Worship for July 11, 2021 “All My Relations”

The first year I was at seminary we had a visit from a local representative of the Canadian Bible Society- their logo is a line drawing of a sower of seeds. I still have the Greek New Testament given to me by the Bible Society. Sharing the Word is sowing the seed.

Over the centuries, the parable of the sower has offered us a job description, and a comforting way to think about the fact that not everyone wants to join us.

Built into the parable are the images of rocky soil, of shallow soil, of soil over-ridden with weeds. Not every place the seed lands, will result in growth, new life. There is room for the preacher to say, some people are like that- some are shallow, or rock hard, or shadowed by weeds that won’t allow the gospel to take root.

The story gives us the tools, not just to encourage persistent sowing, but also to congratulate ourselves for being good soil, and to be judgmental of others. If not everybody who hears our message becomes converted, transformed, it may be because somehow their soil is not ready. This story can be misused, manipulated, to give us a sense of superiority.

It’s often easier, and tempting to think of the world in simple terms. Good soil or bad. Jesus follower or not. Sowers of seed, and tracts of dirt. Saved or not saved.

Stories are powerful, and can be used as weapons. When white people first came to this continent, the story they brought home was they had discovered a vast empty land, a Terra Nullius, with just a few ignorant savages on it.

Another story, called the “Doctrine of Discovery” was told, that said that the relatively few people on this vast empty land had no claim of ownership, because they weren’t civilized, and they weren’t Christians. They needed colonizers to come in and show them how to live.

The recent stories about unmarked graves of hundreds of children, on sites of former residential schools make it more difficult to ignore what has been known for seven generations, in indigenous communities, that terrible things were done to children, and very few perpetrators have been held accountable for their actions. 

This is a time for soul searching, for our country, and for each of us as citizens, who have the privilege of life in this beautiful land, that had a rich history before it was claimed and colonized.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to tell us, 6 years ago, when they produced their final report, that included a lengthy list of recommendations, most of which have gone largely ignored. They also told us, way back in 2015, about more than 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending a residential school. The Commission recorded first-hand stories from survivors, about the treatment of children, and the efforts to hide their deaths.

Justice Murray Sinclair believes a large number of children who were very ill, were sent home to die. He fears the total number of deaths may be over 6000, of the 150,000 children who attended the schools. That’s a mortality rate of 4%, significantly higher than that of adults serving in the Canadian Forces. It would have been less dangerous to draft these children into the army.

We have made our lives, and our living, on the land, and with the benefit of the rich resources of this country, which was not ours, until representatives of the British Crown took it.  They often used the argument that white people could manage it better than the original residents, to mask the real intention, which was to create profit for investors.  Corporations like the North West Company and the Hudson Bay Company were granted Royal Charters, and protected by Acts of the British Parliament, which gave them the right exploit the land and residents of what would become Canada.

For over 100 years our country had a program with the goal of eliminating First Nations culture, identity, language, spirituality, and political power. The Indian Act, which gives tremendous power to the federal government, paid lip service to the idea of helping people find their way to becoming “productive citizens” in the mainstream of Canada, but the underlying motivation was the assumption that being white is better than being indigenous.

I wish this wasn’t our history, but it is. Not every white Canadian is a racist. But these racist things have been done, by every single elected government, over the course the history of Canada.

Something else I wish was not true- that the United Church of Canada, as well as other major Christian denominations, were willing, active partners in this sickening enterprise. Churches entered into contracts to run residential schools across this country. I knew people who worked in them, and I know people who survived them, but not without physical and emotional wounds and scars.

The largest Christian denominations in Canada failed, not only in their treatment of the children. They failed to ensure the people they hired to work in these schools were decent and kind. They gave pedophiles and sociopaths unhindered access to innocent, vulnerable victims. They actively covered up the crimes of their employees, and made excuses for the high mortality rates.

The churches failed to be prophetic, to challenge the lie that white people are inherently better than people of colour.

I get weary of thinking of these sad things, but feel a responsibility to grapple with them, and glean some of the truth they contain. That feels more faithful than to avoid talking about it.

As a preacher, and teacher of the Jesus Way, there are questions that weigh heavy on me.

How could leaders, and members of Christian churches fail to see the white superiority inherent in the system as a problem? How could they look the other way at the treatment of vulnerable children, families, and communities? Why weren’t more of my brother and sister preachers over the last century calling out the sin of racism? How could they claim to be Christian, and do what they did, in the name of the brown-skinned, dark-eyed teacher, prophet, saviour Jesus?

How can our churches have any credibility, with indigenous people, or anybody else? Can we really claim to passing on the Gospel of Love, when by our actions and inactions we condoned racism, and contributed to the deaths of thousands of children?

I don’t support the choice of those who burn down churches, but I can understand their anger.

Reflecting on these sad truths, that aren’t just history, but a present reality, pushes me to look again at the superiority inherent in thinking of ourselves as the sower of seeds. We still have that responsibility, but we also need to think of ourselves in more humble terms.

The latin root of the word humble is humus, which is also the word for soil, or earth. In the creation story, the first humans are formed of earth, into which God breathes the breath of life.

The soil is sacred. The earth was made by the Creator, and is inherently good. We can think of ourselves as both soil, and the sower of seeds. Our “soil-ness”, or our “dirtness” is a good thing- it connects us to all that God makes. We may be sowers of seed, but we did not create it, and we do not have exclusive rights to the seed- they are not GMO products, patented by some agri-corporation- they are gifts from God, to God’s people, all of God’s people.

In August of 2012, at the 41st General Council, The United Church of Canada acknowledged the presence and spirituality of Aboriginal peoples in the United Church by revising the church’s crest. One of the changes was the addition of a Mohawk phrase which means “All my relations.”

Richard Wagamese was an Ojibwe’ man born in Minaki, Ontario in 1955. He died just a few years ago. He was an award winning journalist and author, who described himself as a second generation survivor of the residential school system. In 2013, he wrote an essay for the newspaper in Kamloops, in which he described spending time on his deck, early in the morning:

To be here as morning breaks is to feel unity. It’s to feel connected to everything around you and to absorb it, bring it into the very fiber your being, like learning to breathe all over again. It’s to come to understand that you are alive because everything else is. It is to comprehend what your people mean when they say “All my relations.”

It means everything. It’s not uttered in a casual way nor is it meant to be. In its solemnity it is meant as a benediction, a blessing and a call to this unity you feel all around you in the depth of morning. This phrase, this articulation of spirit, is a clarion call to consciousness.

It means that you recognize everything as alive and elemental to your being. There is nothing that matters less than anything else. By virtue of its being, all things are vital, necessary and a part of the grand whole, because unity cannot exist where exclusion is allowed to happen. This is the great teaching of this statement.

“All my relations,” means all. When a speaker makes this statement it’s meant as recognition of the principles of harmony, unity and equality. It’s a way of saying that you recognize your place in the universe and that you recognize the place of others and of other things in the realm of the real and the living. In that it is a powerful evocation of truth.

Because when you say those words you mean everything that you are kin to. Not just those people who look like you, talk like you, act like you, sing, dance, celebrate, worship or pray like you. Everyone. You also mean everything that relies on air, water, sunlight and the power of the Earth and the universe itself for sustenance and perpetuation. It’s recognition of the fact that we are all one body moving through time and space together.
Amen