Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reconciliation: Dying and Rising for Christ

Reconciliation Sunday
22 September 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers:  Isaiah 40.25-31; Psalm 19; Philippians 4.4-9; John 1.1-18
         In May of 1987 I travelled from South Bend, Indiana to Vancouver to attend my first meeting as a member of the faculty of Vancouver School of Theology.  Just a few days prior to my departure, a young man had run a stop sign and hit my car broadside on the passenger side.  The physician had prescribed some major pain-relievers as well as a mild calming drug to ease my healing.  So, as you can well imagine, most of the meeting passed by without leaving too much of an impression on my memory.

         What I do remember is that this was a historic meeting of the faculty.  We tend to over-use the word, ‘historic’, but this meeting did mark a change that will be remembered in the life of the School.  It was at this meeting that the faculty voted unanimously to accept the invitation of the Native Ministry Consortium to create a Master of Divinity degree programme for aboriginal and non-aboriginal people serving in First Nations’ communities.  In a nearby room the Consortium was meeting at the same time as we were, so the faculty, accompanied by the beating of a drum, processed from our meeting place to the Consortium’s to announce our decision.  Joy filled the space and a few tears were shed.

         What no member of the faculty realized was that our decision was a decision to die.  In the years to follow we faced the criticism of our colleagues in more traditional programmes, the scrutiny of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada and the constant challenge to address the implicit racism and classism within the academic world we inhabited.  We had to find ways to honour the oral cultures of First Nations, a difficult task given the power of the written culture in which all of the faculty had been trained.  Our students were often critical of assumptions built into our courses, so the faculty were regularly adjusting the curriculum, reviewing how to evaluate student progress and pondering how best to bring First Nations cultures and values into a conversation with the Western Christian tradition.  Sometimes months of work would be abandoned when we realized that what we had designed was inappropriate.

         But our willingness to die to the traditional expectations of graduate theological education has led to tens of graduates who are now part of the on-going reconciliation between First Nations and the so-called ‘settler’ peoples of Canada.  Because we were willing to die, the School now has students throughout Canada, the United States and the world who are learning that culture is not an enemy of the Christian faith.  We have learned how to identify the benefits that our diverse cultures bring to our discipleship as well as the liabilities.

         Last week I spoke about what I understand forgiveness to mean, a conscious decision to end our hostage to the wrongs of the past in order to envision a new future.  While I mentioned in passing the fact that forgiveness requires courage, I may not have mentioned that forgiveness, the keystone of reconciliation, means dying.  The last verse of a hymn I grew up singing in the United States goes like this:  “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.  Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing --- the marvellous peace of God.”  Reconciliation, the peace of God that is no peace, means closing the conflicts of the past in the sod, so that the shoots of the new life can spring from the grave.

         Dying and rising is at the heart of the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth.  Earlier in his letter to the Philippians Paul writes that Jesus died to the prerogatives of being God’s Beloved in order to reconcile us to God.  But dying was not God’s last word for Jesus nor for us.  God raised Jesus from the dead and we who are Jesus’ disciples can face dying, whether our physical deaths or the deaths of long-standing ways of being church, with the conviction that death is never God’s last word for us nor God’s last word for the gospel movement.

         This past week our city and province have participated in many events associated with the visit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Today thousands of people, Christians and non-Christians, are marching through downtown Vancouver in an act of solidarity.  What I wonder is whether they know that genuine reconciliation only occurs when one is willing to die to the past in order to be raised for the future.

         For non-aboriginal Canadians reconciliation with aboriginal Canadians means many little deaths.  The first death is dying to the idea that we, the Canadians of the past two or three generations, are not responsible for the present plight of aboriginal people.  Non-aboriginal Canadians have benefited from the loss of land, culture and language the aboriginal Canadians have experienced over the past four hundred years.  The property on which this church is built was once part of the traditional lands of the Musqueam people.  We must lay in the sod our na├»ve innocence in order that we might rise to a renewed commitment to justice and to the dignity of every human being.

         We must lay in the sod the quiet belief that our way of doing things in not only the best way of doing things but the only way of doing things.  I have learned from aboriginal people the importance of hearing all the voices at the table, not just the ones who speak the loudest and are able to hold forth for the longest.  It is a lesson that I am still learning, trained as I was in the cut and thrust of western academic seminars.  I have learned the importance of listening to hear what someone is saying, not listening in order to formulate my rebuttal.  It is a lesson that I am still learning, trained as I was in the western traditions of debate.

         We must lay in the sod our sense of isolation from the needs and concerns of aboriginal Canadians.  Their concerns about the land and how we respect this gift from the Creator is surely a shared one.  Just this July the General Synod added a new commitment to the baptismal covenant:  Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?  I will, with God’s help.”  Aboriginal concerns about adequate and safe housing are surely shared by those of us who know that homelessness has become a corrosive condition in the fabric of our metropolitan area despite constant assurances that we are living in the best place on earth.

         My friends, dying and rising is not unfamiliar to the Christian people.  In baptism we celebrate our dying to the old life of sin and separation and rising to the new life of reconciliation and communion with God.  In the eucharist we remember the death of Christ by breaking bread and pouring wine, elements gathered from the natural world, and then sharing in that bread and wine so that we might become the green shoots of Christ’s risen life in our own time and place. 

         Reconciliation is not without pain nor is it achieved overnight nor during the term of one Commission.  Reconciliation is a life-long commitment, a generations-long commitment, to living out our baptismal promises

  • to persevere in resisting evil
  • to repent and return to the Lord
  • to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ
  • to seek and serve Christ in all persons
  • to love our neighbour as ourselves
  • to strive for justice and peace among all people and
  • to respect the dignity of every human being.

These are good words, solid promises, but they are costly.  They require a change in perspective, a new way of looking at the world through God’s eyes rather than our own.  They require dying, but they promise resurrection to new life.  May God give us the grace to live these words so that we and all God’s children may be free.  Amen.

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