B Proper 21
Reckoning With Our Past and with God’s Mercy
I recently had the privilege to represent you all in welcoming back from the pandemic exile the Gratitude Group of Alcoholics Anonymous that meets in our Campbell Hall on Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m.. In welcoming them, I thanked their organization for saving the lives of some of my best friends.
If you have attended AA, you know that when each member speaks she or he introduces herself or himself anew each time by saying, “Hello, I’m Catherine. I’m an alcoholic” or “Hello, I’m Tom—I’m an alcoholic.” They are acknowledging what they have recognized about themselves and what they are overcoming.
When I stood up to speak, I said: “Hello, I’m Richard. I’m a sinner.”
Well- there’s nothing like stating the obvious—I mean, after all, I’m a human being: I need forgiveness and reconciliation.
As it turns out, forgiveness and reconciliation is what today’s scriptures passages are about.
But before we get to the scriptures, I would like to invite you to join me in an exercise of the imagination. Imagination—that distinctively human capacity for exploration and creativity.
Now, I ask you to imagine that you are going through some of very old things that you have never really gone through before. This old box that you have recovered from your attic or basement or off site storage is a box that you have never actually opened before. In fact you hardly recognize it as yours or where it came from—perhaps from your parents’ old house when they moved out for the last time. Now, for some reason, it has come belatedly to your attention and become a matter of curiosity.
As you pour through the layers of obviously very old documents and objects that you find in the box, you come across an object that you at once can see is something that is of extreme intrinsic value. You are stunned as your turn it over in your hands, and– as you examine it and the yellowed writings that are with it– you become aware that this object was originally stolen from someone. This valuable property belonged to someone else, and was stolen, and has now been in this box in your possession all this time. Without realizing, you have been harboring stolen goods
You pause to try to grasp what this might mean—that you have stolen goods that belong to someone else—not stolen by you, but stolen nevertheless. What might you want– or need– to do about this?
I confess that this is how I have come to feel as I have learned through the Episcopal Church’s “Sacred Ground” curriculum more than I ever knew before about the history of our European American ancestors on this continent and here in Northern California. I had no idea that I had been kept so ignorant of our true history. When I learned that at the time of the Pilgrims landing in 1620 this continent was already richly populated with people, I could hardly believe it. This is not what I was taught to believe in school or later.
Historian David Treuer has pointed out that:
At the time of first contact [with Europeans], it is estimated, more Indians lived in California than in the rest of the United States combined. There were more than 500 distinct tribes, who spoke three hundred dialects of one hundred different languages.
Coastal California was “more densely settled than any area north of southern Mexico—more densely settled than most places in Europe at the time… Indian people had called the place home for more than seventeen thousand years.”
(The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, p. 64)
Where have all these people gone? …
Of all the land is now the United States, how much of this was Indian land?—ALL of it.
When California passed to Mexico in 1822, it disbanded and secularized the missions, which became ‘ranchos.’ Surviving native peoples were enslaved or displaced or starved or died of disease or lived at the margins. Between 1850 and 1860 the state of California appropriated funds to hire militia to hunt down and kill Indians. The first governor of California, Peter Burnett, asserted that ‘it must be expected’ that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.” (p. 67)
We almost succeeded—but not quite: for example, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, considers herself to be a seventy-second generation resident of New Mexico. (Beat that—you Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution!)
My God, how can this be true and I was never before aware of it? It is painful to hear of this racist cruelty. I would like to deny that this genocide happened and simply ignore these facts. But surely these are these truths from which we wrongly turn. We must acknowledge them and learn from them.
Only when we begin to accept that this is in fact our shared history can we begin to appreciate what could lead attorney Sherri Mitchell of the Penobscot Nation to say:
My group, Native Americans, have suffered an unrecognized holocaust in this country. The brutal genocide of Native peoples is hard to acknowledge for many, especially for those who have inherited some value from the loss and destruction that occurred here.
Then she goes on to say something that brings into context what our Vestry has asked us to do here today at Christ Episcopal Church in our land acknowledgement. Sherri Mitchell goes on to confess:
How do you acknowledge the injustice of genocide, disruption of culture, and the destruction of a way of life when you’re living on the lands of those who have been victimized? It is hard for people to accept that horror and continue to live with the outcome, so they choose to ignore it or minimize the story.
(Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change, p. 57, 66-67.)
This is so hard for us to hear and to take in what has taken place. It is so monumental and so grievous that the only way out of it– I am convinced– is: forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is the way forward (do you remember?) of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who, after the holocaust of racial apartheid, instituted commissions of Truth and Reconciliation. A safe space was created in which people of both races could confess and confront the truth together, baring their wounds to one another, admitting their own complicity, and seeking a way of reconciliation with one another in their one land.
The reconciliation already brought about by Christ is the theme of today’s letter to the Ephesians. This letter is written by an “insider” to those who have until now considered to be “outsiders”. The person who is writing this epistle is a circumsized, kosher-keeping Jew. He is writing to a group of Gentile, unclean, uncircumsized, pork-eaters who nevertheless—like him—have become followers of Jesus, the savior rabbi from Galilee. And his message to them is that they are no longer outsiders, no longer considered to be “other”.
“Now in Christ Jesus,” he tells them:
You who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God….
As a sign of this reconciliation brought about by Christ, these formerly estranged races on the Lord’s Day broke bread and shared a common cup in Jesus’ name—they ate together, which was unthinkable before. Thus they celebrated and effected their reconciliation with God and with one another—the same Holy Communion that we will share with them today.
Jesus was crucified because he welcomed sinners and ate with them. His followers have followed this practice for 2,000 years right down to today, on this hilltop in Sausalito.
In the other reading today, the Gospel according to St. Mark, Jesus is shown to be an emissary of God’s healing, whole-making, reconciling power. Wherever Jesus goes, his heart goes out in compassion to those who are sick or lost, “like sheep without a shepherd.”
Wherever Jesus went “into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
Sometimes the most important message in a passage such as this lies less in what is said than in what is NOT said. For example, it is NOT said that before healing a sick or disabled person Jesus asked them: “Are you a faithful Jew?” Or, “Are you a good, up-standing person—Or do your promise to be one, if I heal you?” Or, “What are your religious beliefs?”
No, nothing of this. No pre-qualification for the mercy of Jesus. Jesus simply had compassion for them, who ever they were. And he healed them. As he heals us.
The Alcoholics Anonymous meeting began with a reading of the Twelve Steps. The two steps that got my attention were “Make a fearless moral inventory of ourselves” and “Make a list of persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.”
For us as Christians and proud Americans to make a “fearless moral inventory” of our relationship with the original inhabitants of this land will require both courage and humility. To consider how we might in any way “make amends to those we have harmed” will take not only humility but a measure of creativity and generosity. Roy, in his talk this morning, proposed that we begin by learning about these peoples that we have violently displaced and their sustainable ways with Mother Earth. We must humbly ask them for their forgiveness.
At the same time we must find a way ourselves to forgive our White forbears for their ignorance and their cruelty. Unless we can forgive them and forgive ourselves, we cannot free ourselves of the guilt and residual White supremacy that will stand in the way of any genuine reconciliation.
We can open that closed box of our dark history and reckon with it because we place our trust in the unmerited mercy and goodness of God. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” There is plenteous redemption– for you and for me. But also: for our indigenous sisters and brothers.
As Miwoks say: “Mu’k-‘am Ka ‘l-ni’iko.” “We are all family.”