January 20, 2019

Day of Mourning

John 2:1-11
Isaiah 62:1-7, 10-12


At its 15th Assembly, the Uniting Church agreed to set aside one Sunday to be observed as a Day of Mourning. The decision was made at the request of the Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress in the Uniting Church. The day will become a permanent fixture in our church calendar year.

Today is the day. It is the day set apart for us to reflect on the struggles that our Indigenous brothers and sisters have to face; their struggles to achieve justice, reconciliation, and restoration of their full dignity.

Now, why on earth do I choose a reading about Jesus’ turning water into wine during this Day of Mourning? Do I not know that alcohol has caused so much pain and misery in our indigenous communities?

One such community is the Fitzroy Crossing in remote WA. It is located around five hours driving east of Broome. About 1500 people live in the town, with another 2500 living in the settlements across the nearby valley. 80 percent of the population are indigenous.

In 2014, it grabbed the national attention for the wrong reason. In the area, there were 50 alcohol-related deaths in a year and 13 alcohol-related suicides in months. The problem with alcohol there was so bad that children, as young as four, were seen playing drunken adults. They mimicked people who were drunk by holding a stick between their lips and holding empty cans! 

1 in 4 children in the area suffered from Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Children with these conditions struggle to remember instructions and retain memories. They have trouble controlling their emotions and telling right from wrong. They cannot learn as quickly as they should. They also have a much higher chance of taking their own lives or having problem with the law later in their life. And the conditions were the direct result of their mothers drinking heavily during their pregnancy.[1] 

So, why on earth did I pick a passage from John’s Gospel about Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding party? Did I not listen to everything I just told you? Why talk about alcoholic drink, knowing its deadly effect on many indigenous communities today?

Well, in Biblical time, the abundance of wine is the symbol of restoration, particularly for the dispossessed. Wine is used in the Bible as the symbol of hope that Israel had for their future as a nation. It is not the symbol of deprivation, like it is today in Indigenous communities, but the symbol of abundance. Today we, especially our indigenous brothers and sisters, have been robbed of this important biblical image. So, the reason why I choose this passage is to redeem this Biblical image from its negative connotation. 

See, in the Bible, wine was the symbol that Jesus used for the Kingdom of Heaven. During his crucifixion, he said that he would drink wine no longer until he drank it in a feast in God’s Kingdom.[2] So, for Jesus, the final redemption of creation in the fullness of time would be like a heavenly party. On that day, reconciliation between all people, indigenous and non-indigenous, will be fulfilled. On that day, the restoration of dispossessed people all around the world would be completed.

On that day, all people, indigenous and non-Indigenous, would gather together in a great party. God will be the host of the party and wine will be provided in abundance. But, there will be no fear of excesses; no fear of violence or addiction. There will be no need for the “dry” rule or the ban on alcohol. The wine will bring gladness because justice has been won and dispossessed people have been restored. 

But, this kind of vision will not be achieved without our participation. We are to contribute into the effort to complete the work of reconciliation that God has begun in Jesus.

See, in Jesus’ time, as it still is today, wedding was not cheap. The burden of having a wedding was significant for most first-century families living with little resources. That was why it was the custom then for the guests to bring wedding gifts in the form of food and drink. The purpose of such gifts was to ease the burden of the family having the wedding.[3] You may think of it as something similar to our modern potluck meal.

Not being able to provide wine, therefore, would not only bring shame to the family for their lack of resources; it would also bring shame to the entire community. The lack of wine may indicate the lack of community’s support for the wedding.[4] It may indicate the community’s failure to meet their shared responsibility to support this communal event.

So, Jesus’ miracle was a fulfillment of his responsibility as a guest and a member of his community. His miracle was his contribution to this communal celebration.

But, there was more. Wedding is often used in the Bible as a symbol of restored relationship between God and his people. In Revelation, the final restoration of the entire creation in the end of time is seen as a wedding. [5] So, by turning water into wine, Jesus proclaimed that his life was about achieving this final redemption; the final reconciliation between God and the people, and between people and people.

Likewise, we too have to take our role to achieve the final reconciliation of all people. We have to give our own contribution until there is abundance for all people, not scarcity. We are to be like the ‘sentinels in Jerusalem that the prophet in our reading in Isaiah talked about.

Now, our reading in Isaiah was given after the people of Israel in exile had returned to their homeland in Judah. More particularly after they had returned to the city of Jerusalem. Last week, we hear how they got nervous about leaving Babylon, the land of their captivity. Today, we hear that they had indeed answered God’s call and returned to their homeland.

But what they discovered there was nothing but desolation. The city was left in ruin. It’s true that there had been people living in Jerusalem during the time of their exile. But the city was nothing like the one built by their Kings, David and Solomon, and their dynasty in the past. Moreover, they had to face opposition and infighting in their homeland. What was promised was different to reality.

It was during this time that the prophet spoke. His words were words of lamentation. They were born out of frustration. But there was hope underlying that frustration.

The prophet proclaimed that God’s promise remained, even in the midst of the ruin. Other nations may now call them, “Forsaken,” and their land, “Desolate.” But the time would come when they would be known as “The Redeemed People”, “Sought Out” and their land as “Married”. 

The prophet also proclaimed that God would put sentinels, guards in the city. These guards would not be silent or rest. These guards would continue fighting until the promise for a new Jerusalem was fulfilled. 

Interestingly, these guards would not only rest themselves; they would also give God no rest until He fulfilled His promise. They would constantly remind God to complete the restoration of Jerusalem and its people, Israel.

Likewise, friends, we are to be the relentless “sentinels” in our own land. We are to be the relentless “guardians” of the heart and soul of our nation, even of the world. Our job in our land of promise here in Australia is not over. The goal of full reconciliation between the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people is not yet complete. The road ahead is still long and winding.

Yes, we have made some progress, but “what is” is still not the same with “what ought to be”. The reality sill doesn’t fully resemble the expectation.

As such, we are to continue to be the voice for the voiceless in the land. We are to continue fighting until our brothers and sisters who are called, “Forsaken,” will be called, “Redeemed,”; until the communities who are deemed, “Desolate,” will be known, “Sought Out.” 

Friends, the issue for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is not only a social issue. It should be an issue close to our heart as the redeemed people of God in Jesus. He came to reconcile us with God and with one another. 

Let us thus continue to be the voice of God’s redemption for all. In the words of Rev Denise Champion, a Deacon in the UCA and an Adnyamathanha woman, let us create:

“A community where people can come together, sit   and talk, and experience healing and forgiveness for the past, finding a new destiny together ....”[6]

Toby Keva

[1] Fitzroy Crossing women tackle alcohol scourge, an article in Sydney Morning Herald website (www.smh.com.au), published on September 5, 2014 at 2:10 pm.

[2] Matthew 26:29, Luke 22:18.

[3] Commentary on John 2:1-11 by Lindsey Trozzo on Working Preacher website (www.workingpreacher.org), January 20, 2019.

[4] Commentary on John 2:1-11 by Lindsey Trozzo on Working Preacher website (www.workingpreacher.org), January 20, 2019.

[5] Revelation 19:6-9.

[6] Day of Mourning Worship Resources, published by the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia and Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, p. 2.