This is the sermon delivered by our rector, Fr Bill Ward, in response to the discovery of the remains of 215 indigenous children in Kamloops.
Listen again to the words from that first hymn that Christina sang this morning but this time I invite you to listen to them with the discovery of those unmarked graves found at a former residential school containing the remains of 215 children in your mind.
“O God of every nation, of every race and land, redeem your whole creation with your almighty hand, where hate and fear divide us and bitter threats are hurled in love and mercy guide us and heal our strife torn world.”
Now listen to words from of a hymn we will sing in a few minutes: “How shall we love thee, holy hidden Being, if we love not the world which thou hast made? O give us broader love for better seeing thy Word made flesh, and in a manger laid: thy kingdom come, O lord thy will be done.”
“How shall we love thee if we love not the world thou has made?” Those words have haunted me since I first sat and typed them in to the order of service for today.
This is without a doubt one of the hardest sermons I have ever felt called to preach. I’m a white man who comes from privilege and so who am I to speak to the reality of the grief and suffering of Indigenous peoples. My mouth should be closed and we should all be listening to their stories, to their lived experiences as painful as that may be for us to hear.. I must confess my own ignorance that I have lived with for much of my life, choosing not to truly know the devastating impact that our history of colonialism and the Church and government run residential schools has had on the Indigenous people of this country. My attitude has been dismissive “that’s just the way things were done back then and that attitude it let me off the hook of ever having to wrestle with the implications of our past, it let me off the hook of ever having to acknowledge how that past has shaped the present lived reality of Indigenous peoples.
My love and concern for my neighbour, my baptismal promise to respect the dignity of every human being has been far too narrow. And I think that’s why the words from that hymn one that I have never heard before stand out for me.
“How shall we love thee if we love not the world which thou hast made? O give us broader love for better seeing.” This is a hard sermon for me to preach because it forces me to acknowledge that deep within my own being there is a need for my love to be broadened so that I might truly begin to see. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
In that first reading we heard from the first book of Samuel we are told that all of the elders of Israel came to Samuel and asked him to form a government. Give us a king to govern us they cried. We want to be like all the other nations who have a king to govern them.
This request, this demand it really upset Samuel, it caused him grave concern but God, God knew that the people have always had a choice as to which King or which Kingdom they will serve. The Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of the world.
When Samuel prays to God about this request for a king to be appointed to govern them like other nations. God says to Samuel “Listen to the voice of the people, give them what they think they want, give them a King to govern them for in asking for this they are not rejecting you but they are rejecting me,” God from being king over them. God said to Samuel It’s not like this is the first time they’ve done it, it’s not the first time they have rejected me and my ways. They’ve been doing it from the moment I first brought them up out of Egypt, from day one they have been forsaking me and serving other gods, the god of greed, the god of power, the god of status, the god of selfishness, the god of materialism, the god of self-sufficiency. From day one they have been choosing to embrace the ways of the world and to abandon the values of the Kingdom of God, so give them their King, but warn them of the consequences.
So Samuel said to the people “you can have your king” but just know “he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots, he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands, he will make some of you plough and reap his harvest, some of you will be forced to make weapons of war. He will take your daughters to be performers and cooks. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards. He will take best of your cattle and o keys, he will take one tenth of your flocks and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king you have chosen for yourselves but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
What Samuel is describing has been the lived experience of the Indigenous people in this country only and this is important: they didn’t ask for a king, they didn’t choose this king, it was forced upon them along with all the consequences that Samuel speaks of.
Their land was taken from them, their children were ripped from their arms and forced into the residential schools where so many of them suffered unspeakable atrocities. They were forced to give up their language, their culture, their way of life. They suffered abuse after abuse after abuse and the sins of the past continue to cause generational trauma for Indigenous peoples and sadly they continue to suffer abuse after abuse. How many Indigenous communities are under a boil water advisory right now and have been for years, or what about the disproportionate percentage of Indigenous people in our jails, or the ongoing tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous people. And now the realization that the nightmare of residential schools continues to unfold with the discovery of that mass grave in Kamloops and the likelihood of more at other locations.
Our Indigenous brothers and sisters did not choose this king, this kingdom was forced upon them along with all of the consequences they have endured. They are crying out and God has heard their cry and longs for us to hear it too.
How shall we love thee, holy hidden Being, if we love not the world which thou hast made? O give us broader love for better seeing, O Lord, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
My hope and my prayer is that we as followers of Jesus may receive the gift of broader love so that we might see and hear and respond to the cries of our Indigenous brothers and sisters and become the hands and the feet of Jesus in working towards truth and reconciliation and bringing to reality our deepest desire that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done for all people. One of the things that we can do to put ourselves in a position where we might be open to having our love broadened so that we might see what is right in front of us is to educate ourselves. Earlier I admitted that I have lived much of my life ignorant and unaware of the lived reality of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Recently I have made the commitment to start educating myself and to listen their stories. A couple of books I have read have helped to broaden my heart: “From the Ashes” written by Jesse Thistle, who shares his life story of being Metis, homeless and finding his way in this world. A second book that I am currently reading is called “Seven Fallen Feathers” which as I am discovering is about the deaths of seven indigenous young men in Thunder Bay and the book focuses on the death, the racism and the hard truths of the reality that Indigenous people experience. There is also a documentary I watched on Netflix called “We Were Children” that tells the experiences of First Nations children in the residential school system. There is also a movie called “Indian Horse” that I would highly recommend. I have attended a number of blanket exercises over the past couple of years, an exercise which aims to help people understand past relationships with our Indigenous brothers and sisters and the affects that colonialism has had on them. Hearing these stories, educating ourselves puts us in a position to broaden our hearts and widen our love to respond to the cries that we are hearing.
I think another way we might work towards bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven is to start using our voices of privilege to demand more than apologies and lip service from our Governments. Lack of fresh drinking water is completely unacceptable for anyone living in Canada and it should not be tolerated. We can advocate the Federal Government to not let the truth and reconciliation call to actions become just another document that sits on a shelf somewhere collecting dust but to advocate for the full implementation of that report. As allies, as brothers and sisters in Christ we too can raise our voices and cry out for justice. That can be done in many ways sometimes in ways that seem too small and too insignificant to have an impact. Choosing to wear an orange shirt in solidarity might not seem like much but it matters. I was invited by my colleague Archdeacon Rosalyn Kantlaht’ ant Elm to remove my clerical collar in solidarity with her and all indigenous people in their call for justice and reconciliation I want to share what another colleague Robert Lemon had to say about this invitation because it perfectly reflects my own thoughts and feelings. “I am doing it even though I know that, as a white man of immense privilege, it is a small act for me to undertake compared to what I with the rest of the church need to work towards. It does not begin to deal with the immensity of injustice and brokenness that we need to address as a church that participated in the Residential School system and in the disrespectful and destructive treatment of Indigenous people. I am doing this because as priest and follower of Jesus Christ I need to listen, respect, and humbly respond to calls from those asking for a response, for change, for reconciliation. Removing my collar is about choosing to listen and be guided instead of seeking to direct and tell. It is also about me committing to continued attentiveness, openness and repentance as an individual and calling the church to the same through sustained education and advocacy. Many will know that I am fairly consistent in wearing my collar so removing it will certainly be noticeable. It will make me look incomplete compared to normal. Removing my collar I hope will be an outward and visible sign of our incomplete work, a sign of the work we in the church still need to do in order to truly seek reconciliation with indigenous people in Canada and become a more full and complete expression of God’s love for the whole creation.
And so let us continue to pray the hymns we sing “O God of every nation, of every race and land, redeem your whole creation with your almighty hand; where hate and fear divide us and bitter threats are hurled, in love and mercy guide us and heal our strife torn world.
Rev’d Canon Bill Ward