​The plaque installed at St Jude's

Sermon preached by the Revd Canon Dr Peter Adam at a Thanksgiving Service at St Jude’s Carlton for the Indigenous Custodians of the land. Reading – Colossians 1:9-23

It is a pleasure and privilege to be invited to speak here today. I honour the Wurundjeri people who are present, I honour the people of St Jude’s for this event, and I honour our guests and visitors on this occasion.

I moved to this area of the Yarra Valley in 1982, and I remember thinking how beautiful it must have been before the British arrived. Remove what architects call the built environment, remove the roads and pavements, restore the landscape, try to recover the original plants, animals, birds and fish: how delightful it must have been, under the custodianship of the Wurundjeri peoples.

Western society seems to like changing environment to assert ownership: a kind of structural graffiti. How can begin the think about the significance of all the changes we brought, not least to the indigenous custodians of this land?

Let’s begin with the big picture. Paul gives it to us in Colossians chapter 1, the reading for today.

The big picture is this: God made the world through his beloved Son, who was the image of the invisible God: ‘All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’

So the first fundamental reality about this world is that God made it through his Son, who later came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth, ‘in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. We live in a world that is made by God through Christ, that is made for Christ, and that holds together in Christ. Firstly, finally and inescapably, all of us belong to him, and everything belongs to him. We are only custodians of what he gives us, and are always responsible to God and to Christ for all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do.

And yet is we see so clearly that it is not the best of all possible worlds, it is constantly marred and spoilt by humans in many different ways. Our great dignity and responsibility as humans made in God’s image means that we can do great damage, as well as great good. It means that we can do damage unintentionally as well as intentionally, and we can get caught up in great human movements that cause damage beyond our imagining.

So the second fundamental reality about this is world is that God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ ‘to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross’.

And if this is God’s world, Christ’s world, how does God want us to structure our lives individually and collectively? One significant duty given us by God is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ That is, don’t put your own needs above those of your neighbour.

When I was young, I used to think that I would like to be Prime Minister, so I could pass a law which said that everyone had to be kind. Would that life was that easy!

And to preserve this love of neighbour, which Christ described as one of the two great commandments, here is another command: You shall not steal: so that your neighbour might live without loss or injury caused by you. Not stealing is basic to loving our neighbour. You shall not steal: one of the ten commandments given by God.

To wonder Paul teaches elsewhere that the thief should no longer steal but rather work in order to give to those in need.

This city was named after Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister of England from 1834-41.

Lord Melbourne is famous for his opinion of those who tried to put Christianity into practice. He said, ‘Things have come to a pretty pass if religion is going to interfere with daily life’.[1]

Love your neighbour: You shall not steal: the clear command of God. And yet stealing has been part of the fabric of Australian society since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Here are three grim realities.

  1. The first grim reality is that most of the convicts brought here by the British government had stolen. Most were thieves.[2] They may not have stolen very much, but the Government of the day decided that stealing was wrong, and was such a serious offence, that it justified transporting men women and children half way around the world to penal colonies here in Australia. They had the distinction of being picked by the best judges in England, and another distinction of extreme punishment for relatively minor crimes. But the government of the day regarded property as sacred, and so imposed great penalties for theft.

  2. The second grim reality is that the British government stole the land of Australia. It justified large-scale theft by a variety of arguments. The land was clearly not cultivated, so therefore empty land: under-utilised, and so ripe for the picking. It was partly a race for empire, partly a solution to the problem of too many people to fit into British gaols, and partly the desire for commercial profit. Here was theft on a grand scale. It was not an empty land, it was inhabited. It was not uncultivated. Bill Gamage has shown us that it was ‘the Biggest Estate on Earth’[3], carefully, expertly, and effectively cultivated in a way that reflected both a common aim across this vast land, and a common aim adapted to local environments, and a common aim that both used and protected the land. Every time we have a flood in a river valley, or a bush-fire in forest land, I wonder if we have done a better job of managing our environment? A high price has been paid for our prosperity. Well, as Augustine, Bishop of Hippo wrote in the last days of the Roman empire: ‘All empire is theft’. We have said sorry for the stolen generation, and quite right too. We have not yet said sorry for stolen land.

  3. The third grim reality is that much of Victoria is stolen land too, in a different way. Greedy Tasmanians, hungry for new pastures for their ever-increasing flocks of sheep came across Bass Strait, and took over vast tracks of Victoria. The representatives of the British government in Sydney and London were powerless to stop it happening. So these predators stole land both from the indigenous peoples of Victoria, and stole the same land from the British Government. Stolen land with a vengeance! Once it began to happen, the Government caved in, and accepted the inevitable. It was not expedient to get between avaricious people and their profits. Let them steal, and regularise the situation when it settled down. And this decision was made in the knowledge that it would be the aboriginal people who would necessarily suffer the loss of their land. The only significant debate was between the rights of government and the rights of the squatters.[4] The Government Act of 1869, ‘For the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives’ provided little protection, and total control.[5] James Boyce has shown that in in just five years between 1837 and 1842, indigenous people were dispossessed of territory larger than England.[6] By 1850 Melbourne was one of the busiest wool ports in the world.[7] And in a generation, what had happened to the grasslands of Victoria had also happened to the grasslands of eastern Australia.[8] Of course there were great profits to be made from sheep, and from dramatic increases in the value of land. The discovery of gold soon increased the value of the theft.
    And when great profits are to be made, moral issues are usually ignored. No wonder Paul writes later in Colossians that ‘greed is idolatry’. Sin blinds us to sin, and greed blinds us to greed. What happened here was not the general policy of the British Empire, but a squalid theft which the Empire let happen, forgetting the command of God: you shall not steal.
Please notice that we began with convicts being sent to Australia for petty thefts. We then moved to the grand theft of a continent by a government, and then sank to entrepreneurial theft by avaricious individuals. There are two constant themes: ignoring the known command of God, you shall not steal, and the suffering of the indigenous people of this land that was the result of breaking the command of God. We were called to love our neighbour, and we stole instead. Listen to these words recounted by magistrate assistant aboriginal Protector William Thomas, words spoken by the Billilbellary: ‘No good have them Pickaninneys now, no country for Blackfellows like long ago.’[9]  And letting others steal is as serious as doing our own stealing. Governments that allow theft are in serious trouble with God. And our history shows the damage done by Government when it tackles the problem of petty crime but ignores large-scale theft of natural resources by wealthy and powerful people, even today.

Theft is a natural action for those who regard possessions and financial security as their God. Christ told us that we ‘cannot serve God and money’, and that is evident in Australia. Those who serve money find it impossible to serve God. And you can have a good economy and a bad society: our economy is only a means to an end, and it must be just as well as effective.
Agatha Christie points out that murder not only damages the person who is murdered, but also damages the murderer. That is true of all sins, including the sin of theft, and the sin of serving money rather than God.

What should we do?

Firstly, we should say sorry to God for what we have done. Ultimately Australia belongs to God and to Christ. Our greatest sins are not against each other, but against God. We are all custodians of our lives, and custodians who are finally responsible to God for our stewardship. For the first fundamental reality about this world is that God made it through his Son, who later came to earth as Jesus of Nazareth, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Secondly, we should receive God’s pardon.

We mar and spoil each other and our world in many different ways. Our great dignity and responsibility as humans made in God’s image means that we can do great damage, as well as great good. It means that we can do damage unintentionally as well as intentionally, and we can get caught up in great human movements that cause damage beyond our imagining.

But God sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ to reconcile to himself all things, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Christ came to reconcile us to God, to end the enmity between us, to bring peace by his blood shed on the cross. Jesus died to bring us to God. We can come to God even now: it is not too late. We can come to God now: he is not too far away. We can come to God now: he invites and welcomes to himself through his Son Jesus, and through his death in our place on that cross two thousand years ago.

And what can those of us who are not indigenous to this land say and do?

At least we can say sorry. We are sorry that we took your land. We are sorry that so many died because we came. We are sorry that your pattern of common life has been broken down in so many ways. We are sorry for the damage that we have done.

At least we can respect and honour you, learn from you, and ask your forgiveness and grace. At least we can as a nation say sorry and to acknowledge the prior custodianship of the land by you who lived here before us.

At least we can amend the Constitution in order to acknowledge the legitimacy of the prior indigenous ownership of the land.

At least we can is work to ‘close the gap’ in health, education, employment and welfare.

And those of us who are Christians should be the first to say sorry, the first to respect and honour you, and first to ask your forgiveness and grace, because we know the commands of God, ‘you shall not steal’, and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.

And those of us who are Christians should be the first to say sorry, because we know that we are accountable to God, and that all things have been made through Christ and for him, and so we are called to live through him and for him, and we called to be reconciled to God by his Son, by his blood shed on the cross.

We say sorry today, and we want to do what we can to build friendship, trust, and respect in our community and in our nation. May God in his mercy forgive our sins, and help us to learn to love him and to learn to love our neighbours. We pray this prayer through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for our reconciliation. Amen.

Dr Peter Adam, Vicar Emeritus of St Jude’s and former principal of Ridley Melbourne, preached this sermon at St Jude’s Carlton on 16 March 2013. The service, and a plaque unveiled by Archbishop Philip Freier, were an acknowledgement that St Jude’s stood on land given to the Church of England in Australia in 1866 as a Crown Grant without the permission, or welcome of the original inhabitants – the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.

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