Proper 9 (14), Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
9 July 2023
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Neither of my parents were “churched.” Nominally they belonged to the church, because where we lived everybody did, but there were no practices associated with being a member of the church. After all, this was Germany. Yet somehow my parents found their way to the church and to the faith. For that I am profoundly grateful because it meant that I grew up in the church.
Our family lived in a three-story row house. My maternal grandparents, who had lived through two world wars, lived with us. Like my parents they were not “churched.”
On occasion we would invite them to come with us. After all, they didn’t have much else to do.
Usually my grandmother would decline the invitation. She would say that since she had not killed anyone, she had no need to go. For many years I thought that her answer reflected the assumption that church was a place for people who did not have their life together.
But leaving aside the fact that her governments had done plenty of killing in her name, I have come to think that her answer was her way of saying that if we were the example of what it was to be a Christian, she was not interested. Saying that she had not killed anyone most likely referred to the absence of peace in our home, an absence she undoubtedly would have noticed since we all lived under the same roof. And with us going to church, the house would be quiet for a couple of hours.
Had we looked more redeemed, my grandmother might have believed in the Redeemer.1 She died when I was twelve.
Back then we didn’t get what my grandmother was saying not because we didn’t know it, but because we were all trying so hard to hold it together. And because we were trying so hard to hold it together we did not want to acknowledge the truth. Lying to ourselves seemed more manageable than acknowledging the truth.
When in 2021 the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, British Columbia announced that ground penetrating radar had found the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School Canada was shocked.
It should not have been. Six years earlier Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had published it’s report. The report included 94 Calls to Action, six of which deal with the deaths of indigenous children while in the care of Residential Schools. Of course, there is also the memory of local communities, if anyone cared to listen.
The reason the nation was shocked was because we did not own this part of our history. When our Prime Minister spoke of “news” and a “dark chapter,” journalist Shelagh Rogers wrote, “This is not news. And this is not a dark chapter … I would say it’s pretty well the whole book.”2
Most of these schools had been run by churches and religious orders on behalf of the Government of Canada. But until very recently this part of our history barely found its way into school curricula, and even now Canadians are not certain as to how to tell our story. We are not sure how to tell our story because we are used to seeing ourselves as the good guys.
This is not unlike the way we have come to approach our reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. When we say, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” (7:15) we acknowledge our failure to live up not only to the Law but our failure to live the Gospel, but in such speech the passage itself becomes little more than a rationalization that we can’t do better than we are doing and that the church cannot be more than it is. It’s a little like saying, “it’s the thought that counts.”
When in post-war West Germany I became a conscientious objector, a choice that was socially acceptable in a nation that had begun and lost two world wars, those older would assert that the Kingdom of God was one thing, living in this world was another.
It was the kind of rationalization that in Bonhoeffer’s words is eager for our lives to become indistinguishable from the world so as to not give offence.3 But such not giving offence fails to give witness to Kingdom.
And so it may surprise us that Paul is not speaking about our dilemma of falling short and having made peace with our shortcomings. ‘We’re all sinners and we live by grace’ is a bad parody of Reformation faith. Rather, Paul invokes the state of sin, the state of the fall, of sin lurking at the door and being unable to master it. Paul’s exclamation, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” (7:19) does not speak of the life of those in Christ. The life in Christ is where Paul wants to take us, for it is Christ who redeems us.
To read this passage as the human dilemma of all people, including those who are in Christ is to misread this text. To take Paul’s words as a description of an unchangeable reality uses the Bible to rationalize the church’s failings and closes oneself off to being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
The acknowledgment that our most common reading of Romans 7 is a misreading that serves to help us make peace with our failings instead of seeking the deep well of God’s transforming grace is a confession. And in my tradition we begin worship with the confession of our sins. Calling on Paul as our witness for our spiritual and moral invisibility is a sin.
In his book “Reconstructing the Gospel – finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion”, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove describes three movements of African American Faith. In this he draws on the work of Albert J. Raboteau who describes the faith of the enslaved through their own witness. This witness is song. A song that names these movements is, “I will trust in the Lord. I will trust in the Lord. I will trust in the Lord till I die.” ‘Trusting in the Lord till I die’ is the first movement.
This also is a confession. But it is not a confession of sins but a confession of faith. And for the church to be faithful to its Lord the church must move from the one confession, the confession of our failures, to another confession, the confession of trust in the Lord. A reading of Romans seven as the sad reality of the church never gets to this second confession.
The faith of the enslaved is a miracle. It is a miracle because these people became Christian despite the witness of their oppressors who called themselves Christian.
Without wanting to take away from this miracle, I wonder whether despite everything there was and is not a certain logic that the God who becomes a victim and is the God of victims is necessarily recognized by victims, while the eyes of those who hold power remain veiled. Could it be that a church that tries to hold on to power, is anxious to lose it, – and being blinded by its own anxiety is unable to recognize God as victim?
The theme of our Gathering comes from and connects with the words Jesus speaks to his disciples who are fearful. In the same verse in which Jesus gives them the peace the world cannot give, he says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The whole chapter begins with the admonition to not let their hearts be troubled.
That is because their hearts are troubled. Thomas does not know the way to the Father and Philip wants to see the Father. We know Jesus’ answer. He says, “I am the way,” and, “who has seen me has seen the Father.” The answer to their questions is in front of them but because they are afraid, they cannot see it.
I was ordained in 1994 and during most of these years the church has been in a state of anxiety, veiled by devising programs and hiring church consultants aiming at finding a way forward which often has been a euphemism for finding a way back.
And that is only our anxiety about the church. And then there are our anxieties about climate, technology, justice, democracy, and about those in the church less enlightened than we are.
My grandmother didn’t say something about our family that we didn’t know. Yet we could not understand what she was saying because we were afraid to admit it. However, not admitting it was a lot harder than dealing with the truth.
Anxiety hems in our imagination, it shuts down our vision.
But imagination, a holy imagination, is crucial to move beyond fear, resentment, regret, and beyond Romans seven as a description of the church.
The church that first sung and continues to sing, “I will trust in the Lord till I die,” has a holy imagination for it recognizes Christ the victim as Lord of all, it recognizes that Christ the victim came to end all victimizing, and it knows that it is God who has rescued us to be the church.
Albert Raboteau tells that it wasn’t until he was 17 that his mother and his step-father told him that his father had been shot dead by a white man three months before Albert was born. They said that they had waited this long because they did not want him to grow up hating white people.4
You see, faithful Christian imagination is able to conceive of a world in which those who are hated do not hate. It is the kind of imagination the church needs to be the church, for without it will become the victim of its own anxiety.
A number of years ago, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote under the simple title, “How is the Bible True?”5, that by imagining the world the Bible imagines, humans can imagine and construct their world as new creation. And by engaging the truth of the scriptures with our imagination we are freed from having to perceive the world simply as it is, freed from our denial born of fear, and freed from perceiving ourselves as objects instead of subjects.
The enslaved church did that, as did Raboteau’s mother and step-father, and countless others.
Those who exclaim, “O wretched man” are limited in their imagination to receive the world as it is. Those who sing “I will trust in the Lord till I die” are guided by a holy imagination that sees the world as God intends it and sees the church as worker in God’s vineyard.
I will trust in the Lord until I die. Come, O Holy Spirit, come, and give faith to your church.
2 Shelagh Rogers commented: When we learned about the 215 Indigenous children buried on the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School while in the care of Catholic clergy who ran the school, the Prime Minister shared this tweet: “The news that remains were found at the former Kamloops residential school breaks my heart – it is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history. I am thinking about everyone affected by this distressing news. We are here for you.”
I want to parse the tweet out a little. May I start with “The news”? I don’t understand how could this be news when a whole volume of the TRC report (V.4, 266 pages) is dedicated to children who did not come home? That volume is titled “Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials”. Have you read it, Prime Minister? It’s been out for 5 and 1/2 years. Is it required reading for all your ministers?
I was there in December of 2015 when the full 6 volume TRC report was presented to you, Prime Minister. I was in the company of fellow TRC honorary witnesses from Coast Salish territory, Andrea Walsh and Chief Bobby Joseph. With hundreds of others, we watched as Theland Kicknosway, then 12 years old, drummed us in to that room where the report would be unveiled. We heard TRC Chair Murray Sinclair turn to young The land and say “Keep your head high. You symbolize what could have been.” (Theland has kept his head high. This summer, he will embark on his 7th Run/Bike through parts of Turtle Island to raise awareness for MMIWG2S).
You saw the two empty chairs on the platform which symbolized the children who never came home from residential school. After making a territorial acknowledgement to the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg and Pikwàkanagàn First Nations for welcoming us, those two chairs were the first things Murray Sinclair addressed.
You heard Chief Wilton Littlechild, a lifelong athlete, say that “sports allowed me to escape the pain and suffering of residential schools.”
And you heard Dr. Marie Wilson share these devastating facts from Volume 4 of The Final Report. From my notes, she said that in 1/3 of these deaths, the government and the schools did not record the name of the student who died; in 1/4 of these deaths the governmnent and the schools did not record the gender of the student who died; that in 1/2 of these deaths, the government and the schools did not record the cause of death. To those missing children Dr. Wilson said “Much work lies ahead on the path to reconciliation including the reclamation of your names and the reconsecration of your resting places.”
You were in the presence of one of the Survivor Advisors to the Commissioners, the late John Banksland, proudly wearing his Inuvialuit parka cover “as a symbol not to be ashamed of who you are”. And he said to you, Prime Minister, to remember “this country is of people, not paper”.
You heard another Survivor Advisor, Eugene Arcand, when he said “No one can say, unless you live under a rock or in a cave that you don’t know about this any more.”
This is not news. And this is not a dark chapter (though you are right, it IS shameful). Not a dark chapter…after witnessing hundreds of Survivor statements (the commissioners heard thousands) I would say it’s pretty well the whole book. Calling it history distances the tragedy. It is present. It is alive. And beyond distressing. It’s devastating.
I remember you, Prime Minister, saying that day in December 2015, and I wrote this in my notes: “Our goal… is to lift this burden from your shoulders, from those of your families and communities. It is to accept fully our responsibilities and our failing as a government and as a country.”
Let’s lift the burden. Stop going to court when Indigenous people want documents pertaining to their lives. Stop fighting them.
Set the truth free. Let it see sunlight. Answer the Calls to Action. Live up to past promises.
Let’s stop failing Survivors and their families.
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge, Christian Kaiser Verlag: München 1989, page 30