Last weekend I was in Prince George for the Pacific Mountain Regional Council’s Annual meeting. The four days there included some business of the region, and we also had a theme speaker. This year’s speaker was Jeff Chu, a writer, podcaster and overall insightful guy. The theme for the meeting this year was Rooted and Grounded in Love – and you’ll hear more in the weeks to come, but I just want to mention his second topic that was the theme for Friday morning. It was “What does the church need to repent of?” We spent some time reflecting on this topic in our own context and as a broader church.
We were to write on little pieces of white paper, things that we thought the church needs to repent of.
At the outset of his presentation in the morning when he talked about repentance being part of being rooted and grounded in Love, Jeff Chu said, “the church can’t love well if its people aren’t loved well. And the church can’t flourish well if its people aren’t flourishing.” This really struck me, and in our table group we talked about some of the ways that the people of the church have not been loved well throughout the generations. Many people had the history and trauma of residential schools on their little white pieces of paper.
Later on in Jeff’s presentation, he spoke about the significance of compost. You know – that cucumber that disappeared in the back of your fridge and then froze in there, and then by the time you found it again it had thawed out and was getting a little slimy? Or has that never happened to you? Compost is taking those discarded peels and scraps of veggies and ones long forgotten in the fridge and coffee grounds – all that is no longer good, or never was good – and adding some microorganisms and worms, and – we have beautiful soil! Compost invites us to take stock of the things that are not good and lets us see what could be. We can’t just ignore the rotting veggies – we recognize them as no longer good in their current form, and we take action to discard them so that they can be transformed into something new. Death, resurrection, new life… Sounds a little like a cycle we are familiar with in the church.
So in Prince George we all took those white pieces of paper with the things that we think the church should repent of, and put them into the compost as an act of repentance – recognizing that some of the ways of the church have not been life giving or rooted and grounded in love. They have not allowed people to flourish. And in the act of composting them, and with concrete acts of reconciliation and learning and listening, we pray that the compost will become some beautiful rich soil, producing new life.
In the reading we heard this morning, from the moment that the demoniac first confronts Jesus, the whole story invites us to consider what Jesus has to do with the forces that occupy and control us.
All the “demons” that Jesus confronts have three things in common: they cause self-destructive behavior in the victim, the victim feels trapped in that condition, and they separate the victim from normal living in the family circle. Sound familiar? Don’t many of us suffer from the same kind of snares and burdens?
If we define “demons” as those forces which have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be, we are as surrounded by — yes, possessed by — as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered.
How many people in our world are haunted by a traumatic past and tortured by memories? How many live unsheltered and inadequately clothed because of social and economic forces that they cannot overcome, no matter how hard they struggle? How many are imprisoned, regarded as barely human, excluded, cast out? How many are held captive by mental illness, unable to live fully because they don’t have access to adequate support? How many are enslaved by addictions no longer knowing where the addiction ends, and their own selves begin? How many feel powerless and afraid, having seen women in their communities go missing and be murdered, without much concern or investigation? Where do the governing authorities separate people from their families, denying them the opportunity to seek better lives? Where do occupying armies still brutalize entire communities and hold them captive to fear?
In this story and others, Jesus is there to challenge and cast out every power that prevents us from living fully and freely as human beings created in God’s image.
On this Indigenous Day of Prayer we remember some of the ways that Indigenous people have been prevented from living fully and freely.
In 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published a report outlining 94 Calls to Action for the government to address. As of last year, only 11 of them had been completed. Some of them are very specific, and some of them are calls to education and understanding and have a broader scope. The 46th call to action names the church. It is: We call upon the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to develop and sign a Covenant of Reconciliation that would identify principles for working collaboratively to advance reconciliation in Canadian society.
Reconciliation is not here – it is way off in the distance. But the place that we need to start – that is here. Right here. Reconciliation starts right here with every act large and small.
In many ways, the United Church has been working at this for a long time, since before our first apology in 1998. I will only mention a few.
Our Region has an Indigenous Minister, Rev John Snow, who works both with Indigenous ministries in the Pacific Mountain Region but also works with the regional council in its ongoing work towards reconciliation.
At the Vancouver School of Theology, where Nancy and I both studied, for the past 30 years they have worked in partnership with First Nations people to provide theological education in a culturally relevant and appropriate context with the Indigenous Studies Program.
We have the Healing Fund in the United Church, which many of you have donated to over the years. It provides financial support to healing projects initiated in Indigenous communities by and for former residential school students and their families.
The Justice and Reconciliation Fund of the United Church supports projects by United Church groups that foster education, dialogue, reconciliation, and relationship-building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. So if we wanted to begin a project with our Indigenous neighbours here at Mount Seymour, we could apply to this fund to help with the project.
Last weekend in Prince George Amanda Burrows, the acting director at First United in the Downtown Eastside spoke, and she reminded us that 40% of the people on the street that they support are Indigenous. Yet Indigenous people make up just 4% of the general population. A hard truth to hear – that disparity is a direct result of the effects of the trauma and abuse sustained and passed down from survivors of mostly church run residential schools. Amanda also told us that the 40% statistic was the reason why First United in its redevelopment is creating Indigenous social housing, which will house 100 Indigenous people from the community. That right there is part of the church’s commitment to the 46th call to action – to work to advance reconciliation.
Last year here at Mount Seymour when we raised funds through the sale of masks for a local Indigenous basketball team, supporting them to attend their training camp, where they played basketball but also learned great life skills and experienced a positive group team experience. This project and the interactions that followed were part of our commitment to our community but also to advancing reconciliation.
In August of 2012, at the 41st General Council of The United Church of Canada acknowledged the importance of the presence and spirituality of Aboriginal peoples in the United Church by revising the church’s crest.
The crest changes include incorporating the colours often associated with the Medicine Wheel, which we heard Billy teach us about this morning. The crest was also changed to include the Mohawk phrase “Akwe Nia’Tetewá:neren” [aw gway– nyah day day waw– nay renh], which means “All my relations.”
All my relations include all living things: people, creatures in the water, those that fly in the air, everything that creeps and crawls and slithers on the ground. We all have a place in God’s great creation. I heard about thinking of creation as a giant spider’s web. If you pluck at one thread, the vibrations are felt throughout the whole web. It’s like the ripples that spread out when a pebble is thrown into or skipped in water. So how do we work toward justice and reconciliation? It is in a similar fashion – a ripple effect.
Every time we open ourselves up to learning more and hearing more truths, maybe we will share those learnings with others. Or maybe it will cause us to question how something is reported in the news, or maybe it will move us to read a book by an Indigenous author or turn on APTN – the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, or listen to the Unreserved radio show on CBC radio for Indigenous voices. In our Indigenous Book study, which you will hear more about from Kim Branch in a moment, some of us have made a commitment to one another that if we hear of an event or pow wow that the local Indigenous community is hosting for the public to attend, we will go together.
So, today on this Indigenous Day of Prayer, let us give thanks for the Indigenous people of our communities and their profound contributions to our common life together. Let us all, individually and collectively, seek out ways to work for reconciliation and justice.
This is the way that we as God’s beloved children, can work towards healing and living fully and freely in God’s image. Just like the Gerasene demoniac was healed and restored to life, we are invited as followers of this way to participate in this act of restoration to new life. Jesus lived and modeled relationships grounded in mutuality and wholeness, and we too can work toward that reality with and for ourselves, our siblings and our neighbours. As Jeff Chu said – the church can’t love well if its people aren’t loved well. And the church can’t flourish well if its people aren’t flourishing.”
So may we take the compost of our broken and troubled history in our church and in our country, and with every act of listening and learning and action toward reconciliation, may we turn that compost heap into beautiful soil, creating beauty and abundance and new life for all our relations.
May it be so. Amen.