A Sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost, 6 June, 2021. Texts for today: 1 Sam 8.4-20; Ps 138; 2 Cor 4.13-5.1; Mk 3.20-35. Preached via Zoom to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
“But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations” (1 Sam 8.19).
This week we’ve struggled with the news that the bodies of 215 indigenous children have been found beneath the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC. This discovery, sadly, should not have come as a surprise. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report included a section on burials at native residential schools across Canada, calling for more work to be done on identifying the children who died at these schools because of disease and malnutrition. Former senator Murray Sinclair, who headed the TRC, has said that his calls for furtherinvestigations were not supported, and he says that we should brace ourselvesfor more such discoveries.
We have records for more than 4100 indigenous children who died at these schools during their operation from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. In the case of Kamloops, the TRC has records of 51 children who died at the school there, which means that 160 plus bodies still need to be identified. This simple arithmetic suggests that the total number of children who died in the residential school system is likely far higher than has ever been officially recorded.
We can only imagine the grief of parents and families whose children never came home. Did they receive official notification of their children’s deaths? Did they wait in vain for the small bodies to return home for proper burial according to their customs? The most likely answer is that they didn’t get satisfactory answers because they weren’t considered important and it was easier to sweep these deaths under the carpet.
How do we deal with this revelation as Canadians and as people of faith? This week I saw a church near my home place the simple words “Two hundred fifteen” on its curbside sign. People are changing their pictures on Facebook and other social media sites to show concern and support. These measures are well-intentioned but so much more needs to be done for Canada to come through this with healing and true reconciliation. So what can we do to make reconciliation real? I have three suggestions.
For a start, it seems to me that no expense should be spared to find as many of these bodies as is humanly possible, identify them, and return them with dignity to their communities and ancestral lands, and expense be damned.
As a former Canadian Forces chaplain, I know that our nation spares no expense to use DNA testing to identify the remains of Canadian soldiers who are still sometimes found overseas. We spare no expense to bury these soldiers with honour. We’ve erected statues to their memory, like the famous one “Mother Canada Weeps” at the Vimy Ridge memorial in France. It seems to me that this work of identification and repatriation is just as important today. Mother Canada is still weeping and mourning her missing children. Let’s ask our elected representatives to make this happen.
Secondly, it seems to me that we need a more honest conversation about what reconciliation looks like. Why is the federal government still resisting responsibility and reparations for some survivors of the residential schools? What more can our churches do to accept the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation commission? I’m profoundly grateful that there are voices in our church such as Archbishop Mark McDonald and our own Dave Gordon who keep calling us to justice and action.
Our ties to the community in Pikangikum are an excellent way for us to support and help living indigenous children while mourning dead ones. One good and workable idea I’ve heard is to set aside the price of your first cup of coffee a day, for Pikangikum young people and projects like the proposed school trip to southern Ontario once Covid is over. Today I’m calling on All Saints to set aside a toonie a day, if you can, for our ministries to Pikangikum.
Finally, I think we as disciples of Jesus need to turn to the resources of our teaching and our sacred stories. Scripture is our story. It’s about us as God’s people and it should always guide our thinking as we struggle with stories like the finding of the Kamloops children. In our first reading from Samuel, we see God’s people forgetting or even discarding their identity as God’s people. Faced with hostile enemies who are better equipped and organized than they are, they want a king to be “like other nations”. Samuel warns the cost of this – the willful sacrifice of their children, subjecting them to war and suffering and abuse by cruel masters – in tbeir quest for security, even if it means abandoning their unique identity as a people rescued from slavery by God (“I brought them up out of Egypt).
Scripture teaches us that this is what happens when we choose power over love, hierarchy over service, when some are sacrificed. The churches were complicit with the Canadian government in the Native Schools because they forgot they were God’s people and went along with the spirit of the age. So that they should be “like other nations”, indigenous children were robbed of their families, their culture, their language, and many of their lives. So that our churches could be “like other nations”, they conformed to an ideal of progress and western civilization, no matter the lives lost or the damage to the survivors. We did these things because we worshipped triumph and narrow views of race and progress, and because we didn’t care about the cost of that worship.
We wouldn’t have done these things if we had better understood the gospel, but, instead of following the Crucified One, we crucified these children. We forgot that Jesus entered Jerusalem to embrace a cross where human pride and sin must go to die and where humanity might be reborn in a way where all are adopted as brothers and sisters of the family of God in the power of the resurrection.
Reconciliation can only begin at the cross, where our pride and our past has to be exposed and die. Because it starts at the cross, the road of reconciliation is a hard road for all of us to travel, but a necessary one. If we want to attend to the lessons of the residential schools, if we want to hear the voices of the survivors, if we choose to embrace the calls to action of the TRC, if we want to pay the cost of finding and burying the lost children and embracing the living ones, well, that’s a long process, but as Paul says, its’ part of how our old, “outer nature” must waste away (2 Cor 4.16) if we, as Canada, as church, as the people of God, are to be renewed in the image of God that all of us, indigenous and settler, bear. Let’s pray.