A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Pentecost 2 ~ Indigenous Sunday ~ Ephesians 2:14-22
I chose this scripture passage for today because it speaks of a journey of reconciliation between two peoples. In the scripture it was about Jewish/Gentile relations in the early church. In the beginning the Christian church was a reform movement within Judaism. All the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish and stayed Jewish. Over time, as the Good News spread – thanks primarily to apostles like Paul who travelled far and wide sharing the story of Jesus and his teaching – some conflict started to emerge.
The Jewish wing of the church demanded that everyone become Jewish in order to be Christian. In their mind you had to be just like them in order to be in the church.
Jesus was Jewish. They were Jewish. It just made sense.
For a Gentile that would mean adopting all sorts of new religious and social customs, and if you were a male it would mean circumcision. This was a big deal, and big source of conflict.
Now, Paul was really good at his job as a church planter, and it wasn’t all that long before Gentile Christians outnumbered the Jewish ones. And in the end the Jewish Christian leaders gave in and learned to accept everyone without requiring full conversion to Judaism. At the time of this letter to the Ephesians though, this was still a big conflict and Paul was desperately trying to get the two groups, or peoples, or nations if you will, to reconcile.
His argument was very simple.
Ephesians 2:14 For Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
Today is Indigenous Sunday so naturally I’m reading this passage with an eye to indigenous reconciliation.
Obviously, before you can reconcile with someone you have to know them, so I’m wondering…
What’s your experience of Indigenous people?
Did/Do you live in community with Indigenous folks?
Did you go to school with them? Work with them?
Did you know there are people of Indigenous heritage in this congregation?
It’s hard to have anything but stereotypes about any group of people until you have a relationship with them.
For me, I didn’t really interact with or meet many Indigenous people until I started doing work with the wider church. I’m grateful for the new relationships I’m discovering. I have a lot to learn!
And if you’re not in relationships with Indigenous folks when things come on the news it’s hard to know how to react. I don’t know about you but I feel really disconnected from things like residential schools, and treaty violations, and unceded lands, and the terrible stories of so much poverty, and suicide and despair in too many Indigenous communities.
We feel guilty, and ashamed, but we didn’t really do it, and yet we’ve benefited from it, and it’s all very confusing and messy. The best I think we can do is learn and try to be part of the reconciliation process as best we can.
At Faith United that has meant simple things like this worship service having this theme today – and the learning time about Indigenous spirituality we had earlier this year – and our learning and fundraising work to support the Pikangikum community.
These are good steps. These are good things that we’ve done so far.
In the news lately has been some debate about the idea of appropriation vs appreciation. A lot of it comes down to your intention. It tends toward appropriation when you take an identifiable element of another culture and try to do it your own way. But if we don’t try how do we learn? It’s really tricky.
For example, it’s Indigenous Sunday, and there are a few hymns in our two hymnbooks that are written by indigenous musicians. As musicians we could probably reproduce the hymn well with some practice. The question is should we? At what point are we honouring a different culture and at what point are we playing at it?
Does that mean we should never use those hymns unless being led in worship by indigenous persons? No, I wouldn’t go that far – but I would definitely choose any ethnic hymn carefully. So instead I chose hymns today that are in tune with major themes in indigenous spirituality – creation, animals, interconnectedness. Our intention is to honour and appreciate, not appropriate. Respect is an important aspect of reconciliation.
That word gets used a lot, so maybe we should pause and take a moment to think about what reconciliation even means.
Reconciliation is a journey rather than a goal or final destination. It’s very complex, it’s personal and often painful, but it’s a part of living faithfully.
Reconciliation requires trust, truth-telling, relationships, a life-long commitment, and time.
To reconcile is to settle, to resolve, to reunite.
Again, Ephesians 2:14 For Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
There have been a number of initiatives both in Canada and internationally to take steps toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings all across Canada exploring the depths of the painful effects of the Residential School system and the realities of discrimination against Indigenous People and released their findings in 2012. Their report included 94 Calls to Action – including 4 (#58-61) aimed directly at churches – that would become steps on the journey toward reconciliation.
More recently came the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The declaration recognizes Indigenous Peoples’ basic human rights, as well as rights to self-determination, language, equality and land, among others. Originally the Canadian government did not sign on to the UN Declaration but that was rectified last May when we became full supporters. There is still immense work to be done in many levels of government but this was another important step in the journey of reconciliation.
Let’s talk about what the church has done so far.
There have been many task groups and initiatives over the years but probably the most significant event of all happened at General Council in 1986.
“Moderator Bob Smith responded to the request of First Nations people in the United Church for an apology for the church’s role in colonization and the destruction of their cultures and spiritual practices.
“His words were painfully honest, speaking truth not just to what European civilization had visited upon Indigenous peoples, but also to what we had brought upon ourselves.” Here’s what he said:
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 be 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.
“We did not hear you” and “we tried to make you be like us.”
Echoes of the reading from Ephesians 2, reminding us that power and prejudice run deep in the human condition.
“Two years later, the Indigenous church acknowledged the Apology as ‘an important step forward’ and expressed its hope and prayer ‘that the Apology is not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity.’
This conversation changed us as a church, shifting our identity and setting us on a continuing journey from apology toward reconciliation.” (the words in quotation marks above came from Moderator Jordan Cantwell)
A second apology, one directly about the residential schools issue, was offered in 1998. Over the years many initiatives and strong steps toward reconciliation have happened.
Then something big happened in 2012. At General Council that year we adopted a major revision to our United Church crest – adding the 4 colours of an Indigenous medicine wheel and adding the Mohawk words aw gway – nyah day day waw – nay renh – which means “all my relations”, which is a strong theme in Indigenous spirituality.
Our Bay of Quinte Conference has had a very active group called ‘Dancing the Circle of Right Relations’ for many years now. They offer many events and learning times throughout our Conference region. And our own Lakeridge Presbytery has been doing really important work on this as they’ve helped us with acknowledging traditional territory. Do you know about this? Do you know whose traditional territory Faith United is on?
Over the past several years the practice has emerged of taking time to acknowledge that the churches we gather in and the places where we have our meetings are on the traditional territories of indigenous people. We do this for a number of reasons, foremost among them is an acknowledgment that in many, and perhaps most cases we have acquired these lands in unjust ways. Treaties were negotiated by unequal parties and then were frequently ignored or changed when it suited the dominant culture. It was easier to steal than fight – and perhaps fighting would have been worse for indigenous people but at least it would have been honest.
Now, I know that none of us here had anything to do with any of that.
And yet we have reaped all the benefits from those unjust dealings.
So an acknowledgement of the land is not a guilt trip, or a suggestion to give it all back, but just a simple act of awareness and consciousness raising. It says we realize what has transpired, and we are trying to take steps toward reconciling old wrongs and working to build new relationships.
The act of naming territories is challenging because there was much movement by indigenous people over time and a single territory may have historical connection to more than one tribe. Another complication is that the boundaries were in flux so there aren’t clear border lines like we are used to.
We, here at Faith United, are right near the edge of one of those boundaries. As best we can determine, we are on the traditional territory of the Anishinabek people. And so, as a gesture of respect and reconciliation, we are going to begin to add this acknowledgement to the beginning of our worship.
Every step helps.
Next year General Council is being held right here in our Presbytery – at UOIT in Oshawa. I happen to be the chair of the planning committee. Our Bay of Quinte Conference is the host – and did you know that for the first time ever there is a co-hosting Conference? We are co-hosting with the All Native Circle Conference. They simply don’t have the resources to ever be able to host on their own, so they are partnering with us. It’s hard work building relationships and learning how to find authentic ways for both hosts to be themselves and be in partnership. Again, I’m learning a lot! And I’m really grateful for the experience.
Our goal, our hope, is that we can be the kind of faith community that Paul yearned for in his letter to the Ephesians. Listen to these verses from the end of today’s reading again. It’s the dominant culture talking to the oppressed culture. This is what reconciliation is all about:
Ephesians 2:19-20 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the keystone.
I once heard an Indigenous person speaking at a national church function say something about all this, about reconciliation, that I thought was incredibly wise.
She said that it took many generations to walk into the forest, and it will take a long time to walk back out.
Our consciousness has been raised, we are much more aware of the issues, and we are committed to working toward reconciliation, but it is going to be slow.
We don’t get to set the tempo.
We have come so far – but we still have so far to journey – together.