Sermon by Dean Peter Elliott

National Aboriginal Day of Prayer – June 21, 2015
Dean Peter Elliott
Christ Church Cathedral at Century Plaza Hotel

Click here to listen to an audio mp3 of the sermon

A New Narrative and Divinization – A Sermon for National Aboriginal Day of Prayer

My sister-in-law has completed a project of taking our family’s old home movies and transferring them to DVDs. There’s about 2 hours of them, taken from the mid 1950s until the late 1960s. Of course there’s no sound, and because my dad’s camera was ‘wind up’ the shots last only a couple of minutes each, making for odd transitions: one moment you’re at a family picnic, the next at a wedding or birthday party—the moments of our lives squished together, each scene prompting floods of memories.

While watching one of these the other evening I realized I had been telling a story that wasn’t true. The scene was a family picnic and there was my grandfather standing beside the Coleman stove that was set up at every picnic. Now a story that I had told was that the only reason we took a stove with us on summer picnics in the park was that my grandparents were English immigrants and you always had to have tea with supper, hot tea, even in the heat of the summer. Boiling water for tea, was the only reason to take the stove, water that, in my grandmother’s view, always boiled hotter outside.

But in this movie, there was my grandfather and yes, there was the Coleman stove—but rather than boiling water he was cooking corn on the cob, and there were pictures of us eating and I realized that I had been telling myself and others a story that wasn’t actually true. The stove wasn’t just for boiling water for tea.

And that’s a little thing, but it began a reflection about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. For the last 22 days many of us have been focusing on the work completed by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The concluding national event in Ottawa began on Sunday May 31st and here in Vancouver the downtown churches gathered for an ecumenical service. One of the most moving parts of that service for me was when the children gathered with 3 leaders from the participating congregations. The leaders, in a simple and direct way, spoke to the children about the day’s focus and unfolded a narrative about Canada that honoured the indigenous people who lived here before the European explorers and settlers arrived, telling how the settlers sought to assimilate first nations into their ways of doing things through schools and governance.

It was a simple story but what they unfolded was a new narrative, a changed way of telling the story of the origins of our country—a narrative very different from what I learned in Sunday or day school. As the TRC’s recommendations have been published and discussed, one of the most important ones, in my view, is the call to educate Canadian young people about the legacy of residential schools and the various policies of assimilation that led to their development. For many of us it’s a new narrative unfolding, a way of telling the stories of our lives to ourselves to change the way we look at the world.

Today is National Aboriginal Day and we’re using readings from scripture that have been selected by the Anglican Council of Indigenous People. Today’s gospel reading, the beginning verses of the gospel according to St. John, was, in its origins also a new narrative. Drawing from Hebrew and Greek sources this new narrative was fashioned to describe God’s living word as active from the very beginning of all creation, and ultimately taking flesh as a human being.   It linked the community’s experience of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection with the philosophy of the Greco-Roman world and the spiritual tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. “The word was made flesh and dwelt among us” is the pinnacle of this prologue to John’s gospel witnessing to the mystery of the incarnation of God in Christ.

Unfortunately too many folks get lost in the mystery of the incarnation, stuck in the particularity of Jesus and arguing about religion, whether the Christian way is the only and true way to God and to eternal life—whereas the gospel of John has a deeper and much more radical message at its heart. It’s not so much about lifting up Christian religion as the only true one, as it is a message about divinization. The word became flesh in Jesus—and Jesus, in John’s gospel, continues to invite the disciples to become like him so that they can discover the eternal life within each one of them. It comes to a conclusion when the Risen Christ greets them in an upper room where they have gathered in fear, and says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The point of John’s gospel isn’t only that Jesus is the word made flesh, but so are we—each of us is called and sent to be God’s life and word and work in the world. God’s eternal word is made flesh in each of us. That’s why we receive the bread and wine of Eucharist—we receive the body of Christ so that we can be the body of Christ in the world.

And to every generation is given the challenge of discovering what that means in the realities of our daily lives. For Canadians I believe it means telling a new narrative about our land and growing in respect for the indigenous people who first lived here. It means to confront and repent of a history of racism that has left so many first nations people wounded. Racism, that insidious evil, lurks just beneath the veneer of so many western cultures. We saw its face in Paris through the Charlie Hebo shootings, and tragically, we witnessed it yet again this past week in Charleston South Carolina, where a young man, who simply hated black people, shot and killed nine church members at their Wednesday night Bible Study. Whenever there is an assumption of superiority of one race over another there are tragic consequences. Whenever we do not see other human beings as fellow members of Christ’s body, called and sent to be light to the world, violence almost always follows. With extraordinary courage, the families of the slain spoke to the shooter, offering words of forgiveness and the hope that his life would be changed.[1] The living, forgiving Word of God is made flesh in the families of those who had been murdered. Such words of forgiveness are awesome, especially when contrasted with the instinct of those in governance who immediately called for the death penalty.   In their words of forgiveness is light and that light is the light of humanity.

The task of Christian theology is always to consider a new narrative because God’s work in the world is not finished. We have a part to play in the God’s work of making all things new. This is why Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si[2] is so very significant, drawing our attention to the climate change crisis by articulating a spiritual perspective on it which, interestingly, celebrates the interconnectedness of all of creation—an insight deeply held by indigenous people. It focuses on issues of climate change through the perspective of the poorest in the world who are most affected by it. It is a landmark document, one that will resonate within and beyond the Catholic world as it generates conversation and debate about social policies and our own lifestyle choices.

In the Christian household the word is always becoming flesh in ways continue to confound and confuse us, just as the story of Jesus took God’s presence to unexpected places like a stable in Bethlehem and a cross on Calvary. It regularly calls us to form a new narrative, a different story with new understandings and insights replacing long held prejudices and assumptions. This living word of God is both the answer to our most fervent prayers and the hope of the world. Today we celebrate that it lives in us—and pray that we may see how each human being is part of the sacred web of creation, the body of Christ, and open ourselves to be changed by the God who is that light that enlightens all.

Indigenous Anglicans in North America have developed a simple prayer book that is used widely across Canada. Every time the community gathers a prayer is offered with which I close today: let us pray.

Creator, we give you thanks for all you are and all you bring to us in our visit within your creation. In Jesus, you place the gospel in the centre of this sacred circle through which all creation is related. You show us the way to live a generous and compassionate life. Give us your strength to live together with respect and commitment as we grow in your spirit, for you are God, now and forever. Amen.[3]

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[1] See news report of this here http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/20/us/charleston-shooting-dylann-storm-roof.html?_r=0

 

[2] A good summary of the encyclical can be found here http://americamagazine.org/top-ten-takeaways-laudato-si

 

[3] A Disciples Prayer Book. Indigenous Theological Training Institute, Minneapolis MN.