Christ Centered Resources

We Are Able

Rev. Ed Searcy

Mark 10:32-45
University Hill United Church : Sun, October 19, 1997
James and John are supremely confident in their abilities. That is why they have found this convenient moment to lobby Jesus. The others are preoccupied. Jesus is, as always, up ahead ... leading the trek to Jerusalem where he must surely be enthroned as the 'new Messiah'. Now is the moment they have been waiting for. As two of Jesus' original disciples they want to be sure that when he is number one in Israel, they will be numbers two and three. "Listen, Jesus", says James, "after all that I've done as your right-hand man it seems to me only natural that I still sit on your right at the cabinet table in Jerusalem". "And", chimes in John, "if he is your vice-president, Jesus, I trust you will see fit to seat me on your left as Minister of Finance". They haven't been listening. Remember two chapters back ... back when Jesus tells them he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die? Peter calls him the 'Devil Incarnate' but Jesus refuses to back down. Realising that it hasn't dawned on them yet, Jesus predicts his suffering and death once more. The pack of disciples respond by bickering over which one of them is the greatest. So Jesus says it again. For a third time he tells them that this trip to Jerusalem will lead to his suffering, death and rising again. James and John just don't get it. But then, neither do the others. When the rest of the twelve hear what James and John have been up to they are indignant. Oh, not because these two have been caught lobbying for power. The others are indignant because James and John try to pull a fast one on them and get to Jesus first, before the rest have an opportunity to get in a good word for themselves! Jesus wonders aloud if James and John can handle all that being on his right and left hands will entail. They assume he means the long nights in the office trying to resolve difficult policy issues. "We are able" they assure him. But Jesus means something else. He wonders if they can bear the humiliation of being associated with him. He wonders if they can suffer and die alongside of him. So Jesus pulls the twelve into a huddle ... like some kind of a rabbinic coach: "You know how it is in the world", he says, "how people assume that leadership is about telling people what to do, about running things, about having power to implement your ideas and policies". They eagerly nod their assent. "Well, it isn't that way with us". Bemused glances are exchanged by the disciples. "Whoever wants to lead in our group will be a servant, whoever wants to be first will have to be the slave of all. For God sent the Son of Man not to be a tyrant who demands to be served but to be one who gives life away." As the huddle breaks up and the group turns again toward Jerusalem there is much scratching and shaking of heads. They still don't get it. And we think that our struggle to be faithful disciples would all be solved if only Jesus were here, with us. Just ask James and John. They know him as well as anyone. That is the way it is, isn't it? In every age even those who know Jesus intimately struggle to understand how to follow him. Ever since the United Church General Council's actions this summer I have promised (myself and others) to speak about the path we are following in coming to terms with our part in the legacy of Native residential schools in Canada. Today I am keeping my promise, in part, because this text seems so fitting. Looking back on the nation's residential school experiment one can't help but see the able fingerprints of James and John all over the place. The residential schools were the product of the best thinking that the church and the state could bring to bear in trying to solve the problems brought about by the rapid colonization of ancient aboriginal lands. They were the product of minds that simply took it for granted that the faster that 'Indians' could be 'Canadianized', the sooner they would be able to escape the poverty and disease which had befallen them. We often seem to arrogantly assume that if only we - or people like us - had been there, then the residential school system would never have been built. But the truth is that the schools were a product of the church and the government of Canada seeking to do what it thought was best. James and John had been granted their wish. The church had a place of power and authority in Canadian society. "We are able" it said, "We are able to bring the gospel to the heathen". This was the church trying to do justice ... seeking to love the neighbour ... all in the name of Jesus Christ. Few then could see what we can see now ... now that the devastation caused by such an ill-construed social experiment has come back to haunt us. And haunt us it surely does. Over one million children were shaped by their experience of those boarding schools. They, their children and grandchildren are testimony to the terrible wrongs that were done in the name of social reform and progress. And no wonder. Imagine for a moment that the shoe is on the other foot. Imagine a hundred years during which government policy removes our children from our homes upon entering elementary school. Yes, it is true that the wealthier among us choose to send our children away to expensive boarding schools. This is the well-intentioned model of education that lies behind the development of the residential school system. But the comparison ends right there. These are not elite institutions that we are talking about. The residential schools are consistently at the bottom of the government's priority list. They are chronically underfunded. Reports of widespread hunger and disease surface in every decade of their existence. Even more disconcerting for us is the news that in the residential schools our children are to be instructed in the languages of the Haida and the Gitksan and other First Nations people. If they are caught speaking English they are disciplined ... often with a cane. Siblings are separated as a matter of policy ... and are not allowed to talk with or comfort one another. No celebration of traditional Christian events is tolerated. There is no Sunday worship, no Bible reading, no hint of Christmas or Easter. For that matter, no celebrations of any other traditional event are marked either. Instead, all of these cultural reminders are replaced by a new set of traditions ... the traditions of the dominant aboriginal culture. The children are allowed home once a year ... only to leave in tears as they return to school. Imagine our children spending their formative years crying themselves to sleep ... far from home, schooled in another culture, taught to despise their own heritage. And when they do try to become like those of the dominant culture ... when they do try to adopt the ways of their teachers ... they discover that it is not good enough, that they are not accepted as equals in a society that looks at the colour of their pink skin and assumes laziness, drunkenness and violence. Only decades later do we discover the awful secret harboured by too many of them ... that sexual predators preyed on these most vulnerable of little ones. Imagine. Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot. Is it any wonder that the memory of the residential schools does not go away? Every nation, like every person, has to come to terms with its past. This is no easy task. As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: "It's very difficult to wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep." How can we awaken the church and Canadian society to face and take responsibility for the great harm we have done? That is the question that confronts us today. The issue is being pressed by former students of the residential schools who, having received no response to their cries for help, are seeking legal remedies ... suing the abusers, the church and the federal government for abuses suffered as young children. As some sue, other First Nations people continue to ask that their suffering be heard, recognized and reverenced by the church and by the nation. They want their stories to be taken seriously, to be given credence, to be heard with respect. They want to be understood and to be given resources for healing. In response to this cry, Port Alberni United Church undertook to listen to the painful stories of the boarding school operated by the United Church in their community. Then, last spring, the congregation hosted a great banquet at which the congregation publicly and formally apologized to those who had been hurt by residential schooling. Tears flowed. Speeches ensued. Many native elders said that they did not believe they would ever see the day. Together with B.C. Conference, Port Alberni United church called upon General Council to confess our role in the suffering caused by residential schools and to begin the road to reconciliation by apologizing. Such an apology could have costly implications given lawsuits that seek to prove the very thing that we would be apologizing for. The church's national staff and legal advisors believe that such an apology might enable the federal government to place all of the blame for what occurred, unfairly, on the church ... thereby avoiding its own responsibility and costing the church hundreds of millions of dollars. At General Council this summer it became clear that many Commissioners to General Council, like many Canadians, have no idea why we should do anything more. The Healing Fund, established by the United Church to offer one million dollars for healing in native communities, is significantly undersubscribed. It is as if we hope that it will just all go away. Complicating matters, Native leadership in the church questioned the wisdom of issuing an apology. Are they tired of more words accompanied by too little action? Do they also fear the loss of funds that our legal liability might cause to all of the church’s programs? Did they think that the church was offering to issue an apology more for their sake than for the well-being of its own collective soul? The answers are still not clear. What is clear is that it gets even more complicated. In the days leading up to General Council the United Church embarked on a new legal tactic. We took the federal government to court, attempting to force the Government of Canada to take responsibility for its actions in the residential schools. The Church leaders who approved this tactic view it as a prophetic act of seeking justice. The press see it differently. To them it looks suspiciously like the United Church is trying to evade its culpability. In the end, the General Council did not adopt the petitions sent from British Columbia that called for an apology. Instead, it spoke of entering on a "journey of repentance". Repentance, the Council argued, is a more biblical word than apology. Apologies sound good but must be accompanied by actions. Repentance, on the other hand involves a wholehearted turning around in order to move in a new direction. In truth, the argument over semantics hides a significant detail - that the word 'repentance' in this case opens the church to far less legal liability than does the word 'apology'. In using the language of repentant, costly change the General Council chose the safer, less costly course. Now, having avoided the path of confession, one wonders on what grounds the church can call the Government and people of Canada to take the costly road of apology. Jesus recognizes such behaviour. It is a familiar pattern among his disciples. Like James and John, we like to think that being close to Jesus puts us in a place of power and authority. We like to think that by virtue of our proximity to the Holy we have some special knowledge which can be of great benefit to the society, if only it will ask. When Jesus wonders if we are able to drink the cup that he must drink we think that he means the cup of power, the cup of glory. "We are able" comes the response of the church. And we set off to tell the government what policies to adopt, to call on corporations and institutions to act in ways that we know are just. We rather enjoy sitting at Jesus' side, giving out orders left and right. Until we discover that Jesus is enthroned on a cross ... and that seated on his right and left are a couple of criminals. Jesus calls his disciples to a peculiar kind of power ... the power of weakness, the authority of the servant. His disciples still scratch their heads in bewilderment: "The Son of Man came ... to give his life a ransom for many"? We wonder at such strange talk. In that day a ransom is paid in order to liberate prisoners of war. In our day, it signifies the payment needed to free someone from a kidnapping. Ransom money is freedom money. It liberates. Could it be that the role of the Church of Jesus Christ in our time is to willingly become the ransom owed by a society for the liberation and healing of a people? It is true that what occurred in the schools is not all our fault. That is not the point. The point is that we are called to be servants of Jesus Christ, the One who bears the burden of reconciliation on behalf of others. The church of Jesus Christ can not shirk the humiliation of the scapegoat. Seeing our willingness to pay the cost, the world will witness the Gospel of God reconciling and making new. Like James and John, we are called to let go of the levers of power so that we can drink the cup of suffering and share in Jesus' baptism by fire. "We are able" say the disciples. And Jesus agrees. That's the interesting thing, Jesus agrees. He might fire them on the spot for insubordination. Surely they know better. He could turn and walk away, fed up with their stupidity and ignorance. But he doesn't. For a third time Jesus patiently shows them the way. And he promises them that, one day, they will drink the cup that he must drink and share the baptism which awaits him in Jerusalem. Here lies our hope. Jesus has not given up on us. We continue to misunderstand, to get it wrong, to forget what we have learned. But Jesus knows what we can hardly believe ... that we will find the courage to share in his sufferings, to bear others' pain, to bring healing and reconciliation through sacrifice and service. Do we have what it takes to follow Jesus on the hard, dirty road that leads to Jerusalem and a cross? Amazed, and not a little frightened, we find ourselves stumbling alongside James and John and the others. Up ahead, Jesus crests the next hill. Yes, it turns out, we are able.