(Modified 2021-06-13: Added recorded sermon)
Such as are planted in the house of the LORD / shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall still bring forth fruit in old age, / and shall be full of sap and flourishing.
I was standing in a socially-distanced line outside a LifeLabs clinic last week, and struck up a conversation with the lady in front of me. We covered the usual chit-chat basics: the weather (thank goodness it’s a nice day for standing outside in this line!), Covid (thank goodness pretty soon we won’t have to stand outside in lines like this!), and work (how come you’ve got time to stand outside in a line like this on a Monday morning? Don’t you work?) But then she asked me if I had my garden planted yet. I already had the feeling this lady thought I wasn’t pulling my weight as a human being, so I cringed a little inside when I had to tell her I live in an apartment and therefore do not have a garden to plant. But, I was happy to report, everyone I know who has a garden has indeed got their plants in. I know this because it’s come up in every conversation I’ve had in the last couple of weeks! At least I know people who are pulling their weight as humans.
I appreciate it when Jesus uses gardens and fields as metaphors for the Kingdom of God in his parables. I like the idea of growing plants as images for the Kingdom, because while there is work for the people in the metaphor to do – the sower sows, the harvester reaps – so much of what happens is out of the control of the people involved. Plants grow as they will, and there is little you can do beyond set the conditions to encourage them to grow well. Similarly, it is as well for us to think of the seeds of the Kingdom of God, once sown into the world and into our hearts, growing as they will. Our role is to set the conditions to encourage them to grow well.
But what about the times when the Church has not set the conditions well for the Kingdom of God to grow in the world? I have been struggling a lot lately since I first heard the news of the 215 bodies of children discovered in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Residential School. It’s not as a Canadian so much that I am struggling with this news. I’ll own that I’m pretty cynical about how humans behave in groups and what that means for nations, especially colonizing nations. The governments involved will make the right noises but ultimately cover their butts on this.
I am struggling with the news of the deaths of these babies, and the wanton cruelty of throwing them away like garbage, not because Canada did this, but because the Church did. We ran those schools. We locked those kids up. We cut their hair, and beat them when they didn’t speak English or French. And when those children were raped or abused, it was a Christian who did it. What are we supposed to do with that? What possible justification could there be for a Christian to bury a dead child in an unmarked grave?
There’s no point, in my opinion, to talk about denominations in this conversation. It doesn’t matter if it was Catholics or Anglicans or United Church people who ran this particular residential school. I also don’t think, though maybe you think there’s room for debate on this, that it matters if you belong to a denomination that had nothing to do with running residential schools. That line of reasoning is a distraction, and, frankly, it’s a cop-out. It also doesn’t matter that it wasn’t any of us in this room today who took part in this abomination. Because the whole of the Church deals with the consequences of these actions. We are one Body. We rise or fall together.
So governments can dance around and parse their words to keep from admitting any more guilt or culpability than they absolutely have to, but the Church must not do that. The Gospel of Jesus Christ insists on better than that from us. How can we talk about planting seeds of God’s Kingdom in good soil, and reaping a harvest for God if we are not willing to deal honestly with the harm our sin has done to the field of the world, of Canada?
We heard St. Paul say in 2 Corinthians 5, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [the Lord]. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men; but what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to be proud of us, so that you may be able to answer those who pride themselves on a man’s position and not on his heart.” St. Paul is answering a question the Corinthian Christians had written to him about. There were some smooth and suave super-Christians in their midst, who were telling them that the Kingdom of God was more about a kind of self-actualization than it was about Jesus Christ. These men were snappy dressers, politically savvy, and had smooth tongues. You know the type. So the Corinthians were a bit mesmerized by these dudes, and comparing them in their minds to dear old dumpy Paul, with his bald head and his stooped shoulders, who insisted on the unfashionable gospel that “[Jesus] died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” Who should the Corinthian Christians be listening to? And Paul’s reply was to say, look, the Gospel message is not about making you feel good about yourself, or about saying the politically correct thing. The Gospel is transformative not because you become self-actualized, but because you become a new creation in Christ. This doesn’t negate the judgement that will come to every person. But it does mean that when your turn before the judgement seat comes, you will be covered by the sacrifice Jesus already made on your behalf.
I have been struggling to imagine how I can stand in this place and time and say, “God made you, and he loves you so much that Jesus died to save you, and I want you to be my brothers and sisters in Christ,” and at the same time say, “this Body of Christ, the Church, who was tasked with bringing you the good news of God’s love, has committed this sacrilege against you. I admit our guilt, and acknowledge our shame. Jesus asked us to show you his love, but we showed you contempt. Jesus charged us to care for all humankind, but we abused you instead. But our sin does not negate God’s goodness.” How do we say that? How do we show that? How do we nurture the seeds of the Kingdom of God that are trying to grow on this poisoned soil?
Thank God for his forgiveness! Thank God for the Holy Spirit, who works through us and speaks through us, that we are merely vessels for God to pour out his love and compassion on the world. Because the amount of love and compassion and forgiveness that is needed in this world is beyond us. Only God can fix this mess, and thank God, he has promised to do it! When Jesus told his parable of the mustard seed, which grows into a plant large enough for birds to rest on, he had in mind the messianic passage from the prophet Ezekiel we read this morning, about the branch broken from a lofty cedar tree, taken and planted on the mountain of Zion to become shelter for all the animals, and a home for all the birds. “And all the trees of the field shall know that I the Lord bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.” It is not our will that is being worked in the world. But God wills, and God will do it. We, broken as we are, are the vessels of his will and his work.
The seeds of the Kingdom of God have been sown, are being sown, all over the world. They have been sown in settler Canada, and in Turtle Island. And thank God, some of those seeds have sprouted, and the plants are growing in hearts and lives. We the Church may not have set the conditions for those seeds to germinate as well as we ought. Some of the plants are twisted and stunted because of our actions. But God is faithful, and God forgives. His love triumphs. We have some hard work to do in this field, but God does not abandon us. “For we walk by faith, and not by sight.” Amen.