June 24, 2012

1 Samuel 17:32-49
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Each of the National Events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have had a theme based on one of the First Nations “Seven Sacred Teachings”. And the theme for the Saskatchewan National Event has been “TRUTH”. And it has been a very appropriately theme, as thousands of former students of the Indian Residential Schools have come forward to tell their stories to Canadians – to speak the truth about what happened to them, to speak the truth to each other, to their families, to the government, and to the churches.

A lot of truth has been told over the last few days. A lot of truth has been heard. Through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that truth has become a part of the public record so that it will not be forgotten, and so that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

But truth-telling is not easy. When the truth that must be told brings up terrible traumatic memories of physical, emotional, spiritual, cultural, or sexual abuse, telling the truth becomes ever so difficult. And we have heard stories over the last few days of former students who held on to their pain and their memories for years and years before they were able to tell the truth to their families and communities.

Because of the fear that no one would believe them, because of the feelings of shame caused by what happened to them, because it seemed that no one was willing to listen, and for so many other reasons, former students of the residential schools kept their stories to themselves and the truth remained hidden.

“Truth” is the official theme of this TRC event, and it has certainly been an important theme over the last few days. But in my experience this week, and in what I have witnessed, “courage” has been the strongest theme. And, as usual, the Spirit of God, working miraculously through the writers of the Revised Common Lectionary, has provided just the perfect scripture texts on the theme of “courage.”

Most years, when the story of David and Goliath comes up in the lectionary readings, I’m inclined to skip it, or to de-emphasize it, or to choose an alternate reading that makes more sense to me with the Gospel. I know, it’s a classic Sunday School bible story… lots of action, interesting characters, and a popular lesson to be learned: With God’s help, sometimes the little guys get to triumph over the big guys. Yay for the little guys! You don’t have to be strong and powerful. You can be wise and cunning, and you can bring down the strongest of enemies.

But it’s the violence that always bothers me about the story of David and Goliath. I wish that David could have found a way to make peace with the Philistines. Why couldn’t he have killed Goliath with kindness, or engaged in dialogue so that the two groups might have found a way to work out their differences and their disputes?

But this week, as I read the story again, what I noticed was David’s amazing courage. In one of the verses just before today’s reading, Goliath is described by the author of 1 Samuel: And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. (That’s like 10 feet tall.) He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. (That’s like 150 pounds of armour!) And he was carrying a javelin of bronze – likely about 19 pounds worth of weapon there!

And the Philistine shouted: “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together!” When King Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, the text says that “they were dismayed and greatly afraid…”

But not David. David, who was only a boy… David, whose experience was with tending and protecting his sheep, not fighting in battles… David was not afraid like the others. Or perhaps David was afraid, but David was not willing to be stopped by his fear. David was going to do what needed to be done, despite the logical, rational fear that held others back from facing the powerful enemy. Because David knew that God would be with him, and God would help him to do what needed to be done.

Yesterday afternoon, as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Presbyterians sat together in a sharing circle in the lower hall of our church, I listened as one person after another found the courage within them to speak from their hearts about their experiences, about their feelings, and about their hopes for the future.

As is traditional in a sharing circle, we had an object to pass from person to person as we shared together. This time our leader had brought a small piece of cedar which we passed from hand to hand, and held as each one of us took our turn in sharing. She explained that the cedar is a sacred gift from the Creator, and that holding it would give us the strength to speak.

And it did. God was with us as we spoke, as we listened deeply to one another, as we opened our minds to understand the truth of what happened to First Nations Presbyterians when they attended Presbyterian-run residential schools. And God was with us as we opened our hearts to share the pain of those experiences and the legacy that they have left in so many families and communities.

Opening up our hearts is a risky thing to do. It’s like David, who decided that wearing the armour that he was given was just going to weigh him down and make it impossible for him to walk, let alone run, let alone fight! And so he faced the giant Goliath without any protection.

When it comes to relationships, to healing the mistakes of the past, to working on reconciliation in our families and communities, we have to be willing to be vulnerable too. If we won’t open our hearts to listen to one another, to seek to understand, and to share one another’s pain and sorrow, then we won’t have a chance at healing and reconciliation.

David was vulnerable when he went out to face Goliath, but he knew that God was with him and that God would protect him. When the giant threatened to feed David’s flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field, David said to the Philistine: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”

David knew that God was with him, just as we knew the Creator’s presence in our circle of sharing yesterday. And that knowledge gave us the courage to be vulnerable, to speak the truth, and to open our hearts to listen.

The brokenness and deep division that has existed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada for so many generations is not unique. Throughout the world and throughout history, different ethnic groups, cultures, and religions have warred with one another, discriminated against each other, oppressed each other, or forced assimilation to the more powerful culture and way of life.

The apostle Paul was very familiar with the challenges associated with Christians living in the context of a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. And he also knew very well the fact that Christian communities themselves could easily become conflicted and divided.

The Corinthian Church, in particular, struggled with divisions in their community – with some following the teachings of Paul himself, while others looked to Peter or Apollos or perhaps Chloe for leadership. It is clear from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians that they didn’t always appreciate what he had to say to them, and they didn’t always follow his advice.

At one point he makes reference to a “severe letter” that he had to write to them for the good of the community. And although the letter did seem to help them a bit, they remain a community that one commentator describes as “divided, distracted, and self-preoccupied, reconciled with neither God nor one another.”

But Paul is insistent that they cannot simply accept the status quo and live with the brokenness in their relationships with each other and with him. They are Christians. And that means a calling to be reconciled with one another, just as Christ has reconciled us to God. It means loving one another, just as God, in Christ, has loved us first. It means that ignoring the problems is simply not an option.

Paul writes, “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” In other words, your faith means nothing if you won’t let it transform your lives and relationships. So what if you can accept God’s love and grace for you? If you won’t share that grace with the people in your life, in your family, in your community, then what difference does it make?

Although Paul is definite that faith is a gift from God, and grace is offered freely to us all, he also demonstrates quite clearly that the way of Jesus that we have been called to follow is not an easy way. God doesn’t cause the storms and difficulties that we encounter throughout our lives, but when we choose the “Jesus” way of life we’ll often find that we are being called to walk right into some of those storms where God has good purposes to work out through us.

Most of us would rather avoid the potential conflict and the inevitable discomfort of walking into storms. We would rather not confront the person with whom we’ve had a major disagreement. We would rather not reach out to the co-worker who is struggling with mental health issues that are starting to affect his work. We would rather not get involved with our neighbour’s problems with the landlord or an acquaintance’s issues with the immigration process. We would rather not take on a position on a community or church board – especially if there are issues with funding, or with vision, or with viability.

We would rather not walk into those kinds of storms. And I think that’s why so many church people, and so many people from the general public have not chosen to get involved in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Don’t get me wrong… many members of our church have been participating in the TRC, volunteering in a variety of capacities, attending some of the hearings and cultural events, serving the lunch here yesterday, and being a part of the circle. Our youth group even baked and decorated 200 cupcakes this week which will be shared with survivors tonight when we have the survivor birthday party.

But many more have chosen not to be involved. And many people right here in Saskatoon will let the TRC pass through our city without even noticing its presence. And some of those will continue through life without having heard about the residential schools and their continuing impact on First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people in our community… and some of those will continue to judge, to discriminate against, and to look down upon Aboriginal people in our city… and the healing and reconciliation that we are seeking for all Canadians will be hampered as we continue in our conflict and division.

Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians of his own willingness to walk into whatever storms lay ahead of him for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And he told them that none of the stormy experiences could ever be more powerful than God. He wrote, “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” And then, with this word of hope and encouragement, Paul called the Corinthians to open wide their hearts. He said, “our heart is wide open to you… open wide your hearts also.”

I have been amazed, over the past few days, by the courage of my Aboriginal sisters and brothers who have shared their painful histories in public hearings, in one-on-one listening sessions with church representatives, in sharing circles, and in meaningful conversations in hallways and at supper tables. In sharing their truth so openly with their fellow Canadians this week, they have opened their hearts wide to us, allowing themselves to be vulnerable, and trusting the Creator to be with them and to give them strength.

But true reconciliation will require us all to follow their lead, to heed the call to open our hearts as well, to share some of their vulnerability, to share some of their pain and their courage… and together, to discover that God is indeed with us. And it is by God’s power and God’s love that the storm will one day be stilled. Thanks be to God.