Second Sunday after Pentecost, rcl yr b, 2021
1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

Some opening words

Before we continue with worship this morning, I wanted to say a few things about the discovery of the bodies of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. I’ve heard from a number of you, asking about what we might do. I’ll share some more thoughts in my sermon later on, but I wanted to bring your attention to a few things now.

The Venerable Rosalyn Elm, Archdeacon for Reconciliation and Indigenous Ministries in the Diocese of Huron, has invited her clergy colleagues to take off their collars as a sign of standing with indigenous communities, and as a gesture of support to indigenous communities. I will honour her request to do that.

It doesn’t mean I’m stepping back from my priestly role, duties, or vocation.

And I will resume wearing the collar next month, largely because of what it means for me to wear clericals in downtown Kitchener: I wear them as a sign that the church hasn’t abandoned this place. You have commissioned me in a special way to serve this neighbourhood, and the clericals are a visible sign of that.

For a few weeks, though, I will go uncollared as a sign of solidarity.

We will do a couple of other things though as well. We will ring the bells 215 times at noon today, as a sign of mourning. And I’d like to spend some of our coffee hour today in an open forum for whoever would like to join and express their thoughts, concerns, and sadness over the discovery; do come, even if it’s to listen.

Part of processing this, as a church who has had a role in residential schools, is to continue to express our regret, and our repentance, and simply to talk through some of our feelings about it.

But most of all, I want us to continue to build on what we’ve been doing. Reconciliation takes work; and as important as these public gestures are, it’s even more important for us to keep working at listening, and to keep working at building relationships. Ros is already a friend of St. John’s—she visited us about two years ago to speak to us as a neighbour. Ros invited me to preach at the Mohawk Chapel, which I did; some of us have gone to Advent services there as well. Other of us have other connections with Six Nations and other indigenous communities in Canada.

I do hope that the recent news spurs us on to do more yet; to learn more, to listen more, and to act in response to what we learn and hear. But I guess what I’m saying is that this is a long road, and as important as public gestures are when such things hit the news cycle, it’s just as important, and perhaps even more important, to keep doing those things that aren’t seen or heard by many others.

So this is an invitation: let’s not let our enthusiasm die with the news cycle; but rather let us carry on, hopefully with some new vigour, learning new things and doing new things, but also building on many of the things that we are already doing.

The homily

Like many of you, I’ve had the recent news about the remains of 215 indigineous children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School on my mind a lot this week.

On the one hand, it really shouldn’t be a surprise. Some kids who went to residential school just didn’t come home, and we knew this. Some died of teburculosis; some from less lethal diseases or illnesses but made lethal by a lack of proper medical care; some died of exposure after running away; some died in fires because buildings weren’t fire-safe or because fire escape doors were locked; some died from suicide; some died under very nefarious circumstances. This was known in indigenous communities, and it came out publically in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

Murray Sinclair, chairperson of the commission, spoke about the process of hearing those stories this week, saying:

“One aspect of residential schools that really proved to be quite shocking to me personally, was the stories that we began to gather of the children who died in the schools. Of the children who died, sometimes deliberately, it was at the hands of others who were there, and in such large numbers. Survivors talked about children who suddenly went missing. Some talked about children who went missing into mass burial sites. Some survivors talked about infants who were born to young girls at the residential schools, infants who had been fathered by priests, were taken away from them and deliberately killed – sometimes thrown into furnaces.”

And so having heard that testimony, the Commission published a whole volume, titled Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. The Commission identified 3,200 deaths, with indigenous children at residential schools dying at a much higher rate than elsewhere; for about 1/3 of those deaths, no name was recorded; for about a quarter, no gender was recorded; for about half of these deaths, the government and the schools did not record the cause of death.

It was deemed too expensive to send a body home, and the responsibility for burial was given to the schools, which meant that children were buried where they died: far from home, and often in unmarked or mass graves at the schools they were brought to.

So, on the one hand, this is not news, just another known, but untalked about example of how church and government, in their shared project of “taking the Indian out of the child,” engaged together in a deathly endeavor.

In another way, though, it’s not old news. Many of us didn’t know that such things as unmarked and unkept graveyards such as these existed. We haven’t been great, in all areas of public life, and in the church, at coming to terms with the real things that really happened at residential schools. Or maybe we had a general sense, or a general knowledge, but didn’t know the specifics—like the fact that unkept and hidden gravesites are as common as they are.

And so, as a country, and as a church that had its own residential schools with its own graveyards, we are scandalized. As we should be, whether we knew or whether we didn’t.

In Ched Myers’ book on Mark, called Binding the Strong Man, he sees the passage we read today as central to the meaning of the whole Mark’s Gospel. He sees the gospel in political terms, revealing a political battle between the authorities of Jesus’s age, and a Jesus whose efforts are set toward liberation.

He sees the accusation levelled at Jesus, that he is in league with evil spiritual powers—”He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons,”as we read today—as just another strategy of empire. “W[]hen the ruling class,” he writes, “feels its hegemony threatened, it tries to neutralize challengers by identifying them with the mythic cultural arch-demon.” That is, when rule is threatened, the rulers of the world call their enemies names, the names of the most convenient bad guys.

In our day people are called “communists,” “socialists,” “cultural marxists.” In Jesus’s day, enemies of the state were “in league with the devil.”

In this passage, according to Myers, Jesus turns the scribal accusation against the scribal establishment; Jesus says, in so many words, that he is, not them, in a battle with the strong man Beelzebul, that he is in a battle with the sorts of powers that dehumanize and oppress; and that it is the scribes, not him, that are in league with the devil and his dehumanizing and oppressive powers.

It’s a compelling reading, I think, though not without some potential problems; anytime we pit Jesus against the scribes, we can start to see shades ant-semitism, as if Jesus was himself apart from Judaism, and in a battle with Judaism—rather than seeing Jesus more accurately as a Jew involved in a debate within Judaism. And, we can’t reduce the gospel to politics, either; there is more to the gospel than that.

And to Myers’ credit he isn’t so reductive. But his emphasis does offer some insight. What Myers helps us to see, is that Jesus is deeply critical of two things.

First, Jesus is critical of the alliance of the religious power of the scribes with the empirical power of the Roman occupiers; for Jesus, religious authorities do not belong in league with empire. And second, Myers reminds us whose side Jesus is on: and it’s not the side of the scribes and the Romans. Myers reminds us that Jesus identifies himself not with the powers, but with those who are dehumanized and oppressed by those powers.

In fact, Myers sees the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit in these terms, saying that “To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.” Strong words, indeed.

But what does this have to with residential schools? What does Jesus’s criticism of the alliance between religious and imperial powers, and his identification with the ones subject to those dehumanizing and oppressing powers, have to do with the hidden graves of indigenous children?

It would remind us of just how dangerous it can be when we identify the ways of the church according to the interests of the powers of the age. This was, in a fundamental sense, one of the contributing factors in residential schools: the inability of the church to differentiate its interests from the interests of the state.

And for this we should most certainly repent, and take sides with Jesus: the Jesus who is suspicious of the dehumanizing ways of the world, no matter what kind of privilege comes with that alliance.

This should give us great pause in the present, too. In fact the unwillingness of someone like Dorothy Day to participate in any way with the powers that be, to the point that she refused to vote, should probably be seen as an attitude that is closer to the attitude of the Jesus of the gospels, than is our habit of allying closely with a political party. Especially when the predatory practices of the subjugation of whole classes of people is largely a multi-partisan project.

We should be deeply suspicious when we are tempted to make common cause, as though our own interests could ever be advanced, or the interests of the gospel ever be advanced, under conditions that oppress and dehumanize.

And as much as we should most certainly spend time in lament and in continuing repentance for this sins of our fathers and mothers in the faith, we also should not lose hope. Myers sees the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit as being “captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization.”

But there’s a flipside to this: and that’s the celebration we would share with those who are seeking and finding their liberation from the powers that dehumanize: it would mean recoginizing, with joy, that when concrete liberation is taking place before our eyes, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.

And we will come to that liberation when we are no longer afraid of the truth, when we are no longer afraid to lament, no longer afraid to repent our sins—including the sins of our fathers and mothers in the faith.

Repentance, after all, comes with conversion, the changing of our minds and our lives, and resulting in renewed lives lived deeply in the life of God, the sort of divine life that does not bring death to bear in the world, but rather human thriving.

The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons