By The Rev. Bill Byers
So much has been happening, COVID-19 case numbers are dropping dramatically, vaccinations are increasing rapidly, a more contagious variant is threatening, the country is beginning to open up again, our parliamentarians are slinging mud at each other, a general election appears to be looming, for many students and teachers the school year from hell has come to an end, we are embarrassed, appalled and sickened by the revelations bursting on the scene from the residential schools, and for , Canada Day celebrations are unthinkable. And we must not forget, the Montreal Canadiens are in the Stanley Cup finals. So many emotions, so much drama, is difficult to process. So, I looked to this week’s readings with anticipation that they would reveal the pearls that could be strung together to make some sense out of all that was happening.
At first, the pearls remained hidden from sight. I poured over the reading from Lamentations, a small psalter of communal laments sung over Jerusalem following its destruction by the Babylonians. Strangely, I found some solace… Chapters 1,2 and 4 are dirges sung over the dead city, but chapter 3, from which today’s reading is taken, is one person singing of the sadness of the desolate people, then offering a personal reflection upon the meaning of the disaster. It is a powerful lament, wailed through the ages…. And suddenly, I could envision an elder, a survivor of a residential school perhaps, one who has shared in the people’s pain and witnessed the devastation wrought by a nation’s determination to eradicate the culture of a people, wailing this lament in an abandoned cemetery of unmarked graves…. Lamentations, Chapter 3, is worth reading in its entirety…. In the middle of this personal lament, we find the words of today’s reading, words of hope for a time when things will be different.
Suddenly, I was taken back to 1993 and a meeting in Edmonton. The 1992 General Synod had decided that the work and ministry of the Anglican Church of Canada needed to be examined thoroughly before it met again in 1995. Two groups were formed, one to look at ministry within Canada, and another to examine and evaluate our church’s mission and ministry around the world. I was privileged to be asked to be a member of a group of laity and clergy from across the country, which was tasked to study and make recommendations. The group included four members of first nations across Canada.
At our second gathering, the one held in Edmonton in 1993, Archbishop Michael Peers, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, joined us part way through our meeting. Early in the meeting, it became obvious that that our indigenous brothers and sisters were unhappy. Audrey McKay, a wise and articulate woman from the Nisga’a nation in the Nass Valley in northern British Columbia, challenged us to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The elephant was the issue of the residential schools. A challenging discussion ensued. The next day, with the support of the entire committee, the indigenous members of our committee addressed the meeting with Archbishop Peers, and the rest of us remained silent. What we heard challenged much of what I had believed, and saddened my heart… and yet, I knew that the words were true. At the end of the afternoon, Archbishop Peers said that he knew what he must do. He must apologize to the first nations of this land for the harm and the pain the church had inflicted upon them. He knew that there would be people within the church who would disagree, and even hate him for doing so, but he must do it.
On Aug 6, 1993, Archbishop Peers, met with indigenous leaders from across Canada at the National Native Convocation, at Minaki, Ontario, and delivered the historic apology of the Anglican Church of Canada for its role in the residential schools over nearly a century. This courageous act, the first of its kind, set into motion a movement which was endorsed by the United and Presbyterian Churches of Canada, and eventually by the Government of Canada. Hence, the work of healing and reconciliation which continues to this day. I want to share a part of that apology this morning. These are Archbishop Peers’ words…. They speak to me, and hopefully they will speak to you, as well.
“I have heard the voices that have spoken of pain and hurt experienced in the schools, and the scars which endure to this day.
I have felt shame and humiliation as I have heard of suffering inflicted by my people, and as I think of the part our church played in that suffering.
I am deeply conscious of the sacredness of the stories that you have told, and I hold in the highest honour those who have told them.
I have heard with admiration the stories of people and communities who have worked at healing, and I am aware of how much healing is needed.
I also know that I am in need of healing and my own people are in need of healing, and our church is in need of healing. Without that healing, we will continue the same attitudes that have done such damage in the past.
I also know that healing takes a long time for both people and for communities.
I also know that it is God who heals, and that God can begin to heal when we open ourselves, our wounds, our futures, and our shame to God. I want to take one step along that path here and now.”
Which brings me to the gospel reading, known to biblical scholars as the Markan sandwich, because it is two stories, one inserted inside the other, like the filling in a sandwich. In this case, the bread in the sandwich is the story of Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus is a ruler of the synagogue, a powerful man whose decisions affect the lives of the Jewish people, one who is skilled at dealing with the powers of the Roman government, who knows what is politically correct to achieve the needs of the religious establishment and the Jewish people living under the domination of Rome. Jairus is desperate, his child is gravely ill, so he comes seeking Jesus, a politically incorrect thing for him to do, and almost as if Jesus is ignoring Jairus, the story shifts to the filling in the Markan sandwich, to the story of a powerless woman whose incessant bleeding has rendered her unclean, and alienated her from the community, under the Jewish law. She pushes her way through the crowd and touches Jesus’ garment. He experiences power rushing forth from him, and she experiences healing. Power flows forth from Jesus and she is healed without Jesus even speaking a word.
The story shifts back to Jairus, the bread in the Markan sandwich. Word comes that his daughter has died, but Jesus assures Jairus that his child has not died. Jesus, with a few close friends, follows Jairus to his home, where he reaches out to the sleeping girl, takes her hand and says, “Talitha cum, little girl, get up.” Two healings, two transfers of power through healing, one involving Jairus, a person of power, although powerless to heal his child, and the other the healing of an unnamed woman, a person completely without power. A story within a story.
Which brings me back to today, 28 years after Archbishop Peers apologized to first nations leaders at Minaki, on behalf of our church. Much has happened, and much more needs to be accomplished. Surprisingly, for many Canadians the recent revelations come as a total surprise. Others have spent years trying to justify the actions of the government and the churches. There have been too many yes, but statements. Hidden within the grand saga of our nation and our church is a fetid story which can no longer be ignored. It is a story of colonial subjugation of the indigenous people of this great land, the misguided belief that their culture should be drummed out of their children, and the horrible injustices of residential schools, to name a few key concerns. The problem must be acknowledged, and more work needs to be done. I am encouraged by the work that is being accomplished, even here through the Indigenous Relations Circle. I encourage you to join this group.
I find myself encouraged by the leadership of people like Chief Cadmus Delorme, of Cowessess First Nation, in whose lands the Marieval Residential School was located. I encourage you to get to know him. He is 35 years old, well-educated, well-spoken, passionate for his people, and determined to learn the truth. This week he said something very important, “Nobody today created residential schools. Nobody today created the Indian Act. Nobody today created the 60’s Scoop, but we all inherited it, and (we) just have to acknowledge that people are healing, and people are hurting. Let’s do something about it.”
He also said, “We all must put down our ignorance and accidental racism of not addressing the truth that his country has with indigenous people. We are not asking for pity, but we are asking for understanding. We need time to heal, and this country must stand by us.”
We need time to heal, and this country must stand by us. It is a generous invitation we need to accept.