April 19, 2015

1 John 3:1-7

“Voices of our Sisters”

What a beautiful text from the first letter of John! It is a joy to proclaim those words every time we conduct a baptism: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

We are reminded each time that those words apply both to the child who has just been baptized and joined the family of the church, but they also apply to each and every one of us. At whatever age or stage of life or faith, we are God’s children because God loves us.

We may act like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable sometimes, going off in our own directions, doing our own things, and ignoring that most important relationship with our heavenly parent. But that doesn’t stop God from loving us, from longing for us to come home, and from welcoming us with open arms when we do.

Our identity as God’s children does not depend on our being perfect, or even being good. But there is a sense that when we abide in God, when we stay close to God and engage in that relationship, that we will be transformed by it.

The author of 1st John tells us that we are God’s children now. He speaks of a future time when Christ will be revealed and we will be like him and see him as he is. But in the meantime, we are slowly being transformed, being purified, growing in the likeness of Christ as we abide in God.

This is one of the Bible passages that refers to God as a Father and to us as God’s children, and so it is natural to think of our own human parents. When I think of my own mother and father, I realize how lucky I was to have them both present and active in my life, loving me as close to unconditionally as we human people can. I grew up knowing that I was beloved, valued, and special because of the way my parents showed love for me in their words and their caring actions. And that is a true gift.

Some of you, I know, had similar experiences. Others had parents who loved you somewhat less than unconditionally, or less consistently than they might have. And some of you had people other than your parents who showed you God’s love.

The difficulties that so many people experience when they are not loved and cared for adequately in childhood points to the power of love to transform us into people who are able to love others in a similar way. Not that loving is impossible for those who have experienced neglect or abuse, but being loved by someone else first equips us well for the trust, self-giving, and commitment that love requires.

Yesterday I attended an event at Mayfair United Church here in Saskatoon called, “Voices of Our Sisters: An Ecumenical Response to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.” As I listened to the stories, experiences, and thoughts of women who had been deeply affected both by colonialism in general, and by the murders or disappearances of their loved ones, that first verse of 1st John kept replaying in my mind: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

As one mother recounted the story of her daughter who disappeared from Saskatoon in 2004 and whose remains were not found until 2008, she talked about how her child became a statistic to the police – a case file number in the stack of files – but how to those who loved her she was always a daughter, a sister, a mother, and a beloved friend. I thought about the fact that this young woman was a beloved child of God even when our society failed to keep her safe or to find her when she went missing.

We also heard about how many First Nations communities functioned before Canada was settled by Europeans. At the centre of the community were the children, the little ones who were to be nurtured, protected, and taught the ways of life in community.

The next circle around the children was that of the elders, who were almost as precious as the children. The grandmothers took responsibility for raising the children, teaching them the traditional ways, discerning their gifts, and guiding them into adulthood.

The adult women formed a circle around the elders, bringing forth life and working on the home front for the good of all. And finally, the adult men were the outer circle – protecting and providing for the whole community.

Winona Wheeler described what happened when government and churches tried to re-educate the First Nations People, “civilizing” them in European ways of thinking and living. The day schools that were set up initially didn’t work too well because the children attended school sporadically. Families kept them home to learn how to hunt, and fish, and participate in traditional community practices. And even when they did attend school, at the end of the day they went home to the elders who continued to teach them their traditional languages and ways.

Residential schools became the solution to “assimilate the Indians,” and they did so by taking the children away from their homes and communities, from their parents, and from their grandparents who would have loved and nurtured them into caring and responsible members of the community. And, of course, the impact of this lost love was not just on the children who went to the schools, but it has affected generation after generation in many and various ways.

When we heard the story of a young woman living in Saskatoon, having escaped an abusive relationship, and raising the two children she had as a teenager, I noticed how she spoke of the challenge and difficulty of doing it alone. This was not the way it was supposed to be! She should have had those beautiful circles of support around her in a community that would work together to love, nurture, and guide her children. But she was alone, doing her best, and amazingly, doing well.

But how could it be that Christians, who knew the amazing love and grace of God the Father who calls us his beloved children, managed to rob the First Peoples of their ways of showing the Creator’s love for their children also?

My sense is that the heart of the problem was that we placed ourselves in the wrong role in the story. There is a very basic question that we always answer when we start reading the Bible and trying to understand what it means for our lives. We ask ourselves, “Where am I in this text?” For example, if we were reading Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son we would ask ourselves who we are like… the prodigal son, the older brother, or the father?

In today’s passage from 1 John, we need to remember that we are the children. God, and God alone, is the Father who makes us all to be his children.

Too often, in our history, we as settlers, as government, and as churches started to act like we were the Father who knew best. We forgot that we also are children, and that we are sisters and brothers to our neighbours from every country, culture, tradition, and religion.

Yesterday’s event, “Voices of Our Sisters,” was a firm reminder that as Christians we are called to walk together with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers on their healing journeys. We must not step in paternalistically, but we can listen, we can share, we can pray, and we can help through our presence and our tears and our respectful love for all our siblings.

If we have truly known the amazing love of God the Father, made present and tangible in Jesus our Lord, and if we abide in that love, God will continue to transform us into people who are able to love in a similar way.

Members of many Saskatoon Christian churches gathered yesterday, and after listening to the stories and witness of our sisters, we asked, “What can we do to help?” One very practical suggestion was that we write letters and sign the Amnesty International petition, calling for a national inquiry and a national action plan for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. And the other request was that we educate ourselves, our families, our churches and communities about our history as a country and the continuing problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” In response to God’s great love for us, let us seek to love one another as we listen to the voices of our sisters. Amen.