israel – as those who have now taken centre-stage in the story of God in the world, as those with nothing to learn. This, allowed the church to see itself as a new Israel, and adopt Israel’s narrative of entering the Promised Land as our own.
The narrative of the Promised Land waiting to be taken by a new Israel, fuelled especially the colonisation of the Americas, but it played a part too in the colonisation of these lands (appearing especially in advertising aimed at luring people to make the journey here from Europe). Israel’s apparent justification by God to use horrendous violence to take the Promised Land from the Canaanites was appropriated and used to justify violence and dispossession against the Indigenous peoples of these lands. This was then coupled with the centring of the church to create a posture in which we had nothing to learn from the Indigenous people – least of all, anything to learn from them about God. Instead, the church believed it was their responsibility to make the Indigenous people as much like them as possible – and the horrific effects and ongoing intergenerational trauma of this project are well known. NAIDOC in part, celebrates that this project was unable to be run to completion – people, the culture, the connection to country survived. The hope now is that it can be nourished, supported, and enabled to flourish. With greater efforts been made to address inequality, injustice, and to restore land rights, self-determination, and sovereignty.
This is then, in part, why we begin our services with an acknowledgment of country. The acknowledgement serves to tell the truth of the land on which we gather (and as those who follow Jesus, the truth incarnate, truth-telling is never a bad idea). It is a protocol of respect and dignity. The acknowledgment also serves, in its own small (and ultimately insufficient way) to ground larger decisions our church has taken in our local context (resolutions to recognise the unceded sovereignty of Indigenous peoples, or the covenant with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, or the preamble to our church’s constitution which recognises the historic presence of God in these lands, revealed in law, custom, and dreaming).
But, in light of our readings today, the acknowledgment also serves to help us repent of the way the church supported colonisation and land theft. Further, it is also there at the start of the service to posture ourselves toward a self-understanding of guest in the story of God. To help us to know ourselves as those grafted into God’s story with Israel as well as those who have entered into the God’s story in these lands, a story that should centre the Indigenous peoples/nations.
This decentring of the church is performed that we might learn to be guests here, to listen and learn from those God entrusted this land. That we might listen and learn, not only how to live in this land, but also about God. That we might learn about the nourishing, intimate, and powerful presence of God – might learn of the way God is named, narrated in story, dance, landmark, and song in these lands. Might learn more about the God who, in Jesus Christ, embodied such bountiful grace and power that even the scraps that fell from the table were enough to bring life!
The acknowledgment of country opens the service to ground us in the story of God in Scripture and the story of God in the history of these lands. It is not something to awkwardly pass through on the way to real worship, rather it is an act of confession, truth-telling, and – fundamentally – hope! Hope that God is able to do a new thing! Hope that God is able to and is already bringing justice, and healing, and wholeness. That God is bringing and will bring restoration and repair – and that we – those grafted into the story of God – that we in faithfulness to Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit, are blessed to be included in that work; joyfully living for love and justice, to the glory of God and peace in these lands.
Image credit: NAIDOC Week 2022 official poster, Ryhia Dank
Ryhia Dank, a young Gudanji/Wakaja artist from the Northern Territory is the winner of the prestigious National NAIDOC poster competition for 2022 with her entry, Stronger.
“I created this piece after reading this year’s National NAIDOC Week theme – Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! I knew straight away I wanted to do a graphic piece centred around our flags with text highlighting what we have been through and are still fighting for” said Ryhia. “I feel that this piece being black and white allows us to focus on the details and messages in the artwork”
To find out more about the poster and NAIDOC Week 2022, visit here.
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