Ash Wednesday 2020
St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103:8-18; 2 Corinthians 5:20B-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in
On August 6th, 1993, Archbishop Michael Peers spoke at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ontario. He did something that still seems incredible in its boldness and its confidence.
After hearing stories of residential school abuse—stories of pain, and hurt, and “scars which endure to this day”—Archbishop Peers apologised. What’s most striking, though, is not that the Archbishop apologised for himself, only; after all, how could he offer a personal apology for things he himself didn’t directly commit?
Something much more challenging, and profound, was taking place. As the archbishop put it: “I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.
“I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family. I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.
“I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally. On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology.”
The archbishop even recognised the fact that he did this for others who didn’t even know of the victimisation of indigenous people in residential schools; and that he was repenting for others who couldn’t even accept that the church was capable of such a thing, saying that day: “I do this in the name of many who do not know these stories. And I do this even though there are those in the church who cannot accept the fact that these things were done in our name.”
But how could he do such a thing, really? Repent for others? Repent for me, and for you? What an affront to any sense of personal responsibility! I didn’t do it, I wasn’t there.
Isaiah may give us some insight here. Our portion of Isaiah was written to a people who had returned from exile to a broken Jerusalem: a city with crumbling foundations, broken walls, and ruined streets. Many of the people who returned from exile wouldn’t even have been there at the beginning of exile. I can imagine there were many who had no desire to take responsibility for the actions of others.
I can hear them say, “I may be suffering the consequences of the unfaithfulness of others; but surely, surely, this broken Jerusalem isn’t my fault? Let someone else clean up the mess.”
But Isaiah responds clearly to this sort of thinking by saying no.
First, repentance is action: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
Be faithful to your God, says Isaiah. Be faithful by serving others in distress, and perhaps the harder thing: stop pointing the finger and blaming one another; stop speaking evil about one another.
What’s most illuminating about Isaiah’s charge here is the analogy he uses for repentance in action: “If you [do these things] [y]our ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
The destruction wrought on Jerusalem would have still been evident for those returning home: the results of the unfaith of a previous generation would be clearly seen in ruined foundations, breached walls, and broken streets.
Second, repentance sometimes comes to those who follow. Who is called to do the work? The sons and daughters of the unfaithful. It is the generation that follows that is called to rebuild the city: and they will be the rebuilder of ruins, the raisers-up of foundations, repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets.
And all this not for their own sake, but also for others: the “many generations” that follow.
So can we repent for others? Can we do what Archbishop Peers did, and repent for the innocent, the guilty by association, those who don’t know, or the many who are unable to admit to the sins of those who came before us?
Most certainly—because to repent for others is to take responsibility for the sins of the past by acting in the present. After all, if we inherit a broken city, who else is going to repair it? We are, we are the ones called to do so, and to do so for the sake of others.
To repair the breach caused by Anglican and Christian treatment of indigenous peoples takes hearing the painful truth of the indigenous experience of spiritual abuse at the hands of our own forebears and doing something about it. Continuing to work for reconciliation through concrete acts of reparation, sometimes through apology, sometimes through relationship building, sometimes through the repatriation of land and resources.
But I’d like to bring this closer to home, because we have our own unhealthy habits and patterns, inherited ones we replicate: things like “the pointing of the finger,” and “the speaking of evil.” These habits and patterns probably have an origin in the actions of others that reach well into our own shared past.
But despite that we aren’t directly at fault for the ruined foundations, the breached walls, and the broken streets of our city, we are nevertheless asked to take responsibility for them. And I would invite you to consider repentance in action: to refrain from pointing the finger in blame, to refrain from speaking evil of others, and instead to speak the truth in kindness. After all, the truth without kindness can be mean-spirited; and kindness without the truth is a false peace. We are called to be more: to become healers in the present, in response to the sins of the past, to be “repairer[s] of the breach, […] restorer[s] of streets to live in.”
And to do so in order that our foundations would be raised up not just for ourselves, but for the “many generations” that will come after us.
That is, to repent not only for our own personal sins, but by addressing our own behaviours now, to repent also for the sins the ones who have come before by changing inherited habits of mean-spiritedness and false peaceableness. We would do so for the healthiness of our own community, and for the benefit of others: for the sake of the ones we harm, and for the sake of the generations that will follow us.