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Fearing a Covenant God (sermon)

Psalm 103 (verse 6, 17-18),  Matthew 5: 23-24

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

Let’s reflect together on the God David describes so beautifully in Ps 103, and how our fear, respect, and love of the faithful God of covenant relates to the call to reconciliation in Canada.

In Psalm 103 we are invited into a song of praise to a faithful, loving, and covenantal God.  Naturally as a justice guy I’m attracted to verse 6 and God’s Shalom presence among all of the oppressed. As worshipers of God, crowned with love and compassion (as in verse 4), his concerns for the oppressed are our concerns too.      

Verses 17 and 18 tell of the promise of God’s love and faithfulness to those who fear him by respecting covenant and obeying his precepts, commands, and requirements. And indeed, as verse 6 of Psalm 103 implies, as do many of the prophets, God requires us to be about the tasks of justice and mercy. The prophets are actually pretty forceful on this – linking the very integrity of liturgy and worship to the call to justice (Amos 5:21-24, Isaiah 58:3-7, Jeremiah 7 ). So even in a culture that questions any links between citizenship and faith, we are called to citizenship-for-justice as an act of faith and liturgy…in fact liturgy itself means public service.

Reformed people are lovers of ideas and words, and we have a rich theological tradition of exploring the requirements of covenant and of justice. But as an Indigenous Christian theologian has challenged me – articulated theology and lived theology are two different things. Liturgy is active and lived theology, including in acts of justice for the good of all.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada is in the last year of a mandate to document the experiences of residential school survivors and their families. The raw and stirring truth of the TRC reminds me that we must live a theology of covenant, justice, and reconciliation.

Many of you will know that treaties are a major concern for our Aboriginal neighbours. It turns out that Indigenous people consider treaties to be sacred covenants of mutual responsibility, peace, and friendship. In fact, the first treaty in North America between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee in what is now New York reflected covenantal principles and was marked by spiritual ceremonies – because peace and friendship are serious and sacred. For the Dutch – some of our forebears—the God of Covenant was invoked in this matter of treaty and justice. Unfortunately we know some of the rest of the story…that European settlers ran roughshod over those covenants and replaced mutual responsibility with paternalism and assimilation –  to erase the identity and presence of Indigenous People in the name of civilization and Christianity in a way that made Europeans supreme over the lands of North America.

This reality of broken covenant and treaty represent much suffering in Indigenous communities ...chronic poverty, loss of culture and identity, and broken people and communities. This brokenness is our heritage. But there can be another story. The God who works justice and righteousness for the oppressed loves the Indigenous people of this country.    

Indigenous voices for justice, truth, and reconciliation have come to the churches and the nation with passion and power throughout the last 40 years. It’s been a slow process for us settlers to hear and listen to these voices, but it is happening. The history is rich and complex so I’ll only touch on a couple of things…

After years of collaboration with Indigenous people and communities, Canadian churches, including the CRC, affirmed a New Covenant with Aboriginal People in 1987. This declaration was an effort to promote Indigenous rights in the constitutional negotiations at the time. This declaration draws on the biblical and spiritual roots of covenant and links them to justice for Indigenous people and the health of Canada as a whole. These noble words, inspired and shaped by Indigenous people, are some of the seeds of justice and reconciliation.

On June 11, 2008 Prime Minister Harper stood in the House of Commons to offer an apology to the survivors of Indian Residential Schools. The Apology was the product of years of dedicated campaigning by survivors of the schools. Harper’s words that day were offered from the floor of the House of Commons, our highest representative assembly, so Harper’s words that day were our words – yours and mine—as Canadians.  

The apology also marked the beginning of the TRC process. The stories of survivors and their families are an indictment of broken covenants and assimilation policy, and a testimony to the persistence and resilience of Indigenous communities, cultures, and languages. The TRC is an opportunity to honour Survivors and their truth and to recognize their story as the heritage of all Canadians. Those who have witnessed a TRC, in person or online, will recognize the profound spiritual nature of the proceedings. The stories, truths, confession, and healing are sacred….and they nurture the seeds of reconciliation and justice.

As people who articulate belief in a covenant God and Christ the reconciler, and who affirm the sacredness of every square inch of Creation, we have an opportunity to nurture the seeds of reconciliation and justice. In the simple act of listening to the stories of survivors we understand the patterns of profound suffering and broken covenant and begin to grasp the need for action on words like the New Covenant and the Prime Minister’s apology.  

Now, you may find yourself wondering what the TRC, the New Covenant, and the Prime Minister’s apology have to do with you…after all, as a community many of us came to this country well after the oppression of Indigenous people was in full swing and our CRC churches never ran residential schools in Canada. All of that is true. White author Kent Nerburn tells the story of his encounters with a Lakota elder named Dan, as Dan recounted his family experience with residential schools:

“Okay, let me try to lay this out straight for you….I’m not saying any of this is your fault or even that your grandparents did any of it. I’m saying it happened, and it happened on your people’s watch. You’re the one who benefited from it. It doesn’t matter that you’re way downstream from the actual events. You’re still drinking the water.”

In other words, even if you or I are not directly responsible for broken treaties or residential schools, these historic injustices are still part of our reality. And when we look at it in the light of the Gospel it’s very clear: treaties solemnized in the name of our covenant God, and oppressive schools run in the name of Christ, have brought great harm to Indigenous people and disrepute to the Gospel among many in their communities. The truth of the Gospel is shrouded by brokenness – even this far downstream.

And indeed, because oppression concerns the God David describes in Psalm 103, we need to wrestle with this story and avoid the easy brush-offs of, ‘Get over it, it’s in the past.’   

Harold Roscher, a Cree man who grew up in the CRC and now directs our Edmonton Native Healing Centre, puts it this way:

“Our family units were destroyed by residential schools, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is a key building block for Aboriginals to rebuild family and stronger communities. The bottom line is I/we need your love and support to rebuild families and healthy communities. I would hope we could begin to change our dialogue from “why don’t you just suck it up” and “I didn’t do any of that” to what I hear our Cree elders say “sahkitok ikwa wichitok”—Love one another, help one another. The TRC will help our Aboriginal peoples get back to a place of living those words and not just saying them. I believe the church is poised to live out those words because we know them intimately from Scripture. As a body of believers in Jesus we are called to love one another and help one another, so the TRC hearings in Canada provide a natural starting point for a chance to listen and hear each other’s stories.”

So as people crowned with love and compassion and required to do justice, we need to dig deeper and help one another. I for one have a history as a young man of jeering racial slurs at the drunks in the gutters of northwest Saskatoon. In part through hearing the stories of survivors at the TRC I’ve come to understand how chronic social problems like addiction, family breakdown, and low educational achievement relate to a long history of trauma. A history of kids as young as 4 being ripped from their homes and the love of their parents, and being placed in schools designed to ‘kill the Indian in the child,’ where too many were subject to horrific abuse. Indigenous communities still drink downstream from those schools – it’s a past that still lives in the effects of intergenerational trauma. So with Harold, I hope we can avoid the temptation to say “get over it”, come to recognize ourselves as people crowned with love and compassion, and then respond to the elder’s challenge to love and help each other.

And in an echo of Psalm 103’s call to fear the Covenant God, also in an echo of the prophets, we need to consider the call to reconciliation as a matter of urgency and integrity.

Matthew 25:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

The painful history we’ve become aware of through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission can evoke shame, fear, suspicion, and defensiveness. But here, Jesus is not concerned with responsibility and blame – in the command to ‘go and be reconciled’ Jesus is concerned about wholeness and Shalom in relationships. We are called to hear the call of the oppressed and broken and to live with them as neighbours.

I know, friends, that this is a heavy topic. But remember the good news of Psalm 103 that God is faithful to those who fear him, follow the requirements of justice, and echo his heart of compassion for the world. Covenant faithfulness also comes with a promise of Shalom and wholeness – in our churches and communities.

I’ve seen that promise in the grace of Indigenous people. My friend Jill Harris, a Christian, survivor, elder, and chief from Vancouver Island, told her story at the TRC in Vancouver last week. Her experience in residential schools was horrific but she has extended forgiveness to her abusers. In her statement she encouraged all abusers to join her on the path of forgiveness and healing, because it brings profound freedom and grace. A moving moment of truth and grace.

The journey of reconciliation is bathed in this grace, for which we can bless the Lord our Creator. We can’t turn back the clock on injustice or return to pre-contact times but we can work for reconciliation by learning the full history of our Indigenous neighbours, by being in relationships with them, and by bearing witness to the need for justice. Now you may feel tentative or even overwhelmed by this call to fear the Covenant God and live the call to reconciliation. Rest assured you are joining many who have been on this path for many years, so there are great partners and helpful resources to gently nudge us along the way, and by all means our office is more than happy to come alongside you in this journey. The God of Covenant and Grace blesses this journey of justice, healing, and reconciliation. May you and I be living echoes of that grace and blessing, for the sake of the Gospel.

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