Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 19 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Is 40:25-31; Ps 19; Phil 4:4-9; Jn 1:1-18
It was tempting to end last Sunday’s homily with “to be continued.” Because what I talked about last week, the terrible history of the settler church and the ways in which we are all still complicit in that story of stolen land and stolen children, is the first thing we need to confront and understand about our relationship with this land’s Indigenous people. But today, which the church has designated as National Aboriginal Day of Prayer, I want to look at something more positive. The work to restore right relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples is necessary not only because the settler church needs to repent and repair; it is also because we still have things to offer each other. It it because right relationship, a deeper understanding, a better walk together, can make us truer and better, can give us a fuller and more complex and richer faith, and I think that is what today’s readings are asking us contemplate.
Because God didn’t arrive in Turtle Island with the first Christian missionaries. God was already here; that’s part of what today’s gospel, the wonderful first chapter of John, tell us. The Word has always been breathing through the world, speaking creation into being; without him was not anything made that is made. God spoke Turtle Island into existence, and all its creatures, and spoke into it all those peoples who lived here long before the Europeans came, all those complex societies and cultures, those many languages, so much that has been lost, so much that has been kept alive at great cost.
What the missionaries brought was a particular story about God. The people who were already here had their stories, too. And though it is futile to dwell too much on what might have been, the great tragedy of the settler church is that we thought those stories were incompatible. We didn’t recognize—except, I suppose, for a few of the earliest Jesuits—that the Word was in the stories here too, that we could bring our stories, that they could live with and enrich each other, that we could learn more about our God by also learning the stories that had been told here for generations. It is precisely what happens in the first chapter of John, as the writer brings together the terms of Greek philosophy and the terms of Jewish wisdom literature, and finds in both of them a new way to talk about the early Christian community’s experience of Christ, finds a deeper and fuller truth by bringing different stories together. For the depth of the truth of God is unfathomable, and we can always learn more truth, and always learn new ways to speak that truth; and most often, we will do that by hearing other stories, and learning them well, and understanding what they say, and so expanding our own understandings of what we came with.
It is too late to avert tragedy. The settler church chose to collaborate with commerce and government in attempting to destroy all the Indigenous stories, and much has been lost which can never be recovered. But not all has been lost. The Indigenous people would not let their stories be wholly extinguished, they held on even when it was illegal to do so, and the shapes of story and culture and understanding live still. And if we can come humbly enough, with enough repentance, that dialogue is still possible. In the cities and on the reservations, Indigenous people are still telling their stories, and we can still listen. And we must listen, and we must listen for a long time before we try to say anything at all.
And there are those in the Indigenous community who are actively choosing to put together their traditional stories, and the stories of Christian scripture—because not even the worst work of the church could quite conceal the power and depth of that story of Jesus, and some have chosen to make that story their own. We see this in the emerging Indigenous church, which is beginning to shape and define itself—and in a few weeks at General Synod, although most of the attention has been on the marriage canon, there will also be resolutions which may significantly shape and strengthen the autonomy of the Indigenous church. Some of us have been fortunate enough to hear the speaking and preaching of Bishop Mark MacDonald—whom we hope to have preach here in the fall, by the way—who effortlessly brings together scripture and the church fathers and the teachings of the elders. We see the same work in this city in the Toronto Urban Native Ministry, which strives to bring together Christian and Indigenous teachings and practices for healing and renewal of some of the people most damaged by colonialism.
As a settler myself, who has only barely begun to do the necessary work, I am hesitant to talk too much about what we will learn from this dialogue of stories. But I will let the readings which were chosen for today guide me a bit, and look at the themes which they suggest. And something which emerges very clearly is the goodness, indeed the sacred nature, of the created world—the created world as a word in itself, which reveals the divine laws, which tells us how we should be, what kind of creatures we are. This sense of the world itself as speaking the nature of God and the way in which we should walk is a teaching of our own which we have, all too often, lost sight of; even when we pay it lip service, we have mostly not walked in the way which the world would teach us to walk, we have not listened to the teaching of creation, we have not let the word of God in the created world teach us. We have not been humble or simple or kind, we have not understood the need to limit our desires, we have not walked in the right paths. Aand as our readings today suggest, realizing that the created world speaks the word of God also means recognizing creation as sacred in and of itself. This is inherent in our own scriptures—the psalms are filled with praise of the wonder of created beings, the final chapters of Job evoke a world amazing and vast and beyond the full grasp of human beings, our world, God’s world. Today’s psalm speaks beautifully of the heavens declaring the glory of God, the voice of God speaking without words through the whole world.
But we have come too often to see creation not as the very speaking of God, but as a thing to be exploited; that is probably exactly where the relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the settlers broke down, when the Europeans came to see the original inhabitants of this land as some kind of obstacle to the complete, relentless exploitation of that land for purposes of commercial gain. And that is still the core of the confict in many ways, as we continue to invade the tiny scraps of land the Indigenous communities have left, for heavy industry, for pipelines, for the squeezing of every last possible bit of money out of an increasingly wounded and perhaps dying planet. And if the settler church had listened, and listened deeply, to Indigenous stories, well, we might still not have been able to do a whole lot to slow down the vicious economic cannibalism of the industrialized economy, but at least we would not have been collaborators. And at least we can stop being collaborators now, at least we can try to stand behind the Indigenous people who are trying to protect what is left, in Grassy Narrows, in Aamjiwnaang, in so many other places.
Our Primate, Fred Hiltz, has directed us today, as one small part of our response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to pay particular attention to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The whole document is worth studying, and has a good deal to say about what it means to walk together as equals, what it would mean for us as the church to reshape ourselves, to respect the rights of Indigenous Christians to a truly autonomous church, in dialogue with the rest of the church but self-determining. It also has a good deal to say about our relationship with creation—specific articles of the Declaration deal with the relationship between Indigenous people and the land, and the principle of free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous peoples before their lands are subject to any project affecting them. If we start trying to live according just to these few principles, our church, our economy, our whole society will be different. Will be, frankly, better—richer, more creative, more diverse, more in accordance with the word of God which runs through all the world.
Here, perhaps at the last moment, perhaps almost too late, we have a chance. A chance, as I said last week, to start again; to do better, for the Indigenous peoples, for the world, and for ourselves. Let us not allow this moment of God’s mercy to be lost.