Aunty Sandra Onus, Lidia Thorpe, and a pharaoh with no name

We are all called to be actors in God’s great story of salvation, reconciling people, land, culture, and even trees. (Listen.)

On the other side of Gariwerd, along the Western Highway, you’ll find a camp. It’s the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy. Elder Aunty Sandra Onus, Zellanach Djab Mara and others are there. They are protecting an 800-year-old birthing tree. They are protecting a 350-year-old directions tree. They are protecting 3,000 other trees: and by protecting these trees, they are protecting their dreaming.

Djab Wurrung woman Lidia Thorpe says, ‘The trees are part of us.’ They are a significant element in an integrated landscape of people and spirit, creation and culture; a reconciled reality which connects First Peoples back to the beginnings of time. Yet after years of campaigning, negotiations and legal battles, the State Government still rejects Djab Wurrung sovereignty, and still plans to remove one significant tree and put others at risk, in order to widen the highway. For people travelling between Melbourne and Adelaide, it will cut two minutes off the drive time.

I could go on a big rant here: About how the State Government promises a truth and justice commission, while demolishing significant cultural artefacts. About how the same week the Parkes Radio Telescope was granted National Heritage status, these ancient arboreal monuments to culture were denied it. About how this decision has triggered what Gunditjmara Keerraay Woorrong Djab Wurrrung woman Sissy Eileen Austin describes as a ‘tidal wave of anxiety.’ I could rant about the racism embedded in our very concepts of land ownership, consultation, history, heritage, culture, and travel time. But instead, I’ll offer this:

Once upon a time, there was a new story. A story in which a people were oppressed. They were displaced from their land. They worked in cruel conditions for no wages; their children were removed and even killed. A nameless pharaoh made their lives harder and harder: but God heard their cries.

Understand this: Back then, everyone thought power was a sign of divinity. Everyone believed pharaoh was god. Everyone knew the oppressed were scum. And yet, this story said: God heard their cries.

This is the radically new story of Exodus, that Biblical epic in which God sets people free; and in this new story, God works through the oppressed of the oppressed. For, in an intensely hierarchical and patriarchal society, God works through women. Slave women.

Do you remember the story? A nameless pharaoh wants to consolidate his power. So he spins a tale that the Hebrews are a threat and may turn against their Egyptian hosts; and then he sets them to hard labour on his building projects. Then he brings in the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, and tells them to kill every boy as he is born.

But the midwives know their story; they know their culture. They know God is more important than pharaoh; they know life is God-gifted, sacred: and so they let the babies live. And so does one boy’s mother; and so does his sister; and, in a final twist, so does pharaoh’s own daughter. And after many years, this one boy grows up and leads the people into freedom.

We all know the big men: pharaohs, presidents, prime ministers, premiers; we are constantly bombarded with their names, images, and propaganda. We are conditioned to believe that these men set the agenda, that they shape culture, and that what they insist is the way things must be. Climate change? Doesn’t exist—and is inevitable anyway. Clean coal? It’s a thing—and jobs depend on it. Casualization of the workforce? Necessary. Birthing trees? Unimportant. Destruction of culture? Regrettable. Institutional abuse? Impossible. And the list goes on. And these lies are told to shape our reality, to teach us not to hope, dream, or act, and to keep the powerless in their place.

But we are part of a different story, a story which stretches back to Exodus. And our story says, pharaoh is not god, nor is any president, prime minister or premier. Our story says, power is no evidence of God’s favour or God’s gift. Our story says, God hears the cries of the oppressed, and God cares. And when God cares, then all is not hopeless and we are not helpless: as long as ordinary people remember their story and dare to live it out.

In the short term, I don’t know whether Aunty Sandra Onus and Lidia Thorpe and Sissy Eileen Austin and others will succeed in protecting the trees and their heritage. I don’t know whether TEAR and Common Grace will persuade politicians to work Together for Climate. I don’t know whether #SchoolStrike4Climate or #LoveMakesAWay or #BlackLivesMatter or any other movement or campaign will show results in our lifetime. The Exodus took decades to get to the point where it seemed inevitable; and even then, it was a long slow walk to freedom.

But I do know this: God hears the cries of the oppressed, and God cares. And if we are God’s servants, then, like Shiphrah and Puah and so many others, we must continue to act faithfully as we are called: seeking peace and pursuing it; trusting the spirit more than social norms; following the Way more closely than the law; choosing life and love over personal comfort and convenience; talking back to power when called to account.

For we too are invited to be actors in God’s great story of salvation, which stretches across time and space. And when we are on the side of life and love and truth and justice and spirit and the reconciliation of all things—people, land, culture, even trees—then we can be confident that we are on the side that is already victorious, even when the fullness of victory cannot yet be seen. The battles are ongoing: but through Christ life and love have already won, and the forces of apathy, death and destruction shall not control us nor cause us to back down or fear.

So let us participate in God’s own story; and let us be in on the victory as we find ways to love and protect people, land, culture and trees wherever and however we are called. In the name of the Great Reconciler, Jesus Christ, I pray: Amen. Ω

You can read more about the Djab Wurrung Embassy here, or find it on Facebook. Quotes come from here and an excellent editorial in the Saturday Paper, here. This reflection on Exodus 1:8-2:10 was given to Sanctuary on 30 August 2020 (Year A Proper 16, one week late) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Maria Oswalt on Unsplash.

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