Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

We Are Able

Mark 10:32-45
Sun, October 19, 1997
Rev. Ed Searcy
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.