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Sermon: A Blanket of Humility

A Blanket of Humility Rev. Lloyd Bruce

Blanket First Nations

The light at the centre of all directions

A Sermon Preached Sunday June 25th, 2017 based on Luke 10:25-37

Jesus told a story in today’s Gospel reading so I shall begin by doing the same – it’s a story of an experience I had a few years ago taking part in the Blanket exercise with other Chaplains and Elders serving with the Correctional Service of Canada.

The floor of the prison gym is criss-crossed with colourful blankets. We move from blanket to blanket, greeting each other quietly, occasionally trading items – a cornhusk doll for a braid of sweet grass, a piece of leather for a dreamcatcher.

The blankets represent the northern part of Turtle Island, or North America, before the arrival of Europeans. The participants in this exercise are immersing themselves in the world, 500 years ago, of the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island, its original inhabitants.

Then, the the world changes. A facilitator folds up corners of the blankets, making the land “smaller” as the participants learn about the Indian Act of 1876 that, among other changes, created reserves that were a tiny fraction of the original territories.

The people on the blankets explore the federal policy of enfranchisement that took away legal Indian status from First Nations people for a variety of reasons. These included pursuing university education, entering professions such as law or medicine, serving in the military, and, for women, marrying non-Indigenous men. Several individuals are taken away from their blankets, symbolizing the people alienated from their communities because of enfranchisement.

Over the next hour, we learn about the policies and actions affecting Indigenous Peoples. More individuals are asked to step away from their blankets. More blankets are folded; some are taken away entirely.

“You represent the Beothuk, the original inhabitants of what is now Newfoundland. Your people starved, died in violent encounters with settlers trying to take your lands, were hunted, or were taken captive for reward. Your people are now extinct. Please step off the blanket.”

At the end of the exercise, only three “survivors” are left, each one standing precariously on a tiny square of blanket. The remaining 20-odd participants are at the sidelines, having lost their lands, their identities, or their lives.

The blanket exercise was created, in 1997, by KAIROS, an ecumenical program administered by the United Church of Canada. Developed in response to the 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, this exercise has been repeated in schools, churches, community centres, and workplaces across Canada – and is being offered here in Sackville tomorrow evening.  More about that later.

Jesus once said that it was more blessed to give than to receive, but it often seems to me that it is a great deal more difficult to receive than to give.

Often when we give, unlike practices in First Nations Communities we aren’t really giving at all, we’re just trying to even up the score between us – or, from a place of power we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable in being open to receiving from another.

Sometimes, a gift from someone makes us feel we are in their debt – we have to give something back of equal or greater value. We all know how awkward it is at Christmas if we get a splendid Christmas present from someone who we’ve just given a cheap box of chocolates too – or worse still have forgotten completely.

The same is true for gifts of time, energy and love too – especially true when they are gifts given in a time of need – money to tide us over, emotional support when we are in pieces. We don’t like people to see us as vulnerable and weak – in need of help. We hang onto our dignity by trying to repay them, even though that is often impossible.

So what has all this to do with the story Jesus told?

The Good Samaritan – it’s a story about how we should help others, whoever they are – isn’t it? Well, no, not quite.

We’ve called it the Good Samaritan – we’ve made the helper the focus of the story – but that’s not how Jesus tells it. He focuses on the victim – the man bleeding and naked by the roadside as the centre of the story. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” begins Jesus. We are supposed to see the story through his eyes – this Jewish man, attacked by robbers on a lonely, dangerous road.  It’s not a story about the Samaritan; it’s a story about a very needy, vulnerable, powerless Jew. That’s who Jesus wanted his hearers to identify with.

So, let me try and tell Jesus’ story with a fresh slant:

An indigenous person was minding their own business on Turtle Island when a ship from Europe arrived and over the next hundred and fifty years people from the ship passed on their diseases, destroyed and appropriated the land, took indigenous children away to residential schools, devalued their culture…  and left him half dead.

What if?  What if the one beat up and left for dead on the side of the road IS THERE as a result of the actions of our ancestors?

Thomas King in his book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native Peoples in Canada says this:

What needs to be said is that the removal and relocations, as federal policies… allowed Whites to steal Aboriginal land and push Native peoples about the countryside.  I know this sounds harsh, and although its accurate, I have to concede that if theft is legally sanctioned, it is no longer theft.  So, I should probably apologize for using the verb “to steal”. To appropriate might be more generous and less inflammatory. Moving Indians around the country was like redecorating a very large house.  The Cherokee can no longer stay in the living room.  Put them in the second bedroom.  The Mi’kmaq are taking up too much space in the kitchen.  Move them to the laundry… And what are we going to do with the Blackfoot the Mohawk… the Piaute? Do we have any garbage bags left?

Beat up, left on the side of the road feeling as if the nation called Canada would like to see them in garbage bags…

What do we people of privilege and power do with that?  What do we generous, thoughtful liberal minded people of faith do with that and with this story that Jesus tells?

We may never have been beaten and left for dead, but perhaps we know what it feels like to be feel helpless through illness, redundancy, systemic oppression, depression or family trouble. The initial problem is bad enough, but often it is the sense of humiliation and indignity that is the last straw.

Most people struggle when they find themselves dependent on others. That’s how this beaten-up Jewish man feels; he’s not just hurt, he is also embarrassed at his powerlessness.

When he sees a priest and then a Levite coming towards him it must be a bit of a relief. If anyone had to see him in this state, it is better that it be a Jewish priest or Levite. It is their job to be holy and caring, and they are of his own race and religion. But the priest and the Levite walk on by.  What now? There’s someone else coming – but that’s no good, it’s a Samaritan. He is not only a total stranger; he is the wrong kind of total stranger. Many Jews wouldn’t even have accepted a cup of water from him.

He’s the last person this victim would choose to look to for help – surely he will gloat, rub salt in the wounds. But he doesn’t. Instead he cares for the man, and pays for his stay at a nearby inn.

It is essential we remember that the trigger for this story was the question of a Jewish lawyer “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers, “love God and your neighbour”.

We have tended to assume that loving your neighbour is about imitating the Good Samaritan – helping those less fortunate than yourself. That’s a role most of us like – helping others. We still have the power if we choose that role. But actually, if you read the story Jesus told, rather than the story we would like him to have told, he is setting us a much more difficult challenge. Loving our neighbour – in the context of this story- is about having the humility to see our own neediness and be open to the possibility that our help might come from unlikely sources. It means accepting that sometimes other people have wisdom that we don’t, or strength that we need, that we are the ones who are vulnerable and bleeding by the roadside.

My guess would be that the lawyer who asked Jesus the questions that triggered this story was used to striving for power – always trying to win his arguments. He was used to having the answers, having right on his side – or at least sounding as if he did. I suppose that’s fine in a court of law – but it isn’t the way we are called to be in the rest of life, with each other and with God.

“What must I do,” asked the lawyer, “to inherit eternal life?” He expected an answer that demanded something costly or clever from him. Instead Jesus tells a story, which is all about receiving, even from those who he might have thought, had nothing to give. Only then will he, and we, be able to live the lives – eternal and full – that God wants for us.

On Wednesday at National Aboriginal Day celebrations in Amherst, Elder Donna Augustine quoted Charlie Labrador, founder of the Acadia Band of Mi’kmaq:

‘500 years ago we were standing at the shoreline with our hand extended in friendship. Here we are 500 years later, still extending our hands in friendship.’ We open our hearts and we open our ceremonies to all the other races of humanity because this is what we’re told through prophecy from generation to generation.

Maybe it is time for us Whites to wrap ourselves in one of those blankets from the Blanket Exercise and receive the extended hand from a place of deep humility – even shame?

And wrapped in that blanket of humility, maybe its time that we own our history of oppression and subjugation.  Examine our place of power and privilege as we work toward right relationship and acknowledge that the land – stream, mountain, lake, valley, desert, ocean and field upon which we live and move and have our being has been stolen… and take steps to right the wrongs.

Negotiate land claims in good faith. Examine our own racist past and present. Learn about indigenous spirituality and culture. Read a few books that challenge your thinking. Go on Monday evening at 7PM to the Sackville Commons and take part in the Blanket Exercise being hosted by the Town of Sackville. Cease honouring past policies of oppressions… And yes, rename a few buildings.

As offered out by Tabatha Southby in the Globe and Mail on Thursday:

Some have pointed out that, given the issues still to be resolved, if we are to achieve reconciliation with Indigenous people, renaming a building is merely a distraction. But it is a gesture asked for by Indigenous MPs. In February 2016, Liberal backbenchers Don Rusnak and Robert-Falcon Ouellette and NDP MP Romeo Saganash, as well as Independent Hunter Tootoo, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take Mr. Langevin’s name off the building. Do it, it was argued, in deference to survivors of the residential schools who shouldn’t be subjected to constant reminders of a man who “devastated their lives.”

On this Sunday after National Aboriginal Day as we move toward July 1st and the celebration that is the 150th Anniversary of Canada I invite you to ponder the position of power that Canada has fostered over the First Peoples of this land and how humility and a spirit of openness to the wisdom indigenous  communities have to share could benefit us all.  Amen

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