What I will say to you this morning is based on a sermon by Sheryl Johnson, shared in the KAIROS worship service, “On the Path to Reconciliation.”
The story of Nicodemus that we heard this morning seems fitting in many ways, as this weekend in Ottawa the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is being presented. Both have an air of change about them, and suggest a liminal, threshold time.
Jesus tells Nicodemus of his need to be born again, or to be born from above, or to be born anew (all these are possible translations of the original Greek). But he needs a new birth in order to enter heaven.
We anticipate that the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, marking the culmination of the process that began in 2008 to deal with the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools, will describe the need for a new relationship marked by a new spirit of justice, to be forged between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.
In the story from John’s Gospel, Nicodemus seems to come to Jesus in humility and uses the “right” words when speaking to Jesus. He is respectful and deferential, but Jesus seems to have no patience for these niceties and goes straight to the heart of the question of Nicodemus’ salvation.
Jesus tells him that he needs to be born a second time to enter the kingdom of heaven. Nicodemus, though wise and learned in a conventional sense, seems perplexed by this proposition of a second birth, as have generations of Christians.
Although we cannot physically return to our mothers’ wombs, we have come to learn, as Nicodemus did, that in Christ a new beginning is possible for us. In our baptism, we are born again – not only of water, but of the Spirit – and when we confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness day-by-day and week-by-week, we believe that we really do begin again with the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us.
While birth, and perhaps re-birth even more so, are often spoken of as relatively private and personal matters, the story of Nicodemus has often been held up as a metaphor for broader social transformation; communal re-birth.
In a 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out the political and communal aspects of re-birth when he used Nicodemus’ re-birth as a metaphor for the whole United States to re-start itself in order to address social and economic inequality.
We are invited to consider such themes in our own context: What might re-birth mean in the context of Canada today? For us? For our church? For our community?
How might our understanding of re-birth be informed and shaped by the years of testimonies, official and unofficial, those recorded in the public record of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and those whispered in the silence of the night, if spoken at all? Many have said that the Truth and Reconciliation process thus far has largely been one of truth-telling. But true reconciliation, paths towards justice and right relations, are still dreams at this point.
As we anticipate the end of the formal Truth and Reconciliation process, it is crucial that we demonstrate having heard the testimonies of survivors of Residential Schools through work for deep reconciliation. We must be sure to not only be, as Nicodemus, using the right words and speaking in humility, but also to be ready to act in ways that might turn our whole lives upside down. We need to be ready to be born again as individuals and as a society.
However, just as birth involves a process of months or years in some cases, we need not imagine that the birth of reconciliation will be quick or easy. Nor is it completely beyond us. In some places we can see that preparations for this new life are already well underway; that movement towards deep reconciliation is already afoot.
KAIROS, the ecological justice and human rights organization of the Canadian churches, works closely with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. The Caring Society was formed in 1998, developing out of a national meeting of First Nations child and family service agencies.
Justice and equality for Indigenous children is essential for the birth of true reconciliation in Canada. Childhood is a critical time – as we heard time and again in the testimonies of Residential School survivors.
We must act on the truth we are hearing about the ongoing inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, such as the fact that less funding for education, housing, and child welfare services are provided to First Nations children on reserves than to non-Indigenous children.
Justice must be birthed in response to these inequalities. The “I am a Witness campaign” is one way to be part of birthing a reconciled relationship by supporting the complaint made to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal about these ongoing inequalities.
Acting for reconciliation can mean watching for the decision of the tribunal, which is expected this year. It can mean educating yourself and others about it, speaking to elected officials, and advocating for equality.
It can also mean work for reconciliation on other issues such as land claims and self-determination, racism and ongoing colonialism, ecological justice, Free Prior and Informed Consent, and implementation of other aspects of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
For settlers, we must remember that our lives will be forever changed by the path towards reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot happen without us, and it will change our own lives in such a way that we are born again. As Jesus expressed to Nicodemus, the right words are not enough, birth and re-birth are embodied realities.
Although this birth may be difficult, we are not alone in it. God’s presence is with us in communities already making preparations for the birth of reconciliation. God’s presence is with us in the truth of challenging testimonies, unsettling us to leave behind the lives we have known. God’s presence is with us, beckoning us onwards with the promise of the kingdom of heaven, the realization of true justice, peace, and right relations.