Owned, not owner

THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT

12 DECEMBER 2021

Zephaniah 3.14-20
Philippians 4.4-7
Luke 3.7-18

Rev Richard Browning

Introduction: owned by, not owners of

I begin today with acknowledgment of Country. It is written in our service order as a practice kept here at St Andrews, but today I speak it aloud.

The lands upon which we meet today are ancient. Whilst the generations of the dominant culture might trace back ten or so, First Nation’s lineage is closer to a thousand generations. Here is Yagara Country. Over there is a mount called Coot-Tha, the Yagarabul name for one of this land’s 1600 native bees common to that hill (1). It may be possible to describe First Nation’s identity is inseparable from land, but not from owning land but being owned by it; that self and kinship, culture, even language, is literally grounded in the land. If we were to walk more closely together, the earth be blessed. If there is any here today whose veins flow with blood steeped in generations of connection with the red dust of this earth: Respect.

I was pulled up once by a young Aboriginal student who baulked at the language of ‘not owner of, but owned by’. All power to him. In the now dominant language of this land, owning things is a sign of power and authority. If speaking from this paradigm then deficit and condescension is implied. I use it though in admiration, having heard elders speak of their relationship to land and place; recognising that so often ‘possession of’ brings decline, loss, even destruction, and ‘possessed by’ has a history of intergenerational stewardship. (2)

At the centre of today’s reflection is this notion of identity:

Being owned by, not owner of

Faithfulness as being owned by

We are drawn to this church today because of story. And I’d like to suggest that like land for First Nations peoples, the best way to understand ourselves is this: we are owned by the story not owners of it. From the story comes our identity, in the story we find our connection to place, time, Creator and creature, each other, with a deep sense of responsibility and respect – love actually, as Jesus calls it. 

In this season of Advent as the candles are lit, surely we find ourselves not possessors of hope but a people possessed by hope; not owners of peace but owned by peace; we are not possessors of joy but a people possessed by joy. We do not own love. We are a people possessed by love.

John the Baptiser is a man completely possessed by the story, so thoroughly that in the verse immediately following the last read today, John is carried away to prison, never to emerge alive. (3) He is demanding of the crowds drawn by the story. 

John is possessed by the story. You can see it in what he wears and eats and says; it has taken root within him and he lives it. John is belligerent in his expectations of the crowds, ‘where are your fruits?’

His impatience elicits from the crowd one of the best questions we can ever ask: “so what do we do? (How are we to live?)” 

John is addressed as teacher (the same elevated title given to Jesus in the garden by Mary after the resurrection). His teaching rises from a body owned by the story:

Give shelter (surrender your coat)

Feed (share your food)

Renounce power (especially coercive power)

Be satisfied with enough

The expectation is that the story should be visible in our lives, authoring our actions, vine for fruitfulness, home to our identity.

Advent Practices

Of all the church seasons, Advent is the easiest to practice the story of the season. And if you need any help, there is a calendar with days to pop open and cues for giving, sharing, preparing, cooking, sending, to neighbours friends and family, all fruits of the story we belong to.

Early in the calendar is a prompt to display the Nativity. The members of the Holy Family each tell a story. We may appear to be the owners of the figures brought out from the dusty box. The moulded plastic or carved images are the tellers of our story. Picture a liturgy that accompanies the laying out the Nativity (4), be it in our homes or public places:

Mary.

As we place Mary at the centre we recognise the disturbing imagination and agency of God who is “aligned with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood”. (5) The Nativity, like the Crucifixion, is the complete subversion of violence. By placing Mary here, we name ourselves as those who welcome the voice and witness of the vulnerable, the creative, the female, the nonviolent.

Joseph. 

Joseph’s presence bears witness to privilege used to shelter the vulnerable, applying strength and faithfulness to hold open the necessary space for their flourishing.

The Wise.

These travelling Magi remind us we are not judgmental but curious, we do not point saying ‘go back to where you came from’ but wonder, ‘what gifts do you bring, what wisdom comes from afar?’

The shepherds.

Our doors are open to workers from fields whose wages are thin and odour is strong. 

The animals.

We acknowledge that our lives are entwined with the creatures, wild and domestic.

The child.

And finally, we are hosts to the vulnerable, fragile and dependent, recognising that this is where God is at home; we promise never to surrender the child to terror, and stand with those like Mary and Joseph, forced to flee seeking refuge.

The Good News

The end of today’s reading finishes with the phrase ‘So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people’. What is this Good News? He speaks to the crowds with an unnerving gruffness, using images of wheat and chaff, winnowing and fire. What is being separated? If it is bad people from the good and they are what is being burned, how can that possibly be good news? 

I have a much better understanding of this illustration after being in Ethiopia three years ago. It was a profound privilege to travel with two sons and be where my Aunt and Uncle live and work. To see with my own eyes how the Afar live on the desert, at home with flocks of sheep, camels, goats and going where the rains and seasons send them. (6) Further up the hills, until finally you reach seven peeks each over 4000 metres high, you pass through unbelievably diverse landscapes. Up in the middle plains there is vista after vista of grain crops, all harvested by hand. There are literally thousands of human beings in the fields and on every second ridge there is a circle padded out by an ox as people drop the harvest for threshing, and forks fashioned from a single stem and trained into three or four prongs use the wind to separate the grain from the chaff. Out there on the wind, separating grain from chaff is the work, and once there is a separation, and a gathering in of the essential grain, there is a need to make sure no chaff blow back and spoil the harvest. What would work is a fire. In fickle winds using thin grassy stems, the fire would need to be carefully kept and not go out. Then you could burn the chaff and keep the rubbish away, never to return and despoil.

This is the context into which John the Baptising teacher spoke. Everyone hearing him speak would understand. The fire is good and helps safeguard the essence of the harvest. 

When John applies this to the crowd before him, the line of separation is not between them and us, or good and bad. The line runs down the middle of each and every one. (7) What if it were possible for the fundamental essence of who we are and our inherent goodness to be released from the rubbish that spoils. What if it could be removed without shame, never to return and defile?

If you think I am seeing this through a charitably biased lens, look at who John is addressing, it is any and everyone and all are treated the same. There could be no greater sinner than the traitor who profits by vice from occupying powers (the tax collector), nor the foreign enforcer and foot soldier of the occupying powers. There is no separation of people, but a surgical cleansing of each through winnowing and fire. If there was a way to be more truly ourselves as God imagined, free of all that mars and corrupts, that would be good, wouldn’t it? And news of it would be good, wouldn’t it?

The Good News, Hard Quiz style

Maybe the best way to unpack the acerbic tone of John the Baptising is to use a translation using the voice and genre of Tom Gleeson from Hard Quiz, the grumpy artist known for his frank and unflattering appraisal of contestants. This translation will use one word not usually suited to preachers. (I promise not to enjoy using it too much.)

Welcome, you Mongrels,

Fancy seeing you lot here.

Look at you. The lot of you. What do you think your life says about who you are?

All of you, blessed by an identity grounded in God. Yes.

But all of you, the lot of you, spoiled and stained.

What a sight you mongrels make.

You know we can be better, why else would you be here?

Our hearts know there is something more than what we own or control or connive.

Listen. 

There is one among us who is worthy.

He makes visible 

what God intended when human beings were first made in God’s image. (8)

Brace yourselves. But it is good. He can strip away all that clings and defiles, diminishes and despoils. Without shame, you will find yourselves brought into wholeness.

Conclusion

I grew up racist. How could I not? It was the culture we breathed. What if there was a way for this ugliness to be removed in a way that it never returned?

I grew up sexist. How could I not? A single sex male boarding school in the 80’s was bristling with a single, narrow narrative of testosterone. What if I could grow into something more whole, more honest, more open? And without shame become more?

When we belong to the story and are owned by it, the story lives in us, we receive our true identity, not something contrived, formed in the image of God, not our own. 

Being owned by this story will loosen our grasp on the need to possess and control. 

Being owned by this story opens our hands to generous habits of sharing. (9)

This is the story we belong to.

This is what God has done in Jesus.

This is the story at the heart of this season.

Maranatha.

Come Lord Jesus. 

By the power of the Holy Spirit, make us what you see in us 

and send us into the world filled with joy, owned by your story, agents of your peace and love.


  1. Ref: Gaja Kerry Charlton, Yagarabul Nation Elder, Cultural Educator, Consultant, Facilitator
  2. Willie Jennings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSy47bkdb90
  3. Luke 3.19 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+3.19-20&version=NRSV
  4.  The inspiration for this liturgy comes from a short post by @emmykegler who wrote: if you ignore the witness of teenage girls, if you tell refugees ‘go back where you came from’, if you close your doors to dirty field laborers, if you would turn a child over to a tyrant, please don’t put up a Nativity this year.
  5. See Brian McLaren https://cac.org/mystical-hope-weekly-summary-2021-12-11/?&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=dm&utm_term=organic
  6. The Afar live at the edge of human extremes and have done so for thousands of years without complaint. 2021 has been particularly cruel. One of these events would be overwhelming, but each has been layered upon the last: flooding; locust plague; marauding fighters from Somalia; tens of thousands of internally displaced persons from fighting; now the fighting itself, extreme and vicious. https://barbaramayfoundation.com/news/valerie-browning-on-abc-radio/ 
  7. It is impossible to explore this idea without hearing the voice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/347546 
  8. This is a golden phrase from Juergen Moltmann https://twitter.com/moltmannjuergen/status/1469539193433042945 
  9. These three simple insights are imbedded in the message of the Gospel today. They also resonant with the insights of Willie Jennings remarkable Theos Annual Lecture 2021. He talks about education as an act of imagination, that belonging is a truer narrative of identity. The necessary reformative work must address and reimagine identity, putting down whiteness, taking up common humanity; rethinking the life of possession with a renewed ethic of sharing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSy47bkdb90 

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