June 19 Sermon

Date: 19 June 2016                                                                                                                                         Text: Psalm 42                                                                                                                                               Site: Bethany United Church - Halifax, NS

Happy Father’s Day to all those who identify with that important role in another’s life. As you know I am the father of a daughter from China, so Lucy and I have no biological connection. We don’t have conversations like, “did my hair colour come from your side of the family…” Instead Lucy mostly asks about my childhood and teenage years, she asks me about my family, what their life was like, where they lived, etc. I am able to trace our roots back to Ireland, the 1840’s and the potato famine, and how the Littles ventured to Halifax in hope of finding work and happiness. Six generations later, we’re still here.

I’ve often wondered why so many are interested in their genealogy, what lies behind this search. I’ve heard people tell me that they are descended from the voyage of this ship, that battle, “my family came over during the…” But what is the purpose of this knowledge? For me I’ve always been interested, like Lucy, in the values, the habits, the practices, of families, what gets passed on and what gets left behind. You’ve heard me say this before but from my two families of origin I received public service (Pitchers) and “walk to the beat of your own drummer” (Littles). It will be interesting to hear how Lucy describes my family and Kim’s family to her friends.

So what is it that you received from your families, what is it that you have passed on to your children? What is left undone, what have you remaining to pass on to your children and/or grandchildren? And I am NOT talking about stuff, dishes, furniture, pictures, I am talking about what you think is important, practices and beliefs that matter to you.

Up until very recently that “handing over” of values, traditions and practices was out of the question for our Aboriginal First Nations sisters and brothers. Up until recently their communities were neither encouraged nor allowed to pass their traditions and beliefs to their children and grandchildren. The government of Canada partnered with the churches of Canada to systematically move children off site, far away from their homes, to residential schools, where teachers would educate these children about colonial values, colonial language, colonial religion and colonial practices. Worse, not only were these children taught that their culture was “primitive” but in some cases the word “demonic” was used. Families were ripped apart at formative stages, cultural, religious and social practices were disrupted and important spiritual teachings were ignored and forgotten.

As a result of this the United Church of Canada has engaged Aboriginal Peoples in a dialogue of reconciliation and forgiveness. That process took some root in 1986 with a formal apology offered by our then Moderator Bob Smith. “Long before my people journeyed to this land, your people were here, and you received from your elders an understanding of creation, and of the mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich and to be treasured. We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the Gospel. We tried to make you like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred and we are not what we are meant by God to be. We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.”

The Indigenous peoples who were present then received the Apology, but did not accept it. They said that they would consider the words of the Apology. Two years later Edith Memnook, a representative of the All Native Circle Conference, responded: “The Apology made to the Native People of Canada by the United Church of Canada has been a very important step forward. The All Native Circle Conference has now acknowledged your Apology. Our people have continued to affirm the teachings of the Native way of life. Our spiritual teachings and values have taught us to uphold the Sacred Fire; to be guardians of Mother Earth, and strive to maintain harmony and peaceful coexistence with all peoples. We only ask of you to respect our Sacred Fire, the Creation, and to live in peaceful coexistence with us. We recognize the hurts and feelings will continue amongst our people, but through partnership and walking hand in hand, the Indian spirit will eventually heal. The Native People of The All Native Circle Conference hope and pray that the Apology is not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity."

As some of you may know in addition to these words the United Church of Canada has also pledged financial contributions to the cause of healing, estimated to be close to $6.45 million. The United Church Healing Fund has supported grassroots projects in Indigenous communities. Over the last twelve years, the United Church has contributed $1 million annually toward healing and reconciliation initiatives. We have also directed financial resources to Aboriginal ministries and reconciliation on an average of $3 million to $4 million per year, and are striving to maintain that level. This comes at a time when other areas of the church’s work are experiencing significant reductions.

One very powerful way to experience the history of our relationship as Canadians of western European descent with Aboriginal Peoples of this land is to engage in the blanket exercise. I have done this and I know some of you have as well. In the course of an hour or two, using blankets and listening to narrators share this sad history between our peoples, we hear the truth and the truth convicts us.

I do not presume that you will have an interest in going deeper with this. I leave that up to you. But I owe you an update on what the United Church has been doing as we come to grips with our role in confusing Christian faith with our cultural values, thinking that believing in Jesus was the same as believing all peoples should be part of the British Empire, like somehow the Jesus of the Gospels was a proper British gentleman.

And this leads me to my final point I want to make on Aboriginal Peoples’ Sunday, namely that while we are rightly focused on reconciliation and healing, repenting for how our churches treated First Nations peoples, we ought also to consider the teachings and wisdom these people of the land can offer us. In the midst of climate change there is the teaching of the Seventh Generation Principle which is based on an ancient Iroquois philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. In the midst of conflict and self-interest and how our committees, councils and decision-makers listen to one another and come to consensus there is the talking circle. I personally have seen the Spirit at work in these circles at Brunswick Street United, I know what it can do and how the Spirit works in this ancient practice. And in the midst of a world of stress where people fly long distances to lay on guarded beaches only to return to their personal rat race in a week’s time there is the renewing and refreshing Spirit of Creation, experiencing the Creator that is all around us.

How I wish our forebears had heard this wisdom, learned these stories, knew God in this way. How I wish we listened to this wisdom now.

As a deer seeks flowing waters, weary from the chase, so my soul, O God, is thirsting to behold your face. May we all pass on to those who come after us the satisfying, thirst-quenching wisdom and care of the earth beneath our feet, the sky above our heads, the cool, clean air in our lungs, the spiritual teachings and values we have been taught to uphold, the Sacred Fire. Amen.