National Indigenous Day of Prayer, June 21st, 2020
St. John’s in Isolation
ISAIAH 40:25-31; PSALM 19; PHILIPPIANS 4:4-9; JOHN 1:1-18
I’m glad to see Isaiah show up in the lectionary again today. I’ve held for some time, now, that prophets like Isaiah have a particularly helpful message for the church we inhabit today—a church that feels very much in exile.
Once upon a time, the church had a clear place in public discourse; the
church was full of powerful people in the community; and the church could
influence the direction of politics just by what it said and the beliefs it held. We knew our place—and we imagined our church as established, a place
in good standing and of upright citizenship.
Well, times change—and if it were ever true that we were indeed a people
of good standing and upright citizenship—this is certainly not true anymore. We are increasingly estranged from the world of politics, and we are far from the only moral voice out there (if our moral voice was ever that strong a voice). We live in a world that has, in many ways, passed us by.
And just as Judah found itself in exile—with the temple destroyed, its way
of life changed, and all of those things that brought stability, and purpose,
and meaning to its life, with all these things taken away by a hostile
invading army of Babylonians—so too do we find ourselves wishing for how things were. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, * when we remembered you, O Zion,” and we would weep too, when we remember all the things we were, and all the things we no longer are.
And so the Babylonian invasion of Judah, and Judah’s exile, and so many of Judah’s religious and cultural touchstones broken—temple, society, and social life uprooted, destroyed or taken away—Judah’s experience of exile has a special resonance with us. We are a church that has lost our firm place in the world. Christendom is caput. And the church we inhabit now is far from stable, with our own touchstones passing away.
We now have our own struggles with a sense of purpose. We are no longer
established in the community in the same way we were, and as a result we
are, in many ways, in exile too.
And so, in a time of malaise, of unease, and of discomfort—in a time when it appears that Babylon has won the day—we too would find solace in the first words of Isaiah Chapter 40. In exile, in dire straights, and far from home without much hope at all, we hear the words of Isaiah: “Comfort.” “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Jerusalem […] has served her term […], her penalty is paid.”
And we should take comfort, as we hear these words. Our salvation is not in our influence, our salvation is not in our good standing, nor is it in being seen as upright citizens or part of the governing class—our salvation is in the Lord. Our salvation is in the Lord who says to his prophet: “Comfort.”
“Comfort, O comfort my people.”
So I was keen to read the Revd Rosalyn Elm’s reflections provided for us this week by Church House—Rosalyn is a priest of the diocese, Chaplain at the Mohawk Chapel and is taking a lead in Indigenous Ministries for the diocese. (You might remember she visited us a year ago or so.)
Today, in the Anglican Church of Canada, we celebrate the National Indigenous Day of Prayer, and Rosalyn provided a reflection for the diocese on Isaiah 40, a reflection on the kind of loss suffered by Judah. For her, though, the loss of Judah is similar to the kind of loss suffered by indigenous peoples: “We,” she writes, “like the Ancient Israelites Isaiah is speaking to, have suffered real loss and trauma, generational loss and trauma, community loss and trauma. This passage of a prophet talking to an exiled people who have lost everything that defined their lives–homes and land, family and identity, and to some extent, even their faith– it is hard to understand the depth of this despair and bear strength of this hope within a privileged North American existence, never shaped by forced migration, devastation and war, or diaspora living.”
I will admit this gave me pause—and not a small dose of humility. Here I am, mourning the losses of Christendom, complaining about the fact that the church—and maybe, do I mean me?—that I as a priest no longer have the community standing I once would have had?
Rosalyn writes about the fact that indigenous people in Canada have experienced a far greater wound, a far greater trauma, than the loss of Christendom—for Rosalyn this is not a metaphorical loss of place, but points out that Indigenous peoples have experienced the real loss of family, identity, homes and land—and I would add, a loss suffered, in part, at the hand of a church in love with Christendom, a loss endured at the hand of a church that very much enjoyed its place in the governing class.
And so this is where things get difficult. It’s Christendom Christianity, the Christianity of the governing class, that is bound up with the sort of colonial power that has led to Indigenous exile. Christendom Christianity, the Christianity of influence, is often the Christianity that pays the cost of fealty to ruling powers.
And if that’s true—that the standing I look back on with nostalgia was part of a deal that meant looking the other way, or even participating in colonial efforts like residential schools—is that what we would hope for?
And so not only do I feel humbled by the fact that Rosalyn’s indigenous reading of Isaiah means recognising not metaphorical loss of family and homes, and land, and faith—but the real loss of family and homes, and of land, and of faith, and the experience of trauma as a result—I’m humbled by my own longing for the good old days of Christendom.
But to long for Christendom, and its colonial bargain, would put us back not in the place of Judah in exile, but would put us back in league with the likes of the invading forces of Babylon. Colonial forces, disruptive and destructive forces, traumatizing forces. We don’t come out that well, if we were to look at it this way. The Christendom church didn’t suffer exile, so much as the Christendom church took part in sending indigenous peoples into exile.
“Comfort.” “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says the Lord to Isaiah. I’m not sure we have anything, in the story of exile, that speaks to the comforting of the Babylonians.
But we do have Jeremiah, who would speak to the exiles, asking that the exiles “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” And perhaps some of us should take that, today, and to think of it in a different way: that there are people in exile very nearby that would care even for those of us who find ourselves uncomfortably sided with Babylon.
And that the Babylonians of our own age might experience the ministry of the ones who have been exiled—in the Anglicanism, not of the Mohawk Institute Residential School, but the Anglicanism of the Mohawk Chapel as it stands today. This is an Anglicanism seeking to care for its Babylonian neighbours—a ministry of those who have experienced real loss, real trauma, and yet hopes for a reconciliation that reaches beyond “capitalism or industry,” a hope that reaches for a Kingdom marked by “relationship, community and a vision found in prayer and in the eschatological hope of Jesus Christ in which we are reconciled to God and to one another as allies, as family bound by compassion, love and mercy.” This is how as The Revd Rosalyn Elm, the current Chaplain at the Mohawk Chapel puts it for us.
This would surely be a comfort, and a comfort not only for those in exile— but for those who might find themselves uncomfortably on the side of those responsible for exile: the comfort of “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” The Lord who persists for us, who “does not faint or grow weary”; the Lord who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons
For The Revd Rosalyn Elm’s commentary, visit https://diohuron.org/wpcontent/uploads/2020/06/nidop.pdf