June 18, 2017
National Aboriginal Day of Prayer
The Rev. Canon Donna Joy
We acknowledge that we meet and work in Treaty 1 land, the traditional land of the Anishinaabe, Cree and Dakota Peoples and the homeland of the Metis Nation. We are grateful for their stewardship of this land and their hospitality which allows us to live, work and serve God the Creator here.
Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8
Today, as we celebrate National Aboriginal Day of Prayer, we acknowledge, and repent of, this country's terrible history with its original settlers. We acknowledge a history which is built on driving people from their land, and robbing them of their language and culture; a history that is fraught with violence and greed. This country is squatted on Indigenous lands and enjoys enviable First World status because of its great resources, although - sadly/tragically – most Aboriginal peoples do not significantly share in this bounty. Everything from lack of fresh water to missing and forgotten women is a testament to this truth. Most Canadians - because of the way in which we were educated at home, in Sunday School, and day school (private and public)... most of us are blind to the colonial foundations of this country, and all-too-often oblivious to the implicit/explicit racism that continues to oppress Indigenous peoples.
Some of you may know that I did not grow up in Winnipeg. I grew up in Vancouver; West Vancouver to be precise; the British Properties to be more precise. My dad was born in Norwich, England and lived there until his family emigrated to Canada and settled in Prince Rupert. When my dad grew up, he moved to Vancouver, worked hard, and in 1956 the fruits of his labours were brought to fruition when he and my mom purchased a house in - what was for them, the place of their dreams - the British Properties. My dad was a good, kind, intelligent, hard working man, who cared for his family in the very best ways he understood at the time. Today, on Father's Day, I find myself thinking of him even more than usual. He tried his very best to impart good teaching while raising his children, and in so doing he taught us the teaching that he - himself - had received; that is: a strong conviction that the British empire exists as the largest empire known to humanity, with an equally strong conviction in the place of England's superiority and authority over all others. That was the story he knew; and that was the story he (along with Sunday School, and the public school system) passed on to me, my sisters, my friends, and whole generations of others.
So, moving in to the British Properties as it existed in the 1950's felt like, and indeed was, a perfect fit for my dad, and my mom. However, sadly/tragically, the British Properties was known for its strict whites-only policy. Property titles included covenants that excluded sales to any person or persons of Aboriginal, African, or Asiatic race or descent. Jewish people were also excluded. I cringe now when I think about growing up in such affluence, privilege, and comfort while aboriginal children not that far from where I lived, were all-too-often living lives of abuse of so many different kinds.
Since then, we have come to understand this as colonialism: that is, "the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people;" or "the system or policy by which a nation maintains or advocates such control or influence." Since then, we have found ourselves on a long journey toward its deconstruction. This teaching that we were exposed to during our formative years was born out of this colonial world view, so in ways that we are often not even aware, that teaching continues to influence the way we think. Shifting from colonialism to post-colonialism is a process; a long process.
I remember hearing about a gathering for an ecumenical service in downtown Vancouver a couple of years ago when the work of the TRC was completed. One of the most moving parts of that service for some who attended that gathering was when the children gathered with 3 leaders from the participating congregations. The leaders, in a simple and direct way, spoke to the children about the day’s focus and unfolded a narrative about Canada that honoured the indigenous people who lived in this country before the European explorers and settlers arrived, telling how the settlers sought to assimilate first nations into their ways of doing things through schools and governance. It was a simple story, but what they unfolded was a new narrative, a changed way of telling the story of the origins of our country - a narrative very different from what most of us learned in Sunday school, or day school (either private or public).
As the TRC's recommendations have been published and discussed, one of the most important ones, in my view, is the call to educate Canadian young people about the legacy of residential schools and the various policies of assimilation that led to their development. As a matter of fact, 1/5th of the TRC's 94 calls to action are focused on education. One of the important ways in which we can effectively shift from a colonial to post-colonial world view is to steadfastly explore, examine, and deconstruct this particular teaching that shaped us, so that we may effectively help educate the next generation(s). For many of us, this is a new narrative unfolding, a way of telling the stories of our lives to ourselves, to change the way we look at the world, and to share this with others.
So, all of this is an explanation of why we began our time together this morning with an acknowledgement that we meet and work on Treaty land. At our most recent Synod, a resolution was passed, with an expectation that each parish in the diocese would begin worship and meetings, etc., with this acknowledgement. This acknowledgement confronts the reality that Canada's duty towards cooperation and mutual obligation as specified in the treaties has consistently been rejected. It is a formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories. To recognize the land as Treaty 1 land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory we reside on, and a way of honouring the Aboriginal people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial. Also, acknowledging the land is Indigenous protocol.
This history rooted in colonialism speaks of a type of barren humanity; a people, bereft of God's passion for the signs of new life that enter this world through acts of justice, equality, kindness, generosity, and humility. The banning of cultural activities, suppression of economic activity, physical violence, land dispossession, forced relocation, psychological and sexual abuse along with cultural genocide in residential schools, forced sterilization, and the removal of traditional governments, the rejection of treaty rights... all this testifies to a barren humanity.
And as we reflect on this atrocity within our own history here in Canada, we discover in the Book of Genesis that God creates new life in the midst of that which is barren. I am referring, of course, to that wonderful story where God's promise of giving a son to Sarah is reiterated through these three mysterious visitors. Sarah, who in the previous chapter, is said to be 90 (perhaps a touch of hyperbole here; but the point is that she is barren; she is way beyond the age where child bearing could even be considered)... Sarah, who is said to be 90, or "advanced in years" as she is described in today's reading, is going to have a son. Within this barren body, God is creating something new.
Can anyone tell me what Sarah did when she heard this news? Yes! She laughed! She laughed to herself and said (somewhat sarcastically), "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" So God asks Abraham: "Why did Sarah laugh and say what she said?"
And then comes what I believe is the crux/heart/essence of this passage, which is the question on which the whole story hinges: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" Sarah, being all too human, forgetting that she's not supposed to be listening to the conversation, says from behind the tent entrance, "I did not laugh." This reminds me of a video I saw a while ago of a little boy, about three years old, who got into some coloured icing and - of course - ended up with coloured icing all over his face. When his mother asked him why he had eaten something that he knew he was not allowed to be eating, he said, "I did not eat it." And the mother's response was exactly the same as God's response to Sarah, which is, "Oh yes, you did." "Oh yes, Sarah, you did laugh."
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Can God create new life, even out of the dry husk that is Sarah, not to mention 100-year-old Abraham, he who was "as good as dead," as he is described in the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:12)? Clearly, the response to this question is, "Nothing. Absolutely nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37) The task of Judeo-Christian theology is always to consider a new narrative because God's work is not finished; nothing is impossible with God; God is always creating something new out of that which is seemingly barren. And we have a part to play in God's work of making all things new.
This is why Pope Francis's encyclical, Laudato Si, is so very significant. In it, he draws our attention to the climate change crisis by articulating a spiritual perspective on it which, interestingly, celebrates the interconnectedness of all creation - an insight deeply held by indigenous people. It focuses on issues of climate change through the perspective of the poorest in the world who are most affected by it. It is a landmark document, one that will resonate within and beyond the Catholic world as it generates conversation and debate about social policies and our own lifestyle choices.
In the Christian household this message of God making all things new finds its physical expression through the arrival of Jesus, who took God's presence and new life into unexpected places like a stable in Bethlehem and a cross of Calvary. Barren places where hopelessness and death prevailed... It is in these places where the love and sacrifice, justice and humility of Jesus created, and continues to create, new hope for a better today and tomorrow. It regularly calls us to form a new narrative - a new story - a different story with new understandings and insights replacing long held prejudices and assumptions.
God has created this new story through Jesus, through his full and all-inclusive embrace; and it is through each of us that this wide embrace has the potential to continue to transform racism into love; injustice into justice; cruelty into kindness. Today we celebrate that it lives in us—and pray that we may see how each human being is part of the sacred circle - the sacred web of creation, the body of Christ, and open ourselves to be changed by the God who is that light that enlightens and embraces all people and the whole of creation.
Indigenous Anglicans in North America have developed a simple prayer book that is used widely across Canada. Every time the community gathers a prayer is offered with which I close today: let us pray.
Creator, we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us in our visit within your creation. In Jesus, you place the gospel in the centre of this sacred circle through which all creation is related. You show us the way to live a generous and compassionate life. Give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever. Amen.
Together, let us draw the circle wide...