Sermon for June 21

There is a book by indigenous writer Thomas King called The Inconvenient Indian. I won’t go into a whole lot of details about that book, except to say it takes a hard look at the relationship between Canada’s indigenous population and the settler population. Much of that history is an attempt to ignore or, when that’s not possible, sweep aside the indigenous population.

The title is very effective in illustrating the notion that in the attempt to dominate the territory we call Canada the presence of a native people was, inconvenient.

The relationship between the First Nations and the settlers has been wrought with tension and the abuses the Canada’s first peoples have experienced have been well chronicled. Broken treaties, the Residential School system, the sixties scoop. Chronic underfunding of health, education and housing systems. A lack of infrastructure. Indigenous people are extremely overrepresented in Canada’s prison population. The list goes on and on.

And yet, to this day, you will hear people accuse native Canadians of getting a great deal from the government. I have lost count of the number of times I have witnessed anger at the image of First Nations holding up or delaying a project that is viewed as a necessary economic development. It doesn’t matter that the project; be it a mine or a pipeline would completely disrupt or destroy perhaps poison the environment on which they live; often offering little in the way of economic opportunity for the communities in question.

Once again, native people are seen as inconvenient. I cannot help but see so much of this reaction as yet another example of white supremacy. The good of the white community comes first and often at the expense of native communities.

This month is the fifth anniversary of the release of the 94 Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. An action taken to address the terrible consequences of the Residential School system.

The United Church of Canada recognizes Indigenous Peoples Day in part because of our historic involvement in the Residential Schools system. We as a church and institution were complicit in the splitting apart of families, the abuse of children and the attempts to destroy native populations and their way of life. It is difficult to soften the words around a policy intended to fully assimilate the indigenous population into the settler culture. It was a policy based on racist assumptions and attitudes and we still suffer from its legacy.

Fourteen of the calls to action relate to the relationship of churches to the residential schools. One of those calls, number 46, is to develop and sign a covenant of reconciliation identifying principles for working collaboratively to advance reconciliation in Canadian society.

This includes a reaffirmation of a that commitment to reconciliation, and a repudiation of concepts used to justify European sovereignty over indigenous lands and peoples; such as the Doctrine of Discovery. It also includes the reformation of laws, governance structures and policies within their respective institutions that continue to rely on such concepts.

We hear the word reconciliation a lot nowadays. There is a lot to be reconciled in our world. Perhaps we are beginning to recognize just how many relationships have been damaged, or were built in harmful ways from the beginning.

The difficult thing is to realize that reconciliation takes a lot more than just saying we are sorry. The United Church of Canada has apologized for its part in the Residential School System a few times. First Nations have received those apologies; but have not formally offered forgiveness. We are living with the apology. Indigenous communities are waiting to see how serious we are; to see if we are truly willing to do the work that comes after apology.

I believe that as an institution the United Church is sincere. But I think we struggle in how that apology and what it means works its way from the leadership that did the apologizing, to the whole of the church. Were you aware the church established a Justice and Reconciliation Fund in 2000? That fund supports project by church groups ad partners to foster education, dialogue and relationship building between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

In the story of Jacob and Esau Jacob finally returns home after his attempt to steal Esau’s blessing. Something that never truly belonged to him. He fears the response of Esau and yet still bows down acknowledges his actions and begs forgiveness. There remains work to be done. Jacob calls himself “your servant” in addressing Esau.

God’s grace, God’s forgiveness is freely given. Seeking forgiveness from fellow human beings is not the same thing. Forgiveness is a good thing and is a part of reconciliation. But we, we as the party seeking forgiveness do not get to set the timeline or the process by which forgiveness is granted. We after centuries of neglect and violence to remove a people who were in the way of expansion do not get to say it’s all over and natives should forgive us.

Especially when there is so much evidence the settler attitude towards indigenous people has not really changed that much. We may say nice things. We may acknowledge past sins, but evidence would indicate there is much still to be done.

A recent study by CTV news indicates indigenous people are far more likely to be shot and killed by police than their white counterparts. It is difficult to accept the news that six Indigenous Canadians have been shot and killed by police since April alone.

I cannot and will not speak to the individual cases and their justification. But can we at least acknowledge that these circumstances would provide some reason for indigenous people to be skeptical of people claiming our relationship has truly changed?

We have work to do. We as a church need to work on our relationships to native communities. If we truly wish to be part of a reconciliation, to work for the forgiveness we seek, it is our responsibility.

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