Sermon for 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 20 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Samuel 17:1a,4-11,19-23,32-49; Psalm 9:9-20; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
Although we are observing the National Indigenous Day of Prayer today, I have chosen not to use the readings set for that day, but to turn instead to the ordinary lectionary readings. The readings for the day focus on the presence of God in creation, drawing attention to the common ground between the Christian faith and Indigenous traditions, and this is a valid and important approach. But this year, as the bodies of more and more children are uncovered on the grounds of Christian residential schools, as the depth of the crimes of colonialism are made apparent even to those settlers who were trying hard not to pay attention, we may find more of what we need in the story of the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was common to say that we were “all in the same boat”—and the intention was good, it was meant to express, in part, that we are all responsible for the wellbeing of others, and that irresponsible behaviour will tip not only yourself but everyone into the sea. But very soon, people began to point out that this could draw attention away from the structural inequities of race, class, and gender, which meant that the burden of the pandemic fell much more heavily on some groups than on others. Same storm, different boats, to quote the title of an art piece which a friend of mine created with those ideas in mind. In fact, this gospel passage features a number of boats in the same storm; we don’t know how different the boats were, or how much more endangered some might have been, what they experienced, what it meant to them.
But in fact, not all of us are even in the same storm. For Indigenous people on Turtle Island a storm has been going on, not just during the pandemic, but relentlessly for over five hundred years—invasion, violent displacement, disease, starvation. The recent discoveries of hundreds of small bodies—and there will be more, we know that there are in fact thousands—is layered onto generations of trauma, of kidnapping and torture, systemic discrimination, ongoing desperate poverty on reserve communities without even clean drinking water, and right now a COVID outbreak, especially among children, in Kashechewan just as the rest of the province seems to be emerging. And, as the bodies are uncovered, a storm of grief and anger renewed, and a very reasonable sense that God really did not, does not, care that they are perishing.
And those of us who are white settler people – we need to face the fact that we are, in fact, the storm in this instance, that we are the source of the terror, that we are the ones to whom Jesus directs the words, “Be still.” Step back. Be quiet. Stop the devastation. Take responsibility. And listen, listen to the stories we have been refusing to hear—because a recent survey suggests that two-thirds of non-Indigenous people in Canada knew little or nothing about the residential schools until the uncovering of those small bodies, and while I don’t think that anyone in this congregation was part of that two-thirds, we certainly all know people who were. And each of us, whatever the relationship of ourselves and our ancestors to this land may be, is caught up somehow in the complex pain of this history. We must hear it. We must have that moment of dead calm, that moment when everything stops, until the bodies of the children are found, their stories told, their names remembered.
And beyond that, and coming out of that, until serious measures are made to pay back what was stolen —direct return of land sometimes; a real commitment to requiring Indigenous consent for development on and exploitation of that land; resources for healing and rebuilding. The healing of relationships, between peoples, and between people and the land, and the healing of our images of God, an escape from that theology which identified God with white European culture, which behaved as if the Creator was not here before Europeans arrived. Until all these things are done, the boat continues to be torn.
But the storm in this story is calmed, can be calmed, because Christ is lord of both calm and storm. Because in Genesis, when the Word moves on the waters, the primal chaos is not destroyed, as in other creation narratives of that time and place, but transformed. We are all called to transformation, to becoming a part of a new creation; for all creation is the Lord’s, and all creation yearns for redemption, even if sometimes unknowingly. It must be a transformation of our selves and of our world, and it is not easy. But we are told that it is possible.
When Jesus embarks on this journey, we are told that he and disciples are going “to the other side,” and this is not just a neutral geographical reference. He is going from Jewish into Gentile territory, to the other side in a deep sense. After he has calmed the storm which would prevent this passage,the challenges do not end, the complexities of history continue to unroll. Jesus arrives on the shore (it’s not clear if the disciples ever actually get out of the boat) to find someone there who is as much a personification of chaos as anyone in scripture, the Gerasene demoniac—a lost, damaged man who lives among the graves and wounds his own body with rocks, whose affliction bears the name of the military occupiers of the land. Does his body signal for us colonial violence itself, or the wreckage created by that violence, or both? He is a shifting sign. But he too, even he, is transformed.
It is a transformation not especially welcome—when he is seen restored to “his right mind”, as the passage has it, the townspeople who have been previously occupied in trying to tie him up now try to make him go away—the risk that he will destabilize all their constructed reality is perhaps too great. But the witness of his transformation, his restoration, still stands.
We settlers have not particularly commended ourselves; we have not lived up to the paradoxes of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, but rather have acted as obstacles to others, have obscured rather than shown Christ in the world. And yet now is, still is, the acceptable time. Each moment is the acceptable time, is the day of our salvation, is the potential moment of turning, of allowing the voice of the Word to speak over our broken seas. For each of us the voice will be partly different, conditioned by our own histories and the histories of our ancestors, our particular positions, abilities, frailties and longings. But it is the same voice.
And though the experience of being abandoned by an uncaring God, a God who is sleeping through our storms, is a real experience and must be acknowledged, yet in the boat, and on the sea, there is that presence which knows all abandonment and pain, that presence which knows torture at the hands of power, which was with every child tortured, which was in every grave. And calls each of us, out of all of our various graves, towards the renewal of our common life.